THE KNOBBLY KNEES SCANDAL
This first appeared in issue #2 of 'History Notes', compiled by the late Phillip Bruce. It is reproduced here on Gwulo by kind permission of Mr Bruce's family.
Hong Kong has been rocked by much scandal during its colourful history. One little-known rumpus concerned the wearing of shorts on the Peak Tram.
At the end of May 1928 a lady, using the pseudonym "Femina" wrote to the Hong Kong Daily Press:
"Sir - Numerous daily users of the Peak Tram object to the Tram Company's disregard of Bye-laws 7 and 13 regarding smoking in the cars and the admittance to the tram cars of passengers dressed in objectionable manner, and they fail to understand why the authorities responsible have not long ago made the Peak Tram Co. amenable to justice for non-adherence to their Bye-laws. I strongly disapprove of smoking in the cars (especially the vulgar pipe) and propose that men suppress their inclination to this filthy habit during the seven minutes the journey lasts. (Even females have occasionally been seen smoking in the cars but such behaviour in public, of course, tells its own story).
"I also strongly disapprove of 'shorts' being worn in the Peak tram cars. Passengers clad in such indecent garments ought absolutely to be referred to the coolie seats at the back of the cars. Nothing is more revolting to a lady's sense of decency than being seated next to one of these half naked men with their hairy bony ugly knees exposed. The wearing of shorts is nothing but an outcrop of perversity and is a sickly desire to expose naked parts of the body to the public eye just as are ladies' too short 'skirts' and too short sleeves. If men only knew how ugly and ridiculous they look in this unmanly attire they would promptly restore themselves to sanity and again dress decently as do people in other parts of the world and try to look like gentlemen. It is really significant for the moral standard of the women in this Colony that they ever permitted grown up men to dress like school boys and thus make a caricature of themselves.
I further object to dogs being allowed on the seats in the cars, a nuisance which apparently does not attract the attention of the controllers.
Finally, may I ask why it is tolerated that the Chinese controller dares to rush the passengers and address them with 'hurry up.' If the Tram Company would take care that the cars keep to their time there would be no necessity for hurrying up."
The lady's letter sparked off ferocious debate, with the Daily Press Editor commenting:
"The outspoken criticism of the gentlemen who wear 'shorts' when travelling on the Peak tram, appears to have aroused the attention of the whole colony. Many have rushed in to do battle on a subject upon which they obviously feel very deeply. We publish below a number of the letters received. We could not publish them all without running the risk of losing our cherished reputation of being a respectable family newspaper.
"Having had this opportunity of letting off steam we would now advise our readers to turn their attention once again to the solution of the China problem. That is a problem which is always with us, and we agree that it may grow wearisome at times. Nevertheless, we gravely submit that it is a much more suitable topic of discussion in a community of young and enthusiastic Empire builders than 'hairy knees' even though they may also be 'bony and ugly."
The correspondence ran as follows:
"I thoroughly agree with your corespondent 'Femina" in her devastating criticism of the 'shorts' worn by men on the Peak tram cars, but I do not see how the Tramway Company can be held responsible.
"Military officers and golfers are the worst offenders. The politeness of military officers towards the fair sex is well known, and now they realise that their 'hairy, bony, ugly knees' offend the feminine gaze I am sure they will do what they can to rectify matters. May I suggest that small rugs might be served out to the officers travelling on the car.
These could also be used as a kind of apron to cover their knees. When golfers saw this very delicate regard paid to female susceptibilities I am confident they would follow suit. The right feeling in the matter having thus created I am sure it would not be long before the filthy and vulgar pipe was discarded. Travelling would then become a pleasure - Season Ticket."
"A Modern Woman" commented:
"Surely it is a pity for your corespondent "Femina" to squash so heavily the efforts of the male sex towards a more reasonable and decorative form of dress. Personally, I am much in favour of a "brighter Husbands Campaign' to induce men to abandon the distressing habit of clothing their legs in stove pipes; any thing more ugly than the usual lounge suit would be difficult to imagine. The sooner men follow the sensible example set them by women, of loose necks and short sleeves, especially in a hot climate, the better.
"Smoking is a very different matter. There is no doubt the habit is offensive to some people, and if the Company has seen fit to issue a bye-law forbidding smoking on the tram it should be enforced.
However, as ’Femina’ probably exists only in the fertile imaginations of a group of subalterns or a junior mess of one of the local business houses, I do not think that any gallant and kindly gentleman need distress himself and cover his knees on account of ’her’ letter."
One describing himself as "Old Stager" wrote:
"Femina only forgot one thing, namely that what she would no doubt call the ’gin and bitters brigade’ should be made to travel on top of the tram instead of inside. We all endorse her spirited protest against receiving orders or instructions from a Chinese staff. Better far to see the last tram glide past the Helena May Institute than suffer such indignities.
"As regards shorts, perhaps she will collaborate with the Hong Kong Football Club to produce a nice handsome garment, say, like an American baseballer’s pantaloons, which could be worn on the football field so as to set an example to Peak Tram travellers."
"I am greatly intrigued with 'Femina's tirade in to-day’s issue of your paper. The bare assertion that numerous daily users of the Peak Tram object to modern hygienic modes of dress fills me with concern. If such complainants as ’Femina" are in the majority it would appear that the Peak Tramway Company will have to provide special accommodation for the immodestly attired section who dress for comfort in a hot climate, and also enjoy their tobacco.
"Does 'Femina' long to return to the fashions of the gay nineties? We all knew you possessed legs in those delightful days "Femina" and the inadvertant display of a shapely ankle or even calf (fie!) caused more sex attraction than hundreds of your charming sex can claim with their sensible modern garb to-day.
"Presumably ’Femina" disapproves of the kilt. Are the wearers of this historic and picturesque costume guilty of a sickly desire to expose naked parts of the body? What is wrong with the body anyway? I have known ladies, years ago, who wore black stockings and long black gloves, in addition to an ample bathing costume, and long germ collecting skirts ashore. Thank God, those days are over!
Human nature remains the same and fashions will not change it. People are no more immoral to-day than they were fifty years ago, but they are less hypocritical, and, one hopes broader minded."
"A Transgressor" said:
"To say that I was astonished on seeing the letter by ’Femina" in the Daily Press to-day is to put it mildly: I did not think that anybody in Hong Kong - even a Peak resident could be so fastidious over such petty trifles as to shorts, smoking and dogs in the Peak tram.
"Other 'half-naked men' will agree with me when I say that in such a climate as ours the wearing of shorts adds to the pleasure of playing tennis, golf and other forms of exercise necessary for the health of the barbarians who, when all is said and done, are the backbone of the Colony.
"Up to the present one hasn't noticed any undue objection on the part of the Peak Tramway Company or the more reasonable members of the Community to the wearing of this 'immoral attire' and when one does, it will be time enough to escort 'Femina' up the Peak in the immaculate Saville Row suitings that one buys only for such occasions."
There were supporters, however, such as "A Foreigner" who wrote:
"Your correspondent, 'Femina", has certainly touched on a subject which is an eye-sore in the Colony. I mean the wearing of shorts by fully grown up men.
"I have often heard members of this 'Short Pants Brigade' criticising the shortness of women's skirts and the exposure of their arms. They mercilessly dubbed these fashionable women 'brazen hussies,' and yet think nothing about their own ugly and bony legs being exposed to the public gaze. Surely this is illogical. If they do not like to see their wives, mothers and sisters going about the streets with short skirts and sleeveless blouses, it should occur to them that possibly the womenfolk, on their part, do not care to have masculine, hairy knees forced upon their notice.
"I also wonder if the men of this brigade really and truly think they look well in their shorts. Look at them sitting in the lobby of local hotels sipping their beer. What an unlovley picture.
"And now who are the members of this brigade. This is a British Colony but the community is a cosmopolitan one. Therefore one would expect to find this brigade an International one. Well, from my two years' observation of these men masquerading as schoolboys, I find there are about five per cent Chinese, five per cent Portugese, five per cent Eurasians and probably one-tenth of one per cent Americans, Italians, French and Germans combined, leaving about 84 per cent of British members. A fine example to foreigners!"
Sarcasm was laid on very heavy by "A Very Early Victorian" who wrote:
"I know it is very indelicate of me to 'write to the papers' - my dear Mother, if she were alive, would never have allowed it - but I feel I must range myself on the side of dear 'Femina' who wrote to bravely and pertinently to you yesterday.
"My finer feelings too have often been outraged while travelling in the Peak Funicular Car; in fact it has required the skilled ministrations of my dear and faithful Nurse on more than one occasion to bring me round from a 'vapour' and once from a severe 'megrim.'
"I think the men in truncated nether garments are horrid, and I am ashamed to think that some of our own sex (and the Military Authorities) even encourage them to put coolness before decency. The modern females I fear are still worse in their lack of covering. Why in my young days I remember dear Father used to wear the same broadcloth frock coat in Hong Kong both Winter and Summer.
"Now-a-days even persons of both sex, in spite of inadequate clothing, allow themselves to become over-heated, in fact I once saw a lady - I doubt she was - even commence perspiring in the "Car" showing lack of control, I do think.
"As regards smoking, when I was a girl this would not have been allowed except in the 'den' or garden. I too think the Company's staff are very lacking in manners; they never take off their hats and bow to me as they should.
"On account of these indecencies I have been minded to revert to the old custom of mounting the Peak in a sedan-chair, but have been deterred by the thought of enforced views of the coolies' limbs - how shocking.
"I am very sorry to have taken up so much of your valuable space, but I feel very strongly about this, and would suggest that dear 'Femina" and I inaugurate a 'Society for the Protection of Indelicacy,' which I am sure many would join."
Finally "Vestal" weighed into the debate with:
"Mr Editor, I do so want to meet your correspondent Femina, but meanwhile would you be kind enough to publish this letter.
Darling Femina - I was so pleased to see your letter, too upright and impeccable my dear, just like Mr Lindsell but so pure. If men will wear these septic shorts they must be taught to be insanitary by themselves; as my dear old cook used to say 'andsome is as andsome does,' and I do think, bones and hair and naked parts, I mean, just like a mortuary, you do agree don't you my dear? And another thing Darling, the Dairy Farm, I mean cows and even bulls my dear quite naked and untidy and too shameless. I mean do think that now we are so sensitive about decency some little garment might be - you do understand don't you dear, I mean it could be something quite comfortable and Grecian. I think it is so indispensable because we moderns feel our sex so strongly, don't you? It makes one quite uncomfortable to think of it, and as for being told to 'hurry up' by a cataleptic controller, I mean, I don't agree with control do you my dear/ except of course, darling Dr Stopes and all that sort of thing, but quite too refined and delicate. And pipes, and dogs on the seat, fancy having to sit where a dog - I mean one must wear white dresses in this heat, and besides, creatures my dear, it is all to stultifying and I shall use a chair."
And so the correspondence closed.