Monday, August 28, 2006

The Colonial Flag of Hong Kong

The flag of Hong Kong has never been a particularly potent symbol. Because Hong Kong has never had a military, or any real effort at creating a sense of patriotic municipal identity, there have been few that would volunteer to die for the flag (with the notable exception of the Hong Kong Volunteers during the Battle for Hong Kong in 1941). Today, that flag hardly inspires any real fervor; fittingly so then that this city that is supposed to be the offspring of East and West, is represented today by a sterile hybrid orchid. But what was the old flag like? Those of us left over from before the Handover will dimly remember this flag. But this was a flag that was instituted in the 1950s, long after the War and any pretense to develop a spirit of civic 'Hong Kong-ness'
had evaporated. The flag that Hong Kong had long known, with a notable half-decade interregnum in the 1870s, was one that had the blue ensign and the flag of the United Kingdom in its top left corner. On its right side was a circle that showed a scene, apparently from Kowloon, of a man buying chests of tea (or was it opium in the early days?) from a merchant, and with ships in the harbour.

Now this image irked successive Governors and senior civil servants, keenly aware that the flag showed that it was the merchant, and not the authority of the Queen, that made the flag distinctive. It was also cartoonlike, and they felt ill-befitting men of their office to rally behind such a symbol.

Where did I find this out? From a fascinating debate that took place in the Legislative Council in 1912, on the 15th of April. The Colonial Secretary of the time, and an urbane, mild-mannered Sinologist / government cadet named Sir Cecil Clementi, made an astonishing outburst about the poor quality of the flag. This is what he had to say, in response to a previous veto by unofficial members of Legco of his efforts to change the flag:
As a fact a young lady now resident in Hongkong did design a new badge. It consisted of a naval anchor and a Chinese grapnel crossed underneath the Imperial British Crown. The design was simple and artistic. Sir F. Lugard approved it...Honourable members, however, decided by a majority of 8 to 5 that the existing badge of the Colony should be retained and that it was undesirable to change it. I confess that this decision was a great surprise to me, and before accepting it as final I would like to give hon. members a short account of the origin of the existing badge as recorded in the archives of my department. It would appear that in the spring of 1869, the Crown Agents for the Colonies approached an oilman at Wapping with the request that he would design a badge for the Colonial flag of Hongkong. An economical bargain was driven and for a fee of some 3 pounds the existing badge of the Colony was painted. It was then set in a blue ensign and sent out to Hongkong as the flag of the Colony. Local opinion was not consulted, and it seems that the artistic feelings of the community recieved a rude shock when the new flag was first unfurled. The then Governor, Sir Richard Graves Macdonnell, brought the matter before his Executive Council, which had no hesitation in recording the opinion that the flag was "both design and execution extremely defective."

Accordingly Sir Richard on the 3rd July, 1869, addressed a protest to Lord Granville, at that time Secretary of State for the Colonies. He wrote: "As the design seems to have been compiled by an oilman at Wapping for about 3 pounds, a specimen of the highest art could not well have been looked for. Apart, however, from the abstract merits of the flag, it is the wish of the Council and of every one who has expressed an opinion on the subject, that your Lordship should direct some fresh and more suitable design to be substituted. It has been suggested that in lieu of the gentleman in an evening coat who is purchasing tea on the beach at Kowloon, an unusual place for such transactions [sarcasm is the author's, italics are mine - Ed.], it would be more agreeable to the feelings of the community if the foreground were occupied by the well-known figure of Britannia with the British Lion lying beside her and near the British flag. it is suggested that in such case the shield might bear either the motto Coelum non animum mutant or the Royal Arms, as your Lordship may decide.
Let us stop for a moment, given that latin is a language dying now even in our schools. Caelum non animum mutant means literally, 'they change their sky but not their heart'. But it is a reference to an oft-quoted section of Horace, which is "Coelum non animum mutant, qui trans mare currunt". In its entireity, it means, 'those who cross the sea change their sky but not their heart', and may have been a very meaningful aphorism for the British in Hong Kong in the 1860s, so very far from home. Anyway, let us continue with the rant of Sir Cecil (later Governor) Clementi:
I admit that in the design of the enclosed flag there is a certain unpleasant resemblance to a portion of the present arms of the Colony, but I respectfully submit that the opportunity is not unfabourable for considering whether the Arms themselves now borne on the seal of the Colony are not capable of improvement. That, however, which is appropriate on the smaller surface of the seal seems quite unsuitable to the larger field of the flag." Again on the 27th December, 1869, Sir Richard wrote to Lord Granville:-"The flag at present assigned to the Colony is capable of great and easy improvement, and in fact that it is wholly unsuitable, as the device, though not strikingly out of good taste when put on a medal or a seal, becomes obviously so when occupying the larger field of a flag. Such at least is the opinion of myself and my Council as well as of every one else whom I have hitherto heard speaking on the subject. I have even referred the matter again to my Council, and they unanimously recommend a change of the device in the flag to something of the same idea and character as that which I ventured to submit to your Lordship in my despatch No. 734 of July last." He added, "I may say that, however pleased we might be to obtain a flag with a more tasteful device, our principal object is to get rid of that which at present appears to be decidedly obnoxious." "On the 5th May, 1870, Lord Granville replied:- "I have the honour to inform you that not being satisfied with the designs for a Colonial Flag for Hong Kong which have been submitted to me, I have decided that the best course will be to adopt for use in the Colony a pattern somewhat similar to that which has been selected by the Governor of New Zealand, viz.: a blue ensign with a white crown over the initial letters of the Colony. The Crown Agents have been informed of my decision, and in accordance with it will forward a supply of flags of that pattern for the service of the Government of Hongkong." Then for some reason which cannot be traced in my archived the whole matter appears suddenly to have fallen into abeyance. The new flags were never sent out and the exiting flag remained as an enduring witness to the artistic standards of Wapping.
But unfortunately for Sir Cecil, the British respect for tradition, which makes it the only advanced polity in the world without a written Constitution, got in the way:
Hon. Mr. C.H. Ross- I opposed this resolution on the last occasion when it came up, and did so, not because I admire the present badge, but because I have a great respect for antiquity. The Hon. Colonial Secretary just now has said that if we continue our present flag, we will be upholding that which the Legislative Council of 1869 disapproved. That is some forty-three years ago, a considerable space of time. I do not think the present badge is artistic, but still it has the dignity of age, and with a small improvement, as I suggested on the last occasion, such as an artistic pagoda or a junk, with the Peak in the background, would meet the case. Two anchors crossed are certainly pretty, but I do not see what connection they have with Hongkong. [He must be deliberately obtuse - Ed.]

Hon. Mr. Hewett-With regard to what my hon. friend, the last speaker has said, I entirely endorse his proposal. When the question came up in the Council, I played a lone hand, as it were, in opposing any change. I admit that when the flag was invented it might have been more artistic, but it was descriptive of Hongkong as it was shortly after the flag was housted here. I do not think any unhallowed hand should be allowed to tear down any monument of those historic days...The Hon. the Colonial Secretary has laid great stress on the fact that in ancient days, in 1869, certain officials and unofficials appeared to agree that the flag was inartistic, but he has produced nothing later to show that the flag is inartistic. What we know is that the whole world has advanced very much in artistic training, and whereas in 1869 the whole of the Council might have been opposed to the artistic merits of the flag, we have been so far educated that we find the great proportion of the present Council in favour of the flag as it stands.
The acting Governor Claud Severn agreed with Clementi but because there was no agreement on a new design they had to stick to the old one. At that point, Sir Cecil threw in the towel and withdrew his resolution.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Japan's Heroin Habit in the Roaring Twenties

I return once again to drugs in today's post. Here is a fascinating excerpt from Hong Kong's 1923 Imports and Exports office, which disguises some shockingly interesting material in a very mundane name. Today's subject is heroin. Of the seizures from Hong Kong of what was then become a very popular drug.

It had been created in the 1870s, and marketed first as a medicine in the 1880s - shockingly, to fulfill two purposes: 1) as a non-addictive drug substitute for morphine addicts (bad idea) and in cough syrup format for children (even worse), who seemed to not cough so much after ingesting it. The company that created it was the German firm Bayer, famous also for creating aspirin. In fact, the chemist that created aspirin, Felix Hoffmann, apparently synthesized heroin 11 days later. It was named heroin because of the 'heroic' feeling created by the drug in its users.

Now, to the report. That year, the Hong Kong authorities had confiscated 23,400 ounces, the first time it had reached these shores in any major quantity (given the volume and variety of substitutes). Given that one only needs 1/16th of an ounce for a nice hit, that was about 374,400 doses. Here is what J.D. Lloyd, the Superintendent of Imports and Exports, had to say:
Heroin made its appearance for the first time, and has apparently rapidly become popular amongst Chinese.[he refers here to the Chinese on the mainland -Ed.] Germany has rapidly regained her supremacy in the manufacture of Opium derivatives, the actual distribution of which appears to be still largely in the hands of Japanese or Formosan Japanese subjects. So far as could be ascertained all the drugs seized were inteded for use outside the Colony. In the Colony there would appear to be at present little misuse of such drugs. Canton has been taking drugs in small quantities and there is some indication that the trade there in drugs is reviving notwithstanding the facilities for the purchase of opium. [Opium divans of various classes were still legal at that time. - Ed.] Most of the morphia seized was intded for Amoy, most of the Heroin for Japan. It is reported that the demand for Heroin in Canton came from one source, chiefly, the manufacturer of a popular patent medicine.
There you have it. There is another interesting bit in the report about arms seizures:
The number of arms seized during the year was 1,685 including 11 machine guns; 148,343 rounds of ammunition were seized, and 32 convictions were obtained. The United States supplied the greater number, even Mauser Pistols of German manufacture being imported in large quantities from this source. The makes were Smith-Wesson, Harrington & Richardson, Colt, Mauser, Luger and Steyr. Most of the ammunition was manufactured in the United States by the well known large ammunition factories.[as you can imagine, a lot of these arms were going to competing warlords in China- Ed.] A certain number of Mauser pistols bore the marks of an arms dealer in Paris, France appears to have developed a trade in second hand Mauser Pistols of German manufacture; ammunition to fit Mausers is specially manufacturered in France. There were no seizures of Browning Austomatics which used to be popular among the pirate and robber class of South China. [!-Ed.] In three cases the seizure of weapons probably prevented a piracy, as the weapons were cleaned and ready for use, each with about 50 rounds. The crews of the steamers were undoubtedly implicated, but it was impossible to bring ti home to any single person.

5 cases of 108 sticks of dynamite, one box and 2,099 detonators, and 21 coils of fuse were seized. In one case the dynamite in large quantity was found in the crew's quarters, where smoking of cigarettes and opium was going on. In this case detonators were found in the Chinese cook house close to the open fire.
If Hong Kong at this point in history was no longer the wild East, China and all points north certainly were! And Japan, well, the Japanese were certainly enjoying themselves weren't they?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

University of Hong Kong and Mody

I have received a request to do more of a study on a famous Parsee of Hong Kong, Mr. Hormusjee Naorojee Mody. Parsees, as I've mentioned before, are Zoroastrians that, as a community, left Persia for India in the 16th and 17th centuries, and became successful traders on the subcontinent. When the British came and installed the Raj, the Parsees, as consummate traders, took advantage of their expanded horizons, many of them involving themselves strongly with the opium trade. Many also did not, and both types of Parsees made their way to Hong Kong. Their legacy can still be found, albeit of the silent kind, in the Parsee cemetery just past the entrance to the Aberdeen tunnel on your way to Happy Valley. A more alive reminder that is barred to foreigners is the Parsee/Zoroastrian temple that can be found on Sun Wui Road in Causeway Bay, just down the street from the Po Leung Kuk.

Funnily enough, the Zoroastrian Building's ground floor houses a Bentley dealership, whose logo, minus the B of course, would be a dead ringer for the wings on the sun logo that has survived thousands of years from the time of Persepolis, Darius and Xerxes of Persia. If it wasn't going to be Bentley perhaps (Ahura) Mazda might be more apropos?

But enough jokes. The Parsees, despite their very small numbers, made great at lasting contributions to Hong Kong. They were very much involved in the hotel business and in shipping, and the Star Ferry remains a daily reminder. In academics, of course, there is the legacy of Sir Hormusjee Naorojee Mody, who was instrumental in the creation of Hong Kong's first general institution for tertiary education (the Hong Kong College of Medicine predated HKU, but was absorbed into HKU after the latter's founding). Without his funds, Governor Lugard's pet project would never have gotten off the ground, because there would have been no building to house the university. He was able to see the groundbreaking ceremony, but unfortunately passed away before the building could be completed.

The question now is, where did Mr. Mody get his money? A short answer would be that he was in business with the very enterprising Mr. Paul Chater, who I've written about several times in these pages (do a search on this site to find these references). But Mr. Mody clearly had his own sense of investment timing, for Mr. Chater prized him, this reclusive, very private Parsee, about all others as investment partner. For it was with Mody that Chater bought up the TST docks after the typhoon, and convinced Jardines to co-invest into their new 'Wharf' venture. Unlike Chater, Mody never sought the spotlight or a central role in the running of things - he was content to make his fortunes quietly, and to pursue happy domestic life at home in the Mid-Levels and go racing, owning his horses under the alias 'Mr. Buxey'. His home, not surprisingly, was known as Buxey Lodge at 37 Conduit Road. (His second wife, who unlike the first, was not Parsee, in 1946 donated the house to the Hong Kong government, who rather unsentimentally for such a grand old mansion, tore it down and put government civil servants' flats in its place after having the lands department buy it outright for HK$300,000 from the Navy.)

Because of the fact that Mody was such a private man, and stayed mostly out of the public eye, very little record of him survives. But he will be forever known as the father of tertiary education here in Hong Kong, and is a key reminder to Hong Kong's overwhlemingly Chinese population not to totally forget the contributions to the city of its multicultural society.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Playing the Liar as the City Burns

I happened to catch a bit of Quo Vadis on Turner classic movies a few nights ago, and could not help think of Nero playing his lyre as Rome burned.

Conflagrations have been a risk for cities since time immemorial. Death, injury and loss of property have been almost inevitabilities as people have chosen to live in close quarters to each other, particularly in poorer districts. Hong Kong has been no exception, particularly in older Chinese district of Taipingshan, which stood frequent witness to ruinous conflagrations.

But the ruin of those fires was sometimes perhaps too convenient. And it was at that time that Chinese merchants first happened upon the Western business practice of commercial inventory insurance. In the 1880s, for instance, the telegraph and steamships had vastly improved communications between cities of the Empire, but prices of commodities were still subject to dramatic fluctuations. The goods of consumed by fire, suspiciously, tended to be insured when prices were near the top, presenting a major temptation to any warehouse owner whose fortunes had had to be marked down due to a falling market.

I quote the following for the report of H. E. Wodehouse, the Superintendent of the Fire Brigade of 1888:
The year has been characterized by an unusual number of fires, some of which have attained serious proportions, but the greater part of which have been soon extinguished. There were nearly three times as many fires as the maximum number recorded in any previous year and the resources of the Brigade have been very fully taxed. To those who know how easy the spread of a fire is in the crowded Chinese town with its back to back houses, and narrow lanes, I think the Brigades may be congratulated on the success that has attended their efforts.

In one of these fires only has a charge of incendiarism been made. It was made at the instance of an Agent for a German Insurance Office, and was committed for trial at the Supreme Court, where the defendant was acquitted without being called upon to make his defence.

I understand that a civil suit is pending in connection with this trial and I forbear therefore from dwelling upon this particular case. Generally speaking, however, I may say that the practice of insuring contents of Chinese houses without any check beyond what is caused by the self-interests of the parties concerned is a grave source of temptation, and is fostered by the interests both of those who insure and of those who accept the risks.

Even supposing abuses not to arise it is inexpedient to give opportunity for them and the danger created by the facilities for bad practices is aggravated by the difficulty of detecting and exposing such as take place, and by the natural reluctance which a Company concerned only with its own interests feels to take the initiative by refusing a claim.


It is possible however that when systematic enquiries on oath are made, other causes such as the indiscriminate and careless use of Kerosine oil, or the increase of accidents arising with the growth of the population may be found to be the prime promoters of coflagrations, but the tendency of insuring is undoubtedly to give rise to incendiarism, and even apparent carelessness may be the result of careful forethought.

Two or three cases of undoubted incendiarism have come under my own notice, occurring not necessarily in the house in which the fire originated, but in the house adjoining it, and I am credibly informed that on the occasion of the large fire in Queen's Road West some weeks ago, the fire broke out simultaneously in three different houses separated from each other and with no possibility of intercommunication of the flames.
In Victorian English, this was tantamount to saying, 'of course there's bloody arson, it's happening more and more often, and unless we take steps to make suring insurance fraud isn't so easy it's going to happen more and more often.'

Friday, August 18, 2006

Sir Cecil's Merry Narco-Ride

Greetings all! It's been some time since we last spoke. The last month and a day have been a pretty busy time, between various projects we've had and travel. We've been working on some interesting projects further afield, outside of Asia, and so it's cut out some of the time I used to be able to set aside for this blog. I'll try to maintain a new post at least once or twice a week though.

I've been doing a lot of research into drugs recently for one of our projects (sure, you're all collectively saying). Academic research, I assure you. In any case, I found a rather amusing document from the Hong Kong archives, from 1908. It was written by (later Sir) Cecil Clementi (in addition to serving as Governor of Hong Kong from 1925-1930, he was also Governor of the Straits Settlements from 1930-1934) when he was Clerk of Councils. This particular document had a very dull name, No.973 of 1908 (if the link doesn't work, just try it again) for the Executive Council. But its subject matter was slightly less prosaic: "Regulations made by the Governor-in-Council under Section 6 (f) of the Pharmacy Ordinance, 1908 (Ordinance No. 12 of 1908), for the issue of Licenses to Wholesale Dealers in Cocaine and its Salts together with the conditions on which such licenses are granted, this 23rd day of December, 1908."

It seems Christmas came early in 1908 for the narco-merchants of Hong Kong! We've described in these pages in detail how opium was the commodity upon which Hong Kong was founded, and which remained legal for consumption in the Colony until 1946. But this is the first time we've dealt with a drug that was not a derivative of the poppy - cocaine, from the coca plant.

While other countries were restricting or forbade the trade in opium by this time, Hong Kong still allowed opium to pass through its port, only regulating it within Hong Kong to maximize government revenue. While it was recognized that 'salts' like cocaine would be potentially much more injurious to the local population, the local government still adopted a very laissez-faire approach to regulating its onward traffic - and once again, China was to be the loser as a result. The fact that cocaine was classified as a 'salt' indicates that while it was illegal in Hong Kong, they felt it was justifiable to allow it to pass through Hong Kong because it could be construed in other areas as having medicinal value.

The regulations penned by Clementi basically allowed importers to bring cocaine in - as long as they did not sell any and brought it out again without any local distribution. The cocaine had to be kept in the same uniform boxes that they came in and had to be kept in a bonded warehouse awaiting onward shipping (most likely to China).

This legalized quarantine status for cocaine, a substance already regarded as dangerous throughout the British Empire, was typical for Hong Kong. The city did not only adopt a laissez-faire economic attitude, but adopted the same from an international moral perspective as well, and was supported fully by the letter (though perhaps not the spirit) of international law at that time. This character is still recognizable today, very much part of this city's personality, and has played a major role in Hong Kong's success.