Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Audio Guide for the National Museum of Singapore

Apologies for the irregularity of posts over the last couple of days - I have just returned from Singapore, following the successful topping-off ceremony for the National Museum of Singapore (due to open December 2006). It was previously known as the Singapore History Museum (and originally as the Raffles Library and Museum), housed in a pretty colonial building with an attractive central dome built in 1884-5 off Orchard Road near the historic Fort Canning Hill. It has been expanded, with a 11-meter transparent self-supporting glass connector linking the dome of the old building with a multimedia glass drum that will project images of Singapore history and heritage onto its walls.

The National Museum, when open, will tell the story of Singapore in a very interesting new way - both from the perspective of its momentous events and distinct eras, but also through the voice of the people themselves. This story will be told both in the old building and in its new galleries. The state-of-the-art museum will also include several restaurants and cafes and a resource centre, which will make it a rather attractive venue for the re-telling of the Singapore story.

How are we involved? We have created for the National Museum of Singapore the first outdoor interactive audio guide on mobile phone in the world. We have been contracted by the Museum to create a Walk the Talk audio guide for its unpaid outdoor areas. The first phase, completed in time for the Monday ceremony, comprises the three salient architectural features of the Museum: 1) Its grand old colonial dome, replete with stained-glass windows, 2) the glass connector, believed to be the largest single outdoor glass structure with no frame in the world, and 3) the multimedia glass drum, a rather difficult feat of engineering that will entertain visitors with the moving image by day, and light up Fort Canning Park by night. The audio guide is free to use (except for your aeration), and if you'd like to try it out, the number is +65 6622-6226. It is only available for trial use until the 12th of December (after which it will be taken down for development of the next phase of audio content segments for Fort Canning Park), but do feel free to try it out!

What makes it different is that you are able to not only hear about the three architectural features of the Museum (via the pleasing voice of Programming Manager Katharyn Peh), but you are also invited to leave your feedback on the buildings, express your opinion on them, and what they mean to you or to Singapore's history. We've left these recording options open-ended so that our audio guide is not merely a conduit of information, but a dialogue between museum and community. We will save the best recordings and make them available to future visitors to the museum. But don't worry, we don't ask for your name, and you are given a chance to re-record until you are happy with your message.

If you're in Singapore, you may want to check out a story that will run about us in tomorrow 's edition (Thursday December 1st) of the Straits Times.

Stefan and I are have both enjoyed working with the NMS and the National Heritage Board team, not only because they are a very fun and talented group of people - it's also because both Stefan and I have roots to Singapore and it's nice feeling like we're giving something back. My father was Singaporean (I was not, being born in America and also inheriting German citizenship through my mother), and I spent 9 happy years of my childhood there (I first ran into Stefan in a biology class at the Singapore American School). As for Stefan, he spent less time there as a kid but also spent a few years there as a banker, and as his parents live there and his girlfriend is from there (sorry to disappoint any admirers!) he enjoys every opportunity to (as the Singaporeans say in their own unique way) "go Back".

Anyway, I will get back to my usual commentary and stories about heritage and the past of Hong Kong (and sometimes Macau and Singapore) tomorrow. But I thought I'd give you an update of what we're up to!

Reminder: Talk on Mixed-Race Couples This Evening

Just wanted to remind all of you about the worthwhile talk taking place this evening about mixed-race couples in Hong Kong. I encourage all of you to attend!

Monday, November 28, 2005

Ketchup and the Manufacturing Myth

Hong Kong, according to conventional wisdom, went through three phases of development. The first basically lasted a century, from 1841 to 1941, and comprised the "entrepot port" period, when Hong Kong made its wealth from trade, and trade alone. The second was after World War II, when the Shanghainese and other mainland entrepreneurs fleeing the Communist takeover of China came to Hong Kong and set up factories. This was the "manufacturing" phase.

The third phase of course started in the 1980s when China was opened to foreign investment. the factories swiftly shifted from Hong Kong to Guangdong province, leaving the former city with the more value-added tasks of logistics, services and finance. This, so far, has been the 'service hub' phase (though some shops and restaurants in the city may occasionally make you wonder).

However, there has been some good recent research done that shows that this generalization has been overdone. There has been a strong degree of manufacturing activity that began in the 1920s and 1930s; however, much of it slowed or ceased altogether during the war, and it was when the northern immigrants came and found activity at a standstill that they revived an industry. The British colonials saw the Shanghainese entrepreneurs as an ideal class of collaborators (particularly since quite a few of the Hong Kong Cantonese had in turn collaborated with the Japanese during the occupation). They therefore went along with the story that it was this class of Shanghainese entrepreneurs that were responsible for Hong Kong's postwar recovery.

As being part-Shanghainese myself, I was nurtured on this historical narrative as well. And certainly to a good extent it is true that the Shanghainese entrepreneurs, particularly in the textiles businesses, played a major role in enlarging and enriching Hong Kong's industrial sector.

Yet to be fair to the older Cantonese inhabitants, it may be only fair to play a 'what if' game - What if the Japanese Occupation had never happened? Would the existing manufacturers not have been wiped out or had their factories nationalized? It is difficult to say, as always, in hypotheticals, but it certainly is worth thinking about.

Particularly since I stumbled upon a report by Governor John Pope-Hennessy from 1881, demonstrating that there were already manufacturing businesses here in Hong Kong, thriving, in the late 19th century. Granted, they were not Ford assembly lines, but few factories in those days were. Consider this quote from a report by the Governor:
There is another question that we may fairly ask. It has often been said, and there is hardly a directory or guide relating to Hongkong in which you do not see it recorded, that Hongkong has no local manufactures whatever. Is that true? Well, on turning to the census returns, I find many local Chinese manufactures in this Colony. Bamboo workers have increased from 93 in 1876 to 121 in 1881; Boat builders, from 48 to 110; Carvers, from 59 to 70; Cigar makers, from 21 to 31; Engineers from 10 to 121, and Gold beaters from 41 to 60. Glass manufacturers appear for the first time; there are now 16 in the Colony, and I believe at this moment the glass manufactory to the west of the town is capable of turning out such glass as some of the European storekeepers here are themselves prepared to sell; and when a service of glass may get injured, they can now send to our local glass manufactory and get tumblers to replace those broken in the set. I find image makers have increased from 10 to 15, lantern makers from 50 to 63, leather box makers from 39 to 53, lemonade and soda-water makers from 28 to 30. Watch manufacturers did not appear in the former census; they now number 13. Oar makers have increased from 30 to 43. Opium dealers have declined from 108 to 103, but that is not coincident with any decline in the revenue the Government of Hongkong derives from the monopoly of prepared opium, which was $132,000 in 1877, but was sold in 1879 for $205,000 a year. Paper box makers have declined from 21 to 10, and rattan workers from 596 to 448. Of rifle makers we have five in the Colony. Sail and rope makers have increased from 100 to 141, and sandal-wood dealers and workers, from 74 to 76.
Pope-Hennessy's list goes on and on, to make his point, but I rather enjoyed his anecdote about Hong Kong's secret sauce:
I went with [Mr. Kwok Acheong] and two or three other Chinese gentlemen interested in the factory in Yau-ma-ti, to examine the factory, which was in a more or less rude state, the buildings not being then completed [three years ago]. I was glad to see what they were doing. In addition to making soy, they made ketchup for the European market, and they had also a manufactory for preserving fruits. Now, the ketchup is sent in hundreds of barrels every year direct from Hongkong to a well-known house in London, - that well-known provision merchant whose good things most of us have, from time to time, enjoyed. He sends out thousands of little bottles of his ketchup to Chinese as well as to Europeans storekeepers here, so that, in short, the ketchup we consume as English ketchup is manufactured by Chinese in Hongkong, sent to England, and this famous provision merchant in England returns it to us for retail. I am bound to add, that the latest advices are that the peculiar article which is produced by the Chinese manufacturer at Yau-ma-ti was regarded at the recent sales in London as the best in the market, and our little local manufactory is very successful.
Well, there you have it. Manufacturing, contrary to popular belief, did not begin in Hong Kong in 1949, with the late Mr. Kwok and his partners having beaten the Heinzes to the punch. And for all of you orthodox British spelling fanatics, please do note that the Governor's spelling of the condiment 'ketchup' conforms to the American standard, rather that referring to some sort of feline comestible or simply, boringly, 'tomato sauce'.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Imperialism and the Kowloon-Canton Railway

The Kowloon Canton Railway, at least the British section of it, was completed in 1910 to great acclaim. The terminus building (now pulled down) was constructed in 1916, and its clock tower (which still stands today) was built in 1922.

So what, you might ask. Indeed, on the face of it, it was just another infrastructure project, another example of public works to facilitate economic development. But that was not just the whole story, certainly not with a railroad. The rail was meant to connect Hong Kong to the rest of China, and to enable the traders of Hong Kong to maximize the economic potential of the Chinese mainland.

Postcolonial revisionism, you might say. So might I, except for a few facts. It was a high profile project where the signatories from the British side to build a railway from Hong Kong to Canton were not the Governor, or even any representative of the Government, but rather a Mr. Ross, then the taipan of the Princely Hong of Jardine Matheson. Also alongside him was a representative of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, who was financing the project. Britain's greatest financial house in Asia and its mightiest industrial concern were teaming up to make this railway a reality.

Jardines in particular was keen to get this right. Why? Because they had actually been responsible for building the first rail line in China, in Woosung. Unfortunately, the Chinese authorities were so vehemently anti-Western at that time that after it had been completed, the Chinese authorities actually had the entire railway destroyed, piece by piece. That particular taipan's successor, Mr. Ross, was determined to get it right. They did, and after some delays the railway was opened to China just as the tottering Manchu empire finally collapsed.

just to add some credence to my assertions, allow me to quote from a contemporary source witnessing the launch of the railway in 1910, a South China Morning Post reporter:
Today must be regarded as a memorable one in the life of the Colony, for this day the Kowloon-Canton Railway opens to traffic. For years, and still, regarded as the centre of the pulsing trade of the Far East, Hong Kong is now reaching on towards that vast, slowly-developing [not anymore! - Ed.] wealth of China, and the Kowloon-Canton Railway is the first tentacle, the first artery through which the red blood of trade will flow to and from this centre of British interests... it opens to the interior of China the greatest emporium of the East.
Believe me now?

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Writing On the Wall: Hong Kong, 1938

Hong Kong in 1938 was a rather strange city. It was bordered to the north by a China under relentless attack by better armed and equipped Japanese forces. It had been forced to accept a huge number of refugees streaming into the Colony from across the border, and had turned away far more for want of resources.

Yet the Colony's economy, after being affected by the global depression of the 1930s, was rebounding strongly, partly due to armaments, munitions and supplies sales occuring in the territory. For the Hong Kong establishment, it seemed almost business as usual; all of them, whether the British or the senior Chinese, clung tenaciously to the belief that the Japanese would never dare actually attack the British. Back in London, after all, the politicians had all assured their far-flung citizens that this was not an eventuality that would be likely to come to pass. The only way that the Japanese could succeed, after all, was if most of Britain's armed forces were engaged in a European War. And had Neville Chamberlain not obtained "Peace for our Time"?

But if one regards the tension at the Chinese border as the Japanese overran KMT positions in Shenzhen, the blatant disregard for British territorial sovereignty seemed rather significant. Was the writing not on the wall? It is difficult to judge events separated from us by a broad gulf of over six decades. But let us read this Police Report from 1938 together, and I shall let you be the judge:
On October 13th, the Kowloon-Canton highway was closed, and on October 15th the railway service beyond Shum Chun [Shenzhen - Ed.] was discontinued. The frontier, however, remained quiet until November 24th; it was then estimated that approximately 20,000 refugees had passed over into British territory. Railway trucks were used as additional refugee camps at Fan Ling and Cha Hang.

At 8 pm on November 25th, about 200 armed Chinese soldiers crossed the border at Lin Ma Hang blockhouse and surrendered; they were detained at Ta Ku Ling.

On November 26th, fighting became general along the border from Shum Chun and near Sha Tau Kok. The Shum Chun wireless station was shelled by the Japanese; one shell landed in Liu Pok village, British territory, wounding three persons, one of whom subsequently died. Many Chinese soldiers crossed the border during the day and were detained, and a further large number were later rounded up at Un Long.[Yuen Long - Ed.]

During the Japanese advance on Lo Wu [yes, where you source your pirated DVDs today - Ed.], bullets fell freely in British territory, round the Lo Wu blockhouse; two police officers narrowly escaped death when a shell exploded near their motor cycle. On two occasions, Japanese detachments crossed over into British territory but retired after representations were made by British police and military authorities. Shum Chun was finally captured by the Japanese at noon on November 26th. From November 25th, the influx of refugees increased tremendously to an estimated total of 80,000 persons; many emergency refugee camps were established in the New Territories by various Hong Kong charitable organisations to care for these people.
I shall leave the narrative there, although it continues, a miserable litany of suffering by the southern Guangdong citizenry and a swaggering, arrogant Japanese military.

Yet the British persisted in believing myths about the Japanese not being able to fly planes or shoot straight due to their Asiatic vision; that they would never dare challenge the might of the British empire. All these were strongly held beliefs of another Imperial Power, Russia; held, that is, until their ignominious defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. But then, sometimes reality is so hard to contemplate, illusions, fantasy and the suspension of reason are the only way for people to get on with life.

Let us hope we should not be so blind should, heaven forbid, such times ever come again.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Bo Po Mo Fo and the Security Council

Sorry, working very late in the office and it will be difficult for me to do my usual blog entry. Allow me some recompense by mentioning to rather notable events that happened on November 23rd. In 1918, the Education Ministry of China, divided though the country was, made an important decision - they created an educational system known as Bo Po Mo Fo that was essentially a phoneticization of the Chinese language. It is still used in some traditional Chinese environments today, such as in Taiwan. It was essentially a type of alphabet that could then be used to teach how to pronounce the various characters. It was of course later superceded by the simplification of the characters by Mao, which made more of the characters based on similar sounds, and also the development of Han Yu Pin Yin (and earlier of the Wade Giles system).

But still, it was significant as the Chinese literati finally recognized that great masses of illiterate people was a problem and that ways had to be developed to make the Chinese language accessible to its own people, let alone anyone else. [An interesting note - up through the First Opium War, any Chinese person found teaching Chinese to a foreigner could be severely punished]

Another important event for this part of the world on November 23rd? It was the day in 1971 that Communist China took its seat at the UN Security Council. Nixon's rapprochement was already well underway, and the US and China being on the same side of the Vietnam conflict, and more broadly, standing against the USSR, paved the way for de-recognition of Taiwan. The USSR was not going to deny the creation of a country whose Communist leadership it had played a major role in cultivating, and so the ROC delegates were asked to leave, and PRC ones took their place. The winds of change had manifested themselves, and manifested themselves first in New York City.

As they are wont to do.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Corruption at the HK Public Works Department

I have always wondered at the largesse of the Public Works of Hong Kong, particularly since their tasks are often of a repetitive nature, digging up the same piece of earth and resurfacing it in an endless cycle. Every year, the PWD pays (or rather, we pay) for an expensive new surface in Victoria Park for its sports pitches, and then twice a year would allow flower vendors and others to put stakes into the surface, thereby rendering it useless and requiring a new surface. Examples such as those abound, particularly at around this time of the year, when budgets need to be consumed, and one wonders - how much of the work they do is really necessary? And how much favoritism is involved in the spending of taxpayer money? I for one am aware of two cases where PWD officials received bribes for their cooperation in decades past. I suppose that's inevitable in a department that has command of a budget of billions of dollars and a mandate to spend, spend, spend.

Indeed, these are not new concerns, as one finds out from a Commission of Enquiry into corruption charges in March 1884 undertaken by the Colonial Secretary William Marsh. The allegations were that a) there were insufficient announcements regarding the tender for Public Works as well as partiality and favoritism of contractors; b) that there was extravagance in spending; and c) that there was corruption, with PWD officials were taking bribes.

The report, unfortunately, then as now, is mostly a whitewash, denying any bribe-taking on the part of important colonial officials in the department. It does blame the fact that gift-giving and bribery was a way of life for the Chinese, and said that the poorly-educated, poorly-paid Western overseers of the works were indeed probably accepting such 'gifts'. In fact, what is more embarrassing is the fact that the Commission appears to have been prompted by a newspaper getting hold of a confidential memo from the Colonial Secretary's office saying that there was evidence of corruption in the Department.

The problem was needless to say, not eradicated, and was alive and well in the 20th century. Scandal and outrage finally burst their dams when it was discovered that the girlfriend, Mimi Lau, of a senior official in charge of building air-raid shelters after the outbreak of WW II was involved in selecting contractors in return for bribes, and that many of the shelters turned out to be defective.

Then, as now, off the record bribe takers will say that the system of bribery in construction is the only way to get anything done, and that in the end it is a fairly efficient system. It must be said that the PWD has been intimately involved in the creation of the modern marvel that is Hong Kong. But while the existence of the ICAC has driven such practices far underground, it is still clear that favoritism and largesse exist, albeit in less obvious ways than on the mainland or elsewhere in Asia. Monopolies generally are not efficient; and governments are the largest monopolies of all.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Importance of Being Honest

To slightly paraphrase the title of an Oscar Wilde play is to arrive at an important truth(!) of the court system in 19th century Hong Kong. Today, the widespread application of the Anglo-American common law system, and perhaps even more important, the popularization of the American TV courtroom drama, has made many basic procedures of the system's operation widely known. But to many Chinese in the 19th century, it was a system that was totally alien to anything they'd seen before. The concept of perjury as a crime was unknown to China - of course, magistrates did not want witnesses to lie. But essentially, it was up to them to figure out who was telling the truth and who was not. The concept of perjury, though, is fundamental to the proper function of the Common Law court (and to Continental ones as well).

The system was contemplated in the early days of Hong Kong by the baffling alien language of English, and also the corruption of the police force and some of the magistrates, as well as racial differences in treatment (Christopher Munn estimates that approximately 8% of the Chinese population was in the dock in the 1850s, very high considering they made up the vast majority of the population).

Now, the way that British and American courts traditionally got witnesses to tell "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" was to make them swear by something sacred, which in their case generally was the Bible. But what were the British to do with Chinese that didn't believe in the Bible, and would not properly recognise any one book as sacred or holy (the Tao Te Ching or the Analects would never do - many of them were illiterate).

Allow me then, to quote Julius Berncastle, a visitor to Hong Kong in 1849:
Great difficulty has existed at Hong Kong to find a proper form of oath to administer to Chinese in our courts of justice. In Chinese courts of law and judgment, where the character of the people is fully understood, no oath whatever is administered to witnesses. In order, however, to meet the requirements of English law, an attempt has been made to introduce a species of Chinese oath in our various courts.

The first form practiced here was the cutting off of a live cock’s or fowl’s head. A considerable perquisite by this system was afforded to the court-keeper, who unscrupulously devoured the decapitated bodies. A cheaper form of oath consists in breaking a basin into pieces, intending thereby to symbolize how anxious is the swearer, (?) that if he does not tell the truth his body shall be as unceremoniously smashed into its original dust.
They later settled on burning joss paper - although it resulted in a rather smoky courtroom, the burning of oaths apparently had a little bit more force than some of these somewhat sinister, obscure acts playing on superstitions...

Friday, November 18, 2005

Ball Arrives in Hong Kong

The last time we'd heard of American Dr. Benjamin Lincoln Ball, he had just survived a fearful typhoon in Hong Kong in 1848. As one of the first travelers to write about his experience in the new colony of Hong Kong, his recollections are incredibly interesting. Allow me today to share with you a few other choice diary entries of his from his August 1848 trip, which are not so different from personal blogs in this day and age. Here is one of his voyage over:
I was soon awakened, for the third time, by a loud crash, - a large sea having struck the ship astern. I looked into the cabin, and saw the captain spring from the transom, soaked through for the second time; and we had considerable merriment at each other's expense. He, however, had received the largest libation of the briny element, the cabin windows being several times larger than those in the staterooms. I enjoy salt-water baths, but like to choose my time for taking them.
Dr. Ball was a man of good humour, evidently. He kept his humor up, albeit at another's folly, when his arrival in Hong Kong was not unlike a stroll down the Tsim Sha Tsui end of Nathan Road:
>Thursday, August 17th - I arose this morning full of hope, expecting to see Hong-Kong and was not disappointed. We all beheld it with much interest, it being the first Chinese land we had seen. As we approached, several Chinese fishing-boats, lying outside, presented a worse appearance than the Malay boats we had left behind. During the forenoon, having sailed in among the islands, and nearly shut out from the main sea, we saw one of their boats making directly for us, and it soon was alongside. A Chinaman, holding on to the mast, was crying out, "Capem, hab pilort? Capem, hab pilort?" almost as fast as he could speak. Poor fellow! one minute he was happy, smiling and gesticulating excitedly, with the expectation of getting his pilotage, and the next he was angrily shaking the rudder, and jabbering away to his men. His hopes were suddenly blasted, for his boat caught on the boat-cranes of our ship, which broke his mast, and the sails fell on his deck. A striking change came over his countenance; he looked first on his crew and shattered sails, and then at us, as we left him behind, and he burst into a furious storm against his wife, who had had charge of the helm. The last we saw of him, his boat was pitching up and down in the same place, while we were keeping on our way. At twelve n. another pilot boat appeared, and was more successful. Two Chinamen came on board, and the captain inquired their price for piloting into Hong-Kong. After some hesitation, one answered, "Twenty-five dollars." The captain laughed, but made no answer, and the celestial [a rather ironic, somewhat derogatory term used for Chinese at the time due to the failing Manchu dynasty being known as the Celestial Empire - Ed.] pilot diminished the price, five dollars at a time, twenty dollars, and an agreement was made for five dollars. The captain offered to send us into Hong-Kong by the pilot boat, which would go much quicker than the ship; but we preferred staying with the vessel to going aboard of that Chinese craft, with the whole family on board, and no place to sit. It was a dirty, rickety thing, with fish scattered about to dry, and smelling bad enough to produce cholera.
And so began another oft-vaunted episode of East-meets-West. It is natural that the first contacts between two civilizations, at least in the 19th century, were never going to be between worthy scholars, but between businessmen and purveyors of basic services. It is easy to see, therefore, why many casual Western visitors to the exoticised 'East' came away with rather low, dubious opinions of the people they met, particularly with power relationships between East and West being what they were in the colonial era.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Life of a British Soldier

I mentioned a week ago the large garrisons maintained by the British in 19th and early 20th century Hong Kong. Life for the earliest soldiers was difficult, particularly as many of them died of disease. But many of them also contributed to this high mortality rate unfortunately by excessive drinking and a hundred other fatigue-inducing ways of amusement. A picture painted by a British officer critical of the slovenly life of the garrison soldier at the turn of the 20th century was not a pretty one:
At 5am he awakes with a soft punkah fanning him. 5.15 cup of cocoa and a biscuit brought to his bedside by a coolie. 5.30 the coolie shaves him, still in bed. 6. bathing parade. 7.30 breakfast, of which ½ lb. of beefsteak forms an invariable component. 8 to 11. Nothing whatever to do and plenty to help him do it – the everlasting coolies perform nearly all the cooking, sweeping and cleaning up in barracks. 11. A short spell of school and theoretical instruction in gunnery. After dinner unanimous repose on bamboo matting, as being cooler than a mattress. 5pm One hour’s easy gundrill. 6 to 10 sally forth to chaff the Chinese folk, try a trifle of samshu… His idle life is not a happy one, destitute as it is to him of interest and active amusements, and in a very short time he becomes listless, depressed and pulled down, contrasting painfully with his newly landed, fresh-looking comrades.
Back in the days, of course, when not just every officer but every single soldier had access to a manservant. The soldier's life is made all the more difficult when the pendulum must needs swing between indigence and risking all in battle... the ones on Hong Kong, though, had little occasion for serious tests (other than strike-breaking) until the Japanese invasion in 1941.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Mixed-Race Couples in Hong Kong

On Wednesday November 30th, at a talk organized by the Hong Kong Anthropological Society, well-known local heritage expert Dan Waters will tackle an interesting cultural phenomenon of long-standing - the cross-cultural relationship - particularly those between Westerners and Chinese. It will be at 7pm in the Lecture Theatre of the Hong Kong Museum of History.

This is a subject near and dear to my heart, being the child of a German mother and a Shanghainese father. I think Mr. Waters may have interviewed the parents of some of my friends, which may make it even more interesting for me. But the broad appeal of the talk is clear in the following succinct description:
One Couple, Two Cultures: 81 Western-Chinese Couples Talk about Love and Marriage

An Anthropological Talk (in English) by Dr. Dan Waters

Wednesday, 30 November 2005 at 7:00 PM

To be held at The Hong Kong Museum of History,

Lecture Theatre, Ground Floor, 100 Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui

All are welcome

(space is, however, limited to 140 seats)

This talk will focus on the research recounted in Dan Waters’ recently published book. Up until World War II, Western-Chinese intermarriage was not generally accepted in “polite” society, neither by Europeans nor by Chinese. Today, mixed marriages are common, as Dan Waters himself, with half-a-century of experience, can attest. This lecture will explore questions such as these: In mixed-race marriages, what sort of life styles do couples lead? What kinds of compatibility and communications problems take place? What cuisine do such couples prefer, and how do they bring up their Eurasian children? Can such couples overcome cultural obstacles to lead happy lives together, or is such a thing merely an impossible dream?


Dr Dan Waters is past president of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch, and the author of Faces of Hong Kong: An Old HandÂ’s Reflections, and the recently published One Couple, Two Cultures, upon which this talk is based.

Following the lecture, you are invited to a self-paying

dinner with the speaker.

Just as a postscript to this talk's description - when I was growing up, my parents and many other Eurasian couples were members of a society called the Mix-Ups Club, because as the above abstract alludes, such unions were not always freely approved of by parents. The funny thing was, my parents told me that new couples kept turning up, only to leave again shame-faced when they were told in no uncertain terms that it was NOT a wife-swapping organization!

Admin Stuff with our RSS Feed

In case any of you have tried and failed to source our site with an RSS feed, please do try again - there was a mistake with how we had encoded it, and we have now corrected the problem. If you need the RSS feed link, it is . You'll not regret it, as you'll get our daily local history blogs as well as notices of interesting history, heritage and culture talks and events in Hong Kong and around the region.


Mao Book Reading Tomorrow At HKU

There has been a great deal of hoopla surrounding Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's book about Mao Zedong, entitled "Mao: The Unknown Story". For those who have read the book or are interested in the subject, I highly recommend attending a book talk tomorrow by the famous Professor Wang Gungwu, Emeritus of Hong Kong University and a world-reknowned expert on China and the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia.

The details are as follows:

Date: 17 November 2005 (Thursday)
Time: 7:15 - 9:00 pm
Language: English
Venue: Special Collections, 1/F, Main Library, University of Hong Kong

Free Admission. Please register at:
Enquiries: 2859-8903

I unfortunately will not be able to make it, so anyone that has a chance to go, should, and please tell us about it afterwards!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Speaking English in Hong Kong

Many fulminate daily in the South China Morning Post about the poor standard of English instruction in Hong Kong. Many hearken back to a 'golden age' of English language teaching in the 1950s and 1960s; certainly I have found a large number of people in that age cohort that speak better English than their equivalents today.

But then, English instruction was not uniformly good throughout Hong Kong's history either, even in Victorian times when British power could be said to be at its apogee. Let me quote from Governor John Pope-Hennessy's comments on a Blue Book in 1880:
In the early years of this Colony, successive Secretaries of State impressed on Sir Henry Pottinger, Sir John Davis, and other Governors, the primary duty of encouraging schools where the Chinese boys could learn English. Some of my predecessors recognized the national importance of this, and directed English to be taught in every school supported by the Government. For a short time this was done. But on my first inspection of the Government schools, I found that the teaching of English had been given up in all of them, with one exception. n the principal Government School - the Central School, - which had been established for the special purpose of teaching English to the natives, I inspected two class rooms, containing one hundred and fifty boys, under three Chinese teachers, and I found that neither the teachers nor the pupils could speak a word of English. Soon after this, I requested the European Head Master of the school to examine all the pupils on the roll, and to report to the Government as to their capacity for speaking English. He reported that out of the 412 Chinese boys in attendance, 18 were able to speak English with considerable fluency, 58 spoke English with diffidence, and 336 could not be said to speak English at all.

Within the last few months, the first examination of this school by independent examiners was held, when they obtained results almost as unsatisfactory as those reported by the Head Master, Mr. Stewart, in 1878. They reported that "scarcely any of the Chinese boys produced in translation into English a single grammatical sentence."
And this was at a time when English and the use of it were incredibly important:
During the four years of my administration, many trials have taken place in the Supreme Court, criminal trials and civil cases, both tried by juries, but though the majority of the prisoners tried are Chinese, and a considerable quantity of the property disposed of by the verdicts of juries is Chinese property,- nevertheless, I do not remember in the whole course of those four years to have seen a Chinaman on a jury. The Ordinance under which juries are summoned, provides that no man can sit on a jury who has not a knowledge of English.
The power structures of the Colony, therefore, were inimical to greater Chinese penetration given their inability to speak English - and this was a subject to which Pope-Hennessy was more sensitive to than most. The Governor then seems to place the blame of this lack of English knowledge on the private sector:
In a letter written by the Inspector of schools to the Colonial Secretary in April 1880, a passage occurs which, perhaps, accounts for the defective state of English teaching in the Colony. The Inspector writes:-"I heard it once stated by the Head Master of the Central School, in the presence of His Excellency the Governor, that there are foreign merchants in the Colony who, in the interest of local foreign trade, desire that their Chinese clerks should not be taught any more English than is required to enable them to copy an English letter readily and neatly, and who discourage, therefore, any attempt to give Chinese youths a thorough command of the English language."
This was not a passage that alumni of Queen's College, the successor institution to the Government Central School (pictured above a couple decades later, in 1903), would relish. Particularly this last passage:
Her Majesty's Government are, however, aware that within the last two of three years the practice of teaching English has been restored in the smaller Government schools; and, in course of time, I hope to render the Central School more useful in this respect.
So rest assured then, that the inability of the larger part of the Hong Kong Chinese to speak English properly has not just been a recent phenomenon. However, whereas they were thereby disadvantaged in the power structures and in conducting business within the Colony, today, they are disadvantaged in the global economy instead - a troubling aspect of a city with global pretensions as Asia's World City.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Prince and the Diplomat

All rather unfortunate and decidedly unflattering on the 57th anniversary of Prince Charles' birth to be reminded of his rather shocking, albeit private memoirs of the Handover (of the Great Chinese Takeaway). Less said here the better, although his repressed feelings of the time must surely be harder to swallow for China's leadership than Patten's vocal calls for democracy around that same time. I wonder if Prince Charles will become the #1 British bugbear for China on a day when al-Qaeda said, outrageously, that the Queen was their number one target? His last Governor in Hong Kong is faring far better, receiving raputrous receptions amidst his somewhat more muted but still clear proclamations in support of local democracy. Patten's book, Not Quite the Diplomat, is selling well in local stores.

But speaking of diplomats, today is the 20th anniversary of the death one of China's most famous diplomats in the last century: his name was V.K. (Vi Kyuin) Wellington Koo.

The observant among you will notice that Mr. Koo was from one of the only dialect groups that can pronounce the English letter 'V' properly - the Shanghainese. He was born in that city in 1888. He attended Columbia University and actually got his Ph.D from that august institution in 1912. Three years later, he was appointed the Chinese Minister to the United States - an important job, to be sure, but one for a country whose legimitacy was far from clear at that time. Mr. Koo, incidentally, was replacing Wu Ting-Fang (who, when initially known as Ng Choy, was the first Chinese admitted to the British Bar, and the first Chinese in Legco).

He then went on to have a storied career - he represented China at the Versailles Treaty discussions, and when he was refused his demands that foreign extraterritoriality be removed from China, he was the only representative that did not sign the Treaty. He was a founder of the League of Nations, and acted as the country's northern President in 1926-1927 when the Nationalists were trying to exterminate the previously burgeoning Communist movement. He then acted as China's Foreign Minister during the war years, and finally represented the Republic of China in Washington when the Nationalists were retreating to Taiwan. He called time on his career in 1956 after having served his country for 44 years and through two World Wars (my last post reminded me of him) and through China's turbulent century. He retired in Taiwan and later to New York, where he lived until 1985 and died at the ripe old age of 98.

There are many untold threads to the rich story of this man's life that I will save for another time. While the 20th century was a traumatic one for China, the characters, personalities and forces of man, imperialism and nature were woven into an incredibly complex, compelling fabric - study it at your leisure, and enjoy!

Friday, November 11, 2005

From Hong Kong to Flanders Fields

Normally our posts are about Hong Kong or the European involvement in Asia. But today on the 87th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I (on the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month), I feel compelled as a student of history to lend our support to Remembrance Day. This Great War, this disastrous apocalypse brought almost all the leading powers of the day to their knees, and the senseless, mechanized killing in the trenches was rendered even more meaningless by the even greater disaster of World War II.

But senseless though the deaths may have been at the time, by those two cataclysms the world came to learn some bitterly-bought lessons about war and world politics. And we must give our silent thanks for the many legions of the dead that lie still, far before their natural time. Because it was in the crucible of their sacrifice that our relatively peaceful world was born. Remembering them, the life and passion that was stolen from them, and their sacrifice serves a dual purpose - to reaffirm our own humanity by decrying their loss, and to ensure we do not let our world or that of our children to devolve as quickly as it did in August 1914.

Why do people wear the red flower known as a poppy? It should be well known to keen students of Hong Kong history, given that the city was founded due to the sweet opiate emanations of that flower. But the poppy was also a symbol of death - because it grows well, and often, in disturbed earth - just like the fields of Flanders during World War I. It became a symbol of the war because of a moving, haunting poem called In Flanders Fields, by a Canadian surgeon who witnessed the tragedy and horror:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields

By John McCrae 1915
That poem honours the dead beautifully. But for the second theme, of preventing such tragedy from happening again, let us turn to a second poem, The Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

William Butler Yeats, 1920

Poppy Update: read an excellent article in the Telegraph about how the symbol of the poppy was adopted.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Chinese Laundries Not Good Enough?

Just a short post today, about the sartorial cleaning habits of the first British colonials on the China Coast. Many of the grandees of the East India Company, and some of the rich opium taipans, were very particular about their clothes, as you will see from the following quote from Barbara Sue-White and her book Indians in Hong Kong: Turbans and Traders:
A minor but appreciated connection with India in those days was laundry, presumably before Chinese laundries had become popular. Members of the East India Company posted to Macau and Hong Kong routinely sent their laundry off on the four-month round trip to Calcutta to be impeccably cleaned and pressed.
The above picture, actually of a Chinese laundry in San Francisco in 1881, does show what was by that time a common occupation for Chinese labourers on both sides of the Pacific. But the ruffs and collars of the Anglo-Indian elite were quite complex in the early 19th century, and they simply wouldn't think of sending their haute couture anywhere in Asia but Calcutta !

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Slavery, Hong Kong and the Mui Tsai System

Hong Kong under British rule was, after its first few decades, by and large a well-run, orderly place. British jurisprudence, while not always blind and fair, worked acceptably well, and co-existed with the dominant Cantonese culture. The British establishment co-opted and cultivated the wealthy merchant Chinese elite, and in return for their help and collaboration, generally respected a conservative interpretation of Chinese customs.

But there were always exceptions. And one of them, that grew increasingly problematic in the 20th century, was the mui tsai system. Poor parents would quite often engage in the practice of selling one or more children to feed themselves and their remaining offspring. Much more often than not, these sold children would be girls. They were sold as servants, or mui tsai, and would grow up as such in a wealthier person's family. If the girl was attractive, she would often become a concubine in that household, and there were many instances of sexual abuse. If she misbehaved, she would be sold to someone else, or even to a brothel. Obviously this system had a great deal of room for abuse, and was very similar to a form a slavery.

But the British accepted it and its practice unchallenged, until the 1920s (although it continued until the Second World War). Major problems began after WW I when the wife of a military officer started a movement in Britain to ban the practice in Hong Kong - it found a great deal of support. The movement also gained momentum in Hong Kong, even amongst more liberal Chinese.

But what brought about the interest of this original military wife, a Lady Ward? It was a test case in 1920 brought the issue to a head: a man who discovered two mui tsai girls (10 and 13) on the streets of Wanchai gave them sweets and took them away; he later was arrested and accused of kidnapping. The defending lawyer was a man named Alabaster. Let me share with you some of the proceedings (taken from Carl T. Smith's excellent essay: The Chinese Church, Labour and Elites and the Mui Tsai Question in the 1920s):
Mr. Alabaster claimed the two women who owned the girls did not have lawful care of them because 'they were bought to serve, and they were sold as slaves and slavery has been abolished (in Britain and its colonies) and it is not lawful".

On being examined by the Chief Justice one of the mistresses gave evidence that one of the girls had been sold by her elder brother as she had no parents. The Chief Justice asked, "Then as put by the learned Counsel for the defence, she is your slave?"

The witness replied, "I do not know what you mean by slave. Once the girl is sold to me she is my property. It is the custom among the Chinese to buy servants."

Mr. Alabaster thanked the Chief Justice that the answer to his question had made it so clear the girl was a slave.

His Lordship then asked Mr. Alabaster, "What is a slave?"

He replied, "I contend that a person who is bought by a master and may be sold by a master, who receives no wages, except clothes and food in exchange for work is a slave."

Mr. Alabaster admitted that the sale of a child might be legal in China, but once it was brought tot he Colony, it had the right to freedom.

The Chief Justice referred to the Proclamation of Captain Eliot to the Chinese of Hong Kong in 1841 that stated Britain would respect the religious ceremonies and social customs of the Chinese. The Supreme Court usually took into account the question of Chinese custom. If the point in law raised by Mr. Alabaster were to be sustained by a Full Court it would have most serious consequences.

The question was not settled by the court but it provoked public discussion as to whether the mui tsai system was a form of slavery.
But they were slaves, in the end, and modern morality completely vindicates the later decisions to forbid mui tsai ownership. It took a huge amount of pressure brought to bear from the Home Government to the colonial authorities in Hong Kong to finally bring the despicable practice to an end.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Google Print

I must interrupt our regular transmissions to let you know about a fantastic new Google tool that will transform the lives of historians and archivists everywhere - Google Print. What it does is, it allows you to run a search term and find it directly in books that Google has scanned into its database. This database is growing rapidly, and includes some rare and out-of-print books.

Yes, there are a few similar services out there, but this is the best I've seen in terms of searchability, and will only get better as more books and tomes are added.

For copyright reasons, you cannot simply read the whole book online - it only allows you to search for specific terms. But it does supply a table of contents and an index, which should make searching much, much easier.

This idea of a central storehouse of books searchable from anywhere in the world is a truly transformative technology. Hats off to Google.

Hong Kong Under the Lion's Paw

Today marks the beginning of the first recorded English newspaper on the China Coast, entitled the Canton Register; it was founded on November 8th, 1827. It conveyed the news of the day, and sometimes had information about the movements of ships, but it was best remembered for its fulminating, passionate columns about how trade should be conducted between Britain and China. It was published in Canton, and later in Hong Kong, until 1843.

Who was its founder? None other than the great opium trader James Matheson. It was a biweekly publication, and had much useful information about the prices, quantities and trade shipments from a man in possession of a great deal of commercial intelligence - after and his partner William Jardine had acted on it first, of course.

I shall remember it best for its prescient prediction of Hong Kong being the place upon which Britain would set up its stall. Perhaps that is not difficult to fathom though, when British military policy in China had been wholly guided by the maps and advice of his partner Jardine. The actual author is unknown, but James Matheson certainly played an active role in the writing of the Canton Register, and was certainly one of the best educated Westerners on the China coast. The quote:
"If the lion's paw is to be put down on any part of the south side of China, let it be on Hongkong; let the lion declare it to be under his guarantee a free port, and in ten years it will be the most considerable mart east of the Cape. The Portuguese made a mistake: they adopted shallow water and exclusive rules. Hong Kong, deep water, and a free port for ever."
The only problem with the quote from the perspective of it having come from the hand of James Matheson is - Matheson was a Scot. Might he not have used the analogy of the unicorn instead? But it was after all going to be mainly English firepower that would overwhelm the Chinese defenses.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Gascoigne Road and Gun Club Hill

Visitors and even locals to Tsim Sha Tsui may be forgiven for not noticing the vestiges of a military presence that once made itself felt strongly in the district. Even in the 1850s, the British military establishment was agitating for more salubrious quarters, given the high death rate of soldiers on the island, and saw Kowloon as the perfect solution for both its defensive use (i.e. securing both sides of the harbour) and its situation as a flat area on which to barrack soldiers.

However, Hong Kong's civilian authorities fought the military tooth and nail after (and even before) the cession of Tsim Sha Tsui and Kowloon to the British as a result of the Second Opium War. The result was that the prime area of Tsim Sha Tsui was just about shared equally between civilian use and military encampments. The civilians got most of the area along the waterfront, and the lands adjoining today's Nathan Road. The military in return, got the use of the Whitfield Barracks (today's Kowloon Park), Gun Club Hill and the King's Park area. In fact, the British military used to conduct live-fire exercises in that area in the 19th century, and on those days a red 'danger' flag would be hoisted on the hill by King's Park to warn civilians not to go near. Hard to believe anything would depend on a flag on days like today in Hong Kong, when visibility is practically down to rock-throwing distance!

The barracks at Gun Club Hill were used by soldiers for a good deal of the 19th century, but it is not until the turn of the 20th century that permanent buildings were finally erected. As part of the complex, some leisure and recreational facilities were set up there (near of course the Kowloon Cricket Club) for the sporting enthusiasts in the army. That later was separated from the barracks proper and became the United Services Recreation Club, an pleasant club and facility still going strong today. The first soldiers stationed there were some Muslim artillery gunners, known as the 'Gun Lascars'; the last to be stationed there before things got packed up prior to the handover were a Gurkha regiment. Today, the Barracks are strictly off-limits, still home to soldiers, but of the People's Liberation Army.

Today's post (shades of Sesame Street here) was brought to you by Gascoigne Road, a road running alongside the barracks and the USRC. Who was it named after? A general of course; to be specific, Major-General W R Gascoigne who was the Commander of British Forces in Hong Kong and China from 1898 to 1904. He lived through a number of crises, not least the Boxer Rebellion, and also oversaw the establishment of a permanent military barracks at the site of Gun Club Hill.

From what I have read he was a stern character in the best traditions of a British military officer; hard but fair. Let me end this entry today with a quote from a report he oversaw on the status of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps:
At the parade for my Annual Inspection, I am glad to say that the numbers attending were good, an increase over that of last year, although I had again to call attention to the fact that there were too many "Absent without leave." I understand that the majority of these absentees had left the Colony, either permanently or for a few months. In either case leave should have been applied for.

The parade itself was good. The men were steady in the ranks; the arms clean; the clothing of uniform pattern; and the movements executed showed a marked improvement over the two previous occasions when I have inspected this Corps. I am satisfied that the Corps has taken itself seriously and is anxious to show that it is a reliable factor in the defence of the Colony.
A tough man, particularly on volunteer soldiers! Nevertheless, the Corps seems to have prospered and grown under his watch, and later, during the dark days of the Japanese invasion, proved that its fighting men were among the most valiant and staunch defenders of the city, many paying the ultimate price to stave off the inevitable.

Friday, November 04, 2005

China Airlines Blossoms in HK Harbour

OK, how many of you have taken China Airlines, aka the worst major airline in terms of safety record over the last ten years in all of Asia? Yes, you know the one, the de facto budget carrier that was also the flag carrier for the Republic of China, or Taiwan. I for one used to fly it every month for about a year, back when I had to fly to Taiwan all the time on business. It wasn't bad really, and the stewardesses were really nice to me (I guess it helped being the only person sitting in business class!).

Of course, I would fly Cathay when that was available, but their flights always seemed full for some reason. Can't imagine why.

Or maybe I can. Particularly when I cast my mind back 12 years to November 4th, 1993. I was still in college then, but I clearly remember that day when a China Airlines pilot, ex-Taiwan air force (of course, that being de rigeur), overflew the Kai Tak runway when the macho man tried to land it in a typhoon. What happened? He dropped the plane into the harbour.

No one died, even though the plane landed in the shallows of Hung Hom Bay. But they and their luggage did get a little wet!

What caused me to stop flying them was after one particularly harrowing vacation in 1997 when I had to scale the sheer face of a cliff at Tiger Leaping Gorge to stop myself from falling half a kilometer to my death. I, with my fear of heights! It seemed really stupid afterwards. Then I thought to myself, why take unnecessary risks in life? Are the stewardesses really worth it? :)

No, I thought. And I've never flown them again. Especially when EVA Air is just as nice.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Strong Need for Change in 19th C. Hong Kong

A couple of days before, I had posted a story about receiving mail during World War I in Hong Kong. Today I take us three decades further back in time to 1886, when the Honourable Postmaster General, Mr. A. Lister, was the man in charge. He had an extraordinarily interesting account in his report that year of his responsibilities with the mail just as the world was standardizing upon an International Postal Union. An example of his efforts as head mailman:

Siam has entered the Postal Union, and a properly organized Post Office has been opened at Bangkok under the direction of H.R.H. Somdet Phra Chow Nong Ya Tho Chow Fa Bhanurangse Swangwongse Krom Hluang Bhanuphanduwongse Woradej, Minister of Posts and Telegraphs. A kind of unrecognized agency of the Hongkong Post Office used to be maintained in the Consulate General at Bangkok, where Hongkong stamps were sold, and where a letter could be registered. The new service is in every way an improvement, and completes the chain of Post Offices which may now be said to encircle Asia, at least from Aden to Hakodate.
Mr. Lister evidently took pleasure in providing the full name of His Royal Highness of the Kingdom of Siam, although Royal prerogative was not incumbent upon him to do so. Imagine, though, a 19th century postmaster having to get Hong Kong stamps to faraway places so people there could send a letter! Perhaps it was slightly easier in the high age of imperialism, where 20 countries determined the fate of the world.

Mr. Lister'’s headaches were greater, though, with the issue of specie. Hong Kong for most of the 19th century did not have a mint, nor did local banks create a standardized currency. People for that reason used silver dollars and silver coins struck in Britain, or in Mexico. This caused enormous headaches for Mr. Lister, who had also become head of the Hong Kong Treasury and the man in charge, especially around Chinese New Year:

The Treasury.

Hongkong, 8th May, 1883.


I have the honour to suggest that the Crown Agents be instructed to send out to this Colony $50,000 worth of subsidiary silver coinage every half-year, without special instructions for each shipment. The proportion of 20, 10 and 5-cent pieces should be the same as in recent shipments, and no copper should be sent on any account. This plan of a half-yearly supply is the same as that adopted with regard to Postage Stamps, and if vigilance be used against over-stocking it works well.

But there is not the slightest risk of any over-stock of these silver coins, even if we got double the amount suggested. They disappear into the interior of China, and I am informed that they may be seen in the most remote parts of the Kwangtung province, converted into buttons and all kinds of similar small articles. If this coinage were a source of loss to the Government, it would become a very serious question how the absolutely indispensable supply could be kept up, but as we make it at least fiver per cent. On it we can afford its steady absorption into China. Still, in view of the possibility that this correspondence may be submitted to the Imperial Treasury, I should like to say plainly that there coins are not asked for because, incidentally, they yield a profit. We desire the keep the Public Offices reasonably supplied with change, which is still difficult, and to have sufficient small coin left for the wants of the Public, the Army, and the Navy. I pledgemyselff to stop the supply on the very first symptom of the coins falling to a discount, but there is not at present the least reason to anticipate anything of the kind.

Poor Mr. Lister. His first request for standardized specie shipments, from May, went unheeded, so he wrote again in July:

I have the honour to request that the Crown Agents be directed to order and forward to this Colony as soon as possible $60,000 worth of Subsidiary Silver Coin.

My reason for making this requisition at this time is that unless it be forwarded at once the coins will not arrive before the Chinese New Year, at which time there is always a run on them.

I would call your attention to the following facts with reference to the last shipment, which speak for themselves.

$50,000 worth of small coin was ready for issue at this Department on April 17th last. No notice was issued to the public.

The military and naval authorities at once requisitioned for $22,000.

The subsequent issues in the next four weeks were as follows:-- April 21Â….$12,600; April 28thÂ….$4,500; May 5thÂ….$2,100; May 12thÂ….$2,100.

The issue was stopped on May 16th, as the balance on hand (after 4 weeks only) was reduced to $6,800, which it was absolutely necessary to keep for Government use. Since suspending the issue of these coins, the following applications have been refused, within little more than a month, totalling, $16,000.

A trifling incident tends to shew what the scarcity of these coins is. A lady presented herself the other day at the Post Office window and begged to be allowed two dollars worth of small change. She was a stranger, and was unable to get change anywhere in the Town. Had the applicant been a man, I should unhesitatingly have refused, for I had with difficulty spare $80 from the scanty reserve in the Treasury for the wants of the Post Office and Stamp Office.

Had the shipment which is now to hand arrived but a week or two later, we should have had to purchase small coins at a premium of about one per cent for the use of the various Departments.

A profit of about 5 per cent accrues on these coins.

I have the honour to be,


Your most obedient Servant,

A. Lister.

5% though. Not bad at all!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

George Bowen and Britain's Colonial Plan

Apologies for the absence of a blog entry yesterday, on All Saints' Day. I must plead illness and exhaustion due to a rather late night (and early sunrise) at the office.

It seems fitting then, that today I retell the story of Hong Kong's 9th Governor, Sir George Ferguson Bowen, who had to bow out after just 2 years on the job on account of ill-health. He was born November 2nd, 1821, and took office in Hong Kong in 1883 after a long stint in the Colonial Service (Hong Kong was his last assignment); although his tenure officially stretched to 1887, he had left Hong Kong and his job after 1885 in the hands of William Marsh, because of his illness. It is perhaps ironic that the road named after him in Hong Kong, Bowen Road, is the one most favored by runners and the athletic set of Hong Kong as a (mostly) pedestrianized 5 kilometer running path.

There was little time during his short term in office to accomplish a great deal of lasting value - he is best remembered for establishing the Royal Observatory, an institution that continues to exist in Tsim Sha Tsui to this day. Despite its celestial-sounding pre-occupations, it served a vital purpose in helping to chart the arrival of typhoons that devastated the Colony from time to time.

But an episode from his time in Hong Kong is perfectly illustrative of the secular nature of Hong Kong's colonial plan. In the 19th century, it generally demonstrated some hostility towards other colonizers that tried to bring religious conversion with the administrators, particularly the Catholic colonial powers. In 1885, an Australian Catholic priest-cum-geologist was commissioned by the Straits Settlements Governor Weld to do research on the mines of Malaya, and he came to Hong Kong to give a talk. Governor Bowen introduced the priest in a rather surprising way (audience reaction is as was recorded):
Here we have practical proof that religion has no longer any fear of science. We see a Roman Catholic clergyman about to lecture on what was once considered the dangerous science of geology, and I am surprised we have not the Bishop ready to applaud him, but I am sure it must be owing to some accident that my friend Bishop Raimondi is not here today. (applause) In the sixteenth century, as we all know, the great astronomer Galileo was persecuted because he contended that the earth goes round the sun, and until quite lately geology was considered a more irreligious science than astronomy. This feeling was not confined to the Church of Rome. At the end of the last century an eminent Bishop of the Church of England ridiculed the pretensions of geologists - and we know that ridicule is often a more dangerous weapon than hatred;... by saying that for a man crawling on the face of the earth to pretend that he knew what was going on in the interior of our planet was like a gnat on the shoulder of an elephant pretending that it knew what was going on in the bowels of the huge animal. (laughter) But behold what progress! Here we have Mr. Woods, at the end of the nineteenth century, about to tell us living in Hong Kong what is going on in the bowels of the Malay Peninsula.
Surely the Catholic Church must have caught wind of these anti-Papal rumblings... It serves to remind that Victorian England was very much the product of the Enlightenment, and of a secular society bound morally by religion, but wedded more in mind to science and Progress with a capital P.