I’m switching this blog to Blogger because of such things as the failure to print the footnotes. A properly referenced version of this post can be read at:
Hong Kong historian Tony Banham has pointed to an amusing error in the controversial film ‘Savage Christmas’ and hinted that there are many more in this ‘under-researched’ documentary about the Canadians in the Hong Kong war. The mistake Tony highlights comes soon after the start when the commentary informs us that we’re seeing the main British defence system in the New Territories, the Gin Drinkers Line, but the camera is actually showing us an ordinary road! The line was not in fact a ‘white ribbon of concrete’ but a rather desultory series of mixed defence points, primarily pillboxes and trenches.
I first saw Savage Christmas in the late 1980s, long before I’d done serious research into the Hong Kong war, and what stuck in my mind – alongside of course such things as the terrible Christmas Day massacre of doctors, nurses and patients at St. Stephen’s College – was something that one of the Canadian soldiers said – his role was played by an actor, but his words seem to have been original (the passage in question starts about 14’ 30’’ into the film). This Winnipeg Grenadier tells us that while being ‘prepared’ for life in Hong Kong, the troops were told by a British officer that if while driving they hit and injured a Chinese person they should reverse their vehicle over him because it would be cheaper to pay for his funeral ($5) than his hospital expenses.
As I said, this callous racist disregard for Chinese lives stayed in my mind and coloured my thoughts and feelings about ‘old Hong Kong’. But, as some readers will know, I’ve been engaging with Gerald Horne’s book Race War! on this blog, exhibiting some of the many mistakes and the crippling bias in Horne’s picture of the effects of race on the Hong Kong war. I haven’t, of course, been seeking either to deny the extent of British racism in Hong Kong, or to claim that it doesn’t matter because the Japanese were so much worse – Horne actually encourages such a response by casting a veil over the Japanese crimes against the Chinese they claimed to be liberating, a theme I’ll return to in a future post. But during my research into pre-war British racism, I started to have doubts about the story in ‘Savage Christmas’.
True, the racism of old Hong Kong was extensive and deeply unpleasant. It’s been compared to South African apartheid – you can take the comparison too far, but there’s a good deal of truth in it. Nevertheless, I wasn’t getting the sense of a society that denied its Chinese majority the protection of the law or would have allowed their lives to be snuffed out without taking action.
One of the founding ‘myths’ of British Hong Kong arose out of the case of Zhong (or Cheong) Alum, a Chinese baker. During the Second Opium War the Chinese in Hong Kong were called on by some mainland officials to carry out ‘guerrilla’ actions against the British and Zhong seems to have responded: on the morning of January 15, 1857 the British community was poisoned by the bread at its breakfast tables, while baker Zhong was on his way with his family to Macao! The plot failed: the poisoner had put so much arsenic in the loaves that everyone who ate them was sick before they could ingest a lethal dose.
The Governor’s wife was one of those worst affected, and Zhong was brought back to Macao in circumstances that might have suggested a lynch mob awaited him – Hong Kong at that time was ‘the wild East’, a frontier society based on drug-smuggling, and it would have been reasonable to assume that the baker would have been doing well if he had a trial of some kind and a last meal of his choice before he was hanged by a competent practitioner. Amazingly, he was acquitted because the court was not convinced by the quality of evidence against him – he may actually have been innocent, but even if he was I doubt that, given what one historian has called the ‘anti-Chinese hysteria’ that prevailed, he expected that to have made a huge amount of difference. True he was expelled from the Colony, but quite frankly his bakery didn’t have a golden future before it anyway, so a fresh start and a new business plan anywhere but Hong Kong was his best option.
This story became important in the self-image of the Hong Kong colonialists: they were, they told themselves, a community that guaranteed the Chinese they ruled over the full range of legal protections enjoyed by the ‘whites’. Of course, there wasn’t real equality in the courts- how can there be in a deeply racist society? – and in any case some of the laws were aimed to restrict specifically Chinese activities in the first place, but the fact remains that the colonial authorities held themselves to decent standards in theory, and in practice Chinese people were given far more legal protection than they were in most of China for most of the time span of British Hong Kong.
So I was suspicious of the idea that, more than 80 years later in a Hong Kong that was, albeit slowly, growing more racially ‘inclusive’, you could, in effect, murder a Chinese person and get away without any legal sanction. And I was right to doubt. I don’t deny that the Canadian soldier was reporting correctly what he was told, but I’m now pretty sure that the film’s use of the advice he was given – without comment so that the viewer thinks it accurately reflects conditions in old Hong Kong – is unfair.
On June 24, 1941, a private in the RASC was sentenced to 6 months imprisonment with hard labour by the Colony’s Chief Justice Sir Atholl Macgregor. His crime was to have driven his hired car like a ‘juggernaut’ eventually hitting and killing a 67 year old Chinese woman. It might seem that the sentence was light – on the same day a Chinese man was given 4 months hard labour for snatching a bag – but the private had been able to prove that he had a medical history relevant to the offence: a couple of months before the accident he’d been x-rayed after saying he’d blacked out and fallen down the stairs, and he’d been hospitalised three times that year for an ulcer, the final stint being seventeen days, which had ended just six days before the accident. His defence that he was suffering from ‘dizzy spells’ therefore had a certain plausibility, and could reasonably have been taken into account when passing sentence. Perhaps it still seems light.
In any case, there was not the slightest suggestion that he’d deliberately brought about the woman’s death, so the British officer was giving the Canadians very bad advice indeed on a practical level (and the soldier who reported it was extremely angry at its moral turpitude). If anyone acted on his counsel (I’m pretty sure no-one did) then they’d have been charged with murder. And if any such defendant was thinking, ‘Not to worry, no jury in Hong Kong would have risked sending a ‘white’ man to his death for such a thing’, he would have been in for an unpleasant surprise: judging by names, the jury that convicted the RASC private consisted of three British, one Portuguese and three Chinese. Juries were one of old Hong Kong’s not inconsiderable number of multi-racial institutions.
And another case shows just how wrong that officer was. It involved the Quartermaster of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps, an important man by virtue of this office. In circumstances that once again show that no intent to harm was involved, he ran over and killed a Chinese boy just before Christmas 1940. He appeared in court in February 1941 and the police and legal officer succeeded in defeating the defence’s contention that there was no case to answer, that it was just a tragic accident. The magistrate referred the case for trial, but the prosecution withdrew the charge before this could take place. I have no idea if this was done on sound legal grounds after a careful survey of the quality of the evidence and the likelihood of a conviction, or if the accused’s prominent position came into play. But I do know that it must have been an unpleasant month or two for him and that the legal costs would have been the least of his worries.
So ‘Savage Christmas’ at this point gives a false impression of pre-war Hong Kong. The lives of Chinese and other Asians were, broadly speaking, not as valued as ‘white’ ones by the authorities, but they were given the basic protection of the law and Chinese people could not be seriously harmed by ‘whites’ with impunity. This was perhaps the crucial difference between the British occupation of Hong Kong and the Japanese. Terrible stories of the snuffing out of Chinese lives for the most trivial offences or at the whim of a Japanese soldier are told almost universally by those who lived through the occupation.