Saturday, February 25, 2006

Traveling Hiatus

Apologies for the lack of posts, I will be travelling for the next couple of weeks and will have limited web access. I promise you many fascinating stories of urban heritage in Hong Kong, Singapore and Macau upon my return! I think Stefan may also stick up a few posts in the meantime.

Cheerio, David

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Liu Chi-Wen, Chinese Revolutionary

There is an interesting talk this Friday sponsored by the Royal Asiatic Society taking place at 6:15pm in the Extension Activities Room on the 8th Floor of the City Hall High Block in Central. It is by local China historian Betty Wei on one of the leading lights of the KMT. Here is the description:
Liu Chi-wen-Revolutionary Leader: Friday, 24th February

Liu Chi-wen (1890-1957), from Canton (Guangdong), was a follower of Sun Yat-sen in the revolution that toppled the Manchu Dynasty in 1911. He was educated in Japan, at the London School of Economics and at Cambridge. He was best man at the wedding of Chiang Kai-Shek and Soong Mei-ling in 1927. In 1928, Liu became Mayor of Nanjing and in 1932 Mayor of Canton. Roads, bridges and noted civic buildings that Liu was responsible for still stand; these include the Mausoleum of Sun Yat-Sen in Nanjing and the Pearl River Bridge in Canton. Liu Chi-wen became a household name in China during the middle decades of the 20th century, for his political prominence as well as for his personal glamour and the rumours that surrounded him.

Dr. Betty Wei, a historian and a Council Member of the RAS, is a graduate of Bryn Mawe College, New York University and the University of Hong Kong. She is perhaps best known to members of the RAS for her book, Shanghai: Crucible of Modern China. Having been a schoolmate and longtime friend of two daughters of Liu Chi-wen, the family asked Betty to compile his biography, which was privately published in 2005. Dr. Wei's research was based on Liu's diary and letters, and interviews with his wife, children and colleagues, as well as academic and general publications.

Each person attending the lecture will be given, gratis, a copy of the 184-page book, Liu Chi-wen: Biography of a Revolutionary Leader, which is lavishly illustrated with family photographs.
Hey free book! I unfortunately cannot go, but if anyone reading this does go, leave us a quick comment on the talk!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Old Ford Factory by Bukit Timah, Singapore

Apologies for the short hiatus, we've been in Singapore for the last few days for some meetings. Stefan and I went to have a look at a new historic installation on Upper Bukit Timah Road, near Bukit Timah Hill, housed in the old Ford Factory. As the prior link will tell you, the British surrendered to the Japanese on February 15th, 1942, at that very same old Ford Factory (it was not so old at the time, in fact, having only opened its doors in October 1941, closing four decades later in 1980), so it was fitting that the period curated by the exhibit was the Japanese invasion of Malaya and Japan's occupation of Singapore until September 1945.

It was superbly done; as it was organized by the National Archives, many fascinating relics, letters and other artifacts were on display. The appearance of the exhibition was simple but attractive, an immersive walkthrough with content and objects on display on both sides. There is some limited but effective use of multimedia to tell the simple, sometimes heartbreaking stories of suffering during this period. One can also see the room where General Percival surrendered to Yamashita.

I found on the whole, the exhibition steered away from being too accusatory towards the Japanese, or to any other race for that matter. It steered away from blaming Gordon Bennett's Australians, as did Colin Smith in Singapore Burning (it did, however, prominently display two searchlights right at the entrance - it was the lack of using them on the Australian forces' part, due to fear of being fired upon, that apparently was decisive in making the Japanese amphibious landing on the island successful). It mentions the Indian soldiers that subsequently joined the pro-Japanese INA under Bose, but also showed the resistance of other Indians to the Japanese. It also did not shy away from talking about how the subsequent trials of INA soldiers led to military mutiny in India that was a proximate cause for Indian independence. It also talked about how the Japanese used Malay auxiliaries as policemen and to counter Chinese Communist partisans.

Most of all, it revealed the life of everyday Chinese in the Japanese 'Syonan'; it revealed many details not known to many ordinary Singaporeans. For instance, one of my visit companions said she finally realized why her father considered the area around the Cathay Cinema was a 'black' area - it was where Japanese put heads on pikes to show what happened to fifth columnists.

It told the story in an even-handed way that is creditable to the National Archives. It is truly worth a visit, and I encourage any of you going to Singapore in the near future to pay a visit. The website for the exhibition is It collects, for the first time, recordings of many Singaporeans about this seminal, traumatic experience in Singapore history. If I had a criticism of these precious recordings, it is that they are not displayed more prominently. But I was assured by one of the principal promoters of the exhibition that many small improvements will be made to the Old Ford Factory exhibit over time.

I would also recommend going a little earlier in the day than I did (4:30pm was an hour before closing time) and also catching the documentaries that will be screened at several times throughout the day. They will be shown on a rotating basis, and deal with various subjects from the Japanese Malayan campaign to the war crimes trials after the end of WW II. If you have time afterwards please do check out the exhibits at Bukit Chandu, which deal with the heroics of the 1st and 2nd Malay Regiments at the Battle for Pasir Panjang.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Dry Shore Leave in Hong Kong After Midnight

Locals in Hong Kong have never really had much of a drinking problem. But that is not to say that no population in Hong Kong has not imbibed to excess. Indeed, the Western sailor was always the target customer of nocturnal entertainment of the "World of Suzie Wong" variety (and still is for the lascivious lasses on Lockhart and Luard Roads). From the beginning, the military personnel, both army and navy, would drink too much 'sam shu", and contributed in large part to the alarming death rate of the first garrisons (they would lose a regiment, it was estimated, every three or four years).

In this spirit, I thought I would provide you a glimpse of this drinking problem, and their consequent effects on law and order in Hong Kong, by this short exchange in the Legislative Council in 1899 (in which, incidentally, the original Mr. Lockhart participated):
The Acting Attorney-General: "...clause 4 and the following new clause be inserted in the Bill and numbered clause 3, namely:- "Subsection 4 of section 3i or Ordinance 24 of 1898 is hereby amended by substituting a comma for a full stop after the word licence, and by adding to such sub-section the following words, namely, 'and no liquor shall be sold or drunk on the premises by other persons than those of Chinese race between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m.'"

The Acting Attorney-General explained that the object of introducing this new clause was to prevent European and American soldiers and sailors from drinking at Chinese restaurants during the hours when public houses are shut.

The Harbour-Master: I understand that the Chinese may drink all night but that Europeans and Americans may not do so. Is that so?

The Acting Attorney-General: That is so.

The Bill passed the committee stage and Council resumed.
And so it was that the European military man was prevented from imbibing alcohol alongside the Chinese citizens of Hong Kong, no doubt from past experience! Sadly the on such cases the public record is silent...

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Fall of Singapore, Part II

I shall now finish the account by simply quoting from Colin Smith's very readable account of the fall of Singapore, entitled, Singapore Burning:
On Sunday 15 February, the Straits Times, now reduced to a single sheet, had as its splash: 'STRONG JAP PRESSURE - Defence Stubbornly Maintained'. Next to it was the announcement that Colonel Anderson of the Australian Imperial Forces, the hero of Parit Sulong, had been awarded the Victoria Cross. There was also a brief paragraph urging people to conserve water.

The newspaper still carried under its title the slogan: 'Singapore Must Stand; It SHALL Stand - H. E. Governor'. But Sir Shenton Thomas [the Governor] and his sick wife had been obliged to make one small compromise and move into the Singapore Club in the Fullerton Building after shells had hit his Government House, killing twelve staff and Gurkha guards who were sheltering under the back veranda. Thomas himself had crawled under the wreckage to see if he could do anything to help, only to discover they had all been killed by the blast.

That Sunday the governor did not go to St. Andrew's. For several days now the Australians had been using the cathedral as a hospital for military and civilians alike, and all its pews had been removed to the Padang to make room for stretchers...

Percival, up at 6.30, had attended a Communion Service conducted by an army padre in the Fort Canning bunker. He had already read his telegrams. The most important one came from Wavell and it gave him permission to surrender. 'Time gained and damage to the enemy are of vital importance... When you are fully satisfied that this is no longer possible I give you discretion to cease resistance... Inform me of your intentions. Whatever happens I thank you and all your troops for your gallant efforts of last few days.'

A commanders' conference was called for 9.30 a.m. The only one who could not make it was Beckwith-Smith, who reported heavy enemy infiltration of his 17,000-yard front the night before. The 4th Suffolks and the Foresters had been pushed back by a tank attack. Carpenter's Cambridgeshires had clung on to their positions but were left in a thumb-shaped salient. The Commander Royal Artillery announced that the Bofors guns, which had been enjoying some success against low-flying aircraft, would run out of ammunition that afternoon, as would supplies of 25-pounder artillery shells. Chief Engineer Brigadier Simson revealed that there was a good chance that most of Singapore city would run out of water by the next day. Bennett and Heath, who still had his pregnant wife with him, had both been urging surrender for several days and apparently saw no reason to change their minds.

The decision to comply with the surrender terms Yamashita had offered four days before was taken unanimously, but when some of the finer points were being discussed Bennett suddenly suggested, 'How about a combined attack to recapture Bukit Timah?' Major Cyril Wild, a former executive on the Rising Sun Petroleum Company (a subsidiary of Shell), who was on Heath's staff and was one of the few British Japanese-speakers left on the island, noted that this was greeeted with silence. 'I formed the impression at the time that it was made not as a serious contribution but as something to quote afterwards.'

At 11.30 a.m., Wild was acting as interpreter when he accompanied Brigadier Terence Newbigging, Percival's senior administrative officer, and Hugh Fraser, the Straits Settlements Colonial Secretary, as they crossed the lines carrying white and Union flags. Both ways, their most dangerous moments occured on the British side. Going, an angry captain in the 5th Suffolks who, like many of the 18th Division, thought they had a lot more fight left in them, shoved a revolver in Newbigging's chest and demanded to see his identity card. Coming back, Wild reported 'an inaccurate burst of pistol fire, delivered at somewhat unsporting range, from a Provost Corporal'.

A Japanese flag flown for ten minutes from the Cathay Building indicated that Percival had agreed to the terms and would meet Yamashita at the Ford factory. They met there at 4.30 p.m. and the negotiations were predictably one-sided. Percival wanted a ceasefuire at 10 p.m. but settled for 8.30. However, Yamashita did agree that for the next twenty-four hours, 1,000 troops could retain their arms to keep law and order, and he allowed only a small number of his men to enter Singapore the next day...

Yamashita took Malaya and Singapore for 3,506 killed and 6,150 wounded. Percival's casualties are estimated at 7,500 killed and 10,000 wounded. About 120,000 prisoners were taken. In his week-long campaign on Singapore Island itself, Yamashita lost almost as many men as he did on the peninsula: 1,713 killed and 2,772 wounded. This works out as 640 casualties a day, which by the end of the twentieth century any western power, let alone Japan which hardly has an army at all, would consider exorbitant.

Afterwards, Yamashita liked to boast that his victory was based on a bluff because he was outnumbered and running out of artillery shells. On paper he did have half the men, but his three first-class homogeneous divisions backed by total air and naval superiority cannot be compared to Percival's heterogeneous, ramshackle command. In the end, there was not much more than the 18th division and a few attachments left. If the British had continued to resist, the wrost that could have happened to Yamashita was that there would have been a humiliating wait for reinforcements. There was no way Percival was ever going to push him off the island.
And so was interrupted the British rule over Singapore, which had lasted 122 years. As with Hong Kong, the British repossession of the city after the end of World War II was under different terms, with British dignity never fully restored after this humiliating defeat.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Fall of Singapore, Part I

I spoke last week of the fall of Britain's mighty fortress in the East, Singapore. In a two-part blog entry, I will now attempt to paint a picture of how it came to pass, quoting Colin Smith's historico-journalistic account of the disaster in his book Singapore Burning (he seems a bit harsh on the Australians throughout the book). Before I continue, though, allow me to quote from the Guardian review (yes, he's also a writer for the paper) about this book:
It's true that the defenders were plagued by terrible mistakes and bad luck. These nourish fantasies that the outcome could have been different. If the British had entered southern Thailand, instead of dithering until it was too late, couldn't they have slaughtered the invaders on the beaches? If Admiral Phillips had set off earlier to attack the invasion fleet, or turned back as soon as he knew his warships had been spotted, couldn't the Japanese troopships have been scattered?

If the ship with more anti-tank guns hadn't been sunk; if the RAF had possessed Hurricanes at the start instead of the old Brewster Buffalos; if the Australian artillery had received the signals that the Japanese assault landing on Singapore island had begun ...

But none of these possibilities was the case. Even if they had been, Smith's book suggests that the attack would have still prevailed. The defenders, often heroically brave, were simply not up to it. Symptomatic is their shocking failure to communicate. The radios did not work, the field-telephone cables broke, the signals routines were chaotic. When the first landings began at Kota Baharu, all communications with Singapore jammed so that it was 90 minutes before local aircraft were ordered to bomb the beaches.

It was also true that the Japanese were better soldiers. Smith points out that they were neither suicidal fanatics nor trained jungle fighters. Their personal weapons were slightly inferior. 'What [they] had in abundance was courage, endurance and a discipline that, in their eagerness to see that orders were carried out, did not stifle initiative but encouraged it.'

Let us now relive how the British leadership viewed with alarm the possibility of the island's fall. Wavell, the general in charge of British defenses in Asia, sent this telegram to Churchill:
"Preparatory measures for the defence of the island being made with limited resources available. Success will depend on numbers and state of troops withdrawn from Johore, arrival of reinforcements and ability of air force to maintain fighters on the island. If all goes well, hope prolonged defence possible."
Churchill was clearly unsatisfied with that message, and this was his reply:
"I want to make it absolutely clear that I expect every inch of ground to be defended, every scrap of material or defences to be blown to pieces to prevent capture by the enemy and no question of surrender to be entertained until after protracted fighting in the ruins of Singapore city."
Churchill apparently modified his tone when it was put to him by Percival that if they burned everything, it would shatter local morale and the willingness of the men to fight it out. Churchill did insist, however, on the destruction of the naval base. Smith now turns to one of the most famous legends about the Fall of Singapore - that the guns were pointed in the wrong direction:
It was now quite clear that even Churchill was reconciled to something Brooke, his senior soldier, and probably Wavell had come to terms with ever since the Japanese had sunk the Prince of Wales and the Repulse and gained a foothold in northern Malaya. Barring a miracle, the fall of Singapore was almost inevitable. All that could be done was to hold out for as long as possible and buy time to reinforce the Dutch East Indies where Australian, perhaps even American, reinforcements were expected.

Ever since it had been accepted that the island's big guns meant that an overland attack down the Malayan Peninsula was much more likely than seaborne assault, it had always been assumed that the nearest front line Singapore could tolerate was northern Johore. Any closer and the enemy's artillery would be able to neutralize the naval base. Because of this there had never been any attempt to turn 'Fortress Singapore' into a real fortress, with all-round defence like Malta or Gibraltar...

Even at this late stage Churchill was shocked to discover the true state of affairs:

"I ought to have known. My advisers ought to have known and...I ought to have asked... the possibility of Singapore having no landward defences no more entered my mind than that of a battleship being launced without a bottom. I saw before me the awful spectacle of the almost naked island."

There had been some attempts to rectify this. Not quite three weeks into the campaign, Brigadier Ivan Simson, Malaya Command's Chief Engineer and...the head of civil defence on the island, had pleaded with Percival over two hours of late-night Boxing Day drinks to allow him to begin building defences on Singapore's northern shore. At this point Percival was far from convinced, insisting that such defences would undermine both military and civilan morale by giving the impression that he was contemplating a total withdrawal to Singapore and withstanding a siege...

Not long afterwards Percival changed his mind. Within two weeks of his meeting with Brigadier Simson, the situation in mainland Malaya had deteriorated to the point where he was beginning to fear that the enemy might attempt to land on the island, particularly on the north-western coast which was closest to the mainland, before their conquest of the peninsula was completed. Even so, with the battle for Johore still undecided, Wavell was as convinced as Percival that, for the sake of morale, Singapore's defences should only be improved with the utmost discretion. On 19 January, only twelve days before the Argyll pipers played the last men across the fractured Causeway, the supreme commander sent a telegram reminding him:

"Your preparations must of course be kept entirely secret... troops must not be allowed to look over their shoulders. Under cover of selecting positions for garrison of island to prevent infiltration by small parties you can work out schemes for larger force and undertake some preparation such as obstacles and clearances..."

In any case, there was no way Percival could embark on the kind of major defence works on the north shore that Simson contemplated: clearing fields of fire by tearing out mangrove swamps, laying mines and barbed wire, building pillboxes and digging bunkers and trenches, the latter always difficult in Singapore where the water-table was so near the surface. The manpower, mostly Chinese and Tamil, required to perform these miracles was simply not available.

The British fall in Malaya and Singapore, in retrospect, seems like a stack of dominos, with each defeat and retreat causing the fall of the next. Although numerically superior, the mostly green Australian and Indian army troops were no match for the Japanese force, battle-hardened by several years of war in China. The quick succession of victories for the Japanese meant that the road to Singapore lay within their grasp less than two months after their landings on Kota Bahru.

Tomorrow I shall discuss the final days of fighting on the island. I hope you had a lovely Valentine's Day! Even if you didn't, chances are high yours were better than the one Commonwealth defenders in Singapore experienced on 14th February, 1942.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Public Executions in Hong Kong

St. Valentine's Day, approaches, a holiday in which the celebration of a Christian martyrdom has oddly morphed into a celebration of love (see this site for its rather shocking precursor), immediately preceding an old pagan Roman ritual.

I thought I'd take the opportunity, as this morbid co-association of love and death approaches, to briefly discuss public execution in Hong Kong. Some people have asked me whether Hong Kong has had the death penalty, and the answer is yes, that it did until the 1960s, and the penalty, although unused, remained on the books well into the 1980s.

What is even more interesting, is that it also had public executions until 1895. Allow me to quote from Crisswell and Watson in their book on the Hong Kong Police:
Public executions were also carried out in Hong Kong until 1895. There was no regular executioner and in 1852 when six Portuguese were hanged for piracy and murder, the executioner was a coloured American prisoner who volunteered for the task in return for the remission of his sentence. In 1857 seventy-three pirates seized by the Royal Navy were found to have a case to answer. The Governor, Sir John Bowring, shrank from the prospect of a mass execution and handed them over to the Chinese authorities in Kowloon City. He was reprimanded by the Colonial Office which informed him that the Supreme Court had been set up for the very purpose of dealing with such criminals.
This gory drawing was 'executed' in 1893, shortly before the beheading of the pirates on the beach.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Blessing the Last Ship from Macau

The Hong Kong Anthropological Society is going to have another fascinating talk on Wednesday, 15th February at 7pm, location the Hong Kong Museum of History Lecture Theatre in Tsim Sha Tsui. The talk is entitled, "Blessing the Last Ship from Macau", by Dr. Bill Guthrie, who, among his many interesting qualifications, was once Editor of Soldier of Fortune magazine, and did some 'consulting' work in Afghanistan.

Here is the description of the talk::
One of the ancient names for a Chinese seagoing vessel is "the ship from Macau." But that run of perhaps three thousand years is suddenly almost over. Because of rising fuel prices and the destruction of fish stocks in the South China Sea, wooden fishing boats are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. The lecture will show what is left of the shipbuilding industry, recap the reliance on tradition techniques using modern tools, survey the arsenal of skills each individual craftsman masters, and sketch the left-hand-right-hand combination of mechanical and spiritual techniques the last Macau ship builders and ship owners still regard as necessary to float a boat.
And his official bio:
Bill Guthrie is an Assistant Professor at the University of Macau. Before he washed up on the beach in Macau, Guthrie worked as an educational consultant and entrepreneur, and ran an archaeological field school; he edited Soldier of Fortune magazine, and consulted for Sea Kayaker magazine; he has a Ph.D in Medieval Studies, and may have been the last person ever to teach the course "The Bible as Literature" at the University of Colorado. At present, he corrdinates with the Macau Maritime Museum to document the last wooden fishing boat ever built in Macau.
Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

"Singapore Will Be Held"

I came upon a delightful Singapore museum blog today, called "Museum Roundtable." I found a link on the site also to the Singapore Archives website. A fair bit of interesting content on the site.

It's the beginning of February, which means the anniversary of the British surrender in Singapore is just around the corner - February 15th, 1941, for those who prefer precision. I was marvelling, though, at a newspaper article from the Sydney Morning Herald (stored in the Singapore Archives) on 8th February 1941. In it, General Percival, General Officer Commanding Malaya (click the link for a goofy picture), despite the many reverses and disasters that befell his troops throughout the Malayan Peninsula, from Kota Bahru and Slim River to the fall of Johore, felt compelled to rally morale and say:"We intend to hold Singapore. There is no question of retreat. Everyone must realise that it is a common fight for military and civilians alike."

The article then goes on to talk about how British gunners in Rangoon shot down many Japanese planes - and thereby illustrating how the press was used as propaganda despite the rapid loss of Burma to the Japanese - the British High Command evacuated the city without considering a serious fight weeks later.

This part of the Singapore story being now increasingly distant history, there is no suspense in what happened next. I think the link to this picture says it all, taken 8 days after the article was written.

The extraordinary thing was that at the Battle Box, a heritage site on Fort Canning Hill built within the underground British bunker, I had a tour guide that told me with a straight face that if the British had only fought another 24 hours, that the Japanese would have been ready to surrender. Given the superior numerical advantage of men, equipment and organization on air, land and sea enjoyed by the Japanese, and the incredible demoralization of the British troops fighting the last of their 'last stands', I find that incredibly hard to believe, and a rather cynical thing for a tour guide to say.

What is true is that the British paid the price not only for underestimating the Japanese (because they wanted to, and because they had to, their paltry defences needed most at home), but also for not involving the local population and arming them at an earlier stage. I suppose the logic of empire meant that the British needed to keep up appearances and not give the excuse for more egalitarian treatment from local Chinese, Malays and Indians. But in retrospect, in Singapore as in Hong Kong, the tremendous loss of face involved in the fall of the two cities meant Britain lost a great deal more after the War.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Hated Colonial Sinologists

Sir John Francis Davis, the Second Governor of Hong Kong, was a principled man, Sinologist, and friend of the Chinese - he had translated several Chinese classics into English. He would brook no nonsense from opium dealers or others that questioned his authority. For those traits, he was loathed by Hong Kong's expatriate community. Endacott quotes historian Norton-Kyshe on Davis:"Sir John Davis had gone home branded as a libeller two years before the usual term of office, having been permitted to resign. An unexampled career of oppression had rendered miserable the existence of his subordinates;... and he had left these parts without having a single friend."

This was a fate shared by other British officials that took a stand against poor, unfair treatment of Chinese, or that believed that equality of treatment was an option with Chinese government officials or Hong Kong's burgeoning Chinese population. John Carroll, who wrote the introduction to a recent reprint of George Endacott's classic historic text, A Biographic Sketch-Book of Early Hong Kong, had some interesting observations about the colonial mindset with China. Specifically, he discusses why the British took pains to learn Indian languages and dialects, but not Chinese:
Readers familiar with the British colonial experience in India may be surprised by how little interest most British officials seem to have taken in Chinese culture. Certainly there were exceptions. Before coming to Hong Kong as governor, Endacott tells us, John Davis had been one of the few East India Company officials who bothered to study Chinese. Davis helped found the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, which continues today to promote interest in Hong Kong history. John Bowring believed that learning Chinese and maintaining more personal contact with local Chinese residents and officials in China would help him solve problems in Hong Kong and improve Anglo-Chinese relations - a task at which his predecessors had failed. Included in Chapter 17 among "Some Other Officials" is Thomas Wade, the linguist and diplomat who served as assistant Chinese secretary to the Superintendent of Trade. Wade later became Professor of Chinese at the University of Cambridge, where he helped devise the Wade-Giles system for romanizing Chinese...

But such men were rare in Hong Kong. Whereas in India learning local languages and cultures was considered essential for conquering and controlling Britain's "Jewel in the Crown," most British officials in China and Hong Kong did not share this concern. Unlike in India, Europeans in China and Hong Kong communicated with Chinese almost completely in English or pidgin. Shortly after his arrival in Hong Kong in 1859 - verynearly twenty years after the British first occupied the island - Governor Hercules Robinson complained that not a single senior colonial officer in his new administration could read or write Chinese. When Robinson offered financial incentives to encourage officers to study Chinese, only three responded to his offer. [Undoubtedly because of pronouncements like previous Governor Samuel Bonham that studying Chinese would affect one's brain - Ed.] Not until two years later, in 1861, did the British make plans for training (including Chinese language instruction) cadets for the Hong Kong Civil Service.

This lack of interest in Chinese culture among British officials and colonists has never been explained adequately. One possibility is that because Britain acquired Hong Kong primarily for commerce rather than for settlement, most Europeans in early Hong Kong were sojourners who had no intention of staying in the colony for more than a few years. The difference between China and India may also have been a matter of timing. Whereas in the late 1700s and early 1800s the East India Company encouraged its employees in India to learn local languages and customs, most of the traders in early Hong Kong were private traders who arrived after the East India Company had already lost its monopoly on the China trade. These private traders were interested mainly in making a quick fortune, rather than in learning about Chinese culture. By this time, even in India the old generation of British 'Orientalists' interested in India culture had been replaced by the new 'Anglicists,' and the East India Company no longer promoted the study of Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian. Finally, India may have been the exception rather than the rule. As D. K. Fieldhouse has argued, British colonial officials often had little knowledge of local conditions in their empire.
All interesting thoughts. I suppose that a theory held by my old, late professor of colonial history, Robin Winks, applies here - the theory of first contact. The dynamic of relations between races is often determined by first contact, and for instance, he felt, explained why the first contact of Australian penal colonial felons with Aborigines made for poor race relations in Australia, whereas the well-educated, Presbyterian settlers of New Zealand got on substantially better with the Maoris.

While recorded contact had been made between the British and Chinese since 1637 (which, it must be said, did not go particularly well!), it was the trading system of Canton, and the subsequent opening of treaty ports by the First Opium War, that really defined the relations between China and Britain - an adversial one that involved the Chinese, who were in a desperately poor strategic position, using intransigence on the one hand, and the British, with superior firepower who simply used force when overly frustrated, on the other. The British of early Hong Kong - soldiers, opium traders, itinerants, adventurers, prostitutes and beachcombers - were not exactly of an enlightened class. Nor were the semi-piratical early inhabitants of Hong Kong, many of them quite uneducated. This dynamic of corrupt, venal and impatient British officials, many of them who could not understand a word of Chinese, working with a lower-class Chinese population used to living at the fringe of the Qing empire naturally led to poor race relations, one that continued even as more educated and enlightened men (and women) came to Hong Kong on both the British and Chinese sides.

Which brings us back to our original quote - is it any surprise then that men such as Davis, Hennessy, or even Elliott were despised by their colonial contemporaries? To me, it seems, Hong Kong never entirely got over the first real sustained national contact between the British and Chinese civilizations - forged in the fires of War.

Monday, February 06, 2006

'The Virility of Victorian England'

This is a quote from the man once considered the master of Hong Kong history, Mr. G.B. Endacott. The full quote:"Another astonishing thing is the virility of Victorian society. The men of that age pushed their way to every corner of the globe, and this book aims to show that part of the process which relates to Hong Kong. Their methods were rough and ready as with all pioneers, but their energy and enterprise must command admiration."

I have been reading a book by Endacott called "A Biographical Sketch-Book of Early Hong Kong." What has been eye-opening reading has been the new Introduction to this old publication (Endacott died in 1971), which I thought was an excellent way to re-introduce an history that has clearly aged badly in the global post-colonial era. It was written by rising star John Carroll of Harvard, and he mentions how a contemporary of Endacott's only half-jokingly said at an academic conference that his work 'would lead readers to believe that the colony had no Chinese residents.'

Basically, like many histories written in his era about Hong Kong, no agency is given to the Chinese that live in Hong Kong - they are simply portrayed as 'temporary sojourners' that leave the colony immediately. Carroll does an excellent job of highlighting some of these flaws of Endacott's work in the introduction. Allow me to quote from his introduction:
Like most colonials, Endacott took the legitimacy of British colonialism in Hong Kong as given. Never in this book, for example, does he question the British motives or means for acquiring Hong Kong. In both A Biographical Sketch-book of Early Hong Kong and A History of Hong Kong (1958), which for decades remained the definitive English-language history of Hong Kong, Endacott praised Carles Elliot's remarkable restraint in the first Opium War. Note, for example, how Chapter 23 on the "Princely Hong" of Jardine, Matheson & Co., the largest of the European firms in South China, never mentions opium, which although not necessarily the underlying cause of the first Opium War was nonetheless its immediate cause...

Like many British merchants and politicians from the period he described, Endacott saw that war between Britain and China had been inevitable. "The old methods of solving disputes between the two countries were becoming no longer acceptable," he wrote in A History of Hong Kong, "and since the Chinese would not open diplomatic negotiations or recognize the British government as anything but normally tributary, it followed that any serious incident would easily lead to war. There was no acceptable alternative." The British acquired Hong Kong not for territorial empire but for commercial expansion in China:"A healthy trade demanded settled conditions, suppression of robbery, guarantee of contract and of impartial justice. Since the Chinese were thought to be unable to provide these conditions, the British had to provide them. This is fundamental to understanding any history of Hong Kong."
There were of course few if any sources in Endacott's histories that were Chinese. The quote Carroll brings up that I started today's entry with makes it clear that he lionized these pioneers and saw fit to forgive any transgressions made against the Chinese during their time here.

Yet it seems that in the 21st century, Carroll is quite right - students of Hong Kong's history in English must get over the lazy and dangerous habit of perceiving local history as an elite one, measured by the length of Governors' terms, and seeing events ultimately as the credit or failure of the Governors or of the British government that had sent them.

Here's to history that challenges old sources, and tries truthfully to find other perspectives and voices from colonial Hong Kong's beginnings. A trail I too shall try to sniff out in the Year of the Dog!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Hong Kong's Opium Prince, Lee Hysan

Gong hei fat choy! Happy New Year to the readership. Thank you for coming to visit us here; apologies for those that have hit the refresh button on our blog in vain over the past week. We've been on holiday. We hope you've had a nice week, and we look forward as always to your comments!

We have been remiss in our blog entries on colonial Hong Kong in usually blogging on colonial personalities. We will attempt to address this imbalance by talking about one of the most successful pre-war Chinese entrepreneurs of Hong Kong. Now when most people today think of Superman Li, they think of Li Ka-Shing. But in the 1920s, the name on the lips of Hong Kong Chinese was Lee Hysan. Allow me to quote a write-up done on his life by Berta Manson in the South China Morning Post on October 26, 1975:
The newspapers of the day headlined the murder of Lee Hysan in 1928 as the death of the "Opium Prince." He was a man of "rugged exterior" who wore "Chinese clothes and Chinese velvet shoes," was frequently unpunctual but always "generous" and "exceedingly popular." (How often those two adjectives go together!). Hi business daring captured the public imagination. Twice he went to court and won. The "million dollar opium case" of 1914 lasted a total of 151 days but won Lee and a partner possession of 98 chests of raw opium, then a perfectly legal commodity. Opium was only banned in 1946. His second legal victory came in March 1928, a month before he was killed. A Macau Government official, the Opium Administrator, angered by a petition Lee Hysan had sent the Macau Government, sued him for libel and lost. On May 25, nearly a month after his death, Lee Hysan was buried with pomp and circumstance at the Chinese cemetery. His estate was valued then at $4.4 million. Yet, Lee Hysan seldom carried any money. On the day he died he had only $2.80 in his pocket.
Lee was quite the empire builder. He was the son of a Cantonese peasant that had struck it rich in the California Gold Rush of 1849, and had returned to enjoy his fortune in the new colony of Hong Kong. He studied at Queen's College, worked as a bank clerk at HSBC, and then worked variously in Malaya as a journalist and as a sawmill owner. When he returned to Hong Kong, he became manager of a shipping company, and had even bought a ship on his own account.

Now while Jardines had built their headquarters at East Point (today's Causeway Bay) in the 1840s, by the 1860s most of their headquarter operations were in Central. By the 1920s, it had become essentially a Chinese district, and few traces beyond the street names of Jardine Matheson taipans remained. However, Jardines still owned the property of much of Causeway Bay. In 1923, they sold it to Lee Hysan for HK$3.8 million (at the time a symbolic passing of the torch from Hong Kong's opium taipans of the past to the present, perhaps). This property was the genesis of the Lee Hysan family empire; pictured above is the Lee Gardens, later a famous hotel and now the site for a chic mall. Although he was best known at the time for his opium dealings, the ownership of this important piece of property has enriched this family incredibly over the generations, creating Hong Kong's first modern property tycoons. This proved once again that property has always been the most important asset class of this city: the Causeway Bay property portfolio was valued in 2005 at HK$30.8 billion.

Sadly, the Opium Prince proved vulnerable to mortal threats. To quote the SCMP again:
"But fate intervened. On April 30, 1928 as...Lee Hysan was going into the Yue Kee Club [the establishment the current Kee Club above Yung Kee was named after - Ed.] on Wellington Strewet for lucnh he was shot three times at close range and killed. A succession of firecrackers used to cover the sound, allowed the murderer to escape. The murder weapon, a .38 calibre Smith & Wesson was found at the scene. Lee Hysan's stricken relatives offered a $10,000 rewarded but the killer was never caught. "