A note on "Fragrant grease"

Submitted by Andrew Craig-Bennett on Sun, 08/08/2010 - 13:10
Then there was the issue of corruption.

Towards the end of colonial rule, Hong Kong was squeaky clean, and there is a tendency on the part of the British to pat themselves on the back and congratulate themselves on the innate decency of the British Way of Life, with which we imbued the otherwise unenlightened Chinese in Hong Kong.

To do so is not wise.

Hong Kong in the Fifties and Sixties, especially the Sixties, was a nest of corruption, springing from the population explosion. There was unmet demand for just about everything, and allocation of resources was an obvious field for corruption. Low Government salaries certainly contributed so far as local officials were concerned, but the Englishmen in the Government service had no such excuse. In fairness to them, though, they were often very fine people in other respects - senior and junior policemen and firemen were often brave, efficient and corrupt at the same time.

To indicate what went on, at almost all levels, if you leased a building you would have to undergo a Fire Inspection. Fair enough, but your chances of passing the inspection were materially assisted by the colour of the banknotes that you slipped to the inspector. Fire inspections could of course be used to close down businesses and other establishments that the local police, or others, did not care for, so you might find a school closed down for lack of fire safety next to a night club that was officially "fine".

Nor did you just pay the Fire Department once; having seen off the inspector you could expect an annual call from your local fire station staff, with a quiet muttering of the words "Mo chin; mo shui" (no money, no water...)

I am not having a go at Hong Kong's noble Fire Brigade - the Fire Service in Hong Kong is first class (and, to my knowledge, a hotbed of Freemasonry) I am just using the Fire Service as an example.

The Public Works department were just as bad - approval of drawings depended on "heung yau" ("fragrant grease". Many substandard buildings were passed and substandard work accepted from contractors, notably including work on the Public Housing Scheme estates - after such fragrant and flagrant greasing of palms.

The same pattern was repeated across many areas of Government services, and one of its effects was to encourage the growth of the Triads - criminal gangs which claim to trace their origins to Qing Dynasty underground patriotic movements aimed at restoring the Ming.

For example, one way in which someone who had no job might support themselves was by street hawking. But in order to keep things reasonably tidy hawkers needed to be licenced. Licences were issued by the Government and handicapped people were favoured for licences because they could not get other work (I exchanged stock market tips and political gossip with the hunchbacked shoe shine man outside my office for years).

Now, what actually happened was that the handicapped hawker was given a date to go and collect his licence - and having got it he would be met outside the Urban Services Department offices by a "deputation from the triad concerned and beaten up until he handed over his licence, for which he was paid a pittance...the Urban Services Department had tipped off the triads as to when the licence would be issued.

The triads controlled the "squatter camps", demanding and obtaining heung yau in exchange for a "pitch" and once all the pitches had been taken and huts built on them it was convenient to start a fire to clear the area and so to start collecting heung yau all over again. (Kerosene lamps and cookers did not help....)

But when a squatter camp was cleared for redevelopment by the Government, things became even worse. The residents whose homes were demolished could only count on qualifying for an apartment in one of the new blocks in exchange for heung yau paid to the Public Works Department. Allocation of shops on the new estates was the same but more so.

Public Transport was by no means immune - the granting of licences for taxis and minibuses was a fertile field for corruption, and one day the Commissioner for Public Transport went too far by ordering a fleet of minibuses from a Japanese manufacturer himself - he was "rumbled" and he "chose not to return from leave in the UK".

At the top of each of these little pyramids of corruption would be two people - the 489 (dragon head) of the triad concerned and a faan gwei loh ("foreign devil", usually abbreviated by we foreign devils as "gweilo") as bent as a nine bob note, raking in his "cut" from each of his Chinese staff.

And I have not mentioned the Police yet... they deserve a chapter to themselves, and they will get one presently.

Working hours in the factories in 1960 were often 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Labour disputes usually resulted in the Government siding with the bosses and encouraging the sacking of striking workers. There was no legislation on hours of work or on compensation for injuries...this was brought in during the sixties.

Much of this was sorted out thanks to the work of the grand old lady of Hong Kong social work and the Hong Kong Government's least favourite gweipor both before and after 1997, Elsie Elliott Tu, 杜葉錫恩, CBE, GBM:


who was born in Newcastle as Elsie Hume in 1913 and graduated from Durham in 1937. She married a Protestant missionary and went with him to China, settling in Hong Kong when missionaries were expelled from the Mainland. She eventually separated from her husband owing to his refusal (he was a member of the Plymouth Brethren) to get involved in social issues and she started her own school for refugee children in Kwun Tong, from which she retired in 2000. She married Andrew Tu, another educator, who died a few years ago.

I sincerely hope that there will be, in due course, a statue, meanwhile we all hope to see her enjoying her hundredth birthday. Be it noted, however, that she is not necessarily perfect in everyone's eyes; she is no supporter of democracy in Hong Kong, and has been identified with the Mainland position here.

Now it would be fair to say that any immigrant moving to Hong Kong from the mainland in the Fifties and Sixties would be quite familiar with the concept of corruption; Mao had certainly clamped down very hard on it but it had been endemic in the Nationalist regime in China. Getting into Hong Kong usually involved a payment to the triad snake heads who got you in; one would expect to carry on making such payments, within reason. It is perhaps also fair to say that, as we noticed back on the first page, during the Governorship of Sir John Bowring, corruption had always been present in Hong Kong, with a continual battle between the clean and the corrupt.

But the mass immigration and industrialisation offered temptation on an unparalleled scale for those who could sit on the top of the pile and rake off their cut from those below them who were actually squeezing the working classes.

I mentioned triads, a vast subject about which I know almost nothing, though I do know a lady who, I am quite sure, is well connected to the Sun Yee On. Although we have got on perfectly well for many years, I must confess that I did a double take when the then head of the Gong An* in Beijing welcomed the heads of the Sun Yee On to China in 1994 with the statement that "Chinese patriotic organisations who contribute to the prosperity of Hong Kong are to be respected", or words to that effect. This caused my "friend" to lose interest in moving to Glasgow, a project that she had discussed with me for some years!...

Triads are not universal in Chinese culture; they originated in post- WW2 Hong Kong and are specifically Cantonese. They are not the same as tongs.

The 14K for example is said to have been, in origin, a specifically Kuomintang triad. It is generally assumed that the anti-Qing underground secret societies found themselves with nothing to do after Sun Yat-Sen's revolution in 1911 (which abolished the Qing) and since they were no longer receiving the "tribute" that they used to get they turned to crime. I do not think they are remotely glamorous; I think they are ordinary gangsters. The Hong Kong Government has specific anti-Triad ordinances and a special police unit - the Organised Crime and Triads Bureau. It is probably fair to say that they have flourished outside Hong Kong where local police forces do not understand what they are dealing with.

If you buy pirate CDs or computer software there is an excellent chance that you are contributing to triad funds.

This Wikipedia article may or may not be right:


The point that I want to make is that the Triads and the corruption were both unexpected and undesirable side effects of the immigration.

Edited to add - if you come across a statue of Guan Yu, the Taoist God of righteousness and loyalty, in someone's house, and he is holding his halberd in his left hand - your host is a triad. 

Guan Yu, a real historical personage who appears as a character in the San Guo (the Romance of Three Kingdoms - one of the four great classical novels) is worshipped as the embodiment of these virtues by triads in order to reinforce the point that even gangsters have a moral code - loyalty to their triad.

If it's in his right hand, as here,


he's more likely a policeman, though I have one, a leaving present from my former secretary and present friend P, (halberd in right hand!) and I am not now, nor have I ever been, a cop. It's a rather flattering gift, though.


The recount about fire inspection here reminds me of my overhearing one conversation among the men who gathered to show their song birds and talked about their colleagues at work.  When a ship inspector goes onboard a ship that just arrives, he would first hang his coat on a hanger before inspecting the ship.  Later, when his coat has not "gained any weight", he bangs on a few places with a sledge hammer to show the ship's operator it is not safe.