Thursday, January 26, 2006

A Ninety-year Old Personal Tragedy

Today I will shed the discussion of urban history to talk about a tale that moved me, about my own family. It was related to me by my mother yesterday, and it touched me so much I feel I must relate it to you.

My Prussian great-grandfather (my maternal grandmother's father) was serving on the Western front in World War I. By late October, it was clear to him and to others that the fighting was dying down in his sector as the Central Powers were losing the war. He had grown a beard of rather large proportions, as German men of that era were wont to do. My great-grandmother took a dim view of this, of course - she had liked him clean-shaven. So on November 7th, just a few days before the armistice, he wrote to her, and enclosed the beard. He had said something to the effect of:"my dear wife, I shall soon be coming home. My beard shall be arriving first, the rest of me shall follow."

Sadly, that was not to be. On the very last day of World War I, my great-grandfather stepped on a landmine and was killed. I am sure such a story has happened countless times through history, when people die for a cause already rendered futile through the events of the day. Perhaps my mother would have not met my Chinese father in Chicago, and I would not have been born, if my great-grandfather had survived. But I cannot help but mourn his tragic loss that my great-grandmother had to live with the rest of her days.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Hong Kong's Club Germania

I have been reading a short monograph by the redoubtable local historian, Rev. Carl T. Smith, on the German community in the Colony of Hong Kong, from 1841 to 1918. As I (Dave) am half German myself, I felt it was particularly interesting. Allow me to quote an excerpt from his text:
A club for Germans was started in 1859 in Wanchai in an unpretentious building. The German speaking population at the time would have been very small. There were three German firms and two stores conducted by Germans. Within two years the community almost doubled. It was small, but still large enough to provide a social centre for the community. In 1865 George Michelmore advertised the opening of a hotel in premises "which were formerly known as the German Club". It was below the Headquarters House - now Flagstaff House off the present Cotton Tree Drive. This may have been the second location of the Club as an article written in 1909 states that the first building was in "an outlying section of Wanchai", a description which does not fit a location on what is now Cotton Tree Drive.

The club moved in 1865 to a new building erected by Gustav Overbeck at the top of Whyndham Street just south of D'Aguilar Street. But the German population was increasing and the Germania Club decided to build a more commodious building. This was on the east side of Wyndham Street off Queen's Road. The new building was opened in 1872. It was a brick building in the Gothic style. The architects were Messrs Wilson and Salway. The cost was $21,000. Thirteen granite steps led to the entrance and the main hall. On the either side of the hall was a billiard room and a reading room. On the same level was a library room and a bar. The Concert Hall was approached by a flight of seven foot wide stairs. The Hall accommodated 275 persons, on either side was a drawing room and a dining room. There were accommodations for sixty in the dining room. Four bowling alleys were in the rear of the building (HK Telegraph, 27 Nov. 1909). The building served the community well until again it became too small and another building was erected on Kennedy Road. This building became enemy alien property in 1914 [on the outbreak of World War I - Ed.] and passed into the hands of St. Joseph College. The College is still located in the building.[Actually it was knocked down in the 1960s to make way for a new building. I believe this was after the author had written the article - Ed.]

It was not until 1931 that the Club was revived in rented premises on the fourth floor of No. 2 Connaught Road...

One of the highlights in the history of the old Club Germania was the visit of Prince Henry and Princess Irene of the Prussian royal family. Prince Henry was a grandson of Queen Victoria of England. Consequently the event was not confined to the German community. As a finale to the entertainment of the evening, a naval group from the British war ship "Powerful" presented three "real life Tableaux": Ready For Action, Battle Scene, and Death of Nelson, all representative of British patriotism. Included was a patter song linking the guest of honour with his grandmother:

One word before I end my song
To welcome in far Hongkong
The grandson of our Gracious Queen
The Sailor Prince, of course, I mean;
To welcome him, may he always be
Found playing on the side of the Royal Navee.
Sadly, of course, this statement of mutual friendship was not to last, with Europe's interlocking alliance system tragically pulling the continent into mindless bloodshed for four horrific years.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Putrid Business of Scavenging

Now to most of us, the word 'scavenger' brings to mind a hyena, or some other animal that sates its hunger from eating carrion or the remains of dead animals.

But eighty years ago, the term had another meaning altogether. It was described as a person that retrieved waste from private homes as well as from public conveniences. A century ago, this rather distasteful task was carried out by private contractors, commissioned by the government. The reason it was particularly unpleasant was the fact that a large proportion of homes then did not having flushing toilets (just about all, actually, in 1900).

But for the Chinese contractors, collecting human poo could be a fairly profitable endeavor. Not only did you get paid by the government, but you could then take the excreta, called 'nightsoil' then, and sell it to farmers for a healthy profit. The New Territories farmers, of which there were many, would not turn up their noses (although they might wrinkle them a bit) at a bit of urban emissions.

Trouble was, it wasn't just a bit - the large amount of scavenging to be done made it a rather tricky endeavor, particularly from 1895 to 1920, when plague-struck Hong Kong was trying to do all it could to alleviate the rate of infection. Allow me to quote from the Sanitary Report of 1924:

For the purpose of Refuse Collection the City and Hill District is divided into three main districts, East, Central and West, each with an Inspector in charge. There is an Inspector in charge of Kowloon peninsula and the District Inspectors of Health Districts 14 and 15 combine superivision of refuse collection with district work...The villages of Aberdeen, Aplichau, Stanley and Taitam are scavenged by contractors under the supervision of the Sanitary Inspector in charge.

Approximately 260 tons of refuse were received daily at the refuse depots from the City of Victoria, Hill District and Kowloon Peninsula. Slightly under 10 tons daily were collected from Shaukiwan and Quarry Bay and 2.5 tons from Kowloon City and dumped on waste ground. The cost of the service in Hong Kong...has risen from $1.25 per ton to $1.30. The increase is due to normal expansions.

Outlying villages of Stanley and Taitam, and Aberdeen and Aplichau were scavenged by contract at a yearly charge of $396 for the first two and $840 for the latter two. The contractor has the privilege [!] of receiving nightsoil in each case in addition.

The bulk of the refuse from the City of Victoria and Kowloon was barged away to sea as hitherto. Some 6,000 tons were dumped at Cheung Sha Wan where a reclamation is being gradually formed...
Now before we are outraged at the refuse dumped into the harbor, let us not forget that all sewage, raw and untreated, was pumped straight out into the harbour until 2001 or so. Today, still a good 40% of sewage is untreated as the city shoots its bilge straight into the harbour...but let us continue:
The contractors for the removal of nightsoil from Victoria and the Kowloon Peninsula, Shaukiwan and Quarry Bay, Aberdeen and Aplichau, Stanley and Taitam respectively carried out their work satisfactorily.

During the year the monthly payment due from the contractor [please note - the contractor is paying the government here for this high concentration of the city's excreta! - Ed.] was reduced by $1,396.00 in respect of flush-closets opened in Victoria and $542.00 in respect of flush closets opened in Kowloon and owing to circumstances rednering the dumping of nightsoil at sea inevitable for 20 days at the end of July the contractor was relieved of all payment of fees for 10 days amounging to $1,717.00 The total deducation amounted to $8,972.00 for Victoria and $4,180.00.
So, a fairly profitable business for its day - but with the advent of the WC, it could be seen, already in 1924, as a sunset industry. Or, as we might also say, a rather crappy business...

Friday, January 20, 2006

Fort Canning and its 9 Pound Guns

A short entry today on Singapore’s most famous hill, Fort Canning.

Even before the arrival of the British, the hill was regarded as Forbidden Hill (Bukit Larangan) by the local community – legend has it that many locals wouldn’t step foot on it for fear of spirits. A renegade prince from Palembang, Parameswara is said to have fled to Singapore. He converted to Islam and took on the name Iskandar Syah. His shrine (seemingly completely renovated) can still be seen near the base of the hill on the South side. In the early 1500s, the explorer Tome Pires that we have written of earlier, attributed Singapura to Parameswara.

Shortly after Singapore’s colonization in 1819, the hill became known as Government Hill and was the site of the Governor Stamford Raffles' notoriously ramshackle house, made in Malay style of attap palm and wood and incorporating a colonial style long verandah. The choice of materials made sense to keep the house as cool as possible. We’ve written previously of how sympathetic the Governor was to local traditions and the raised eye-brows some of his comments may have elicited from other members of stuffy colonial society (search our blog for other amusing entries). On the hill the Governor also developed Singapore’s first botanical gardens.

In the mid 1850s as entrepot trade took on a more significance, the need for defensive facilities became apparent and the Hill was the logical site for a fort and a few cannons. In 1860 it was re-named Fort Canning Hill, after the Governor-General of India, Viscount Canning. An imposing fort entrance was built (picture below) and a few 9-pound cannons were put into position. The cannons never saw any action and ended up taking on other roles: sounding off at 5 a.m., noon and 7 p.m. to let people know of the time and also being fired as a signal to announce fires in the city. A lighthouse that was operational until 1958 was also placed on the hill in 1903 (picture).

The closest Fort Canning Hill came to seeing military action was during WWII when the British Army used it as headquarters of the Singapore Base District. Following Japan’s quick defeat of the British, the fort was used by Japan until 1945. The fort then went from the British army to that of Malaysia (1963) to Singapore (1966).

Today it is one of Singapore’s most tranquil parks with great views of the city. In a previous entry we wrote about Macau’s Monte Fort, we mentioned China’s sensitivity to having any of the Fort’s defensive cannons facing towards China. Bearing this in mind, I was intrigued by the current positioning of one of the Fort Canning Hill's cannons that seems to be bearing directly onto Singapore’s new ‘flying saucer’ Supreme Court building. I wonder what Iskandar Syah, the renegade prince from Palembang would have thought about Norman Foster's contribution to Singapore?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Christian Missionaries and the Boxer 'Rebellion'

Conservatives today in America make a great deal of the lack of religious freedom in China. They find it appalling that Americans cannot freely distribute Bibles in the country. They also condemn the oppression of the Fa Lun Gong. But as is often the case, America and the world lack a sense of history when considering the past experience of China with missionary activity. A study into the tragic combination of European imperialism with missionary activity would highlight many reasons why the official 'Church' of China still has its Bishops picked by Beijing.

I have been reading a fascinating study by Joseph Esherick called The Origins of the Boxer Uprising. (Picture via PortsmouthPeaceTreaty.Org) It makes a statement with its title, as he does not consider the headline-making events of 1900, during the Siege of the Legations of Peking, as having been a 'Rebellion' at all, as it had the tacit (and eventually, explicit) support of the Qing throne. The book is quite sympathetic to the Chinese leadership, having had access to many more sources from Shandong, the source of the outbreak of the uprising, than any previous work (it was published in 1987).

His third chapter, entitled Imperialism, for Christ's Sake, shows the author's wit as well as his grasp of the underlying hatred for Christian, particularly Catholic missionaries, and their converts (but Protestants were also not immune, as we shall see). I shall quote from Esherick's fascinating text, starting with, of all people, the American Minister in Beijing, sympathizing with the Qing government against Catholic missionaries as early as 1870:
Roman Catholic missionaries, when residing away from the open ports, claim to occupy a semi-official position, which places them on an equality with the provincial officer: that they would deny the authority of the Chinese officials over native Christians, which practically removes this class from the jurisdiction of their own rulers; that their action in this regard shields the native Christians from the penalties of the law, and thus holds out inducements for the lawless to join the Catholic Church, which is largely taken advantage of.
Esherick explains that the Catholics, empowered by China's weakness, the West's imperial strength, their extraterritorial immunity, and access to China's corridors of power, meant that they created an imperium en imperio, directly competing with the Chinese government's power structure in places and often effectively granting immunity from punishment to Christian converts, many of whom were bandits, the extremely poor or sectarians of other banished sects that were being persecuted. He also uses another example from a contemporary Protestant missionary of 1900:
Thus the bishops, the spiritual rulers of the whole of a broad province, adopt the rank of a Chinese Governor, and wear a button on their caps indicative of that fact, traveling in a chair with the number of bearers appropriate to that rank, with outriifers and attendants on foot, an umbrella of honour borne in front, and a cannon discharged upon their arrival and departure.
Another example came from a letter of a Catholic missionary:
The town [of Changkiao] has the reputation of being a nest of ruthless and incorrigible robbers. Manyt widows residing there with orphaned children mourn the loss of their husbands, caught red-handed while taking part in raids on the homes of wealthy families, and executed after undergoing terrible tortures. After the depredations of the Changkiao bandits had taxed the patience of county officials beyond the breaking point, preparations were made to raze the village to the ground and banish all of its inhabitants. When all but one of the families residing there decided to embrace the Catholic religion, the missionary pleaded effectively with the Mandarin for clemncy on their behalf. Thus Changkiao escaped destruction. Tamed by their Christian faith these former brigands became law-abiding farmers and exemplary Catholics - another conquest of Divine Grace.
Rather questionable today, whether the conversions were motivated by religious fervor or by the fear of banishment. A counter-example being one proferred by Esherick in a neighboring district in Jiangsu, where a French Jesuit was "lured to settle in a notorious bandit lair where the robbers kindly offered their services to protect his residence. When the Frenchman left his base to preach in the surrounding villages, the bandits used the hamlet as headquarters for an extensive and lucrative fencing operation for local desperadoes."

Problems intensified when Qing authority in Shandong collapsed following the withdrawal of military garrisons for duty in the disastrous Sino-Japanese War in 1895 - bandit activity multiplied. The local citizens fought back by creating self-defense societies, like the Big Sword Society and later, the Boxers. But when many bandits escaped punishment by becoming Christian converts, the stage was set for conflict. This boiled over in attacks in 1896 that failed against Christian converts in southwest Shandong. When imperialism began carving up China in earnest, including the German colonization of Shandong (and much worse, the highly aggressive SVD Catholic society with a confrontational Bishop that began placing missionaries all over Shandong) the fuse was lit.

The rest is history - the failed Boxer attack on churches, missions and missionaries, as well as on the Legations in Peking - ended in disaster for the Chinese government. But it demonstrated the depth of feeling of thousands of ordinary Chinese, for whom the missionary represented the face of European Imperialism, and the excesses of missionary activity in trying not only to convert Chinese, but also in cases subverting the process of the Chinese system, and condemning as an enemy all aspects effectively, of Chinese culture. I shall close with a quote Esherick supplies in his book about the way both lay foreigners and missionaries thought of their role in China:
In 1896, when Claude McDonald was named British Minister to China after a decade of service to the Empire in Africa, Sir Robert Hart wrote that "those of us who have succeeded so badly by treating Chinese as educated and civilized ought now to be ready to yield the ground to a man versed in negro methods and ignorant of the East."

China was as much a focus of missionary energy in the 1890s as she was a focus of world politics. The two were obviously related. The missionaries easily borrowed the militant language of imperialism as they sought to "conquer the heathen" on behalf of Christ. When the Protestant missionaries in China met together in Shanghai in 1890, A. J. H. Moule asked rhetorically in one address:

"Is Christ's Church militant indeed on earth? Are we all bound to fight manfully under His banner against sin, the world and the devil? Has the Son of God indeed gone forth to war? And is our lot cast, whether missionaries or foreign residents, in this advanced post in an enemy's country, where a special assault is being delivered, not on men and political systems, but on the principalities, the powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world and the spiritual wickedness of the great, the real spiritual world?"

Needless to say, Moule answered all of his rhetorical questions in the affirmative.
So for those who simply cannot understand why the Christian church is so slow to make headway in China, to convert the same millions that Proctor and Gamble count amongst their potential consumers: take a look at the last missionary experience in China, a hundred years ago. The answers lie within.

Singapore and the Moral Economy of the Chinese Triad (or Kongsi)

I’ve just started reading “Opium and Empire,” written by Prof. Carl A. Trocki of Queensland University. His book provides a fascinating account of the large-scale migration of Chinese laborers to SE Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries to work on plantations (pepper and gambier) and in mines (primarily gold and tin)... and their capitulation into the fold of the colonial economy assisted by widespread smoking of Indian opium that was taxed by the colonial government.

In the absence of existing social and economic networks to look after Chinese immigrants, the laborers themselves formed associations referred to as ‘Kongsis’ (likely to be translated as “fair share” rather than today’s interpretation of “public share”). The Kongsis adopted brotherhood rituals similar to those of Triad organizations in China, although their formation was premised by the necessity of a social and economic network of payment and security and not political agendas. Their arrival to the region pre-dated the formation of distinct borders between Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

By the time Dutch and English arrived to the scene and defined the borders, they met these well organized social networks of hard-working immigrants that provided one resource they needed badly: cheap labor organized under good leaders. The establishment of Singapore in 1819 required a lot of labor to build the infrastructure that would be required for the free port.

Although the Kongsis and their leaders were gratefully employed by the colonial governments, their inherent organization and power in numbers also was regarded as a threat. This perceived threat was compounded by the colonists’ inability to understand Chinese or any of the religious and brotherhood rituals that characterized the kongsis. It became convenient for Europeans to associate the kongsis as equivalent to the triad societies of China – counterrevolutionary organizations hell-bent on criminal activities to ultimately overthrow the government. Thus, the Kongsis were more-or-less forced to become “secret” societies.

The force of Trocki’s argument is that the ultimate capitulation of the kongsis was, to borrow the term from James Scott, a result of fundamental changes to the moral economy. Trocki argues that triad riots were not (as characterized by the Colonial government) simply the result of inter-clan rivalries, but were instead the result of sudden changes to the moral economy of laborers, particularly those on plantations, that no longer felt they were being properly taken care of by the kongsi.

A new class of Chinese merchants had developed, themselves often organized into Kongsis, and these traders had learned to work with Europeans. Good thing, since faster British vessels and chaos in China meant that virtually all trade now depended on British clipper ships instead of Chinese junks. Some of these merchants also purchased the right to sell opium. Before long, many of the Kongsi laborers on plantations in Singapore and later Johor were regular users of the drug, indebted, and relatively powerless against the colonial laws and guns that were available to back up the merchants’ claims.

According to Trocki, in the first century of Singapore’s existence, government revenues derived from opium rarely accounted for less than 40% of the total, and often made up over 60%. The free port had thus found a solution to fund most of the costs related to its development while also bringing most kongsi laborers into a new form of economic dependence.

While some of the kongsis evolved into organizations resembling a union (and were subsequently often banned), others – primarily belonging to wealthier merchants- adapted significantly and were able to flourish in the colonial economy. One example is the Teochew Ngee Ann Kongsi, largely organized by the late Seah Eu Chin, owner of significant pepper and gambier interests.

As an aside, Ngee Ann Kongsi was a principal founder of the Kwang Im Temple that resides next to Sri Krishnan Temple on Waterloo Street. More on Kwang Im in the next few days…

Monday, January 16, 2006

SG: Fun Capital or Cultured City?

I went to a though-provoking talk on Friday at Hong Kong's Fringe Club, part of their 10 day City Festival that features exhibitions, performances, music, discussions and (of course) food from Singapore. Some events continue through to next week-end - check it out!

The talk I attended was titled "The Remaking of Singapore - Fun Capital or Cultured City?" The key-note speaker was Prof. Kwok Kian-Woon, Head of the Sociology Division at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) and the talk was moderated by Benny Chia, Artistic Director of the Fringe Club.

Singapore's push towards creating a vibrant arts and culture hub was explained as stemming from two realizations: 1) "fun & funds" - i.e., there's money to be made from art and culture, particularly if it is pop-art and pop-culture; and, 2) the belief that there may be a link between creativity as a catalyst to modernity and overall wealth - 'creative' cities tend to attract brains.

From the practical considerations of 'return on cultural capital' several studies were commissioned by the government resulting in the implementation of policies that have turned Singapore into a city that today boasts a large variety of theatre, movie, painting and music exhibits relative to what was on offer 15 years ago. Many of the activities are on the 'fun' side of the spectrum (i.e., silly musicals that are lucrative today) while attention is also being placed to 'cultured' activities (i.e., the symphony and other art shows that may foster a more creative society - long term dividends).

Critics in the audience pointed out that the development has still been confined, if anything due to the fact that virtually all funding is provided by the National Arts Council, which itself tends to be the primary recipient of all the available local corporate grant money. Large projects such as The Esplanade (its developers apparently had no idea that locals would rename it 'The Durians'!) have come at the cost of hundreds (if not thousands) of small 'off-braodway' type productions.

While I took note of the challenges and frustrations presented by Singaporean artists in the crowd, I couldn't help but wonder if Singapore was none the less a few steps ahead of Hong Kong in terms of developing itself as a city of arts and culture. For one, Singapore has a coherent plan for the development of a regional arts hub, while Hong Kong has no credible plan and is too busy accomodating developers wishing to participate in the development of West Kowloon.

Singapore took a big risk in commissioning an iconic project in the form of The Esplanade. While it's hard to quantify the pay-off, my impression is that it is succeeding in making many visitors come to Singapore expecting arts and culture. Can the same be said of Hong Kong? Singapore has a well funded arts council and is placing centres of learning in the middle of its city - steps to encourage the local population to be participants and creators within the arts scene as well as other industries. Is Hong Kong at a public or private level doing anything comparable?

I couldn't help thinking that having this talk in Hong Kong was appropriate. In spite of their many differences, Hong Kong and Singapore do share many similarities and concerns. How will these cities succeed in attracting and retaining the most creative and productive minds? Where is the hinterland of skilled and creative people that these cities will tap, and how will HK and SG succeed in presenting themselves as more attractive than Shanghai? Which city will be the most fun in 20 years and enjoy the richest cultural activities? Is the future.... Macau?! :)

Singapore's Sri Krishnan Temple

Dave and his wife are off in Beijing for a few days. Great time for me to start contributing to the blog! I’m in Singapore this week and am excited to begin with entries on streets and sites around the island.

Sri Krishnan Temple, dedicated to Krishna, the ninth incarnation of Vishnu, is one of the principal temples of the Hindu community of Singapore. The temple is located on Waterloo Street (formerly Church Street in commemoration of Resident Councilor Thomas Church), next to the Kwang Im Temple and across the street from the Stamford Arts School (pre WWII Japanese school).

Sri Krishnan Temple’s origins in 1870 were modest. A large banyan tree (now gone) was the congregation point for many of the Hindu laborers that lived and worked in the neighborhood. A wealthy merchant, Mr. Hanuman Beem Singh, realized that these men needed a place to worship and had two deities built along the base of the tree. Some years later a larger platform was built to place a deity of Lord Krishna. The temple has undergone successive renovations over the years. The attap walls and roofing were replaced with a Chinese styled tile roof and concrete walls, many new deities were placed, and a 4 storey community center was added to the back of the temple in 2002, the same year it was gazetted as a Historic Site by Singapore’s National Heritage Board.

Renovations and additions are very important to Hindu temples, often occurring at least once every 12 years in ceremonies meant to symbolize ritual purification. This desire to continuously renovate and refresh may explain why the deity representations all around the temple retain their very bright colors. Also, image worship via non-abstract motifs is regarded as a practical method of assisting devotees’ realization.

Today, the temple is perhaps best known to tourists because of the legion of Buddhist-daoists that are attracted to pray at the temple before or after visiting the neighboring Kwang Im Temple. The phenomenon is quite a recent one, and has been embraced by the trustees of the Sri Krishnan Temple and celebrated as evidence of the temple’s acceptance of worshippers of all faiths. The community center is host to a variety of social gatherings and organizations, including a local chapter of the Sri Sathya Sai Baba followers.

The temple is said to be constructed of five sections, head (dome above sanctum – see picture), neck (sanctum containing image of God), stomach (area in front of sanctum), legs (walls around sanctum), feet (gateway into the temple) and soul (lord of the sanctum). The neck (sanctum) is the most important part of the temple.

The street in front of Sri Krishnan and Kwang Im temples was pedestrianized in 1998 as part of the Government’s effort to turn the district into a cultural and heritage hub. The scene is particularly colorful at this time of year, as everyone prepares for the upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations. Next time you’re in the neighborhood – do slip off your shoes and enter the temple for a visit. Remember to walk around it in a clock-wise direction!

Friday, January 13, 2006

Making a Mess of Statue Square

Statue Square has been the centre of gravity of Hong Kong for almost 120 years. It was first unveiled to the public in 1887 (on land that had been reclaimed, at HSBC's expense, 7 years earlier) with a towering statue of Queen Victoria, on the Golden Jubilee of her reign. The prestige of what was once called Royal Square was greatly enhanced by its neighbors - "the Bank" to the South, Jardine's Prince's Building to the West, the Harbour and the Hong Kong Club to the North, and to the East the Supreme Court Building representing the honour of Her Majesty's Government. Until the war of course, when statues of Queen Victoria and her successor monarchs were hauled off to Japan to be melted down as scrap metal for ammunition. The postwar era saw a substantial part of it used as a parking lot, and it was not until HSBC paid for the renovation and transformation of it into a concrete park in 1965 did the area once again present a more orderly, formal facade.

This was not always so, however. Hong Kong has ever been a city under construction - and the year 1909 was no exception. I excerpt for you today a quote from a rather sarcastic non-official Legislative Councillor (the Honourable Mr. Murray Stewart), decrying the ramshackle appearance of Statue Square:
I rise to move that "in the opinion of this Council immediate steps should be taken to abate the nuisance created by the condition of the plot of Government land between the new Law Courts [Today's Legco building, finished 1908 - Ed.] and the Praya." Perhaps the best way to realise the muisance referred to is to put oneself in the position of a stranger. Any observant and interested stranger landing on the Praya, opposite Queen Victoria's statue, and looking first to his right front and then to his left would mark a striking contrast. On his right he would note with pleasure a well-kept grass plot bordered with flowers and enclosed by a handsome railing. On his left he would see an unsightly conglomeration of ramshackle and tattered matsheds, piles of rotting poles, odds and ends of old timbers, untidy heaps of granite chippings, weed-grown stacks of bricks; cook-houses- other outhouses - all the stagnant squalor which collects in a builder's yard. The fact that the tattered matsheds are in the occupation of a certain Chinese contractor is advertised in large letters over the entrance to them, and the observant stranger, noticing this, might imagine that here was a flagrant case of private ownership in land resulting in public wrong. "Here," he might say, "is a case where it would obviously be right for the State to step in and to force the owner of this prominently situated plot either to put it to some less unseemly use or submit to a forced sale." He might contend, without going all the way with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that no rights of private ownership should carry with them such an utter want of consideration for the proprieties of city government, and so imperfect a sense of the fitness of things, as to lease out for such a purpose land adjoining a public square. If the stranger, as well as being observant and interested, happened also to be distinguished, and had been met and taken charge of on landing by an emissary of the Government, say, by the Hon. the Director of Public Works, how could it be satisfactorily explained that these well-kept gardens were the outward and visible sign of public spirit, displayed by private citizens, and that the hideous spectacle of disorder lying to the left was created and maintained by the governing powers?
The sarcasm gets worse after this, and a direct attack on the Director of Public Works, who is sitting in the Council chambers with him:
The Government apologist, recalling certain answers to recent questions, would say that the nuisance was necessary to the work on the new Post Office, which building would be pointed out in the distance [a beautiful building demolished in 1980 or so to build Worldwide House - Ed.], possibly with pride, as one whose four storeys it had taken five years to raise. Passing along the Praya towards the Club [that building also destroyed at the same time to build the modern Hong Kong Club building with the Rolls Royce dealership - Ed.] the stranger would first note a squat bungalow. He would be told that it is a special drawing office for new Post Office plans, the building being now up. He would make a mental note that such an ugly structure ought never to have been erected in a prominent position on the sea front. Next his curiosity would be aroused by the sight of four lean and rusty iron chimneys sticking up at varying angles, one out of each of the four corners of a small enclosure immediately in the rear of the ugly bungalow. He would look in and see that each of these chimneys rose out of a brick oven. He would see snad lying about and small stones in heaps. He would smell coal tar. He might even taste it....Two simmering cauldrons stood out in the roadway smoking over the passer-by. Our stranger might have recognised the process of tarring macadam and wondered what this had to do with the work on the Post Office. It would have to be explained that this macadam factory is the Public Works Department's separate contribution to the chaos, for which it cannot be claimed that it is covered by any sort of necessity whatever. I do not see how any apologist of the Government can even excuse it. I suppose it will be said that, as the Post Office contractor had already made an unsightly mess, there was no particular harm in making it worse. But surely the officials of the Public Works Department should restrain, not lead, disorder. They owe this duty to the public. To their immediate superiors they recognise a duty well enough. They would realise the impropriety of making a tar macadam factory outside the entrance to Government House. Why, then, upon the threshold of the Colony?...The Praya opposite Royal Square is the city's front doorstep. It should be kept clean and swept clear. It is no more suitable for such purposes than is the front doorstep of a private house suitable for cooking the dinner.
The speaker now throws himself into a rousing crescendo for his finale:
Walking on round that part of the plot enclosed by a palisade the stranger would wonder why the lessee is allowed to leave about, outside on the sidewalk, old cart wheels and stone road-rollers, drain pipes and logs of wood. And from what he saw on turning to the right, he might reasonably suppose that not only was an industry in connection with road-making being carried on from the enclosure, but also the business of a laundry. He would have noticed dangling on bamboos above the weed-grown heaps of bricks, which top the palisade on the east, numbers of old coats and pants, and when he came round to the west, another assortment of similar rags flaunting behind the statue of His Majesty the King. If he had been with me one day recently he would have seen the crew of a junk, evidently mistaking the land on which the statue stands for waste land, using it as a place to spread and mend their sales. If he had been with me a day later, he would have seen the Monarch's effigy closely invested, up to the steps of the pedestal, by ramparts of large iron pipes.
The debate goes on, and in typical style, as unofficial members were outnumbered by official ones (i.e. ones that worked in the Government), any such resolutions were doomed to fail. Still, one of the other seconders of the resolution, a Mr. Hewitt, is noteworthy for his comments:
The Hongkong and Shanghai Bank - in which I hold a share or two, and I am slightly interested in their finance - set aside two very valuable blocks of land worth lanks of dollars, which might have been covered by valuable buildings, to the advantage of the financial position of the bank, adding thereby considerably to the revenue of the shareholders. That land was permanently set aside for the public use and for beautifying our city, which ought to be one of the most beautiful in the world, as wonderful effects can be obtained with very slight trouble with the semi-tropical vegetation which flourishes here.These two valuable blocks of land were set aside on the distinct understanding that at the earliest possible moment the Hongkong Government would make a garden on the other side of the square, so that Statue Square should become not only one of the sights of the Colony, but one of the sights of the Empire, for as your Excellency, in the speech which you made the other day, stated, there is probably no British colony which can show such magnificent works of art representing our Royal Family as we have in Hongkong to-day. If there had been a little delay in laying out this land, one could have said nothing, but here it goes on year after year. One excuse is made after another. I think the time has now arrived when the community at large should call upon the Government to redeem the promise it made and to lay out the square as a proper centre for the magnificent works placed there by the private enterprise of this Colony.
Interesting to note the last speaker mentioning that the statues of British Royalty, as well as the plot of land, were gifts from the enterprises of Hong Kong. What public feeling aroused by these statues, in its Central venue, were bequests of the firm's private traders and banks. However, in typical Hong Kong fashion, then as today, no consideration could trump the planners of the Public Works Department. Today, Hong Kong remains a city where the primary consideration in any venture are the efficiency gains from infrastructure improvements, such as new highways - concerns over public utility, filling in the harbour, or whether people really want a six-lane highway on the city's waterfront be damned...

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Shenzhen: Shadows of History

Today, Shenzhen is known to all as one of the most modern cities in China, and perhaps the world. It has clearly benefited from being at Hong Kong's doorstep, but it has now taken on a life of its own, and has become a thriving, bubbling, if not always wholesome, metropolis. Its middle class is visibly springing into prominence (as I could see from my visit to the crowded Wal-Mart Sam's Club there a couple weekends back) in stores, roads, cars, hotels and homes.

As most people know, this enormous city was, a quarter-century ago, a small, irrelevant fishing village that just happened to be on the border with Hong Kong. But few people seem to know that it, too, might have once been part of Hong Kong's New Territories. I shall now quote to you a letter from Downing Street, specifically from the Secretary of State, Joseph Chamberlain, to Governor Blake:
Downing Street
6th January 1899


I am now in a position to communicate to you the views of Her Majesty's Government as to the future administration of the territory which, under the Convention between the United Kingdom and China of the 9th June last, has been added to the Colony of Hongkong, and to convey to you their instructions as to the steps to be taken for its formal occupation in the name of Her Majesty the Queen.

I have in the first place to enclose an Order of Her Majesty in Council dated the 20th October last and declaring the territories within the limits and for the terms described in the above Convention to be part and parcel of the Colony of Hongkong. You will cause this Order in Council, which has not at present been made public, to be published in the Colony at as early a date as possible.

You have already become acquainted with the general aspects of the questions involved in the transfer of this territory, and it is unnecessary therefore that I should here dwell upon them at any length. There are three points which Her Majesty's Government have regarded as of special importance in the preliminary stages of the negotiations. They relate to Kowloon city, the northern boundary of the leased territory, and the collection of the Chinese duties on opium.

The questions of the civil administration of Kowloon city and of the extension of the northern frontier so as to include the town of Sham Chun [italics are mine - Ed.] will require no immediate action on your part pending negotiations with the Chinese Government, but---while such negotiations are pending -- no time should be lost in giving attention to the third question, that of the prevention of smuggling into China and the collection of the Chinese Customs duties on opium. You will see that Her Majesty's Government have come to the conclusion, which -- if I understand right -- is your own conclusion also, that the only satisfactory solution of this question will be the establishment of some system whereby the Chinese customs duties on opium imported into China from Hongkong, including the newly added territory, shall be actually collected by the Government of Hongkong.
1899 was the high watermark of European imperialism in China and indeed, in the rest of the world. Britain, concerned by the land grabs by Germany and Russia in Northern China, had insisted on the 99 year lease of the New Territories as well as of the northern Chinese port of Weihaiwei. It clearly saw no problem in negotiating further for the inclusion of Shenzhen into the land lease, or even suggesting to the moribund Qing dynasty empire that it would run its opium customs station for it at the Hong Kong border (indeed, Sir Robert Hart, an Irishman, had run China's Imperial Customs service for almost four decades already).

But as Britain continued to press its claims for land, trouble was brewing in the north. The impunity with which foreign powers claimed Chinese lands had enraged popular opinion so much that the Boxer Rebellion was soon to break out in force.

And while Shenzhen almost became part of the British empire (it did not, thanks to Hay's suggestion of an Open Door Policy that did not require China to be sliced up by Imperial Powers like a Christmas turkey), the 99-year lease proposed by Britain on the New Territories had unknowingly set in motion the demise of British sovereignty in Hong Kong altogether. For while Hong Kong and Kowloon had been ceded to Britain in perpetuity, Hong Kong was eventually handed back to China based on the end date of the New Territories lease.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

May Day: Corruption and the Assassin's Bullet

As I have spoken of a number of times, Hong Kong's police force in the 19th century was riddled with corruption. One of the major problems was inadequate pay for police, with the result that only the dregs of colonial society, and far from the best candidates amongst the Chinese or Indians, could be recruited. An early police superintendent, Charles May, had to be reprimanded by Governor Bowring to give up his interest in several high-class brothels in the territory.

A later police chief, though, was of a different mould. Sir Francis Henry May (no relation, pictured here) was originally in the cadet service, and was thoroughly trained in Cantonese language instruction, and had his sights set on achieving higher things. That he did later in his career, becoming the Colonial Secretary of Hong Kong and then ultimately the Governor of the Colony. He managed this by being a relatively clean police officer, something that was relatively hard to manage in his day. Allow me to quote Crisswell and Watson in their history of the Hong Kong police:
On June 21st 1897 May personally led a raid on the headquarters of the syndicate in East Street. To his dismay, documents were discovered which revealed that a large number of police officers, Europeans as well as Chinese, had been receiving bribes for a considerable time. May, a strict disciplinarian, did not shrink from his duty and as a result of subsequent investigations, criminal proceedings were taken against one police officer, forty-nine were dismissed and a number of others were required to resign...

As a direct consequence of the gambling scandal a draft ordinance 'for the more effectual punishment of bribery and certain other misdemeanors' was passed by the Legislative Council February 1898. This ordinance created the offences of accepting and offering bribes with a view to influencing the conduct of a public servant, for which the penalty was up to two years' imprisonment or a fine not exceeding $500 or both...

Some felt that May's attempt to excise corruption in the force had shattered morale and had left the patient in a worse state of health than before the operation, a sentiment echoed in the 1970s after the setting up of the Independent Commission Against Corruption. Others harboured resentment at his disregard of Oriental ideas of 'face' and in one case, a long-nurtured sense of grievance had near fatal consequences for May. [A man tried to assassinate him on his official reception from Blake Pier to Government House upon taking on the post of Governor in 1912].

May's would-be assassin as he proceeded to Government House from Blake Pier in 1912 was the son of a Chinese constable dismissed during the gambling scandal fifteen years earlier and it was generally assumed that his motive was a dsesire to avenge the injury done to his father's reputation, although the man himself denied this. He was tried and given a life sentence.
I found it interesting that the authors brought up the corruption scandals of the 1970s, including the infamous Godber case, when they were writing a monograph that was paid for by the police in I believe 1983. The book only covered 1841-1945, though, and while there was always the possibility of a sequel, they were never commissioned by the police to write a second book. One need not wonder why!

It goes to show though, in this and other blog entries I have created, that the police in Hong Kong play a role that goes beyond simple law and order. During the colonial era, they were enforcers of the legitimacy of the colonial regime, seen time and again from the anti-French protests in 1884, the Chinese demonstrations in 1925, and the riots in 1956, 1966 and 1967. In that sense, then, the police were something of the praetorian guard for the Governor and the colonial establishment. Little wonder then, that when they found themselves threatened by those they were protecting, they hit back, as they did in the 1970s. When threatened with May-style complete housecleaning by the ICAC, they brought their protests to so high a level that basically all police were given clemency for past misdeeds and a complete amnesty for those not already convicted. And as the assassination attempt on May demonstrates, those that risk running afoul of the law enforcers take their lives in their hands...

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Branding in Hong Kong

An administrative note: Stefan is actually in the middle of switching apartments, hence the delay in his contribution to the blog. In the meantime, I will keep up my posts.

Today's post, you might think, is going to be about some local marketing gurus. I shall disappoint you if that was what you were expecting. No, today we're talking about the rather unsavory practice of colonial administrators in the 1860s and 1870s of branding prisoners and convicted Chinese criminals on the ear or neck, which was nominally banning them from re-entering the territory.

Except that it also prevented these criminals from ever finding gainful employment again in China; indeed, some would be punished again, in even worse ways, upon being released from prison in Hong Kong and deported back to the mainland. So many of them chose to hang around Hong Kong and enter at night as vagabonds, and depart by morning with booty of various descriptions.

This all changed when Governor John Pope-Hennessy arrived, who saw this treatment of Chinese prisoners as unconscionable. I quote now from his report of 1882:
Sir Hercules Robinson's successor mentions that he took on himself, in October 1866, the responsibility of abandoning the new and extensive gaol just completed on Stone Cutters' Island. About the same time, he also modified the authorized scale of remissions of sentences, by directing that there should be no remissions unless the prisoners consented to be marked permanently on the lobe of the left ear and deported, and to this, in a few months, he added the further condition that they should be flogged if found again in the Colony.

Under this new system, five hundred and twenty-nine prisoners were branded, and one hundred and ten flogged, when Mr. May, the Police Magistrate, expressed the opinion that "there was not any legal power by which branding could be inflicted, or for flogging branded men simply for being within the Colony after deportation," and he requiested that the opinion of the Attorney General might be taken on the subject. Sir Julian Pauncefote thereupon wrote:-"Since my return to Hongkong in December 1868, I have heard of criminals being liberated upon certain conditions as to Branding, Deportation and Flogging, but I never was consulted until now as to the legality of these proceedings," and he concludes a clear and well-drawn opinion by stating that the proceedings in question were illegal.

This unauthorized branding and flogging was at once stopped by an Executive order...thereupon, some higly respectable and very influential European residents held an indignation meeting and meorialized the Government in favour of branding and flogging Chinese crininals instead of returning to Sir Hercules Robinson's system [of just keeping criminals incarcerated], which they pointed out, would involve the cost of a new gaol, and was, in their opnion, unsuited to the Chinese race, a race that they conceived to be incorrigibly bad. They pointed out the economy in prison expenditure of branding and deporting the Chinese, and, if they returned, flogging and deporting them, and again flogging and deporting them if they came back, and so on ad infinitum... this led to the passing of "The Branding and Flogging Ordinance."

Under this Ordinance, a printed form was used,-"Return of Prisoners in Victoria Gaol, Hongkong, who are eligible for remission of sentences in accordance with Ordinance 4 of 1872," the heading of one column being "Date of completion of half sentence and willing to be marked." ...

As the new system admitted of reducing the number of prisoners in the gaol at any moment, it also appeared to render his idea of a new gaol unnecessary. I soon found that this experiment in the treatment of criminals had not been entirely successful, and that I could not comply with Lord Carnarvon's instructions,-to submit proposals for placing the system of prison discipline on a sound basis in future,-if the experiment were to be continued.

I called for returns showing the real effect of the experiment on the criminal population. I found that those returns justified a statement made in October 1872 by Mr. Douglas, the late Superintendet of the Hongkong Gaol, in a report on branding, to the effect that when a prisoner is deported with a gaol mark on his beck, which cannot be concealed, and not removed without mutiliation, it prevents him from getting an honest livelihood in his own country, or being taken as an emigrant, so that such a man is tempted to become a pirate or robber near the shores of this Colony, upon which he is thus driven back..."long-sentenced prisoners, short-sentenced prisoners, prisoners whose character in gaol was described as "very bad," and those whose character was described as "very good," had all been treated in the same way, and sent in a batch to the mainland of China when one-third of their sentences had been worked out."

Sir Brooke Robertson, Her Majesty's Consul at Canton, told me that he thought the system was not quite fair to the Chinese Authorities nor to the Chinese villagers near Hongkong. The Chief Justice of Hongkong, in giving judgment in a case in which a Chinaman had been deported on an illegal warrant, publicly expressed the opinion that the system was hardly consistent with our Trewaty with China, and that the Government of China might justly complain of it. On this latter point, the Governor who had started the experiment had officially recorded his opinion that "it suits this Government very well, in a selfish point of view, to get all its criminals exported to other "countries."

But even taking, as the guardian of the peace and good order of the Colony, a purely selfish view of it, I felt unable to sanction the continuance of the system. A police report, from the frontier of British Kau-lung [The New Territories had not yet been acquired in 1882], that was submitted to me in the ordinary course of official business, said:- "Numbers of deported criminals frequent this neighborhood; on the 8th instant, fifteen men who had been branded and banished from Hongkong, were counted in the streets of Chinese Kau-lung and Shan Shui Po."

On further enquiry, I asecertained that the places where these old offenders were seen were not a hundrd yards from the boundary of the Colony, and on sending for the gentleman who was acting as the head of our Police Force, he assured me that the night robberies and the serious crimes that were causing alarm, had been committed by branded men, some of whom had been flogged and deported more than once. Some of them had committed felonies half a dozen times. Others were well known burglars. Others had been simply branded and deported as rogues and vagabonds, and thus rendered permanent consign them to a life of permanent shame, and, by an act of the State, to render their reformation difficult, and sometimes impossible.

As to the alleged economy of the system, I found that some these branded, flogged and repeatedly deported criminals had, by their night raids in the Colony, destroyed property, in a few months, to a greater amount than the whole cost of their maintenance in gaol would have been in ten years, had they been kept in prison...

Furthermore, I ascertained, beyond all doubt, that the negation of prison discipline, the excessive use of the lash, and the illegal punishments that had become mixed up with this system, had created and fostered a criminal class in the Colony and the neighbourhood, instead of diminishing the number of criminals. In short, a system devised for the suppression of crime had increased crime....

What has occurred here shows that, though a criminal population may be manufactured, the Chinese are not naturally a criminal population. On the contrary, I regard the Chinese as the least criminally disposed race I have seen in any part of Her Majesty's Dominions. Perhaps this might be explained by the fact that no other race in the world combines so many of the qualities that are the rational antidotes to crime: industry, temperance, frugality, and filial affection.

Reviewing the whole question, I therefre, felt justified in suggesting last year to Her Majesty's Government that the Branding Ordinances be repealed, that Public Flogging be abolished by law, that all laws in Hongkong which impose flogging on persons of the Chinese race exclusively be repealed, that all flogging be abolished except for such offences as entrail flogging in England, and that flogging on the back be abolished by law."
Governor Hennessy here, for the first time, took steps to bring the penal code for Chinese and for Europeans, a supposedly 'separate but equal' system, to an end. Again, proved himself a man far beyond his time (as several of his reforms were rolled back). For it, he was excoriated by the colonial community, and when he left, none of the entire expatriate community saw him off, or dared to see him off, at the docks. There were, as you can imagine though, many Chinese and sincerely regretted his departure.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Tuchman on How the Nationalists Lost China

I have read with great interest on my commute to and from work a book by a great popular historian, Barbara Tuchman, entitled Stillwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945. She is famous for books such as the Proud Tower, the Guns of August, A Distant Mirror, and the March of Folly, and deservedly so. She is one of the most exciting historians to read in terms of her written style and elegantly thought-through conclusions.

The book is about General Joseph Stilwell, a larger-than-life character consigned by history to relative obscurity, laboring away in the frustrating China theater of war during World War II (and indeed since the Marco Polo Bridge Incident). She has some pithy, brilliant observations about the Nationalists, their indifference to the common man, and some leading clues about how the Nationalists managed to lose China after the war. Many Americans are still baffled about how a well supported regime (in foreign terms) exercising authority over China for two decades, could have lost control after being on the winning side during World War II, and considered one of the main protagonists. I think the following passage from her excellent book will give you some idea:
A talk with a Kuomintang officer, General Liu, recorded with Stilwell's [who was then the US military attache in China] remarkable gift for catching character in dialogue, distilled for him the attitude of the governing class. Yes, losses had been heavy [after losing Nanking], General Liu admitted, about 600,000, but that was "really a good thing...The Chinese soldiers are all bandits, robbers, thieves and rascals. So we send them to the front and they get killed off and in that way we are eliminating our bad elements." Asked how much pay a soldier received, he replied $8 a month and "if he got any more he wouldn't fight." As to the duration of the war [this was in 1938] General Liu thought at least one year or two. By that time the Japanese would be broken financially, their soldiers would be homesick and the foreign powers would have entered the war. Actually the more ground Japan occupied the better because they would be that much more easily absorbed. "In the long run the Japanese will disappear, absorbed by the Chinese as were the Mongols and the Manchus." Asked what China would do for salt and motor fuel if blockaded, he replied that the more territory Japan occupied the smaller would be the part left to China, "so we won't have to move around so much then" and would need less gasoline.

Asked why greater use was not made of the educated class as officers, General Liu replied that "University students and graduates are all cowards. They would run. I know because I am a University man." Besides, "The Chinese learned long ago to make the lower classes do the fighting. At first the nobles fought but they soon got over that and made the people do it for them." The English used Indians to fight for them, he pointed out, the French used Moroccans and Annamites and now the Japanese were using Mongols and Manchurians.

Knowing and talking to the China of General Liu, Stilwell was not prone to see the country as fighting democracy's battle, the favorite theme of ideologists like Carlson [a Quiet American type that idealized Mao's Communists as beacons for liberty and democracy]... Though it was the fashion to say "aren't the 8th Route [Maoist guerilla unit] wonderful," Stilwell was skeptical but professionally interested...He thought the Communists' political demands for "liberation of military policy" and "mobilization of the masses" were "very vague-the usual slogans," but personally, after visiting and dining with Chou En-Lai and his entourage, found them "uniformly frank, courteous, friendly and direct. In contrast to the fur-collared, spurred KMT new-style Napoleon - all pose and bumptiousness." Handsome, cultivated and urbane, Chou En-Lai was a favorite of foreigners....Talking to these intense and energetic men, pursuers of China's old unsatisfied need of revolution and as yet uncorrupted by power, Stilwell realized the "wide chasm" between them and a man like General Liu. He felt sure that if China emerged from the war with Japan, "there will be trouble again internally."

Few could doubt it for a sense of decline in the Government and ruling society pervaded Hankow that winter [the temporary capital of the Nationalists before being moved to Chungking]. Stilwell expressed it when after the fall of Nanking he wrote of "the rotten shell of administration primarily responsible for the current debacle." In the same vein Carlson was writing to the President at this time that he was "disgusted with the attitude of the intellectual class, even the middle class. The town is filled with men and women who take no apparent interest in the war. They have no feeling of responsibility for the future of their country." When Carlson at a Chinese dinner party in Hankow offered a toast to "Old Hundred Names" [Lao Bai Xing - the common people] as bearing the brunt of the war, it fell very flat according ot Ambassador Johnson who was present. Jonson too felt that the general attitude was "Let us fight to the last drop of coolie blood" while "in the midst of it all the Soong family carries on its intrigues which sometimes disgust me completely."

The fervor of the Kuomintang's youth had passed to the Communists leaving Chungking with history's most melancholy tale: that every successful revolution puts on in time the robes of the tyrant it has deposed. Madame Chiang Kai-shek in a rare moment left a brief acknowledgement. When a number of journalists returned from Yenan with enthusiastic reports [about the Communists, who had their base there], she invited them to tea, though disbelieving, to hear what they had to say in person. After hearing their glowing tales of the Communists' integrity, idealism and sacrifice for a cause, she said it was impossible for her to believe them. Walking to the window she stared out across the river in silence for several minutes and then turned back to the room and spoke the saddest sentence of her life: "If what you tell me about them is true, then I can only say they have never known real power."
The last quote brilliant of course, because although it depicts accurately the arrogant elitist Nationalist attitudes, it also may have been a prescient prediction of later chaos during the Maoist era. In any case, I hope I have given you a taste of the way Tuchman writes movingly in describing this doomed generation of Chinese leaders, beyond caring about anything beyond their own narrow interests.

Stefan promises to start posting next week!

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Secret History of Central

Apologies for the hiatus - over the new year, I have been sick, and unfortunately not from over-zealous celebrations (at least I would have enjoyed the celebrating!). Also, I have been working on a book, entitled The Secret History of Central, about the bustling Hong Kong district and the light that the area's nooks and monuments can shine on both the city's fascinating, rapid course of change, and also its surprising continuities.

Hong Kong has consumed more building materials in the last 170 years that most other cities go through in several centuries; yet many of institutions that oversaw the early Colony still preside over them today in their latest incarnations, gleaming architectural monuments of glass and steel. My book will tease out the city's bewitching, revealing narrative in a new, thematic fashion through an exploration of Central's streets and buildings.

I shall certainly tell more in the weeks ahead, but it will sadly take away from my time I'll have to blog. Happily Stefan will take over blogging duties for the next couple of weeks, and promises to write some interesting entries about the history and heritage of Singapore. Stay tuned!