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.

1 comment:

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