Hilda Selwyn-Clarke and the Hong Kong Eugenics League (2): Margaret Sanger in Hong Kong

It was one of the most remarkable meetings in inter-war Hong Kong.

On February 20, 1936 a huge racially mixed gathering – more than 500 people, some standing throughout – crowded into the Roof Garden of the Hong Kong Hotel to listen to two female jail birds taking about a topic that would have been seen as ‘advanced’ and extremely controversial in places less conservative than the Crown Colony.

The British speaker, Edith How-Martyn, had been a suffragette, and in an early act of militancy, had been arrested in 1906 for trying to make a speech in the House of Commons – even though she was stopped in the Lobby she was given a two month sentence. The American, the one the crowd had really come to hear, was the internationally notorious Margaret Sanger. As HKU Professor William Nixon told the audience – rather gleefully I suspect – Ms Sanger had gone down no less than eight times before the last war. Most of the arrests I’ve been able to track down were during or after that war, but Professor Nixon was to right to suggest that the woman he was introducing has suffered for her birth control activism, which was illegal in America, although thanks in large part to her efforts, this was about to change.1

Sanger had been involved in radical politics as a young woman, taking part in actions organised by the legendary ‘Wobblies’ (The Industrial Workers of the World). Brought up a Catholic – her mother endured 17 pregnancies, 11 of which led to live births – but she’d become an atheist; her 1914 newsletter The Woman Rebel carried the slogan ‘No Gods, No Masters’,2 and this wasn’t meant to conciliate anyone. She wasn’t the most obvious speaker to draw such a huge audience to Hong Kong’s most prestigious hotel.

The speech they were to hear must have been controversial that evening, and it still raises fascinating and hotly-debated questions.

Sanger explained the basis of her philosophy: she disagreed with those who argued that the earth could provide for everyone and she put forward the Malthusian argument that in the past ‘nature’ had controlled population by flood, famine and pestilence, but in their day control could only be achieved through a decreased birth or an increased death rate, and she of course advocated the former. Leftists used to follow Marx in his contempt for ‘Parson Malthus’, but that was before the earth’s population topped 7 billion,3 credible sources started to warn about the water running short, and climate change made everything look uncertain. So personally I don’t find Sanger’s Malthusian under-pinning problematic in itself, but I do find what came next disturbing:

It was unfair to tax the normal and healthy to keep the ill-equipped and defective ones.

This, she claimed, was what was happening at the moment and the situation demanded ‘some control’ of the latter – ‘control’ seems to be shifting its meaning in rather a nasty way. But this is one of the reasons that eugenics enjoyed such wide popularity between the wars: it had something for everyone, and Sanger’s concern for keeping down the taxes was likely to play well in a Hong Kong which three years later was to reject the idea of an income tax. In any case, like most people today I find this form of crude applied Darwinism obnoxious even when not linked to tax cuts for the well-off.

Sanger continued with feminist arguments that I find much more acceptable: women, she said, could recover fully between pregnancies and develop any talent they wished and professionals could get back to work. Interestingly she claimed birth control would also avoid the ‘horrors of abortion’.

Too frequent pregnancies, she went on to say, impaired the health of the mother and the ‘helplessness’ of the situation had adverse effects on the fathers too. Excess population caused many other social evils, for example child labour, which she assured her hearers still existed in the USA in spite of recent legislation:

As long as parents who could not support two or three children were encouraged to bring 10, 12 or 14 children into the world, there would always be child labour.

Historian Yuehtsen Juliette Chung has claimed, on the basis of a passage in the second annual report of the Eugenics League (1937-38) that the evils created by both the mui tsai system and its 1933 ban were important in the acceptance of eugenics in Hong Kong.4 This passage in Sanger’s speech is the closest thing I’ve found to justification in 1936 for Chung’s position, as her listeners would undoubtedly have thought of ‘mui tsai’ at this point.

Mui tsai ‘(little sister’) was the practise of poor families selling daughters to the better off to act as domestic servants (my mother’s middle-class family had one such ‘servant’ in Macao). This was stigmatised by reformers as simply a form of slavery, while Chinese (and other) supporters of the system pointed out that it was often the best form of life the impoverished young girls could hope for.5 In 1923 the Hong Kong Government banned mui tsai, but this far from ended the practise. Mui tsai itself obviously invited the mistreatment of females and the ban led to an increase in illegal abortions and infanticide. Everyone knew that Hong Kong was one of the most densely populated areas in the Empire, and it was easy to see the system as the result of overpopulation in conditions of poverty. However, from the materials available to me, and the fact that Chung’s evidence comes from a document produced two years after Sanger’s visit prompted the establishment of the Eugenics League, I’m inclined to believe at the moment that the founders of the League saw ‘birth control’ (a phrase Sanger coined) as a way of addressing Hong Kong’s general problems of over-population rather than of mui tsai in particular. But I haven’t yet read her source document, so this is only a tentative suggestion!

In the next part of her speech Sanger offered birth control as a solution to the problems of unemployment caused by mechanisation and suggested it would raise the standard of living. She then listed seven main reasons for such control:

Point one: no-one with a transmissible disease should reproduce, and if contraception failed she ‘strongly recommended’ sterilisation.

I’m not sure what diseases Sanger had in mind here, but contemporary medical websites give examples like AIDS and herpes, so this a good moment to quote Carol Chiu-long Tsang, who, in her thesis on birth control in Hong Kong tells us that the League emphasised birth control as a means to limit the population but not to protect against venereal disease6 (now generally called STD). I find this surprising a VD had always been a problem in Hong Kong, increasingly so after a misguided attempt to crack down on prostitution which began in 1932 and intensified in 1935. Perhaps the League wanted to ward off moralistic objections by arguing that it only gave contraception to married women with several children and this group shouldn’t need protection from VD!

In any case, there’s plenty more of this appalling concern to get the evolutionary ‘unfit’ sterilised (albeit by ‘harmless and scientific means’ and with a ‘bonus or yearly pension’ as reward). This is from a speech to the genetically elite of Vassar:

There is only one reply to a request for a higher birth rate among the intelligent, and that us to ask the government to first take-off the burdens of the insane and feebleminded for your backs. Sterilization for these is you’re remedy.7

It seems that sterilisation is the dream ticket: it improves the gene pool and lowers the taxes. It is, of course, be important to see if the Hong Kong Eugenics League had any truck with such ideas; as far as I know it didn’t, and I’ll set out in future posts exactly what it did do.

Point two: women with ‘temporary’ diseases like TB or heart disease should be ‘protected’ from childbirth and pregnancy until cured.

Point three: parents who are healthy but give birth to ‘abnormal’ children (e.g. blind or deaf ones) should be encouraged ‘not to have any more children’

Point four: women, especially low-income working class ones, should have their children spaced by at least three years

Point five: It was ‘socially immoral’ for parents to have a dozen or so children when they couldn’t afford to take care of two – the responsibility would fall on the eldest child who would have to work all day to provide for his younger siblings.

Point six: While marriage in adolescence might be a good thing, postponement of parenthood is essential.

Point seven: Young people should be encouraged to ‘wait and keep the period of adjustment before marriage’.

Notice again the way in which these points have something for people of all political persuasions: for the left, point 4) offers to help the poorest women and their families, while for the right point 5) denounces the ‘socially immoral’ (and potentially expensive to others) practice of having more children than you can afford to support.

Sanger went on to outline three approaches to the problem of over-population: 1) raising the age of marriage; 2) sterilisation – this didn’t mean ‘de-sexing’ and was the ‘only’ means to be employed in cases of ‘weak mentally and physical disability’ (sic), and was being carried out in 24 American states 3) chemical and mechanical contraception, which was being carried out in 125 clinics in America whose experience showed there were no deleterious side effects whatsoever.8

As her speech came towards an end, she stressed that she wanted to see birth control facilities in the hands of public authorities, who would be able to deliver them easily – and cheaply – to those who needed them. This was eventually to be the case in Hong Kong, but only after a struggle with the enemies of contraception. She concluded by saying, ‘We want our young people to think of their bodies as holy temples’,9 perhaps turning back against them the rhetoric of her religious opponents.

Mrs How-Martyn followed, her brief being to talk about the role of the British Government in the birth control movement. She traced the interlinked history of family planning provision and mother and child welfare clinics, and she claimed that the middle and upper classes were already using contraception to space and limit their families, but the poor weren’t, not out of ‘principle…. (but) a lack of knowledge due to their poverty’ (it seems, though, that How-Martyn did acknowledge the possibility that the poor might have inferior genes not just less access to information10). Hilda Selwyn Clarke was later to use the same argument, and my guess is that it was important to her as a socialist-feminist: it establishes information about ‘birth control’ and the ‘appliances’ necessary to practice it as a benefit to the poorest women, delivered in the case of the Hong Kong Eugenics League by private donations from well-wishers with what amounted to government subsidy. It takes away any necessary suggestion that the women are inferior and simply assumes that the poor would, if they had the same resources as their better-off sisters, make roughly the same decisions

Ironically, given what was to happen in Hong Kong, How-Martyn went on to point out that the British House of Lords was the first legislative body in the world to pass a motion in favour of government action on contraceptive advice. She said that public authorities were now entitled to spend public money in free birth control ‘services’, and the British movement’s main work was in persuading all authorities to make use of this power. With a logic that the opponents of family planning in Hong Kong would later try to subvert, she pointed out that what was granted in Britain should also be granted in a British colony, and urged the audience to create the kind of public support that had won the day at home.

Prior to the meeting there had been a tea party in Sanger’s honour in the hotel attended by a ‘distinguished gathering’ and a dinner party in the Roof Garden was also well-attended.11 On the same day two women had had lunch at the private residence of Mr and Mrs Ho Kom-tong and the people who gathered there and the speeches they made cast important additional light on the origins of the Hong Kong League. Sanger had come to Hong Kong on the invitation of the Chinese Medical Association,12 something which needs to be borne in mind by those who consider the League a colonialist conspiracy, or at best a benign piece of British paternalism. It’s possible that Mr Ho was a member of that body as he said that, speaking ‘as a medical man’, he thought the two women and their work was worthy of praise. They had come to Hong Kong, he went on, ‘to show us how greater happiness for the home can be achieved by scientific limitation of the size of the family’. Living in one of the most ‘populous’ areas of the world, he felt that poverty and over-population were intimately connected. Many Chinese people couldn’t maintain a family of 6 or 7 children, which, he claimed, was common – mothers weren’t necessarily anxious to have that many, and were driven to ‘part with’ them or resort to self-inflicted abortions. Once again, there is no explicit mention of mui tsai in the newspaper report, but this is obviously close to an invocation of that problem.

Ho Kom-tong ended by saying that because of the huge maternal death rate many Chinese women would welcome cheap, harmless and simple birth control. He hoped the two women would leave behind them a band of ‘converts’ to carry on their work.

Mrs Sanger replied that there was a huge difference between having 3 or 4 spaced children and year in year out pregnancies with 6 or 7 surviving and as many dying. She agreed that their method was simple and harmless and wouldn’t cost more than a dollar a year when dispensed by the appropriate public health authorities. Mrs How-Martyn referred to ‘the great cause of birth control which is fundamental to the happiness of mankind’.13

Sanger later wrote that ‘the richest man in Hong Kong’ gave a lunch for her; the richest man was generally believed to be Sir Robert Ho-tung, but as Ho Kom-tong was his half brother and Sir Robert and Lady Clara were present at the lunch described above, this might be the occasion I’ve discussed – both were to be supporters of the League, Lady Clara, whose wide-ranging philanthropy was inspired by her Buddhism, one of the staunchest.

In any case, the guests enjoyed 20 courses, which may or may not have had anything to do with the fact that while ‘visiting a nice English Professor and his wife’ an attack of a recurrent gall bladder problem came on her in the night and she was taken to the War Memorial Hospital – to die, as she believed. She survived, but the illness considerably reduced her schedule in the colony.14

I’ll have more to say about this occasion in a future post; it established that the Chinese/Eurasian elite were crucially involved in the founding of the Hong Kong Eugenics League. In spite of the limitations imposed by Sanger’s illness, this fruit of her work wasn’t long in coming. It’s a cliché to say that Sanger’s ideological position and legacy are ‘complex’, but it’s an unavoidable one. Her online opponents are frequently hysterical and ungrounded in their attacks, ignoring, for example, her hatred of abortion, or calling her a ‘Nazi’ when she in fact joined an anti-Nazi organisation! Nevertheless, she did undoubtedly espouse ideas that ranged from the dubious to the obnoxious, some of which I’ve picked out in my account of her speech in the Hong Kong Hotel. In my view, though, this side to her life is hugely outweighed by the massive good she did through the courageous activism with which she spread the practise of ‘birth control’ on an international stage. Few people can have changed the twentieth century for the better as much as she did, and I’ve come to feel more and more strongly that her work might be crucial in enabling us to survive the twenty-first.

In any case, the organisation she left behind in Hong Kong represents the best of her legacy.




4Yuehtsen Juliette Chung, ‘Eugenics in China And Hong Kong’, in Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine, The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics, 2010.

5For a full discussion, see Susannah Hoe, The Private Life of Old Hong Kong, 1991, 232-246.

6Carol Chiu-long Tsang, ‘The Limits of Fertility’: birth control in Hong Kong, 1945-1997, 2007 (HKU M. Phil.).

7Margaret Sanger, ‘The Function of Sterilization’, speech of August 5, 1926.

8Everything so far is based on the report in the Hong Kong Daily Press, February 21, 1936, page 7.

9Hong Kong Daily Press, February 21, 1936, page 11.


11Hong Kong Daily Press, February 21, 1936, page 11.


13China Mail, February 20, 1936, page 9.



1 Comment

Filed under British Army Aid Group, pre-war Hong Kong

One response to “Hilda Selwyn-Clarke and the Hong Kong Eugenics League (2): Margaret Sanger in Hong Kong

  1. Pingback: Hilda Selwyn Clarke and the Hong Kong Eugenics League: The Early League, Its Supporters and Opponents | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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