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.

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