Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Podcast:The Freemasons of Hong Kong

In light of the release of the da Vinci code in Hong Kong, I thought I would record a podcast on Zetland Street, formerly home to Hong Kong's Freemasons, an order which has been rumored to have links to the Knights Templar. While conspiracy theorists will be disappointed as I play down such a connection between an organization of Crusaders and another of master builders from the Middle Ages, there are interesting tidbits on the origins of Freemasonry on the South China coast.

Hear the podcast here.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Colonialism and Liberal Horror

Greetings from Singapore! Apologies for not having updated this site for almost a week, but travels and woork have made new entries a bit difficult. I have joined Stefan in Singapore for a week for some meetings. I am writing to you from the magnificent 11th floor reference section of the new National Library building, and from my vantage point Singapore extends as far as the eye can see, from St. Joseph's Church just below near Bugis towards Orchard Road and beyond. Given the pollution these days in Hong Kong, I don't take such vistas for granted!

I've had a chance to walk aroound the library and there are some lovely volumes on local history. One particularly colorful character is one Frank Swettenham, who was promoted to positions of high authority as a Malay-speaking cadet; there is a volume called 'Swettenham" written by a former rubber planter named H.S. Barlow.

There is a section of the book that deals with conceptions of slavery and forced corvee labor in many of the Malay Sultanates, demonstrating that in the Far East the question of 'mui tsai' and coolies impressed into service was far from just being a Chinese problem.

The interventions this issue caused as a result of outcries in England about such practices over which Britain at that time had only nominal sway was a significant factor in the escalation of British power projection in the area. There is a perception that colonialism was a product of European realpolitik over natural resources and geographically strategic locations. While doubtless these were also considerations, the accommodation by which the majority in a (partial) democracy, particularly amongst liberals in 19th century Britain, came to be because of 'moral' outrages in which the liberals felt obligated in intervene, on such issues as slavery or human rights. Indeed, it does raise uncomfortable parallels with our present age when democracy and its advance is used as the spearpoint for penetration into foreign (mis)adventures.

I will simply end today's post with a quote from Barlow's book, encapsulating the problem of slavery in mid-19th century Malaya:
A Malay ruler in these states [Perak and Pahang] was to a large extent judged by the size of his retinue. Debt-bondage, and corvee labour formed the basiis of such a retinue, and therefoore played a key role in Malay society before the advent of the British. An individual who contracted a debt, generally to his ruler, was obliged to work for the ruler until the debt was paid off. Debt-bondage frequently had its origins in the need to raise money, for example, for a wedding in the family. Sometimes the basiis on which the debt was contracted was genuine: sometimes less so. In any case, the debt-bondsman's wife and children were usually also similarly treated...

...kerah, or corvee labour, was a kind of tax: 'In those days every able-bodied rrakyat, unless specially exempted, had on demand to give so many days forced labour to the Sultan or local chief, or pay recognized compensation...Kerah labour might fall at any time of the year, including the busiest time in the agricultural cycle. In response to these risks, the Malay farmers abandoned their houses and orchards and moved elsewhere. In any case they tended only to cultivate sufficient for their immediate needs. As a result of the threat of corvee labour, Malay communities, in the early years of British rule, were enormously unstable, to the detriment of longer term agricultural development...

Sweetenham's involvement with the problem began with the Pangkor Engagement [the treaty with the Malay chiefs-Ed.]. The text contained nothing to justify the abolition of debt-slavery: a source of considerable aggravation during [Agent] Birch's period in Perak [where he was later murdered-Ed.]...Swettenham's memorandum was prepared promptly, and submitted. In it, Swettenham set out in vivid detail the abuses of the debt-bondage system, particularly as practised in Perak, the state where he noted that most abuses occurred. 'In different states this debt-bondage is carried to greater or less extremes, but in Perak the cruelties exercised towards debtors are even exclaimed against by Malays in other states.' Families were made debt-bondsmen for generations, and their women often forced into prostitution... He concluded bleakly:

"I have often discussed this question of debt-slavery with the Malays themselves, but they say they see no way under the rule of their Rajahs to put down this curse of their country, with all the vils that follows in its train."
It does bringup an interesting point, whether we discuss this issuue, or that of the mui tsai question in Hong Kong (which lasted until World War II). Although we condemn colonialism universally today, would the abolishment, at least legally, of human trafficking, have occurred without it? It is hard to imagine today's world without all the boundaries that are a direct consequence of the Age of European Imperialism, but would the world, and those regions, have been better off without contact or trade with the West?

It seems for all the sensitivity we have towards the world's cultures today, we still have ideas of Progress in terms of societal mores by which we judge other cultures (Sudanese female genital mutiliation, for instance), and in many cases, we would applaud the stamping out of practices in polities under colonial control.

But I suspect in other places, the devastation of traditional social units and their replacement with an entirely exploitative system (e.g. the Belgian Congo) that broought little material benefiit to its inhabitants would demonstrate that there were so many different types of colonialism, some more malevolent than others. But these issues from the 19th century, nevertheless, provide food for thought for Western interventions in the 21st century, and a new razor by which too judge their legitimacy.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Old McDonnell Had a Farm, O-P-I-U-M

As I was returning from Sweden last week, I found myself in the Amsterdam Schipol airport, in transit, at one of the ubiquitous flower shops. I considered buying seeds for some new potted plants on my balcony, and wanted something fairly hardy that would be able to withstand the debilitating agonies of Hong Kong's pollution. Begonias, mused my wife. I was tending to agree when my eyes fastened on the bag of seeds for red poppies.

I thought to myself, I have seen them growing in Pakistan and in China, if they can grow there as well as in Flanders Fields, surely they stand a chance in Pokfulam? I decided in the end against it though, for the passengers on any flight from Amsterdam are often particularly well searched for various narcotics substances, and I wanted no misunderstandings, even though my balcony poppies could only make a miniscule, negligible amount of opium, never mind any morphine or heroin by-products.

The drug laws of Hong Kong though, are unique. Of course, they are meant to stop substances like heroin or morphine. (The ban on morphine started in the early 20th century out of a medical setting, when its use became widespread as an alleged 'cure' for opium addiction - and its legality, for a time, made shots of morphine cheaper than opium - with predicable results).

But actually, the interesting thing about the drafting of the laws on heroin and other banned narcotics predated 1946 - which is when the Her Majesty's Crown Colony, the Hong Kong government, finally banned opium once and for all. So, actually, the laws against heroin were drafted originally in the 1920s and 1930s to protect the legal trade in opium, carried on as a monopoly by the Hong Kong government itself. It made for a rather lame moral high ground after the war, but that's another issue.

Prior to roughly World War I, though, the Hong Kong government, instead of marketing and selling opium on a monopolistic basis itself, sold the monopoly to be the local retailer at an auction on an annual (and later triennial) basis.('Old MacDonnell' of my title, by the way, refers to a Hong Kong Governor in the 1860s who toughened up some of the laws for the opium farm) I have mentioned this in these pages before, but this snippet from 1891, at the tail end of the Governorship of Sir William Des Voeux, is rather illustrative of the rather helpful relationship between the Government and the Opium Farmer for the year (it was after all, an important part of Hong Kong's revenues):
T.H. Whitehead [A very outspoken Non-government member of Legco in the late 19th c.-Ed.]: Is it the fact that a reduction has been made in the Opium Farmer's monthly payments under the existing contract, and if so, to what amount and from what date, and on what grounds has this reduction been made?

The Acting Colonial Secretary [Hon. W. M. Goodman-Ed.]: A reduction of $4,000 per month will probably be made to date from 1st March last, but until certain documents have been received from the Farmer's sureties in the Straits Settlements the reduction cannot be regarded as absolutely granted. His Excellency Sir Wm. Des Voeux was advised to grant the reduction after the accuracy of the representations made by the Farmer - to the effect that he was losing money - had been carefully inquired into.
The Government, you see, was only starting to trust the serial holders of the Hong Kong farm again. because in previous decades, bidders had colluded to ensure that the price for the Farm would remain low. Ring any bells in today's land auctions?

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Armenian Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator, Singapore

The Armenian Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator stands as a monument to Singapore’s earliest days. When the East India Company established their presence in Singapore in 1819 it was only natural that members of the Armenian community, mostly from Calcutta, would follow. The Armenians were some of the most influential merchants in India and their ties with the East India Company dated back to the late 1600s.

This church, Singapore’s first, was completed in January 1836 with half the funds coming from Singapore’s 12 Armenian families and the remainder from overseas Armenians and other local merchants. The architect of the building was none other than George Drumgoole Coleman, who besides being Singapore’s most important architect was also Overseer of Convicts and Superintendent of Public Works. The adjacent street linking the Church with City Hall is named after him.

The church has a cruciform shape and resembles the Church of Echmiadzin in Northern Armenia. However it’s also magnificent for incorporating many elements of colonial British Neo-classical architecture. Timbre-louvred windows allow ventilation while preventing rain or direct sunlight. The high ceiling allows the pews to stay relatively cool while enhancing internal acoustics. The steps to enter the church were a late addition, as originally the porches accommodated horse-drawn carriages to be drawn right alongside. And the pedimented porticos and Doric columns very much reflect the architecture of the day.

The church interior is beautiful and meditative in its simplicity. There are few ornaments and no icons of Saint Gregory the Illuminator, the 14th century monk that brought Christianity to Armenia. Perhaps in tribute to its patron saint, in 1909, the church became the first building in Singapore to boast an electric lamp (surely, the living patrons were also instrumental).

The tombstones in front of the church are a recent addition, moved there only in 1988 after their original burial grounds were exhumed. On the stones you’ll find the names of Singapore’s most influential Armenian families. The Sarkies’ brothers (Arshak, Aviet and Tigran) built and operated South East Asia’s grandest hotels: the Raffles in Singapore, E&O in Penang and The Strand in Rangoon. Catchik Moses was a leading merchant, shareholder in the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company and founder of Singapore’s newspaper, The Straits Times. Agnes Joaquim, daughter of a local diamond merchant, discovered a hybrid orchid that is now Singapore’s national flower and is named after her.

Today, Singapore’s Armenian community is largely gone – many left after World War II – and regular services are no longer offered. But thankfully the church has been preserved and remains one of Singapore’s most peaceful locations. Next time you're in the neighborhood, take a moment to step into the church to admire this contemplative space and all the changes that have enveloped it over the last one hundred and seventy years.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The (Economic) Persistence of Memory

Many people, myself included, have long lamented and derided Hong Kong for not having a sense of history. People here, it is true, have little regard or awe for what has gone before. They are for the most part entirely unimpressed with either the British colonials, whom they regard simply acted in self-interest, or for most of the local Chinese population, for whom they have very similar disregard. All this despite the fact that Hong Kong is one of the world's truly great cities and one created from nothing in the span of less than two centuries.

But the constant cycle of construction and destruction leave no physical markers of memory with which one can associate a location with a sense of 'place' and of the past. It is as though, in recent Hollywood hits such as the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, all evidence of one's past, one's memory anchors, are erased. When the collective memory is thus purged on a regular basis, how can one have a shared perspective of history? History becomes a marginalized subject, without any common ground, disputed between academics.

Certainly, this is why we formed our service Walk the Talk (available at all Bookazine stores) - to re-associate public space with Hong Kong with a sense of 'place'.

But from other perspectives, it is clear that historic memory does persist. It does, for instance, in the food we eat in Hong Kong, with many restaurants catering to Chinese nostalgic ideals of food, or of eras. It occurs in the movies we watch, such as Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love. And, today, I would like to mention, also in property prices.

What accounts for the wide disparity in office prices for Wanchai versus Admiralty or Central? Or for the western reaches of Kennedy Town versus a few hundred meters west and south on Victoria Road? Part of it is the building stock, but many buildings in prime areas of Central are in the same condition as those in Wanchai. Why are the ones in Wanchai cheaper? Obviously part of it is that Hong Kong's center of economic gravity is in Central, which exerts a substantial pull on all tenants and owners. But a lot of it is simply perception - that Wanchai is 'cut off' from Central. If we examine this assertion closely, we find it does not really stand up, particularly with the encroachment of Pacific Place Three on the landward side of Queen's Road East.

But the origins of this go back a hundred and fifty years, to when the Naval and Army authorities of Britain laid claim to a wide section of land. What is called 'Admiralty' today, was owned by the Navy, hence the name, and the Naval dockyards and its munitions depot on Arsenal Street (unrelated, but this Gooner's heart still breaks over the Champions League Final) all the way to the old Murray House location (where the Bank of China stands today) were exclusively the property of the British armed forces. Where Pacific Place stands today was once a major barracks for the British garrison and the headquarters for the general officer commanding. This military land effectively partitioned off the land of Central from Wanchai (and with the soldiers and sailors heading off in one direction after hours, Wanchai is what it remains today). And even though a commercial base has replaced the military one on 88 Queensway, the effect of these centuries-old decisions can still be felt today.

As can the residual negative local perceptions of Kennedy Town, despite the fact that almost all of the reasons for its undervalued property prices (particularly for its seafront property) that existed in the past have been removed. Yes, in the 19th century it was called 'Lap Sap Wan' (Garbage Bay), mainly because it was the dumping ground, in the days before modern sewage, of all of Hong Kong's refuse (at least the non-nightsoil part of it). It also had an abattoir built there in the 20th century, with rather unsightly smokestacks built into it for its incinerator. Its mortuary is still there at the beginning of Victoria Road, but unobtrusive, and it will likely be moved away also. Yet it has spectacular north-facing seafront views, it has excellent transport arrangements thanks to the easily-accessible highway, and will quite soon have an MTR station.

Yet the vestigial perceptions of this neighborhood continue to weigh on local property prices. Soon, surely, they will go, but as is the case with people everywhere, received wisdom takes time to change!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Podcast for American Club of Hong Kong

Hi everyone! Long time no speak, I've been away on business to Sweden. I was there for the Stockholm Challenge, a competition that involves the innovative use of technology to further some aspect of human existence - we were finalists in the 'Culture' category. It was fascinating, and I may post a couple pictures of Stockholm and of the trip later this week.

This week's podcast is about the American Club in Exchange Square, in Central. It reflects upon the Presidential pictures (autographed by the genuine Oval Office occupants for the American Club of HK) that hang in the clubhouse, and the early roots of the American business community in the 19th century in Hong Kong, and in (you guessed it!) the opium trade.

Regular blogcast contributions from me (Stefan has done a few since I've been gone) will resume shortly.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

City Hall, Singapore

City Hall, one of the last colonial-era monuments built in Singapore, occupies a special place in the local imagination. It was in here that Japan officially surrendered on 12 September, 1945; on its front steps that on 5 June, 1959 the PAP and its leader Lew Kuan Yew celebrated their first electoral victory and proclaimed the right for self-government; on its grand lawn, the padang, that celebrations were held in August 31, 1963 for the formation of the independent Federation of Malaysia comprising Singapore, Malaya, Serawak and Sabah. And here, on 9 August 1965, that Singapore’s first parliament was sworn in, two days after Singaporeans learned they had been expelled from Malaysia.

Originally the Municipal Council, the building only changed its name to City Hall in 1951 after King George VI proclaimed Singapore a city. Construction of the building started in 1926 and it was completed in 1929. You may find it surprising that Singapore’s Municipal Council was only formed in 1856 and only had its own premises from 1929, respectively 38 and 111 years after Singapore’s founding in 1819.

To understand why, it’s important to remember that Singapore was founded by the East India Company (“EIC”) whose primary concern was to maintain a secure free-trade port and keep all administrative costs (and hassles) to a minimum. The EIC pretty much left it up to local ‘head men’ to look after their own people. The EIC’s ultimate grip was undisputed via a combination of military strength and by holding the reigns to a chain of debt stemming from its control of opium and liquor licenses. However, massive population growth, increasing colonial interest in Malaysia’s natural resources and rising nationalist sentiments all made it necessary to formally establish an administrative body that would look after public infrastructure and utilities.

The abolishment of the EIC (1858) and Singapore’s formal conversion to a British crown colony (1867) further elevated the government’s responsibility to properly build and maintain infrastructure. Initially, function was more important than form, with the Municipal Council fulfilling its obligations while keeping a low-key physical presence.

However this low-key presence changed with the construction of this massive building with a pompous façade. A combination of tremendous wealth from exports of rubber and tin combined with increasing concerns that colonial authority must be asserted in the face of rising nationalist sentiments, perhaps explains the architectural style. But in spite of this grand gesture, Britain was completely unprepared when Japan swiftly occupied Singapore on 15 February, 1942; in the process also destroying British assertions of racial superiority.

Exercises in civic education identify the historic events, listed above, that should be imagined while viewing this building. Perhaps two historic events are excluded from the list. One is the mass assembly of Indians that congregated on the padang on 24 October, 1942 to hear Subhas Chandra Bose encourage their support of the Indian National Army. The other is the memorial in 1946 for Lim Bo Seng, one of Singapore’s most courageous Japanese resistance fighters (and probably the last communist sympathizer publicly honored by the PAP and the colonial government).

The imagined associations with this building may soon be changing again. This September the doors will temporarily open to the public for artists’ exhibits in the Singapore Biennale. It will be interesting to see how these exhibits compete or contradict the memories that have been created around this space. Subsequently City Hall will be converted into a major museum and gallery space to be opened by the year 2010.

For pictures of the spaces where the Singapore Biennale will be featuring exhibits, click here.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Podcast for Findlay Path, The Peak

This week's podcast brings you a short look at the history of settlement (and snobbery) in the exclusive colonial environs of the Peak, the building of the Peak Tram and the man behind it, and the moral of the story about building funicular railways.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Does the Motherland Beckon?

[by Stefan, this week in Singapore and Malaysia and reading Carl Trocki’s latest book, “Singapore: Wealth, power and the culture of control”]

I’m in Kuala Lumpur for a few days to store my stem cells. A bit more about this at the end of this entry, first back to something I’ve been wondering about: Malaysia’s 24% Chinese population and their status as ‘less local’ than Malays according to a constitutional structure of affirmative action for Bumiputras (more here). If China continues to rapidly modernize, will the loyalties of Chinese Malaysians towards Malaysia dissipate as they contemplate opportunities ‘back in the Motherland’?

This issue of divided loyalties and of Mainland China’s influence has been of concern in all South East Asian countries for at least the last hundred years. One of the primary distinctions that Carl Trocki identifies in his studies of the Chinese population of Singapore is between those that are English speaking and educated, and those that are educated and speak a Chinese language (and hence have stronger feelings of kinship to China).

But first, if we go back several hundred years, say 200 years before any British merchant made it onto the scene in South East Asia, one would have already encountered Chinese sailors actively trading in this part of the world. China’s prosperity and population explosion during the 18th century resulted in far greater demand than ever before of imported products from South East Asia. Obtaining the resources that China needed was labor intensive and the indigenous population was deficient in numbers or organization to properly meet China’s growing demands.

The problem was solved with a seemingly endless supply of boatloads of young Chinese men willing (some later forced) to work in mines and plantations throughout South East Asia. They initially worked under the guise of a relatively egalitarian social and economic structure called a ‘KongSi’ (though later it became exploitative). As with Hong Kong, most early Chinese immigrants to South East Asia thought of the voyage as only temporary. But the reality is that most laborers would never make it back. Seah Eu Chin, a leading TeoChew merchant that in the beginning of the 19th century was head of the pepper and gambier society (“Kongkek”) in Singapore, estimated in the 1840s that only 2 out of 10 coolies ever made it back to China. In those days the male : female ratio among the Chinese population was as high as 18:1 !

In Malaysia and Singapore most of the Chinese populations today are at least second generation and I would imagine it would be unusual to find anyone contemplating to permanently “return” to Mainland China. However, if China can continue in its phenomenal course of modernization for another 20 years might it come to be seen as the ‘land of opportunity’ and start drawing overseas Chinese back?

This is something I’ve particularly been wondering the last few days here in Malaysia, a country that is constitutionally established to give preference to Malays although about 24% of the population is ethnically Chinese. I find it quite curious and would be happy for your thoughts!

* * * * *

About the stem cell procedure. I signed myself up with Stem Life, a Malaysian stem cells storage and therapeutics company that has been in business since 2002. The last 4 days I’ve been receiving injections of Neupogen, a growth-stimulating factor that is signaling the marrow in all my bones to produce stem cells (hence the achy feeling throughout my body). Hopefully massive quantities of my stem cells are being released into my blood stream and tomorrow I’ll be plugged into a dialysis-like machine for a few hours that will take blood from my left arm, extract my stem cells and return my blood sans stem cells into my right arm. My stem cells will then by cryo-preserved here in Malaysia. I have no idea what I’ll use them for, although one thing I’ve been contemplating the last few days is whether simply having the stem cells circulating around my body might do anything to heal my aching knees. With the hope of possibly pushing that process along, today I went on a hard run around the KLCC complex. Who knows, a bit of knee inflammation may direct some of these stem cells to my knees?? Stem Life also has an interesting blog at http://stemlife1.blogspot.com

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

New World Tower Podcast

Greetings! Please find enclosed the podcast for this week on busy Queen's Road Central, just by the entrance to the New World Tower. Coming just after Labour Day, it is a meditation on pedestrian behavior, individualism and the appeal of Communism in this capitalist paradise.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Singapore, Clipper ships and Boeing 777s

[by Stefan, this week in Singapore and Malaysia and reading Carl Trocki’s latest book, “Singapore: Wealth, power and the culture of control”]

The founding of Singapore in 1819 presaged an era of dramatically increased trade. Singapore served as a secure trans-shipment point for all goods traveling between China and India. British ‘country traders’ established themselves in Singapore and were initially only involved in forwarding goods (primarily opium and tea) onward to China and India.

However the efficiency of their square rigs surpassed that of Chinese junks and gradually the country traders ended up also controlling the regional trade of locally produced goods between the Malay peninsula, Siam, Vietnam and China.

But continued advances in sailing technology meant that by the late 1830’s the role of Singapore-based country traders in trade between India and China was marginalized by the advent of fast clipper ships that could bypass Singapore entirely. Singapore-based country traders resorted to further involvement in regional trade. They not only transported the produce of plantations and mines but also imported the opium that a majority of these indentured laborers smoked on a daily basis (many presumably addicted).

While initially virtually all of the produce from Singapore and the Malay peninsula went to China, over time traders succeeded in creating a European market for gambier, spices and tin. The growth in exports from the hinterland (as well as in-bound supplies to meet the booming population) secured Singapore’s position as a flourishing port in spite of the loss of the valuable trade between China and India.

I’ve been thinking of how these clipper ships, carrying the most valuable cargo between India and China, were able to bypass Singapore entirely, much as the future versions of the Boeing 777 may be able to fly non-stop between Australia and Europe or any point in North America.

Of course the loss of these flights will be relatively insignificant compared to the loss of trade with the long distance clipper ships in the early 19th century. But it does speak of a repeating trend, seen first during the colonial era and seemingly again over the last 30 years in independent Singapore: the need for leading Singapore merchants (and today GLCs) to attain control of enterprises in the hinterland (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, etc.) as a counterbalance to continued threats to Singapore’s position as a long distance stopping-off point.

However, I suspect that if Singapore’s GLCs wish to attain anything close to the type of influence that Singapore’s leading 19th century merchants had over enterprises in the hinterlands they are going to have to make many more acquisitions, push ahead on ASEAN integration and perhaps finesse their diplomatic skills a bit. What do you think?