The weekend when Hong Kong took to the streets and saw red
By curious coincidence - given what's happening in HK at the moment - this weekend marks the 100th anniversary of another time when the people of Hong Kong gathered together in all the streets and public places, both on the island and in Kowloon. Hostilities had ceased, of course, on 11th November the previous year, but peace and the end of the war could not be declared until a treaty had been agreed - the Treaty of Versaille - signed on 28th June 1919.
Hong Kong was set to have its victory celebrations over the first weekend of August - the 5th anniversary of the start of the war - but then was directed by London to fall into line with the rest of the British Empire and hold them from the evening of Friday 18th to Sunday 20th July. Committees were formed (Hong Kong then was very fond of its committees) and all the hotels, merchant houses, shops and businesses were urged to decorate their buildings for the event. The request was met by a more than enthusiastic response and the decorations stretched a long way down both Queen's Road East and West, along the waterfront of both the island and Kowloon and through many the Kowloon streets, but with the most lavish in the central part of the city, especiallly around Statue Square. The town was strewn with the flags of all the allied nations, including thousands of Union Jacks, of course, whilst the pillars and columns of buildings were wound with banners of red, white and blue. Kowloon preserved its more spacious feel by replicating this, but interspersing all with lots of evergreen foliage.
However, it was really by night that the festivities got going and showed to best advantage. Every building, it was reported, was lit up by red lanterns - hundreds of thousands, the Hongkong Telegraph thought - used often to outline the architectural shape of the building, to encircle window openings and to create arches. Bamboo scaffolding was erected in front of some buidlings or over the roofs of others on which to create 'scenes' or write words - typically 'Peace' or 'Victory' in red lanterns - the 'Victory and Peace' on Sir Paul Chater's house was so large that it could be seen all over the town, whilst Governent House contented itself with a more modest - but huge - G R (Georgius rex). The great majority of these red lanterns were of paper with a candle inside, for the electricity supply of the colony could never have coped with demand on this scale. Electric light seems to have been reserved for the government's decorative contributions - great clusters of white lights round the statues, and for the decoration of some of the trams - which had their own generating plant, of course.
In the harbour all the war ships - including a Japanese one - were similarly festooned, with many of the smaller craft and sampans doing their bit. The Star ferries - so covered with lantenns that they appeared as a bright red glow on the water - could be followed having to weave their way across the harbour. The Water Police Station presented a magnificent spectacle, quite visible from the island side, glowing in red, white and blue. Looking back to the island from Kowloon, the journalists recorded seeing the place just as one huge red haze. And although surely the Hongkong Fire Brigade must have been on (red) alert, there seems to have been only one report of a blaze - when a lantern on St George's Building in Central caught fire - but was quickly extinguished by bystanders.
Two weekends earlier there had been the more solemn commemoration of the end of the war, when all the churches and places of worship held special services of thanksgiving and remembrance, reported in great detail in the press. Now, this weekend was the time for jollity - among the other events were dinners and receptions for those who had given conspicuous service to Hong Kong, to the returned soldiers and airmen and to members of the Navy then in harbour. An investiture was held where Legislative Council member Sir Boshan Wei Yuk recieved the Patent of Kngiht Bachelor and Mr. E.R. Hallifax (Secretary for Chinese Affairs) and Mr. C. McI. Messer (Captain Superintendent of Police) received the OBE. More public events included a review of military and naval exercises held on the Cricket Ground and watched by many thousands and a grand motor car cavalcade, with Hong Kong's latest must-have expressions of wealth all lavishly decorated and containing a young lady suitably robed and striking a pose to represent the spirit of the day. Prizes were awarded to the most impressive, the acting Governor, Mr. Claude Severn, CMG, being one of the judges.
The only damp squib of the weekend - the weather held fine throughout - was the fireworks display. The Hongkong Telegraph reported that even senior members of the organizing committees had publically expressed their disappointment, for $10,000 had been spent on a display that produced so much smoke that few rockets or catherine wheels could be seen. The fireworks had come from the American company Hitts, but the Telegraph lamented that the business had not been given to a Chinese firm, who, it believed, could have produced a far superior spectacle.
What a difference a hundred years makes. I'm hoping that Moddsey or another clever Gwulo-ite will be able to link images of postcards/photos of the scenes to this - I'm sure they exist on this site somewhere.
Patricia O'Sullivan 21.7.2019