It is always necessary to say that ‘old Hong Kong’ was racist!

In a number posts on this blog I’ve presented evidence that some portraits of the racism of pre-war Hong Kong are exaggerated. In this one, for example, I show that it was NOT possible for Europeans to murder Chinese people to minimise their financial outlay after causing a car accident. And here I show that the Colony’s social life did not entail an apartheid-style separation in which  ‘Europeans’ (a rough synonym for ‘whites’ in pre-war texts) never came together with men and women of other ethnicities to relax and enjoy themselves.

In drawing attention to such matters I’ve been putting a hand on the tiller, reacting to what I perceive as the biases of my immediate predecessors. In this case I’ve been correcting what I regard as the excesses and inaccuracies of a position I’m in substantial agreement with. In the first period after the war, the endemic racism of pre-war Hong Kong tended to be ignored or downplayed by much of the work published in English. In the second period historians quite rightly exhibited and emphasised that race structured, or at least influenced, almost all aspects of life. Philip Snow and Gerald Horne are two historians whose work, published in the early years of the new millennium, played an important role in bringing about this understanding, and I discuss some aspects of Dr Eddie Gosano’s eye-witness account (1997) of Hong Kong racism below.  I regard myself as in the ‘third stage’, building on and replying to those writers – not attempting to deny, disguise, or minimise racism in old Hong Kong but to describe it more precisely.

Nevertheless, an ebook has come my way which makes me realise that I shouldn’t take the advances of the ‘second stage’ for granted.

Three Years Eight Months: The Japanese Occupation by Jenny Chan and Derek Pua is published by Pacific Atrocities Education and has an introduction by Sarah Kleeb, who is connected with Toronto-based Alpha Education. This is their Mission Statement:

ALPHA Education is an educational NGO, non-profit, and registered charity in Canada that promotes a critical-historical investigation of the events of World War II in Asia. Our mission is to foster awareness of an often overlooked aspect of World War II history, in the interest of furthering the values of justice, peace, and reconciliation, both for survivors of the past and for those who shape the historical narratives of the present and future.

This is admirable, and I support these goals 100%. How far the book under discussion contributes to these aims is a question I shall consider on another occasion.

As I’ve indicated above, the matter I want to discuss in this post is different. Here is what Chan and Pua have to say about the Hong Kong that the Japanese attacked:

Under the rule of the British, Hong Kong was transformed from a series of insignificant fishing villages into a booming centre of international commerce. By the 1920s, Hong Kong was a rather urbanised city with modern style buildings on both sides of Victoria Harbor. (Location 134)

Up until this point the account of the history of Hong Kong has, although necessarily brief, been judicious. They don’t fall for the ‘barren rock’ myth but describe it  as ‘a small coastal settlement of the Qing Dynasty’ – tiny, but not completely undeveloped and part of a much greater whole whose culture it could draw from. There were, in fact, villages, markets and even schools – the authors could strengthen their account by drawing on the work of Ko Tim-keung, but given the space at their disposal, what they say is reasonable enough and I think we should still emphasise the remarkable transformation brought about under British rule (often by Chinese enterprise, of course). And the authors don’t disguise the fact that Hong Kong was filched – in the first of the ‘unequal treaties’ – in a war fought partly on behalf of opium merchants, while also mentioning that broader issues of ‘trade’ were also relevant.

So far so good; but if we have space for the up-to-date buildings of Victoria (now Central) and Kowloon then we also have space for the racism of those who ruled over them.

Both authors are, I think, partly or wholly of Chinese ethnicity, and both have links to Hong Kong, so I’m not accusing them of ignorance or of a sinister cover-up. But I think it was an error of judgement to leave out the racial realities of pre-war Hong Kong. In my view, any account that aims to introduce people to the colonial order that came to an end in December 1941 needs to at least mention this.

Why?

Because, although the Colony was not racist in every single aspect, racism was prevalent enough for it to be an unavoidable daily issue for the 98% of its citizens who were Chinese, and for members of the other non-European nationalities. If we want to understand the history of the Japanese occupation we should not forget this.

Let me give two examples of that racism. The first relates to the ‘structure’ of Hong Kong life, the second is what is sometimes called ‘anecdotal evidence’.

The Hong Kong Government, for all its commitment to a modified version of ‘laissez faire’ capitalism, was inevitably a major employer of labour, and as such it operated a cynically racist pay system. Dr Eduardo Gosano, a Portuguese medic who performed heroic work during the hostilities and the first part of the occupation, left for Macao in June 1942 where he showed a different kind of courage, joining and for a period of time leading, the British Army Aid Group’s cell in the Portuguese colony. He was one of those on the BAAG Mission that left Macao for Hong Kong to carry a message to Franklin Gimson instructing him to set up a provisional British administration in the wake of the Japanese surrender.

Before the war Dr Gosano was paid significantly less than his ‘white’ colleagues, and, after the war, in spite of all his work for the British and the good intentions of many in the new Government, equal pay was not achieved before he left, with some understandable bitterness, for the USA. His autobiography, published in 1997, the year of the handover to China, was entitled Farewell to Hong Kong.

It wasn’t just the medical services that paid people according to their race.

Chief of Police in 1941 was John Pennefather-Evans, a man of the old school who believed that if a European police officer married a Chinese or Eurasian woman (the police were all male) he should lose his job.  Pennefather-Evans produced a report while in camp that explained that one reason for recruiting the  Russian police contingent in the 1930s – long before he came to Hong Kong himself – was that, as refugees, they could be paid less than other ‘whites’. Indians and Chinese, of course, were on still lower scales. Again, we need to be fair: Pennefather-Evans  recommended that non-Europeans be paid more generously after the war, although not on the same scale as ‘Europeans’, who should also be given a raise.

And what of the ‘anecdote’? It is important when analysing racism – or anything else – not to rely on such evidence, which can be used to ‘prove’ almost anything, but to offer as much statistical or analytical material as possible. Nevertheless, some stories can help us get to the heart of an issue in a way that statistical information alone cannot do.

Chemistry Professor Clifford Matthews was a science student at the University of Hong Kong before the war. Already a man of wide culture, he loved European classical music, worked behind the scenes on productions of George Bernard Shaw and enjoyed discussing the Romantic poets with friends studying the arts. As a British subject he was conscripted into the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Force, and when war came he and his younger brother were in the largely Eurasian No. 3 Company. The Volunteers generally acquitted themselves well in the 18 day defence of Hong Kong, but many sources, including the commanding officer, Major-General Christopher Maltby, single out No. 3 Company for its unshakable determination in defending the crucial pass of Wongneichong Gap against a much larger Japanese force.

Matthews was an enthusiastic cricketer before the war, and he’d already experienced racism when he was allowed to play at, but not to join, the Hong Kong Cricket Club. At some point during the hostilities he encountered it again. He showed up at the Matilda Hospital to ask for treatment for a wound and he was given an admission form to fill in. When he returned the form with the word ‘Eurasian’ on it, he was told to seek medical help somewhere else.

That story leaps out and grabs me by the throat over seventy five years later. Of course, I too am a Eurasian and an academic, but I’m sure that’s not the only reason. To me it’s a potent reminder that even in a brief survey we should point out the racism that characterised Hong Kong society on the eve of the Japanese attack.

Note on sources:

The story of Clifford Matthew’s wartime experience is told on page 15 of Vicky Lee’s excellent Being Eurasian: Memories Across Racial Divides; Matthew’s own account of his life, which does not mention this incident, can be found in Dispersal and Renewal: Hong Kong University During The War Years.

J. P. Pennefather-Evans’s ‘Interim Report on the Hong Kong Police’ is in HKMS149 1/5 (Royal Hong Kong Police Force Historical Records) in the HK PRO.

I read Dr Gosano’s Farewell To Hong Kong at the London Imperial War Museum. It doesn’t seem to be available to purchase at the moment.

 

 

 

 

 

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1 Comment

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One response to “It is always necessary to say that ‘old Hong Kong’ was racist!

  1. Les Bowie

    Thanks, Brian, for shining a light on this reality. Racism is a blight on human history and still infects human affairs. It is an absurdity that has no place in an informed, rational, and just world.

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