Thursday, July 13, 2006

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.

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