Monday, November 27, 2006

Eu Tong Sen and His Mansions

Last week, Damian wrote into RTHK 3's Naked Lunch programme, asking the excellent Sarah Passmore to forward a question to me. Here was his question about Eu Tong Sen, the famous prewar Chinese medicine tycoon:

Just wondering what Dave could find out about the houses of Eu Tong-sen? He built three primary residences: Eucliffe Castle in Repulse Bay; Euston on Bonham Road; and Sirmio in Tai Po. I'm just curious as to where Sirmio was in Tai Po, as all his houses have been demolished (Eucliffe is now a housing development, and Euston is now Euston Court). I'd also like to be able to find any photos of Sirmio if possible...perhaps Dave can point me in the right direction?

Damian, I shall tell you what I can of Eu Tong Sen's houses, which is not a great deal, but also of the man behind the buildings. I'm afraid Sermio, being Eu Tong Sen's 'getaway' villa residence in the New Territories, was the building least written about, and I have very little information about it. Sermio was named for an ancient village (today called Sermione) on a promontory on the shores of Lake Garda, in northern Italy - I'd imagine Mr. Eu must have visited and kept the name for the villa for that reason. I suspect though that since it was on the approach to Tai Po, with a view of Tolo Harbour, the villa was perched somewhere along the old Tai Po road where Chinese University stands today. Many of Hong Kong's older money bought homes in that area - the surviving ones though are largely to the left of the roundabout when you come up the road from the Shatin racecourse area. Someone else may be able to give you a more exact address!

As for Eu Tong Sen, he was quite the character. He was a cosmopolitan man of the world, a connoiseur of the Western good life. By the time he moved to Hong Kong circa 1930, he had already ensured his family's fortune. Born in 1877 in Perak, in Penang, he inherited his father's Chinese medicine business, which was called the Yan Sang medical shop. It was felt that these remedies could be a strong substitute for the opium which many poor Chinese laborers resorted to for their aches and pains. They did rather well, and opened branches in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Seremban in the early 1900s, and then Hong Kong in 1909, and Singapore the following year. Shops on the mainland also followed. Basically, he created a very early example of a southeast Asian business empire catering to the overseas Chinese.

What is interesting though, is that although Eu Yan Sang (which is what Mr. Eu renamed the company to indicate that it was a family business that should be run by future generations of Eus) is the only remaining visible part of that empire, and was what the man was most famous for, it seems that most of his money was made by other means. Before the 1890s, the family business actually made a good deal more money out of tax farming, which it undertook on behalf of the Sultans of Malaya under British auspices. Later in the 20th century, the network of shops throughout the Chinese diaspora in Asia put Mr. Eu's business in a great position to handle remittances, and was one of the greatest handlers of such money before World War II, much as Western Union works today for the Filipina helpers in Hong Kong. It was only after World War II, when war and revolution had changed the dynamics of the Chinese networks throughout Asia, that it was Eu Yan Sang that carried the empire for Eu Tong Sen's descendants.

But what of his houses, you may ask? As you point out, Mr. Eu had built three palatial houses in Hong Kong throughout the lean decade of the 1930s in Hong Kong. Euston on Bonham Road; Eucliffe, on the northern side of Repulse Bay, and Sirmio in Tai Po. Local historian Jason Wordie in his excellent 'Streets of Hong Kong' book points out the rumor that Eu Tong Sen was told that he would not die as long as he kept building houses. It nevertheless did not stop him from dying in 1941, on the eve of the Japanese Invasion.

However, I have a feeling that whoever the fortuneteller was, he was animated by a practical consideration for Mr. Eu's health - he had 5 official wives with him in Hong Kong, an unknown number of concubines, and at least 34 official children. So he was as prolific in his offspring as he was with his engineering works! Not only did he need to house the product of his loins and the women that delivered them, he also probably needed to maintain multiple residences to keep outbreaks of discord from rearing their ugly heads. The fortune teller, therefore, probably thought this might help Mr. Eu to keep building. The fissures that must have existed while he was alive broke into the open after his death, with family squabbles that continued with lawsuits all the way until 1996. That was the year that several cousins, whose grandfather and/or great-grandfather was Mr. Eu, chose to buy out the business of Eu Yan Sang from outside investors (that had bought the separate bits from older generation family members) and consolidate operations in Hong Kong, Singapore and elsewhere.

An interesting bit of trivia is that the statue that is supposed to represent John Osborn of the Winnipeg Grenadiers, the VC recipient, according again to the redoubtable Mr. Wordie, was actually a statue of a World War I soldier that stood in the gardens of Eucliffe. He was donated to the Hong Kong government by the family after the war when they sold the Eucliffe site, and he underwent a transformation to become Mr. Osborn. Perhaps it is fitting though, for he was also a young sailor that was present at the Battle of Jutland in World War I.

The war connection is also grimly fitting because of the Japanese outrage that occurred on the site of the Eucliffe mansion during the desperate fighting between Allied and Japanese forces around the Repulse Bay area in the days before Christmas, when the East and West Brigades were effectively split in two. Allow me to end with this quote from Tony Banham, in his labor of love, Not the Slightest Chance:
“The prisoners were taken to Eucliffe, a Chinese millionaire’s castle on the north shore of Repulse Bay. Having been beaten up by rifle butts, their hands were tightly bound behind their backs and they were prodded forward with bayonets to the edge of the cliff. They were then forced to sit facing the sea with their feet dangling over the edge. “We knew that we were going to be shot because on top of the bank were pools of blood and at the bottom of the cliff there were dozens of bodies,” stated Company Sergeant Major Hamlon of the Royal Rifles at the post-war War Crimes Trial. “It was evident that they had been shot on top of the cliff and fallen down. Then a firing squad came forward and we were all shot. Owing to the fact that I turned my head to the left as I was being fired at, the bullet passed through my neck and came out of my right cheek. I did not lose consciousness and the force of the bullet hitting me knocked me free from the others and I rolled down the cliff.” He lay at the cliff’s foot bleeding all day until dark when he moved “a mess of blood” into a dank cave where he remained shivering as Japanese sentries patrolled above. Later 54 bodies were found in the area. Many had been shot, others bayoneted to death and the rest beheaded."
This grisly episode may explain why the Repulse Bay area (and apparently also even Euston Court) are said to be haunted...though I know nothing of that!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

General George Charles D'Aguilar

For my weekly radio spot on RTHK 3's Naked Lunch programme, Sarah and I have started to solicit questions from curious listeners about various aspects of Hong Kong history. Here is the first question I received, from Steve:
I would like to ask Dave what should be the correct pronounciation of D'Aguilar as in D'Aguilar Street and where did the name come from?
Many people probably wonder at the provenance of this particular name, especially when they are walking up D'Aguilar Street for some drinks and conviviality in Lan Kwai Fong! General Sir George Charles D'Aguilar (DAG ee LAR), KCB, served in Her Majesty's forces during the Opium War, and upon cessation of hostilities, became the General Officer Commanding (as a Major-General) Her Majesty's troops in Hong Kong. Through the tenure of both Governor Pottinger and Governor Davis, he was in charge of the Army Garrison in Hong Kong. He was also the Lieutenant Governor of the Colony during that period, setting a precedent that would remain for much of the 19th century.

He was a proud, forthright military man, and was a veteran campaigner of 40 years of operations in the East Indies, India, the Napoleonic Wars and several other engagements. He did not have much patience for the opium merchants of Hong Kong, including those of Jardine Matheson. Because of the high early crime rate, merchants had engaged guards as night watchmen, and those of the Princely Hong would bang on two bamboo poles to indicate their presence to would-be robbers. This sound, however, disturbed the nocturnal rest of General D'Aguilar, and he forbade the merchants' guards from doing any such thing.

His house, by the way, was Flagstaff House, today the Museum of Tea Ware in Hong Kong park. It was then called Headquarters House (until the 1930s) home of the General Officers of the Colony. Cape D'Aguilar is also named after him, as is, funnily enough 'Bar George' in Lan Kwai Fong! He was the son of an S. D'Aguilar, Esq. of Liverpool, born in about 1780 and living into his 80s. The name D'Aguilar, though, from my research, appears to be of Sephardic origin - I believe the family was originally of a prominent Portuguese Jewish family. Their descendants seem to have gone to Holland, Austria, England and Brazil. The original pronounciation may have been a little different as 'de Aguilar'.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Cheap Transport in Hong Kong

We take for granted sometimes here in Hong Kong the amazing public transport system we have throughout the city. Considering the price of property here, the cost of buses, ferries, MTR and particularly the taxis are quite cheap. The low fares of the cabs in particular seem to impress many visitors.

Yet it has always been part of deliberate government policy to keep transport charges as low as possible. I found a fascinating document from 1901, entitled, "Report of Commission on Chair and Jinricksha coolies," which basically complained about how the coolies running the chairs, following a strike they undertook a few years previous, were unwilling to take passengers for the same low fares they enjoyed in the good old days of the 1880s. These men were literally taking passengers on the power of their muscles alone, and of course our sympathies today are with the coolies. But things were not so clear to the Legislative Councillors enquiring about the cost of a chair:
At present, the minimum ricksha fare is 5 cents for a quarter of an hour. If a person takes a ricksha from the Clock Tower [a landmark then at the corner of Queen's Road and Pedder Street, demolished in 1911 - Ed.] to the Hongkong Club or Hongkong Bank [Christ, it's a 5 minute walk! - Ed.] he must pay 5 cents.

This seems to be an unnecessarily large fare. We therefore advocate ricksha rates of 2, 3, and 5 cents for 5, 10 and 15 minutes respectively. Distance fares, as in the case of garis [an Indian term for a horse-drawn cab - Ed.], might also be introduced. The difficulty of carrying the necessary money can be overcome by adopting a system of checks for these several amounts. These checks should be saleable at the Treasury and Police Stations in Colony and could be redeemed by the coolies on presentation at the Treasury in office hours.

Greatcare would have to be taken to guard against the acceptance, for redemption, of forged checks, not issued by the Treasury or a Police Station.
So these checks were like Club Med beads...except not really at all.

Trouble on Kennedy Road

I have done some poking around the old papers on Kennedy Road to satisfy the curiosity of our redoubtable reader, Stubbs, who asked about the old mansion that Sir Gordon Wu wants to knock down (amongst many other buildings) to create his 2,000 room Mega Tower Hotel in Wanchai.

While I have not yet tracked down the past ownership of the building, I did stumble across the 'ravings of Hong Kong's most obnoxious expat', Hemlock, of course, talking about Sir Gordon's vanity project. He referred to Kennedy Road as "a road designed for rickshaws." Indeed, he is correct inthat it was not meant for real traffic, and even rickshaws were banned. In 1883, a regulation was made by the Governor to the effect that:
1. No wheeled Vehicles or Horses shall be allowed on the Promenade known as Kennedy Road.

2. In no case shall more than two Chairs be allowed to go abreast on this road.
There were evidently problems with people and/or other sedan chairs, borne entirely by sets of 2, 4, or 6 profusely straining coolies (depending on the obesity of the occupant), knocking each other over. They hadn't thought of everything, though, because Governor Bowen added this regulation to the mix in 1887:
3. No kites shall be flown from this road.
One can only imagine the horror and tragedy.

All of which draw attention to the fact that the road was certainly not meant for heavy traffic. Certainly, Sir Gordon's building of over 2000 rooms on that road would be rather a major burden added to congestion in the area. His suggestion that at peak morning hours, only 6 trips by car for every 100 rooms would originate from the hotel's entrance on Kennedy Road was rather... optimistic.

* Update *

This regulation was finally repealed in 1898 after some widening of the road, but only for rickshas and such:
1. The regulations made by the Governor-in-Council on the 20th day of May, 1887, are hereby repealed.

2. In no case shall more than two Chairs be allowed to go abreast on Kennedy Road.

3. No kites shall be flown from Kennedy Road.

4. Wheeled vehicles will be allowed on Kennedy Road. The expression "wheeled vehicle," as used in these Regulations, shall mean a ricksha, bicycle, tricycle, or other similar machine, and a perambulator or other similar machine.

5. Wheeled vehicles must go round the bends of Kennedy Road at a moderate speed.
So, rickshas were alright, but not if they went too fast. And flying a kite on Kennedy Road was still out, as was having a sedan chair race!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Old Central Pier, R.I.P.

Quite fitting, really, that the old pier of the Star Ferry would be retired on Remembrance Day weekend. For like some of the octagenarians in their old uniforms and with their medals on Sunday, the service (but not the pier itself, built in 1957) was a veteran of World War II. These quaint, attractive pictures by H.L. Tam may remind some of us of the memories we had of the Ferry - as attraction, as conveyance, as part of Hong Kong. Some more photos on the wiki entry here (more photos can be found all over flickr).

I was fortunate enough also last week to go on a junk trip to Lamma that started from Queen's Pier, sadly like the Star Ferry no longer permitted to go on. It was a great trip except for the very beginning - the choppiness of the harbour was incredible, far worse than I remember it, and will only get worse still as the harbour shrinks further due to land reclamation.

When the ferry first started in the 1870s or early 1880s (nobody quite knows when) thanks to Dorabjee Naorojee, the distance between Hong Kong and Kowloon seemed vast. This Parsee immigrant was the first cross-harbour commuter, as his hotel concerns and office were on Hong Kong side, but his home and family were on Kowloon side in Tsim Sha Tsui. He was reminded of the 'Evening Star' in the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem 'Crossing the Bar' every evening that it was time to go home for dinner, and named his first ferry boat 'Evening Star' in its honour.

The journey shall still go on, but it will be shorter than before, and it will terminate in Central at the new artificially Edwardian pier by the other ferries to the outlying islands. The overhead walkway to the new terminal in Central still has not been completed. I suppose I will be able to become used to the odd design, based at least in frontal facade to the older pier of World War I vintage.

But what I think will hurt the ferry service is the fact that it is so far away from the old heart of Central. We could, to paraphrase the words of a recently departed American Secretary of Defense named Donald Rumsfeld, call Statue Square and the Landmark 'Old Central' and the IFC and the future buildings along the waterfront as 'New Central', but I think that misses the point of how easy it once was to get from even someplace on, say Ice House Street or Pacific Place to the ferry. Now it will be harder, and I suspect many of those current riders may ultimately say that the added hassle of walking 300 or 400 meters more will not be worth the hassle. The Central Star Ferry terminal will thus become more tourist attraction and less of a real conveyance for many people, fossilizing it and making it somehow less real to all of us.

What a shame. Farewell, Ferry by City Hall. Thanks for the memories!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Birthday Reflections on 33 Years

As you may expect from the title, today is my 33rd birthday. Given the frequency with which I have trawled through past editions of the Hong Kong Legco minutes, I was interested to see what was debated on November 14th, 1973, just a day after my birth, and probably on the same day if you take the 14-hour time difference with Park Ridge, Illinois into account.

Here's what I found. Mr. James Wu, the founder and chairman of Maxim's restaurants and caterers, had some usually sharp and acerbic comments about corruption in Hong Kong in 1973. Thank goodness things have gotten better since then:
Whilst corruption exists in all societies it has certainly gotten to be intolerably rampant in Hong Kong in recent years. Not only illegal businesses pay "protection money" but honest businessmen in their rightful claim for government service or permits are too often looked upon as being "square" and "inarticulate" [forgive me for not finding a suitable translation for the Cantonese "shuk shing"], it they fail to "grease the machine", thus to suffer from undue neglect and unfair competition. The cumbersome process of British law, and the face-conscious department chiefs who, circumstantial evidence notwithstanding, would jump to the defence instead of an investigation of his subordinates at the suggestion of corruption, are aggravating the situation.
The majority of Hong Kong people also lived in tiny, tiny places. If we think that Hong Kong families suffer today, just listen to this comment from Mr. Hilton Cheong-Leen:
I hope that the honourable Secretary for Housing will be able to make a statement as to how soon a minimum of 50 square feet living space per person can be provided in public housing during the current 10-year programme.
Mr. Cheong-Leen also addressed the causes of corruption, which he felt inextricably linked to the failure of legitimacy on the part of the colonial regime. It had just been the year before that the word from England had come down that Hong Kong was no longer to be referred to as a Colony, but just as a Dependent Territory:
Eliminating the casues of curroptuon is not only the setting up of an Independent Anti-Corruption Commission...It also involves the active co-operation and the right attitudes on the part of all citizens who share the vision of a more just society where there is no place for such causes of corruption.

This demands firm moral leadership on the art of the leaders who govern Hong Kong.

I would suggest that the Administration's image as a government with firm moral leadership has to come through even more clearly than it has in the past.

The Government has to show through practical measures and through sincere and well-balanced declarations of intent that it really cares for the people.

To strengthen the morale in the top leadership in the Civil Service, more local officers should be given the opportunity to reach top posts and to demonstrate that they can serve the people with dedication and without anybureaucratic conceit.
Up to this point, all of the senior servants in Hong Kong were still British. It would be another ten years before there was a significant increase in senior Chinese in the civil service, but Mr. Cheong-Leen's courage to speak up on the subject certainly planted the seed for self-governance of a Chinese Hong Kong by the Chinese themselves. As Mr. Cheong-Leen, who had been newly-appointed that year, was the first elected Chinese representative to Legco, he perhaps represented the vanguard of more broad-based changes in governance of the 'Territory'.

Sir Lee Quo-Wei, a knight of the Empire and the longtime chairman of the Hang Seng Bank, spoke surprisingly on 'birth control', apparently a problem of the Age. Surprising, now that Hong Kong has the lowest birthrate in the World, all efforts of our Catholic Chief Exec notwithstanding:
...I strongly urge that Government will now find it expedient to formulate a long-advocated Government population policy to implement a family planning porgramme. It is essential that such a programme should...embrace all phases of activities concerned with population growth. I would like to propose that a Working Committee be formed to study the whole question of population and the most appropriate means of encouraging the reduction of future birth rates.
It seems Hong Kong found a solution to the problem in the interim. I suspect it is simply, hard work.

I suppose I realize that I am now getting old, when so much has changed in Hong Kong since my birth. It is, after all, over the standard measure of a generation. Yet, rather than fearful of my mortality, this little investigation of the happenings of November 14th, 1973, only served to remind me that the passage of time is good - for us, and for our city, it has brought undeniably positive change.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Chinese Scotsman

As we've seen in previous pages, much of the entrepreneurial impetus amongst the foreigners in Hong Kong came from the redoubtable Scotsmen, who with their drive and canny investment sense did very well indeed for themselves.

Here though, I shall quote for you a few lines from perhaps the first travel guidebook to Hong Kong (as well as several other cities in China besides). The Victorian always felt quite comfortable classifying the various races and ethnic groups he came across. While today it might make the members of those groups feel rather akin to having been impaled with a needle and put into some sort of collector's box of human taxonomy, then it seemed a rather accepted thing to do. I suppose if we were to find an alien race living on the moon or on a nearby planet, we would unhestiatingly offer our most accurate stereotypes to those less knowledgeable, and would do for some time to come.

At any rate, without further ado:
In the first place, then, to dispose of the philological question as briefly as possible, we must premise that the syllables "Pun-ti" denote a native or original indweller of the soil, whilst "Hak-ka," on the contrary, signifies a stranger, or as we might phrase it, an immigrant from afar. These are terms which must be taken in just such a sense as that in which they would be understood in Ireland, were a Galway cottier, of the true Milesian type, to speak of the descendants of long-buried generations of Scottish settlers in the Northern counties, as "inthruders on the soil of Ould Ireland," while the amiable feelings our Galwegian would probably cherish with reference to his thriftier neighbours, would further form an exact parallel to the sentiments which impel the "Pun-ti" in Hongkong and on the mainland to make such frequent appeals to the bamboo-pole, the gingal, and the fighting irony. For if a Chinese Scotsman be imaginable, he exists surely in the laborious, saving, prolific and irrepressible Hak-ka, who has thriven and multiplied in his constant migrations toward the South, in such degree that he has now for many years been the object of bitter hatred on the part of the more supine "native" whom he supplants.
Yes, indeed the British were bemused onlookers in the early days of the colony when battles between the Hakka and the Punti Cantonese took place in the 1850s and 1860s. There was a full scale ethnic war, in fact, on in Tsim Sha Tsui just after the British took possession in 1860. One reason for this was the fact that many of the leaders of the Taiping Rebellion were in fact Hakka, which only deepened the divisions between the races.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Opium Dens of Singapore

A volume called "A Voyage to China; Including A Visit to the Bombay Presidency; The Mahratta Country; The Cave Temples of Western India, Singapore, the Straits of Malacca and Sunda, and the Cape of Good Hope." [phew!-Ed.] written by the Dr. Julius Berncastle and published in 1850, gives an account of the good Doctor taking in the streets of Singapore's Chinatown. He was fascinated by what he had heard of the vices of the opium den [who wouldn't? - Ed.] and wanted to have a look in Singapore for himself. In a city as strict on drugs as Singapore is today, these habitats are now scarcely imaginable. But he had some surprising observations:
In the Chinese quarter of the town, we entered a few opium-shops, but they were all empty, and we were told by the Chinamen to return in the evening about eight or nine, when they began to fill. Government farms out, for a fixed revenue per annum, the privilege of licensing a certain number of these opium-shops, which is a speculation to the man who takes it, and who is called the opium farmer.... At night, we returned to the opium-shops, and visited in succession ten or twelve. Each shop contains a bench about four feet broad, reaching from one end of the room to the other, on each side, leaving a passage between; these are covered with matting, for the smokers to recline upon, and have affixed to them, at equal distances between every two persons, a small lamp constantly burning, heat being required to be applied often to the pipe whilst smoking. Leading from this principal room are many smaller chambers, or recesses, concealed from view by a curtain. These contain nothing but a table and mats, upon which latter recline, out of sight, those smokers who are so far gone, that the eye would be shocked by the public exhibition of such depravity.

We met principally with common, half-naked Chinamen, of all ages, and in all the different stages of narcotism, some merely becoming gently exhilarated from their first pipe. Certainly, to speak fairly, the gin-palaces of London, half filled with women and infants, besides the other inmates, spending their last farthing in as bad a poison as opium, is a much more immoral and disgusting spectacle, occurring amongst civilsed Christians of both sexes, in the boasted capital of the civilized world; whereas this opium-smoking, which is making such a stir and shuddering amongst us unthinking people, turns out to be almost entirely confined to Pagan Chinese coolies and mechanics, adults of one sex only indulging in it, and that principally at night, when their labour is over. Many of them are not much injured by it, when not taken to excess, as their looks, and the number of years they had been addicted to it, sufficiently proved. I am not going to sanction the custom at all, but seeing much worse practices at home, we should be cautious how we blame these half-barbarous people, without religion, or the advantages of education and civilization. Let us try to reform abuses here, before we interfere with them in the East
If one can get past the imperial tone of empire, what Dr. Berncastle was advocating was actually a rather liberal view, quite ahead of his time - that there was no 'white man's burden' to shoulder here in the form of vice, efforts best concentrated on home.

His visit then further takes an unexpected turn, even after having seen some bad addicts, perhaps out of scientific curiosity:
We had looked into all the secret cabinets and recesses, and at last found one occupied by its wretched tenant. He was an elderly man, and, on being roused, looked at us with an air quite "hebete." [Meaning 'dull', or 'stupid' - Ed.] He had finished his eighth pipe, and was an opium-smoker of ten years' standing. His idiotic aspect, and emaciated, shrivelled-up frame told plainly enough that he would soon finish his miserable career.

The opium-pipe is altogether rather more than a foot in length, and has in it a small hold, about the size of a pea, where the opium is inserted. The landlord weighs for five cents a small piece of the drug, which is mixed with bang and other compounds, and has the consistence of an extract. This he fixes on the end of a steel like a knitting needle, and hands it to the smoker, who pushes it with the steel into the small hole in the pipe, and then lights it at the lamp by his side.

The smoke when inhaled is retained the same as with the hookah. "Mine host" having prepared me a pipe, I took a few whiffs, and did not find it unpleasant, nor produce any effect on me, but a few more probably would have done so, and I did not wish to be in a state of narcotism during the short space of time I had to spend at Singapore. The Chinamen in attendance at all these places were very civil and obliging. They gave us tea, without milk or sugar, in little cups about the size of an egg-cup.

The Disreputable Colony

I had occasion to have a look at Google Books recently, and found an excellent old tome called: China, A Popular History, by Oscar Oliphant, published in 1857. Here is one extract:
"Military and naval men, who have served in Africa and India, feel the effects of the sun at Hong Kong in a manner never before experienced. Neither the Indian sepoys, Malays, or Chinese, can endure the climate as well as Europeans, whose stamina they do not possess [this quote, from bitter ex-HK Treasurer Montgomery Martin, could not have been referring to the villagers that had lived in HK for generations - Ed.]... The Europeans who survive a brief residence in the climate, generally get a lassitude of frame and an irritability of fibre, which destroy the springs of existence."

This is a gloomy picture of our boasted Chinese acquisition, and may serve to teach us the way of making a better choice when next the occasion offers. The only commerce of any consequence which is carried on in Hong Kong seems to be in that detestable drug opium. This makes the island the resort of pirates, smugglers, and disreputable characters of all descriptions, so that robberies and murders are of nightly occurence. In 1844, the number of Chinese on the island was nineteen thousand, of whom, not more than one thousand were women and children. In the census were included ninety-seven women, slaves, and females attendant on thirty-one brothels, eight gambling-houses, and twenty opium shops! In six years not one respectable Chinese has settled at Hong Kong...Hong Kong is nothing better than a grave for Europeans and a refuge for the smuggling desperadoes of the mainland.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Lord Palmerston and Hong Kong Democracy

I have written in pages past about Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Minister of Great Britain in 1839 when the United Kingdom embarked on the Opium War against China. Although he disparaged Hong Kong as a 'barren rock', he was the chief government architect of a policy that gave life to Hong Kong.

I have read recently some snippets of exchanges between Lord Palmerston and a young rising star in Parliament at that time, William Gladstone. Gladstone, who famously insisted as a Liberal that Britain should only uphold policies that are morally correct, was a furious opponent of the Opium War. But Gladstone also held views that were very radical at the time, including universal suffrage.

As I read Lord Palmerston's exchanges with Gladstone, I could not help but think of the similarities between Palmerston's positions then and those of Hong Kong's conservatives now. Here is just a flavour:
Lord Palmerston to Gladstone after the latter's speech in the House of Commons in favour of parliamentary reform (12th May, 1864):

I read your speech and I must frankly say, with much regret, there is little in it that I can agree with. You lay down broadly the doctrine of universal suffrage which I can never accept. I deny that every same and not disqualified man has a moral right to vote. What every man and woman too have a right to, is to be well governed and under just laws, and they who propose a change ought to show that the present organisation does not accomplish those objects...
In every way, similarities with DAB and the reactionaries that make up most of Hong Kong's representatives to China. The people are too stupid to know what is best for them, best we keep the voting population to a small, predictable elite.

Hong Kong was set up in the Victorian age when such sentiments were common. Sadly, while many improvements have been made in governance in Hong Kong, political reform has not been an arena that has actually seen tremendous improvement. More from Lord P:
Lord Palmerston, letter to William Gladstone (11th May 1864)

No doubt many working men are as fit to vote as many of the ten pounders, but if we open the door to the working class the number who may come in may be excessive, and may swamp the classes above them. The result would arise not merely from the number let in, but also from the fact that the influx discourages the classes above them from voting at all; and then these working men are unfortunately under the control of trade unions, which are directed by a small number of directing agitators.
Sound familiar? That's because Hong Kong's conservative parties believe this too. Introduce democracy, and suddenly Hong Kong will become a welfare state.

Interestingly, Lord Palmerston also got his start in rotten boroughs that allowed his election by a very small set of interests - one, a Lord that owned a 'pocket borough' on the Isle of Wight. How different really from our functional constituencies?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

From the Po Leung Kuk Archives

The Po Leung Kuk were a benevolent society set up by Chinese businessmen of the Colony in Hong Kong in 1878 to protect women from being kidnapped against their will and trafficked as prostitutes. However, those same businessmen did so with the intention of protecting the existing practice of the buying and selling of children as mui tsai servants from parents, or the taking up of poor young girls as concubines. Furthermore, the members of the Po Leung Kuk society were also not averse to taking additional concubines themselves, a few of them apprently even from the pool of women they were supposed to protect, so there were some gray areas in which this altruistic society operated.

Nevertheless, the society did do a lot of good work and prevented the kidnapping or immoral use of thousands of girls. The problem that some members of the colonial establishment had with it was that it had detectives that were authorized, independently of policemen, to search ships and enter boarding houses near the shore to interview women and girls that were being shipped off to far ports of call. It took some work though, to ascertain whether women were going off to work as prostitutes of their own will, or whether they were being forced. All of this made the port of Hong Kong a rather confusing place, and women interviewed would sometimes answer their querents in a way that reflected this confusion. Allow me to provide an example:
Case No. 2.

A girl named Ng Yuk, who appeared at the Emigration Office, and stated she was going to Singapore to be a prostitute, was detained, as on being questioned she was unable to give satisfactory answers, and sent by order of the Registrat General to the Po Leung Kuk, with a request that the Committee would inquire into her case. The Committee did so and ascertained that the woman was not going to be a prostitute, that she had said she was, because she thought she would be passed more easily by the Emigration Officer, that she was a married woman, that her husband wished to take her to Singapore, and that the statements made by husband and wife agreed. A copy of the girl's statement was taken down and forwarded to the Registrar General, who handed the woman over to her husband.
Here is another, with an interesting twist:
Case No. 6.

In the year 1890, 17th November, a girl named Ho Kam Yuk, aged 15, was found on board a steamer going to Sandakan, and brought before the Acting Registrar General to whom she stated that she did not wish to go to Sandakan. The girl was handed over under security to a woman Leung Yau and had to come to the Registrar General's Office every quarter. A few days ago a man came to this office and said he wished to marry Ho Kam Yuk and take her to Singapore. The man was not known to this office, so the Po Leung Kuk was requested to make inquiries, which was done, and a report received saying that there was no doubt regarding the bona fides of the man in question. The Registrar General accordingly approved of the marriage and the bond usual in such cases was duly signed, sealed and delivered.