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!

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