Hilda Selwyn Clarke and the Hong Kong Eugenics League: The Early League, Its Supporters and Opponents

In April 1936 the Hong Kong Eugenics League was founded – the League’s second president Gordon King said that Margaret Sanger’s February visit ‘was the main inspiration’.1 and also claimed that the organisation was one of the first of its kind in Asia.2 The League was an unusual ‘joint-enterprise’ between the British elite and the rest of the Colony. Further, women, both ‘white’ and ‘Asian ‘ were involved from the start, although never in a role commensurate either with their numbers or their centrality to the enterprise – although their role did grow over the years. As we shall see, the League was an almost entirely humanitarian enterprise, involved in none of the appalling practices that have given ‘eugenics’ such a bad name.

The League’s position was strengthened in 1938 by the arrival of Selwyn and Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, who were able to defy religious opposition and make it in all but name a branch of the Hong Kong Government. If the war hadn’t intervened, the desire of the Honorary Secretary (Hilda) to have more educated Chinese women involved would have further improved the gender and racial balance – although it would not have taken the latter to anywhere near the 98% Chinese composition that would have reflected the racial mix of the colony. In other words, although itself a fundamentally non-racist organisation, the League worked in a racist social setting, and this was inevitably reflected in its membership.

Although it was small – the 500 plus people who packed into the Hong Kong Hotel to hear the infamous Sanger3 dwindled dramatically, so much so that the 1940 AGM of over 60 was described as the largest ever4 – but it grew significantly in the scope of its operations over the five years of its existence, and its story is worth telling in some detail because such an organisation challenges some historians’ stereotypes of old Hong Kong, and indeed of ‘eugenics’ itself.

I’ll begin by analysing the racial and gender composition of its leading members and the circumstances of their involvement.

Carol Tsang is quite right to emphasise that the League started with the full involvement of Hong Kong’s non-British elites. However, her speculations as to their reasons for supporting its work are demonstrably wrong:

Interest in the Eugenics League and its programme emerged among these sections of Hong Kong’s Chinese upper-middle class at a time when the first massive refugee influx from Mainland China was occurring. 750,000 crowded into Hong Kong in 1937 at the outset of the Sino-Japanese War.5

In fact, the war began in early July, 1937 and there’s no way that three quarters of a million refugees had arrived by the end of the year – that total is the Government estimate for 1940, after the October 1938 Japanese attack on southern China had hugely added to the original numbers, taking them up to an estimated half a million by the end of the year.6 More importantly, the League’s high profile Chinese/Eurasian supporters were on board long before the outbreak of war – as I showed in the previous post, the initial invitation to Margaret Sanger came from the Chinese Medical Association, and the Ho-tung family and Eurasian lawyer M. K. Lo were supporters from the start, more than a year before the refugees began to arrive.

Tsang goes on:

In the light of the difficulties presented by rapid population growth, birth control now emerged as a tool that might be manipulated by those with a vested interest in the colony’s stability. These non-British elites clearly identified greater opportunities for the protection and accumulation of wealth and prestige in the maintenance of British control.

If there was no refugee-led ‘rapid population growth’, threatening British rule over Hong Kong, when the non-British elites began to support the League, did they perhaps have reason to worry on account of the birth rate of those Chinese already in Hong Kong? And was this, I any case, the reason for the invitation to Sanger and the founding of the Eugenics League?

Hong Kong’s population in mid-1935 was estimated at 966,341; in mid-1936 it had risen to 988,190 – that’s a hike of roughly 2.25%. If Hong Kong had experienced that growth rate in 2012, it would rank about number 40 (out of 231) on the CIA list of countries by population growth rate.7 That doesn’t sound like a reason to panic, but some population growth rates (e.g. that of the USA) were depressed in the 30s because of the economic slump, so perhaps the British and their elite Chinese/Eurasian supporters were influenced by this factor? It seems not; the 1936 report – the voice of the Hong Kong Government – states:

Variation in population in Hong Kong is more dependent on immigration and emigration than on births and deaths. Movements to and from the Colony are influenced by events in China…

This report – which makes no mention of refugees – would suggest that a worried Government or elite would have been bringing an end to Hong Kong’s traditional ‘open door’ policy (this they did in 1940, when Hong Kong was already trying to cope with about 3 refugees for every 4 residents).

In other words, the refugee situation made no difference to elite support for the League because it didn’t exist when they declared their allegiance, there was no big short term population growth problem to scare them, and birth control would not have been a good way to go about tackling any such difficulty anyway.

Tsang is, however, quite correct when she claims that the ‘upper echelons’ of the League were male-dominated– this is true both of the British and non-British membership. The three ‘patrons’ were all male: Eurasian/Chinese Robert Ho-tung (said to be the richest man in the colony), Chinese millionaire Eu Tong-Sen and wealthy Jewish businessman Lawrence Kadoorie were named as patrons. At the 1937v AGM it was announced that the League had made amendments to the constitution: now there would be one president, William Nixon, two vice presidents, Dr. Arthur Wu and Mr. M. K. Lo, two honorary secretaries Mr. S. S. Fu and Dr. K. C. Yeo, and two honorary treasurers. Mr. W. A. Zimmern (Eurasian) and R. A. D. Forrest, the British Secretary for Chinese Affairs.8 In other words, the non-British presence is impressive, and could even be called dominant, but the female presence is zero. Other sources give Ellen Li (who was to be instrumental in bringing ‘family planning’ to Hong Kong after the war) as the first Secretary9 and as playing a ‘major part’ in the League’s foundation,10but, although she heard Sanger speak in 1936 and then worked for the League,11 I’ve not been able to find contemporary evidence for her leadership role.

However, this picture of male-dominance needs to be softened in four ways. Firstly, women were much better represented in the middle ranks of the League. The Executive committee had 17 members, 7 of whom were women – including Lady Clara Ho-tung and her daughter, Dr. Eva Ho-tung, who was also one of three female doctors on the Medical Committee (alongside Louise Hunter and Anne Sydenham). The Finance committee had one female member out of four, while the publicity committee consisted of Dr. Woo (or Wu) and Mrs. G. F. Hole. Secondly, women moved into senior positions as the League developed: Hilda Selwyn-Clarke became Honorary Secretary in 1938, and in 1941 she was joined by Constance Lam as Treasurer. Thirdly, Selwyn-Clarke’s vision was of a committee of educated Chinese women’, working under Lam, to carry out publicity and educational functions, but the Japanese attack put an end to such plans and the League itself. Finally, it should always be borne in mind that the League was based on the vision of two women (Sanger and How-Martyn) and that all those who worked specifically for it, the doctors and nurses at the clinics, were female.

Finally, analysis of the League’s early composition underlines an obvious but crucial point: across British and non-British, male and female, there was a strong representation of doctors. As mentioned above, the original invitation to Margaret Sanger to visit Hong Kong, came for the Chinese Medical Association, and the League owed its existence and its ability to operate to doctors. It’s main aim was the medical one of promoting the health and well-being of its patients; this doesn’t mean that it might not have also had political or ideological aims, but it does mean that, if such existed, they were definitely of secondary importance.

In fact, one such aim does seem to have existed: thanks to Tsang, we know that the League’s first annual report made no bones about one of its purposes:

One of the objectives of the Eugenics League, stated quite baldly, was to ‘establish and maintain British control of Chinese’.’12

Although I’m not sure exactly what this meant in its context, on any conceivable interpretation it shows the League was enmeshed in colonial ideology. Nevertheless, I’ve not yet found a single way in which this affected its functioning.

If such were its supporters, who were its opponents? My guess is that they were primarily Roman Catholics, but with some Protestants among them.. To understand this we need to glance at the development of Christian thinking on contraception in Britain.

In 1930 the Lambeth Council, a decennial gathering of bishops that discusses Anglican policy (its decisions are influential although not legally binding) had decided that birth control was allowable in some circumstances. This meant that some Hong Kong Christians – vicars, medical missionaries and no doubt lay people – could support the Eugenics League with a clear conscience. The Catholic Church, however, continued to adhere to the idea that contraception was immoral.

As a result of this the League attracted the support of some Protestants and opposition from some Catholics. (There was probably protestant opposition too, but I[ve not so far been able to locate any examples). Dr. E. W. Kirk, who was a member of the Executive Committee that was announced in 193713 was a New Zealander who’d come to Hong Kong as a Presbyterian medical missionary, although he’d left when he entered Government service.14 The Reverend G. K. Carpenter was also a committee member; he’d been in Foochow or Hong Kong with the Church Missionary Society since 1922.15

In June 1937, a year after the opening of its first clinic, the League enjoyed a further boost from Hong Kong’s protestants. The Andrian, the official organ of St Andrew’s Church in Kowloon, published an article about the importance of the League’s work from the perspective of someone whose daily work brought them into contact with misery, much of it caused by the poverty of the large family:

It is not too much to say that the League is the most intelligent piece of social service in the Colony.

While noting that some of the League’s aims are ‘bitterly opposed’ in some circles, especially religious ones, it claimed that many ‘leading’ people in Hong Kong, some of them ‘professedly Christian’, were taking an interest in the League. It said that the church possessed no ‘prohibitive principle from Jesus’ on the matter. The writer went so far as to say that the League’s principles, if acted on, would solve many of the economic problems of the modern world.16 The article ended by saying that, for the first time, the League’s adverts were being published.17

Given that the writer – my guess is that it was the Rev J. E. Higgs, who later became a member of the League’s Executive Committee18- was so impressed by the work of the League, it’s not surprising that he asked why it was not the Government itself making the means of ‘family limitation’ open to the poorest.19 I don’t know the answer to that question as regards the period up to June 1937 , but strangely enough there is evidence that in the next month the Government had to respond to ill-informed meddling from Britain and that this was to force it to keep its distance in the future.

Viscount Fitzalan, President of the Catholic Union of Great Britain, the last Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and a man who’d inherited his religion with his high rank as a member of the Norfolk family, England’s senior Roman Catholics, wrote on July 16, 1937 to Colonial Secretary William Ormsby-Gore that the League’s activities violated Chinese law banning the sale of contraceptives and the ‘public decency’ advocated by the Nationalist ‘New Life’ campaign. He also objected to the fact that the League’s honorary treasurer, R. D. Forrest, was the Government’s Chinese Secretary. Hong Kong officials told the Colonial Office that Forest was acting in a personal capacity, and showed that contraceptives were on sale in south China and that leading hospitals in the south and north had birth control clinics.20

It seems unlikely that Fitzalan lay awake at night worrying that somewhere in the Empire local sensibilities were being offended. It’s probable that he was called into action by Catholics in Hong Kong, who shared their Church’s continuing opposition to contraception. Further, according to Yuehtsen Chung, Fitzalan feared that ‘the League’s birth-control campaigns would impede the spread of Christianity in China’.21

It would be quite wrong to judge Hong Kong Catholics in the 1930s on this incident. The Church ran a large network of schools and orphanages, educating and caring for thousands of the largely Chinese poor.22 Later in the decade, Jesuit Thomas Ryan was to be active, alongside the socialist Anglican Archbishop Hall, in organising desperately needed relief for the hundreds of thousands of people who’d fled the fighting.23

Fitzalan’s interention assured that the League never became officially linked to the Hong Kong Government, and its advertisements ‘were subjected to assiduous scrutiny’.24 This is amazing, given that he’d not been elected to any office anywhere since 1921, he had no link that I’ve been able to find with Hong Kong, he wrote in his capacity as head of an organisation with no official standing of any kind, and his statements were shown by government officials to be inaccurate or irrelevant. He was obviously too important to be ignored. Nevertheless, his intervention did little practical damage to the League’s work, which was on a very small scale anyway, and when the Selwyn-Clarkes arrived in 1938 they were able to turn it into a branch of the Government in all but name. It’s time now to look at the League’s operation during its first two years.

On June 26, 1936 Hong Kong’s first birth control clinic was opened.25 It was in the Violet Peel Maternity and Child Welfare Centre;26 most of its ‘patients’ were working class, and the clinic also trained midwives in contraception.27 The only other 1936-1937 activity I’ve been able to locate is a fund raiser: on February 13, 1937 the league held a ‘well-attended’ tea dance at the Hong Kong Hotel. Lady Ho-tung was present, and most of those listed came as couples, with more Chinese and Eurasian names than British.28

Even the Eugenics League itself didn’t claim to have achieved much in the first year (April 1937-April 1938). Its first annual report claimed no more than to have emerged successfully from a first year of trial while expressing the belief that it could shortly be expected to play a noteworthy part in ‘the relief of poverty’ in the colony, and, by example,in China. The report set out the League’s primary objectives: 1) the provision of advice to women, particularly of the poorest class, whose health makes pregnancy medically undesirable; 2) provision of clinics for those for whom ‘public policy and their individual good’ make family limitation advisable.

To some tastes, ‘public policy’ sounds a little sinister and ‘individual good’ a little patronising. However, as the 1938 report was to make clear,29 no-one who objected to contraception was referred to a League clinic, and at all times it operated solely by education and advice. The typical case it had in mind was a woman who had had about 10 pregnancies and was bringing up half a dozen surviving children in conditions of extreme poverty, and it’s hard to see making such a woman aware of contraception, advising her to use it, and, if she agreed, fitting her with a free diaphragm as a cunning colonialist/bourgeois conspiracy against her true interests. Further, before anyone was instructed in birth control, a full medical history was taken and they were examined by a doctor,30 so the patients had the benefit of diagnosis and treatment for disease as well.
The main criticism to be made of the League’s work was one they were well aware of themselves: the report stated that the number of women given advice on family limitation was 135.31 The female population of Hong Kong was about 400,000, so it could reasonably be argued that the League reached such a small percentage of the women who needed it that it wasn’t a good use of the time of medical professionals to put them in the birth control clinics.

The next year’s report (April 1937-April 1938) stated that the League had ‘steadily developed’ in spite of ‘handicaps’ – perhaps it had the opposition of Fitzalan and his Hong Kong supporters in mind, as another passage almost certainly results from that incident:

It cannot be too strongly emphasized for the information of those people who, on religious or ethical grounds, object to contraception that the Hong Kong Eugenics League is sponsoring an entirely voluntary clinic.32

The report claimed that the experience of the second year had shown that the provision of contraceptive information was as necessary in Hong Kong and China as in any part of the world. The League noted approvingly the decision of the British Ministry of Health to urge all Municipal Authorities to make information available to married women on medical grounds.33 Refusal of such information, it claimed, resulted in criminal abortions or unwanted children and this maintained the system of Mui-Tsai (sic) -this is the first mention I’ve been able to find of the role of contraception in bringing to an end the practice of the poor selling their daughters to the rich as domestic servants (slaves, said some) which still continued although banned – the ban had led to an increase in illegal and dangerous abortions and infanticide. (For a fuller discussion see https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/09/23/hilda-selwyn-clarke-and-the-hong-kong-eugenics-league-2-margaret-sanger-in-hong-kong/ )

The report stated that in the year 1937-38 the number of women given advice on birth control had roughly doubled 284. This was still a very low percentage, but also to the League’s credit were a number of patient referrals to the appropriate clinic for treatment for venereal disease, tuberculosis and so on. Most of the women advised had been the mothers of large families – this was very much part of the League’s remit, but the report said that it was equally anxious to give advice to mothers in the early stages of marriage so they could space their children.

The report claimed that the importance of the League’s work was borne out by the large proportion of children dying in infancy of ‘inanition’ (‘the exhausted condition that results from lack of food and water’). It accepted that it was obvious that in a colony of a million the fact that only 284 women had been given advice meant that the work of the League must be enlarged. The main need was seen as publicity, so poor Chinese would know the services are free and more ‘Europeans’ would join the League and give it financial support. Plans for this were listed: to win the support of English and Chinese newspapers, to give out leaflets in hospitals and dispensaries, and to give talks to women’s organisations. The financial position remained sound -34 although this was as much the consequence of the league’s failure to find much to spend its money on as to the generosity of its supporters.

The report noted two major losses: the death of Lady Clara Ho-tung, a staunch supporter, and the departure of Professor Nixon, one of the architects of the organisation, to London to take up consultative work. Further, in March 1938, R. A. D. Forrest, the indefatigable treasurer, left on home leave.

Gordon King succeeded William Nixon as HKU Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in 1938 and with it took over the post of League Chairman,35 and, probably before the report was drawn up, Nixon had secured the agreement of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke to taking on the role of Honorary Secretary. She was probably already in the Colony when the report was released in late April, and on May 9 she spoke at the AGM.

1 Susan Fan, ‘Hong Kong: Evolution of the Family Planning Program’, in Warren C. Robinson et al., The Global Family Planning Revolution, 193.



4Hong Kong Daily Press, April, 26, page 1.

5Carol Chiu-long Tsang, ‘The limits of fertility’: birth control in Hong Kong, 1945-1992, (HKU Thesis, 2007), 18.

6Population and Vital Statistics, 1940; Public Health Annual Report, 1938.


8Hong Kong Daily Press, 1937, April 27, page 16.

9Fan, 2007, 193

10Anthony Sweeting, Education in Hong Kong 1941 to 2001, 2004, 240.

11Susanna Hoe, The Private Life of Old Hong Kong, 1991, 267. Ellen Li told Hoe that she’d been present at a meeting of ‘fifty or so people, including Chinese doctors’ addressed by Sanger – this sounds like the lunch I described in the previous post.

12Tsang, 2007, 16-17.

13Hong Kong Daily Press, 1937, April 10, page 16.

14 http://www.archives.presbyterian.org.nz/Page175.htm


16Hong Kong Sunday Herald, May 9, page 5.

17Hong Kong Daily Press, June 7, 1937, page 1.

18Hong Kong Daily Press, April 26, 1940, page 12.

19Hong Kong Daily Press, June 7, 1937, page 1.

20Chung, in A. Bashford and P. Levine, The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics, 2010, 268.

21Chung, 2010, 268.

22The best picture of its work I know is in Nicholas Maestrini, My Twenty years With The Chinese, 1990.

23See e.g. Thomas J. Morrisey, Thomas F. Ryan SJ, 2010, 49-51.

24Chung, in Bashford and Levine, 2010.

25Chung, in Bashford and Levine, 2010.

26Susan Fan, Hong Kong: Evolution of the Family planning Program, in Warren C. Robinson et al., The Global Family Planning Revolution, 2007, 193.

27Chung, in Bashford and Levine, 2010.

28Hong Kong Sunday Herald, 1937, February 14, page 9.

29Hong Kong Daily Press, April, 28, 1938, page 1.

30Hong Kong Daily Press, 1937, April 10, page 16.

31Hong Kong Daily Press, 1937, April 10, page 1.

32Hong Kong Daily Press, April 28, 1938, page 3.

33Hong Kong Daily Press, April, 28, 1938, page 1.

34HKDP, April 28, 1938, page 3.



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