Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Race and the Civilian Evacuation of Hong Kong

Yesterday I spoke of the racial issues involved in preserving a quarter of Victorian Hong Kong for Europeans that could not afford to live on the Peak. It simply would not do for the whites to have to live with the Asiatics in those days of social Darwinism, Weberian thought and racial superiority.

My basic position about the inherent racism of the measure was that it would be pointless for me to accuse Sir William Des Voeux of racism a century and a half on. The whole culture of imperialism and of a colony naturally would breed such beliefs, and indeed would and did recur in any similar situation, anywhere in the world and at any time in history.

However, that is not to say that racism in history should and need always be contextualized. For my part, I have always felt less able to forgive examples of it within living memory, in those of my parents' generation or later. No example to me stands out more in Imperial Hong Kong's pre-war history than the government decision, on evacuating women and children civilians, to only send away those of pure British descent. Even if the wives and children had husbands and fathers that were in the British armed forces, unless they were of pure European stock they were not allowed to leave. Some of the Eurasian and Chinese wives that made it on the transport to Australia were subsequently returned upon arriving at Manila. They were generally turned in by 'pureblooded' British ladies, and sent back to Hong Kong.

There were of course many reasons given: one was that the 'Asiatics', whether Eurasian or Asian, were used to being domiciled in Hong Kong and in Asia, and so the imperial logic held that they would be fine staying on in Hong Kong. It was the white British ladies and children, who were not normally 'domiciled' in Hong Kong (even if they'd been there all their lives) that were allowed to leave.

The main obstacle facing the Secretary of State for the Colonies was that the place where the civilians were being sent, Australia, had a 'White Australia' policy. For that reason, Australia was not going to admit the mixed-race or Asian refugees from Hong Kong, saying very little good about either England or Australia in this instance.

A Eurasian Portuguese member of the Legislative Council, Leo D'Almada e Castro, on the 25th of July 1940, had the temerity to stand up and ask the acting Colonial Secretary of Hong Kong, Mr. R. A. C. North, a number of tough questions about the racial issues of the evacuations. They were coldly sidestepped. Although in the original transcript, the questions were all posed first, and then were categorically replied to by the Colonial Secretary, I will interpose question and answer instead to make for easier reading:
(Q1) Was the recent compulsory evacuation of women and children from the Colony at the order of the Home Government or directed by the Hong Kong Government?

(A1) As announced in the Press communique issued on 29th June last this action was taken on instructions from the War Cabinet.

(Q2) If the former, was the order in terms that only British women and children of pure European descent should be evacuated?

(A2) The terms of the order were that this should be done as a first step. [No mixed-race or Asian British evacuation subsequently occurred - Ed.]

(Q3) If the answer to (2) is in the affirmative, did Government draw the attention of the Home Government to the following:-

(Q3a) that there is in the Colony a large number of British women and children who are not of pure European descent?

(Q3b) the consequent discrimination involved in the said order?

(A3) The answer is in the negative. His Majesty's Government is aware of the position.

(Q4) If the answer to (1) is that the said evacuation was directed by the Hong Kong Government, will Government state its reasons for limiting it as indicated in (2)?

(A4) Does not arise.

(Q5) Is it not a fact that

(Q5a) before September 1939, a scheme had been drawn up by a Committee appointed by Government, which scheme provided for the evacuation inter alia of women and children who are British subjects?

(Q5b) that the said Committee recommended "selective evacuation" if the available accommodation fell short of requirements and suggested further that a reasonable basis for determining the order of selection would be:-

(Q5bi) Naval and Naval Volunteer families;
(Q5bii) Military, R.A.F. and H.K.V.D.C. families;
(Q5biii) Civilian families.

(Q5c) that those to whom the operation of the scheme was entrusted were unequivocally informed that, upon an evacuation, and irrespective of the question of accommodation, the said order of selection or precedence would be observed?

(Q5d) that before September 1939, personnel had been recruited for the purpose of putting the scheme into operation when the occasion arose?

(Q5e) that the said scheme was designed to operate at short notice?

(Q5f) that as regards the recent evacuation there was no question of short notice?

(A5) The 1939 scheme was drawn up to meet a contingency which has not yet arisen, and it is considered unnecessary to adopt it in present circumstances. Should the situation alter appropriate steps will be taken. [No such steps were in fact taken - Ed.]

(Q6) If the answers to 5a and 5b are in the affirmative will Government state why the said scheme and order of precedence were abandoned in favour of the evacuation as in fact carried out?

(A6) See my reply to question 5.

(Q7) Who is to bear the cost of the evacuation?

(A7) The cost of transport of civilian families will be met from Hong Kong [taxpayer - Ed.] funds. The question of the extent to which maintenance will be provided from the same source is under discussion.

(Q8) Are wives and families of members of the H.K.V.D.C. who are not of pure European descent to be evacuated?

(A8) Yes, if occasion arises and if suitable arrangements can be made.

(Q9) If so, when?

(A9) When occasion arises.

(Q10) If not, why not?

(A10) See the answer to 13.

(Q11) Are British women and children who are not of pure European descent to be evacuated?

(A11) This cannot be guaranteed but what is possible will be done.

(Q12) If so, when?

(A12) When occasion arises.

(Q13) If not, why not?

(A13) There may be practical difficulties such as lack of shipping or the difficulty of obtaining admission to other territories.

(Q14) If the answers to (8) and/or (11) are in the negative, should not Government have made an early statement accordingly, so that the many concerned might make their own arrangements?

(A14) There has never been any reason why persons who so desire should not make their own arrangements to leave Hong Kong.

(Q15) Has Government any definite policy in regard to evacuation?

(A15) Yes, but this policy must naturally vary according to circumstances.

(Q16) If so, will Government make a full and frank statement with regard thereto?

(A16) The answer must be understood in connection with the reply to question 15. In view of the present world situation it has been considered expedient to remove from the Colony as many as possible of those women who are not normally domiciled here, and can most conveniently be established elsewhere. Should the situation unhappily deteriorate further measures may be advisable. If so, the steps already taken will have greatly simplified the problem.
In other words, a complete cop-out. Any attack on British interests in Hong Kong would naturally have come from Japan, which at that point already had substantial troops just across the border in Shenzhen. Any evacuation at that point would have been considered 'inadvisable'.

The most shocking thing was the treatment of the question 7, which concerned who was going to be paying for the evacuation. The bald answer was that Hong Kong's taxpayers were going to be paying, the vast majority of which came from the non-British inhabitants of the Colony. Not only was the Member's questions largely ignored, but the mostly white members of Legco then went on to discuss how the amounts agreed on to finance the evacuees was far from adequate and that much larger expropriation were necessary to ensure their well-being.

While Britain obviously could not evacuate all of Hong Kong (given how much Chinese had already suffered from Japanese aggression by 1940), it could have been expected to do more for its outright citizens or for the families of those prepared to lay down their lives for the defense of Hong Kong. This debate and the issues it raised about classes of Hong Kong and indeed British citizenship were ones that the non-purebloods had a great deal of time to reflect upon over the next five years, particularly the 3 years and eight months subsequent that were spent under agonizing Japanese occupation. Ones that a substantial portion of those non-pureblood Britons spent in detention camps.

This was why the Japanese Occupation in many ways clarified for the local population why they were entitled, and needed, a greater say in government when the British meekly returned in August 1945. Things were never the same.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Des Voeux and the European Reservations

Those of us who have spent time in the United States, on hearing the word 'Reservations' as a place name, immediately think of multitudes of Native Americans, forced by American settlement policy, white population growth and 'Manifest Destiny', onto marginal land in the middle of Nowhere, U.S.A. Reservations were the refuge of the powerless, the descendants of the tragically defeated historical footnotes of America.

However, British Governor Sir William Des Voeux, of Des Voeux Road fame, used it in an entirely different context in Hong Kong. He used it in his annual address to the Legislative Council in 1889, referring to the fact that Europeans and Chinese lived in entirely different districts. From a 21st century perspective, the 23rd point of his speech starts promisingly:
The European District Reservation Ordinance" deals with an evil which has been recognized by successive Governors for years past, but for which this represents the first effort to provide a remedy.
But then from there, Sir William takes his speech in a direction that is rather at odds with our contemporary sensibilities:
The close packing of the Chinese in their houses which is the normal condition of all classes among them, including in some degree even the well-to-do, enables a much larger rent to be obtained from land in Chinese occupation than from that inhabited by Europeans, whose health in a climate unfabourable to them (not to mention their comfort) requires much more breathing space in connection with their residences. Thus the large influx of Chinese in recent years, and the comparative advantage to land owners in providing residence for them, has caused a continually increasing intrusion of Chinese houses upon the quarter of the Town formerly occupied exclusively by Europeans. This result would have been comparatively endurable if it were possible for Europeans to live in health or comfort when surrounded by such houses. But unlike the Chinese who have, probably by a long process of natural selection [there's that social Darwinism cropping up again! - Ed.], become inured and insensible to the conditions inseparable from extreme density of population, they are rendered ill and miserable by the effects of habits which such insensibility produces. Thus little by little, and at a gradually increasing rate, the Europeans were being, so to speak, pushed out of the Town of Victoria; and it seemed probable that before long there would be no suitable area for their residence there and that such as remained in the Colony would have to choose between the alternative of living under most disagreeable and unhealthy conditions, or of incurring the heavy expense, possible only to the comparatively wealthy, of residence in the Hill District. [The Peak - Ed.]
So basically, what Des Voeux is saying here is, the Chinese have become too wealthy and are able to buy land in formerly European districts, a major problem for the European Middle Classes (middle classes being the most class-conscious anywhere in the world) particularly given their widespread belief in racial superiority and the social Darwinism I referred to earlier. Also, the whites of the 19th century probably didn't much spit on the street or use the finger-on-nostril method of blowing out snot (although behavior of white players at European football matches might suggest otherwise).

It was a fundamentally fascinating aspect of Hong Kong - that politically, the British were of course dominant in Hong Kong (after all they were the conquerors), but that while economically, the British hongs were powerful, most of the biggest taxpayers in Hong Kong in the 19th century were actually the Chinese. The speed and ease with which the Chinese adapted to a modern market economy in Hong Kong has always been the ultimate source of the Hong Kong miracle; but the logic of Empire, race and power could never have acknowledged the acceptance of any Chinese except those thoroughly Anglified into the European orbit, and even then only conditionally.

It shows the limits of what money could buy for the Chinese in 19th century Hong Kong - it could buy them economic clout and bargaining power, but it still could not easily buy them a house with European neighbors. Sir William goes on in his explication of his policy:
Had the above state of things been allowed to continue, there can be no doubt that it would have brought about a diminution, if not actual at least relative, of the already small European population, a result which could not be otherwise than prejudicial to the Chinese themselves. [Who's going to run things then? - Ed.] For though possessed of many valuable characteristics, the latter are still, and are likely to be for a long time to come, lacking in some of the qualities which are essential to true progress; and I can scarcely think there is any opening for rational doubt, that without the presence of a considerable complement of Europeans (apart from those engaged in Government) [because civil servants are expendable, Sir William? - Ed.] this Colony could no more maintain, than it could have ever reached, its present condition of prosperity.

By the Ordinance in question, a certain portion of the Town is reserved, not for exclusively European occupation, but for houses built according to European models, and occupied in much more limited numbers than is usual with Chinese. If Chinese choose to live under these conditions, as I am informed they commonly do in the neighboring Penang, there is nothing in the Ordinance to prevent their doing so; and the provisions of this Law are simply to directed to secure for Europeans a prescribed portion of the Town in which they can live in reasonable comfort.

No opposition was offered to the Ordinance on the aprt of the Chinese possibly because they themselves prefer to be segregated from Europeans...
But I think it would be knee-jerk of me to lambast Sir William for being a racist across the centuries. The British were not so far removed then from their tremendous successes in the Opium Wars, and the disintegration of the Qing empire over the same period only served to argue the case that the Chinese under their own governance could not govern themselves properly. Of course the legislation was racist. But basically, they were the conquerors - and the Chinese population, representing the conquered, was expected to fall into line. It would be the same anywhere else, at almost anytime in history.

What I think is the interesting thing is that the entire problem of the Chinese buying up land and the huge increases in land prices, was due in large part to the land policy of which Des Voeux was the architect. He was the one that insisted on a continuation of the land auction system at a time when it was, more seriously than at any other time, debated in terms of its utility. He thought it wiped out speculators, for the benefit of the community, ignoring the fact that it made the government the biggest speculator of all. It also ensured that land would not be held by 'old' [read European] money that would have bought up all the land at the beginning and then subsequently sold it on for their own profit, rather than for the government coffers. I am not saying that it was an entirely bad system, only that the trouble the Europeans were having with Chinese invading their neighborhoods was partly of their own making, given that the growth of Chinese wealth in Hong Kong towards the end of the 19th century was far outstripping that of the Europeans.

It also shows why some of these protected neighborhoods - the Mid-Levels, later Ho Man Tin and Kowloon Tong, remained areas with cache long after the Europeans stopped being majorities in them. To live in them, for a Chinese, indicated status not only with the European communities, but also with their Chinese contemporaries - a habit that sticks with us today. Think about that next time you're stuck in traffic on Robinson Road!

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Water and the Bubonic Plague

A few weeks ago, I had been doing research on water supply restrictions in Hong Kong over the past century and a half. As many of you will know, water is an awfully precious commodity, particularly for an island that does not have enough to supply its own population. Very early on, the Pokfulam Reservoir was created near the source of the stream by Waterfall Bay, in pre-colonial days the most popular place to get fresh water supplies for mariners. However, that proved to be insufficient, as was the much larger Tai Tam reservoir created just two decades later.

The reason? Hong Kong's fast-growing population. Its headcount grew rapidly with opportunity, and soon Western district was packed with new Chinese immigrants, squeezed into very tiny spaces in boarding houses. What's more, the 20-30 people living in each would also be accompanied by a large complement of farmyard animals (chickens, pigs, etc). Conditions, needless to say, were filthy.

What I found interesting though, was that in 1893, the year before the plague, a severe drought and water shortage had forced the colonial government to enforce a draconian water rationing system. Water supplies were only available between 7 and 10 am. Furthermore, the houses in Taipingshan and Western were limited to only a certain number of gallons per day - far less than what was needed for human habitation, let alone what would be needed to keep homes with livestock clean.

Now the plague did not come out of nowhere - it was recorded in March 1894 in Canton, striking many people dead there (the place was even filthier then than it is today). But I would hazard a guess that the rapidity and the terrifying vehemence with which it struck in Hong Kong had not only to do with the slovenly hovels and the way they were kept generally, but also having to do with the level of sanitation specific to that time. The rat population must have ballooned the previous year thanks to a shortage of water for cleaning purposes. I have not seen studies done that have correllated the severe rationing of water supplies to Chinese Hong Kong with the plague, and would love to know if such studies have already been done. Anyone?

My fascination with the plague has only grown, of course, after having read the Tuchman book I mentioned yesterday and the terrifying Black Death that claimed the lives of a third of Europe and Asia. Let us hope there shall be no modern equivalent, borne not on the wings of the Angel of Death, but on the more prosaic, flightless pair of the common chicken...

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A Jetlag of Continental Proportions

I have, at long last, returned. Hope all of you are well! I enjoyed my ramble through Germany, exploring the native land of my mother. Exploring medieval castles, gothic and baroque churches, and the birthplace of Luther, Goethe, Marx and the Bismarck was certainly an eye-opener. It also has taken me a few days since my return to re-adjust my historic wavelength to East Asia, particularly since I am still finishing up Barbara Tuchman's incredibly engaging A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, which provides a spellbinding portrait of Europe, particularly France, in the midst of the Black Death and the Hundred Years' War. It was also, despite its trappings of medieval religiosity, a time of rather baldly risque humor. Allow me this excerpt Tuchman provides from Jean de Conde:
His style is illustrated by a story about a game of truth-telling played at court before a tournament. A knight, asked by the Queen if he has fathered any children, is forced to admit he has not, and indeed he "did not have the look of a man who could please his mistress when he held her naked in his arms. For his beard was... little more than the kind of fuzz that ladies have in certain places." The Queen tells him she does not doubt his word, "for it is easy to judge from the state of the hay whether the pitchfork is any good." In his turn, the knight asks, "Lady, answer me without deceit. Is there hair between your legs?" When she replies, "None at all," he comments, "Indeed I do believe you, for grass does not grow on a well-beaten path."
The comparable cultural achievements of China in the 14th century, at the birth of the Ming, were really quite more refined. Speaking of which, I was impressed, in the Zwinger Museum in Dresden, to find in their porcelain museum the most attractive display of blue-and-whites from China that I've ever seen. Most were from the Kangxi and Yongzheng period, and were very fine indeed. I can't say I particularly liked the Meissenware, and the monstrous porcelain ensembles and statuaries created in the name of art. The output of Rosenthal today is far more impressive!

Regular blogging service shall resume shortly.

Ponder, all of you familiar with both German and Cantonese cuisine, the similarities between 'siu yok' (the fatty pork dish with deep fried skin) and Bavarian schweinshaxe (basically the same thing). Why do Cantonese still eat the dish with mustard? Could Teutonic cuisine have added, in its own miniscule way, to the advancement of gastronomy in the Middle Kingdom?