Monthly Archives: November 2016

A Note on the Nutrition Research Committee (1938)

Sometime before November 10, 1938 the Hong Kong Government set up an enlarged Nutrition Research Committee.[1] Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, the socialist Director of Medical Services (DMS), who had arrived in April, was the Chairman, and to me the whole thing looks to be his handiwork. The Committee’s new functions emerged from his battle against TB, which was responsible for one death in nine in the Colony in 1937, but its remit was wider:

(Its) duty will be to ascertain the amount of malnutrition in Hong Kong and to devise measures to counter the effects and prevent the occurrence of malnutrition as far as possible.

The wily DMS never separated public health from politics: other aspects of his war on TB included improved housing and higher wages! A few of the 4,000 TB deaths in 1937 must have been Europeans – in Stanley Internment Camp, where high standards of health prevailed, a death or two was recorded. This meant that the DMS was guaranteed the support of highly health-anxious European Hong Kong in his attempt to eradicate the disease. Without suggesting for one moment there was anything hypocritical about Selwyn-Clarke’s campaign – of course he really wanted to rid Hong Kong of TB – there’s no doubt in my mind that in choosing to approach this problem ‘from various angles’ he had a political agenda too.

And this apparently apolitical committee is in itself a myth-busting development.

For a start, its members included one woman and, judging by names, two Chinese, as well as some eminent ‘Europeans’: the Chief Justice, Sir Atholl MacGregor for one, and the University contributed three professors, including Lindsay Ride (later leader of the resistance group the BAAG and Selwyn-Clarke’s sternest wartime critic), and Professor Gordon King as well as senior lecturer Geoffrey Herklots. Remember the purpose of the committee –which set up three sub-committees concerned with science, sociology and publicity – was to help the poorest of Hong Kong Chinese by establishing their nutritional deficit. I’m sure that, once it had armed Selwyn-Clarke with the facts about malnutrition he would have used them to argue for measures that would have addressed far broader problems than the greater susceptibility of the malnourished to TB.

And one passage of the Committee’s eventual report is worth quoting (Hong Kong was full of refugees fleeing the Sino-Japanese War and 13,000 – a rather trivial percentage – were in Government run camps):

An investigation into the calorie value of the diets given at the Government Refugee Camps showed that they had the following approximate values:- Men, 3,200; Women 2,600; Children seven to fourteen years old, 2000; Children under seven years, 1,300 calories. The proportions were correct, but the quantities were somewhat on the generous side.

Well, of all the mean-spirited, Scrooge-like – I bet they wouldn’t have treated ‘whites’ like that – thank goodness we have a fine historian like Gerald Horne to uncover the racist brutality of the British[2]…oh, hang on, there’s more:

It was decided it was desirable to continue giving these quantities because many refugees were undernourished on admission to the camps.


In other words, some of Hong Kong’s most eminent citizens met in a multi-racial committee set up to help the colony’s poorest residents – with almost no exceptions Chinese. They conducted careful scientific and sociological investigations, and in discussing the diets of the refugees in the camps they were responsible for, they decided to overfeed them to make up for past deprivation.

This doesn’t, of course, prove that ‘old Hong Kong’ was a paradise of race-free benevolence. But – with Horne still sometimes quoted as a reliable source[3] – it does underline the need for serious and detailed analysis of the nature of racism and anti-racism in the years leading up to the Japanese attack.

[1] Minutes., Hong Kong Legislative Council, 10 November, 1938, p. 170.

[2] Gerald Horne, Race War! The Japanese Attack on the British Empire, 2003.


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