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?

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