Monday, July 17, 2006

The Point of the KCR

There has been a lot of brouhaha about the railway that is now running between Tibet and the rest of China. Aside from being a remarkable feat of engineering, being the highest such railway in the world, it has also drawn a lot of attention as a method by which China is trying to consolidate Tibet more strongly into the Chinese orbit. That is certainly true, but I would stress is a move that has at least as many positive as negative consequences for the region.

I'd like to cast our attention back in time, though when another railway project provoked greater attention and controversy here in Hong Kong - the Kowloon-Canton Railway. In case there was any doubt as to the purpose of this railway, I quote here the Colonial Secretary of that time, Stewart Lockhart, speaking in 1899 soon after Britain took possession of the New Territories:
“If a railway be constructed between Canton and Kowloon, there can be no doubt that such a line would greatly aid the development of the new territory, through a portion of which it would pass, and would be of great commercial and political importance, as it would unite more closely with Hongkong the great commercial city of Southern China and the many towns lying between the city of Canton and that colony.”
It seems, in retrospect, that Britain was using the railroad to consolidate not only their New Territories, but all the areas up to, and indeed including that great city of Southern China, Canton.

Not surprisingly, it was a reporter for the new South China Morning Post newspaper who remarked in 1904 that the railway would serve as a great avenue for the penetration of British imperial power into the Chinese heartland...

Thursday, July 13, 2006

April Fools' Day, 1899

The British authorities, clearly having no sense of auspicious timing when deciding when to officially take possession of the New Territories recently leased from China, decided upon April 1st, 1899, as the day to hoist the flag. Negotiations had been ongoing about whether or not Shenzhen was to be included as part of the bargain. As the Viceroy in Canton had refused the request by the Governor of Hong Kong, the matter was forwarded to the British legation in Peking, who then asked the head of the Tsungli Yamen.

Here was the response, as recorded by the Governor of that time, Sir Henry Blake, as well as a foreboding of alarm about events in the New Territories:
1st April, 1899, Telegram to Secretary of State.

Inclusion of Sham Chun refused by Chinese authorities. The people near the boundary decided upon have threatened our workmen employed in the erection of Police matsheds. An inflammatory placard which had been posted in the New Territory has been brought in to me. I propose to proceed this evening to interview the Viceroy at Canton, with a view to having Chinese troops sent to preserve order until we take over the territory - which will be as soon as the matsheds are ready.

He clearly did not want to go into detail in the telegram.He sent this, the following note, in a more detailed form to the Secretary of State, Joseph Chamberlain, via post:
I have this moment a quarter of an hour before the starting of the mail received a report that the party, sent by the Public Works Department to erect the posts on the boundaries settled upon by the Chinese Commissioners and Mr. STEWART LOCKHART, were stopped by the people who informed the party that if they attempted to erect a post they would kill them. The party returned. [A beautiful example of British understatement. - Ed.] At the same time I received from Mr. WEI YUK, a member of the Legislative Council, a copy of a placard that has been posted in the district to be taken over, the translation of which I enclose.


Enclosure No. 1:

We hate the English barbarians who are about to enter our boundaries and take our land, and will cause us endless evil. Day and night we fear the approaching danger. Certainly people are dissatisfied at this and have determined to resist the barbarians. If our fire-arms are not good, we shall be unable to oppose the enemy. So we have appointed an exercise-ground and gathered all together as patriots to drill with fire-arms. To encourage proficiency rewards will be given. On the one hand we shall be helping the Government; on the other we shall be saving ourselves from future trouble. Let all our friends and relatives bring their fire-arms to the ground and do what they can to extirpate the traitors. Our ancestors will be pleased, and so will our neighbours. This is our sincere wish. Practice takes place every day.

First prize:-One gauze coat. A packet of 1,000 crackers.
Second prize:-One pair of brown gauze trousers. A packet of 500 crackers.
Third prize:- One straw hat.
17th Day 2nd Moon. 25th Year of Kwong-sui (28th March, 1899).
A placard issued by the Yuk-on Hin ("Wish for Peace" library) of Pingshan.


[Blake continues]
2. It is of the utmost importance that this movement shall be nipped in the bud. I have determined to proceed to Canton to-day to see the Viceroy and induce him to send troops forthwith to secure and punish the ringleaders and to protect the parties sent in to erect the posts. If this be not done there may be serious trouble. Should I not be successful in having it done, I shall probably proceed to take over possession without delay.

I have the honour to be,
Your most obedient,
humble Servant,


So there was the gauntlet thrown down by the local population. It is a myth sometimes held by the people of Hong Kong that the native inhabitants of the area of Hong Kong accepted British occupation supinely, or even happily as being in their own self-interest. These passages hopefully go some what to redress this perception, for the people of the villages of the New Territories were sufficiently suffused with patriotic fervor that they were to issue this challenge against the British, against overwhelming odds.

And how could anyone miss out on the third prize promised of a straw hat?

Immigration and the Sanitary Laws of Hong Kong

Hong Kong's colonial administrators of the 19th century were in a quandrary. As I have noted in past blog entries, many of them were wringing their hands in despair at the shocking state of sanitary conditions in many of the Chinese boarding houses of Western district. And yet what stayed their hands in enforcing draconian measures was the fear that in doing so they would drive away Chinese immigrants. They realized that Chinese immigrants, from wealthy merchants to the poorest coolie laborers, were the lifeblood of Hong Kong. If they imposed too high a standard for living conditions, it would make life untenable economically for the local labor force - or at least that was how the argument ran.

Things became much more complex and immediate in the wake of the outbreak of the Black Death in Western district in 1894-5. The records of the Legislative Council session on 22nd December record this urgency in the very direct, and revealing, language used by the Attorney-General:
...And I take it no one will gainsay that this Council has a perfect right in its legislative capacity to say to any man in the colony, "You have no right to use your property in such a manner as to endanger the lives and safety of your fellow-colonists [a very interesting choice of words describing Hong Kong citizenship, particularly for the Chinese! -Ed.]. You have no right so to use your house as to make it a hot-bed in which the germs of disease and plague which may be brought in from another place may thrive until they become a very dangerous thing to the colony, and until we have the plague rampant in our midst. And this Council has a right in its legislative capacity, to say, "We will take that property away from you temporarily until it has been restored to a proper condition and that it shall be handed back to you in such a state that it will not be a public danger." For any man to say, "Compensate me for having done so" is absurd. There is an old maxim - a maxim in Roman law, in fact - which is still recognised in law to the present day sic utere tuo ut alienam non loedas...

It will probably be said by some of the opponents of this Bill, "You are driving away the Chinese from the colony." It is our policy to encourage them to come here, but if any particular Chinaman comes to us and says "I have very dirty habits; I like to be in insanitary places; I like to live in a house where if the plague comes it will be pretty sure to stay, and it gives me less trouble to leave it as it is than to put it in order" - if I met such a man I would say. "We part with you with sorrow, but go to another land where you may live in a house that suits your notions, but I trust in course of time you will learn to repent your folly and I trust you will repent before the plague overtakes you."
Clearly the speaker felt quite strongly, in this time of crisis in 1894, about putting public health before immigration. However, it also demonstrates the conditionality by which the Chinese lived in Hong Kong. Rather than being told, we are passing this law here, whether you like it or not, learn to live with it, the Chinese were told, we are passing this law, if you don't like it, leave and if you don't comply we will expel you.

Of course, the Attorney-General was right to insist on such draconian measures, which only fairly imposed a 'universal' ideal of health policy to the entire population, than rather selectively just to the Europeans. But it also does reveal fissures about the ideas of who constituted a 'citizen' or a colonist of Hong Kong at this time. These ideas persisted until well past World War II, giving rise to the mythology that all the Chinese of Hong Kong, like the Western inhabitants, were simply sojourners on their way to somewhere else.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Sculptures in the Forum, Exchange Square

The Forum in Exchange Square: home of Hong Kong's busy stock exchange. Many of us pass by the immaculately kept area every day, failing to ask ourselves questions about the artworks on display here, or indeed to ask ourselves why it is called the forum at all when it is, as a part of a private corporate building, hardly the 'Forum' for public discussion in the Roman sense.

As we have been working on a project for the Hong Kong Museum of Art for an audio guide for their outdoor sculpture installations on the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade, I've been doing a fair bit of reading about any scraps and bits and pieces on Hong Kong sculpture that I can find. I uncovered a very interesting book, called Hong Kong Art: Culture and Decolonization, by David Clarke. It has a brilliant passage that identifies why there are certain pieces and why they are there. Without further ado:
When completed in 1985 Exchange Square was one of the most outstanding pieces of contemporary architecture in Hong Kong, and it still commands rents that reflect its prestige status. The choice of works by overseas sculptors with international reputations functions to underline and enhance profitably the building's own claims to modernity and international status (even if its form - considered in sculptural terms - is more indebted than theirs to the language of geometric abstraction). At the same time there is a note of contrast introduced at the level of subject matter which works to the same effect - thwe water buffaloes remind us of the old agricultural Hong Kong that trade and development have now replaced, thereby enhancing the adjacent building's sense of contemporaneity.

The international associations of the choice of sculptors are also appropriate to a stock exchange, a nexus of global flows of both money and information. Indeed further examination of the ensemble indicates that care has been taken to assemble works that allude to good fortune in general or even to stock market success in particular. Direct reference to the notion of a 'bull market' is surely intended in the choice of water buffalo as a subject, even if such an association would not be uppermost in a differing context of display. Sunce the pair of Frink sculptures were directly commissioned in 1986, it is fair to assume that local reference and auspicious connotation were intended by the artist herself and even perhaps accepted as part of her brief, but this is not the case with the other two sculptures that make up the ensemble. They were pre-existing works and the site-specifric meanings they carry are ones which have been created by the act of display itself. The Ju Ming piece (purchased from an exhbition of the artist's works held in Exchange Square's gallery, the Rotunda, to mark the building's opening) carries markedly Chinese connotations because of its subject matter. This is of course appropriate in general terms: it helps to counteract the perhaps too overtly Western language by which the building expresses its modernity, proving a balancing of cultural references that artists such as Lui Shou-kwan, Wucius Wong or Van Lau have also sought. A more specific relevance to a stock exchange and site of business, however, is provided by the resemblance between this figure with outstretched arms and the Chinese character meaning 'big''. Such connotations of profitability, also found in the Frink works, are echoed and reinforced in the Moore. Writing is again involved as the negative space inside it resemble a numeral eight, which is highly auspicious in Cantinese on account of a similarity between the pronunciation of the character for 'eight' and that of the character meaning 'to prosper'.
Interesting observations that mirror those we had in our original Central walking tour. Something to think about next time you stroll by on your way to IFC or a burger at Triple Os!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

History Trumps Football

A fascinating article in the Guardian yesterday about how a poll conducted in Britain demonstrated how football is not as important as history. In a Mori poll instigated in conjunction with a campaign in the UK entitled, "History Matters, Pass it On", in association with the National Trust, the Civic Trust, the National Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage, a surprising result was obtained. Only 48% of those surveyed showed interest in football, whilst 73% expressed an interest in history.

And no, it was not a poll taken after the England-Portugal match (or debacle, as you prefer).

It may also speak to why there were lingering doubts in Britain about the tournament being held in Germany, and why John Cleese was commissioned to come up with a comic song called, "Don't Mention the War". I shall close today with its lyrics:
Don’t Mention The War
Don’t mention the war
That’s what football is for!
In 1966 we were the winning team
We’d rather not discuss what happened in-between
Don’t mention the war
Just get out there and score
At the glorious moment
When the lions roar
Don’t mention the war
Don’t mention the war
That’s what football is for!
They might have bombed our chipshop 60 years ago
But a billion pints of lager later, here we go (come on then!)
Don’t call them rude names
It’s such a beautiful game
At the glorious moment
When the lions roar
Don’t mention the war
Don’t mention the war
Bend that ball round the wall Instead of saving
Poland we are scoring goals
After 40 years of extra time and bacon rolls (bacon rolls!)