Monday, June 26, 2006

Queen's College, A Century Ago

I came across a fascinating document today about Queen's College, that famous and most storied of Hong Kong secondary schools (once known as the Government Central School for Boys). This report prepared for the Legislative Council on the order of the Governor (Sir Matthew Nathan at the time) dated from August 1906, almost one hundred years ago, and talked about the standard of the students, and how they fared in various subjects. It not only tells you how good the students were, but also in what general conditions they were educated.

It was also a real eye-opener to see how students were taught various subjects, and by what measuring sticks their aptitude was judged. As I think the text pretty much speaks for itself, I shall keep my editorializing to a minimum. Without further ado, here is the first category, discipline, which in itself is very telling:
Discipline is very good. The only important criticism we have to make, is that the boys in many of the Divisions are somewhat slothful. This is especially true of their attitude when questioned orally; and some of the higher Divisions are the worst offenders. In one Division boys previously mute found their tongues when they discovered that they would be kept standing till they did so. The great numbers at the College, with the lack of sufficient accommodation, have led to economies of space which are very prejudicial to good teaching... In the other rooms the boys are arranged in solid squares, a formation calculated to save all but the outside rank andf file from sudden or casual inspection.
The next is sanitation, a legacy no doubt of the Victorian era:
There is no provision for the proper ventilation of the Class rooms, when the weather is too cold to admit of the opening of many windows. Only one room has a fire place...Many of the rooms are badly lighted, both as to the quantity of the light and its direction. Many of the rooms are over-crowded.
There were also criticisms of the teaching method, and 'false economies' with regard to maps:
After the unsatisfactory nature of the desks, the most obvious deficiency is the lack of wall maps and pictures. Maps are kept in a separate room, and have to be sent for when required. This may provde a saving of wear and tear; but it is a false economy from an educational point of view.
Then the report went on to discuss the learning level of the students in various subjects. By far the greatest attention was spent on English, as you might imagine:
The great majority of the boys who enter the College have previously studied in private schools, whether in Hongkong or Canton, where old-fashioned methods of instruction are practised, and an incorrect pronounciation acquired...The main fault we noticed, though it was less conspicuous in the Preparatory School than in the higher Classes, was that the boys do not answer loudly enough. ..In the Upper School, the boys with few exceptions were well able to answer when asked ordinary questions, though some of them would only do so under a good deal of pressure. It however remains to make them talk correct English. Their grammar is on the whole very weak: in fact, though they would probably be surprised and disgusted to hear it said, they use a sort of "pidgin" English, which has marked features of its own. Of these, the commonest are the discarding of inflections and the omission of auxiliary verbs. Thus. "I asked him where he was coming from, and he said he had been for a walk", would be put in some such way as this: "I asked him, Where you coming from? He say, I been for a walk".
Other than grammar, more observations were made of aptitude in reading and composition. What is interesting is that 'Shakespeare' was a separate subject altogether:
Papers on Henry V were set to a few boys in Class I A. On the whole the answers were good: the papers written by several boys were excellent, and long quotations were given correctly. In oral answers I B were somewhat feeble and uncertain.
So demonstrating that rote memorization was still a key part of the educational system! The next subject was geography. On this front, Hong Kong geography was taught along with Europe and Asia:
The plan of Hongkong was well known by Class VII, the boys having no difficulty in pointing out the principal streets and buildings...In Class V the outlines of Europe and Asia were fairly well known, though some of the boys were not very ready in pointing out places on the map.
The next subject though was history, and the history of China or Hong Kong was conspicuous by its absence:
This subject appears to present great difficulty to the majority of the boys, and many of them spent their time in attempting only half the questions set. Several pages of foolscap were devoted to answering questions which required a few lines only, and much matter was introduced which had no bearing on the questions. [Rather like the Chinese attitude to historically British concerns no doubt! - Ed.] In Class I A some good work was done, some of the papers being very good. In B, the result was bad. A sketch map illustrating Wellington's Peninsular Campaign was asked for, but was not attempted by a single boy.
I find it incredible that these Chinese boys were going to know anything about the Napoleonic Era, and specifically England's involvement in Portugal with the lines of Torres Vedras. For the author of the report to be astounded by this inability speaks volumes to the dissonant interests of educator and Chinese student...the next subject was Hygiene, which the masters felt was an important subject to be taught to the filthy Chinese. (I speak only half in jest, because the British felt the squalor of Western district tenements was in large part responsible for the Bubonic Plague which was still affecting Hong Kong at that time)
In the Upper School the results were disappointing. In Classes I, II, and III, three papers only obtained 6t0 per cent. and eleven more obtained 50 to 60 percent out of 57 shewn up. A greater understanding of the subject and less reliance on learning by rote might have been hoped for. A proper understanding of even elementary hygiene must however depend on a groundwork of elementary natural science; this is evidently where the teaching fails.
The next subject was Book Keeping, which yielded surprising results for a Hong Kong school:
This subject is taught in Classes I and II only. The paper set to Class II was very easy...the journalising was done well; but hazy ideas prevailed as to the real nature of a bank note.
A bank note being a very novel concept at the time! The kids did much better though in mathematics. An interesting observation was made:
One would think it desirable to teach boys to work in decimals before initiatiing them into the mysteries of vulgar fractions, especially Chinese boys who are accustomed from their earliest days to the abacus, and in a country where a decimal coinage obtains.
Specific evaluations were also made for algebra, geometrical drawing, geometry, mensuration and trigonometry. The last subject was Chinese, where the examiners airily said that the marks for some areas such as dictation were poor because of 'the terrible way in which the Chinese teach their own language.'

I shall close today's entry with a few sample questions from some of the examinations:
Classes I & II:

Is the spending of money upon luxuries good for trade? [I would have said yes, but I wonder what the British establishment regarded as the right answer? - Ed.]


Give an account of the way in which a British Crown Colony is governed, illustrating your meaning by reference to the Government of Hongkong. [bit of civic propaganda required! - Ed.]


What is the nature of the dispute that has arisen between the Viceroy of the Two Kwongs and the shareholders of the Canton-Hankow Railway?

Class III

Compare the Anglo-Chinese Government Schools of the Colony with those at Canton. [I can't imagine a student that said the schools in Canton were superior would do very well- Ed.]


Describe how a Chinese shop-keeper manages his business.

Class IV:

Electric fans. Weite all you know about them, both their good and bad points. [!!??! - Ed.]

Class V:

Write a letter to your father thanking him for the dollar he sent you. Tell him you bought a purse with it; but now you have no money to put in it, and therefore you would like him to send another dollar. [Now they are just taking the piss! - Ed.]


Henry V:

1. Say what you can of the date and the sources of the play.

2. What are the meanings of the following words used in the play:- gentles, lazars, advised, quittance, quick, greener.

3. Who spoke the following lines and to whom were they said:-

(a) The sin upon my head, dread Sovereign.
(b) My most redoubted father, It is most meet we arm us 'gainst the foe.
(c) 'Tis good for men to love their present pains upon example.
(d) Hark, how our steeds for present service neigh!
(e) O give us leave, great King, to view the field in safety and dispose of their dead bodies.

4. Give a short summary of Act III Scene V of the play.

5. Compare the character of Henry V as shown in the play with that of the Dauphin.

6. Explain the allusions to:- Gordian Knot; Iceland Dog; Pitchard Pay; At the turning 'o the tide: The feast of Crispian.

7. Who are the following and what are their places in the play: - Duke of Bedford; Lord Scroop; The Constable of France; Mountjoy: Fluellen and Pistol?

8. Give the substance of Henry's speech before the gates of Harfleur, with quotations, if possible.
For more questions, send me an e-mail! Once more through the breach my friends! Until next time.

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Colonial Club

Today, as I was changing some of the audio content of our Central walking tour, and began to contemplate the Hong Kong Club.

Now the colonial 'Club' was far more than just a place to hang your hat and have a drink. It was meant to be a haven from the oppressive Asiatic heat, indeed from the Asiatics, and from all of the debilitating diseases and rotten inconveniences that one would never have to put up with 'back home.' I write satirically, of course, but that was exactly how the colonials felt about their Club - an institution that was meant, in some small way, to evoke an ideal image of 'home', as much as possible in a far-flung tropical clime.

Now British colonial society was in some ways a microcosm of social snobbery of home too - except that the far reduced numbers of Britons in any given colony meant that one became even more excruciatingly aware of one's position on the social ladder, and no effort was spared to climb it. A key determinant of where you were on the social ladder was the Club you belonged to, because that told the rest of the world who you considered your peers - and even more importantly, who thought of you as a social equal. The Hong Kong Club in Hong Kong, was the elite institution to which only the taipans, powerbrokers and highest officials could gain entry. As one might expect, membership to women and to 'Asiatics' was entirely prohibited for much of its existence, certainly before the war.

I shall close today's blog entry with a lovely quote from George Orwell, writing in the opening chapter of his wonderful book Burmese Days:
...when one looked at the Club — a dumpy one-storey wooden building — one looked at the real centre of the town. In any town in India the European Club is the spiritual citadel, the real seat of the British power, the Nirvana for which native officials and millionaires pine in vain. It was doubly so in this case, for it was the proud boast of Kyauktada Club that, almost alone of Clubs in Burma, it had never admitted an Oriental to membership.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Football and the Caterpillar Plague of 1894

Well, I got what I deserved.

Over the weekend, in my joy at the beginning of the FIFA World Cup, I endeavored to watch every match live, regardless of the time. I thought nothing the next day of trying to get up at 9 or 10am, even if I had only gotten to bed at 5am that same day.

In a merciless exaction of revenge, my body's immune system went on strike whilst I was in Singapore, and I came down with a nasty case of influenza. Argentinian influenza, I like to think of it, as it was their match I feel that was decisive in turning the tide against my own best interests. The Hand of God, if you will, for those fans of Diego Armando Maradona. I have not yet felt a hankering though for large steaks reared on the pampas at a nieghborhood churrasqueria.

Why do I love the World Cup? For all my didactic ranting against nationalism, there is something decidedly momentous about watching two national teams square off for the prize of lasting glory. It is also about history, between nations, and between the footballers, past and present, of the countries represented. Without getting too much into the history of warfare between Germany and Poland, for instance, one could imagine the mental state of the players last night in a situation where a loss for Poland against big, richer neighbor Germany, would mean certain elimination.

For my part, I am gradually on the mend. Today I turn my attention to pestilence - the caterpillar plague that struck Hong Kong in 1894. Over the course of a few months, a certain breed of leaf-eating caterpillars appeared all over the territory, consuming in days over 20,000 trees from the island to the New Territories. The plague became so worrisome, as the caterpillars were killing the trees in the process, that the government began to pay poachers by the pound for dead worms collected by coolies. The fascinating account can be found here. It is just a few pages long, so please do have a look!

I would just add that this strange, odd occurence took place just months before the city was struck down by a case of the bubonic plague, known in past centuries as the Black Death. While the authors of this paper on the caterpillars believes that the huge increase in population was due to the frost of 1892 killing off the natural predators of the caterpillars, I think it could equally have been the severe and growing water shortage in Hong Kong at that time that did the predators in. As I have mentioned before, many signs seem to point to the acute water supply shortage, and the rationing that led to even filthier conditions than existed previously, that may have given the Black Death a big helping hand...

Friday, June 09, 2006

Hong Kong Football History

Since today is the opening game of the World Cup (go Deutschland!), it seems apropos that we mention that on June 21, the Hong Kong Museum of History will be offering a special exhibition jointly with the National Football Museum of the UK on the history of football.

The only shame is that it hasn't opened already! It's great that the Museum is reaching out to new audiences with populist shoows that will certainly pull more people through their doors.

It will also include an exhibit on Hong Kong football. The first games in the city were played fairly early on, and the oldest club formed was the Hong Kong Foootball Club, in 1886.

You may be amused by this link here, which talks a bit about the glory days of Hong Kong football in te 1950s, when the national team (if you can call it that) made it to 3 out of the 4 Asian Cups organized at that time.

I was most intrigued by the story of the match Hong Kong played on May 19, 1985 in Beijing during a World Cup Qualification campaign. Hong Kong needed to win, but China only needed the draw. Hong Kong, derided as no-hopers, pulled off a shock 2-1 win in the match.

I was thinking, I can't believe that the local film industry complains about falling revenues for their tired old formulaic triad films and stupid farces when a clever film-maker has such great raw material to work with, and which could be a truly meaningful film in the process...

Friday, June 02, 2006

The Great Exodus of 1962

I was a very pleased man last week. My wife and I were invited by our friend Blythe Yee to the quiz night of the Helena May last week Thursday, an institution originally established to provide housing for 'single women of moderate means' (It is quite different today). Blythe, a colorful and extremely knowledgeable journalist working at the Asian Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, has always enjoyed these evenings, a battle of wits against other members over trivia questions of a most perplexing nature. As this year is the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Helena May, by the wife of then governor Sir Henry Francis May (and thanks to the generous donations of Sir Ellis Kadoorie and Ho Kom-Tong), the theme was to be the history of 1916, and of Hong Kong at that time.

We were slow out of the gates in the early rounds, but hung in the contest and gathered momentum, peaking near the finish to cause a 'sudden death' round due to a three-way tie for first place. My team members had been great, and answered many questions for which I had no idea, but because I know Hong Kong well I was selected to be our one representative. Luckily for us, the theme of the round was Hong Kong in 1916. The ultimate deciding question was: what was the population of Hong Kong in 1916? (Closest answer would win). The two redoubtable ladies competing with me both guessed 200,000. However, as I knew that the population on the eve of World War II was 1.1 million and that it was also double that of the eve of World War I, I guessed 550,000. We were the closest to the right answer of 535,000 and each of us took home a very drinkable bottle of Shiraz Cabernet.

Now the Hong Kong population has fluctuated wildly throughout its history, and other than the Japanese Occupation (which forced out half of the population to uncertain futures in China), population growth has largely been determined by the degree of calm or chaos in China. In a way, the history of Hong Kong's growth has been an opportunistic one at the expense of China, which is why it may be that people in China have often had a Janus-faced view of the city's success.

One of the great periods of unrest in China was in the aftermath of Mao Zedong's disastrous 'Great Leap Forward', an effort to industrialize the country at the collective level. There was a need for equilibrium in the PRC, and as more level-headed administrators regained control of the reins of government, such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, they realized that they not only needed to establish differences in wages, but also needed to release pressure with an 'escape valve'. So it was that in May 1962 (see photo by late LIFE magazine photographer Larry Burrows), the Communist cadres in Beijing turned a blind eye (and in fact authorized) the departure of a large number of refugees from behind the 'Bamboo Curtain' across the border to Hong Kong. As I started this entry with a reference to a journalist, it is only right that I provide you with a newspaper clipping, from the Far Eastern Economic Review (now defunct as a weekly news magazine but still run by Blythe's employer, Dow Jones, as a monthly opinion piece)a decade after the event:
The Great Exodus by Cheng Huan:

Hongkong: A decade ago this week Hongkong [they still used the old oneword spelling of the city then -Ed.] was host to the greatest concerted refugee influx in its often turbulent history. In the month of May 1962, more than 60,000 young Chinese were sent back across the border to Kwangtung. And although the Hongkong authorities have never released any figures to show just how many illegal immigrants were ultimately allowed to remain here, it is estimated that more than 1 million refugees have settled in Hongkong since 1950. In 1971 the "official" population of Hongkong was 3.9 million while in 1950 it was put at 2.3 million.

What caused the enormous 1962 exodus from China? In retrospect the major reason may have been the failure of the Great Leap Forward, compounded by the introduction of the commune system which resulted in serious food shortages and widespread fears of tougher economic and social policies. Yet most of the refugees were able-bodied, certainly not starving. If Peking has maintained diplomatic silence on the affair, it was clear then and now that the 1962 exodus had the capital's tacit acceptance. On one day alone (May 9) some 90% of those intercepted by the police held exit permits.

Since 1962 Hongkong has absorbed into its already sardine-packed area between 5,000 and 8,000 illegal immigrants annually. And although the colonial government can hardly be accused of ill-treating refugees - it has rehoused hundreds of thousands of people - there is in fact a legal obligation on Hongkong to accept a reasonable number of Chinese from China. An 1943 treaty laid down that all Chinese were to be allowed to enter Hongkong with complete freedom.

The odd fact is that no extensive and detailed study has ever been made on exactly why so many refugees have come, and continue to come, to Hongkong. Certainly there must be an element of truth in the widely-held belief that the young Chinese are simply disillusioned with China's rigid social and political system. On the other hand, the vast majority of the Chinese people have never known anything other than such a system. Similarly, the temptation of material prosperity in Hongkong and of minimal government control, though often voiced as obvious reasons for young people to want to come to Hongkong, may be exaggerations of the truth. More probably, it is in the events inside China at a particular moment that the root reasons lie. Once it was the excesses of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution that acted as the stimulus for emigration. Today, it may be renewed efforts to break up the family system and force members of the family to separate into different communes that acts as a major stimulus.

Nothing so determines a young person to "take up" a challenge as official restrictions forbidding him to do so. More than 70% of illegal immigrants who "declared" themselves to the Hongkong police in 1971 were aged between 17 and 25. For many young Chinese living just across the border from Hongkong, the challenge to reach Hongkong is one they evidently feel bound to meet.
The interesting thing these days, of course, is that Hong Kong's population is growing far slower than estimates of all the government planners. Part of the reason is the extremely low 0.8 birthrate of the Hong Kong population. But another major reason is that prosperous conditions in China are making it harder to get immigrants as excited by the idea of Hong Kong as they were previously. It is particularly hard for Hong Kong these days to get the best and brightest in China, for these people have daily less and less incentive to leave. This human resource crisis, it seems to me, puts more pressure on Hong Kong to be able to continue to attracting a large number of expatriates, whether Western, Indian or mainlanders, to want to live and be based here. These issues, it seems to me, will be key in determining whether Hong Kong will be a center of activity, or only play a marginalized role, in this 21st, dubbed the 'Pacific', century.