A chapter on Society and Social Issues

Submitted by Andrew Craig-Bennett on Fri, 06/04/2010 - 08:43
I think we should now consider education, health and the social structure of Hong Kong in the early colonial era.

The Chinese citizens of Hong Kong differed from many of the other people under the British Colonial Wellington Boot in that they belonged to a very advanced civilisation, and were perfectly accustomed to education, medical treatment and so on.

I don't know much about this area, but I have the impression that voluntary primary and secondary education in Hong Kong got going pretty early - certainly by the 1880's - with tertiary education following on soon after. One big issue was the relationship between Chinese and Western medicine, and you may notice a pattern of people like Sun Yat-Sen, Sir Ho Kai and numerous others studying western medicine and encouraging others to do so.

Hong Kong was of course desperately unhealthy until proper public health measures were taken, with outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, bubonic plague and so on at fairly regular intervals.

Socially, there were and are really three large racial groups, the Chinese, the Caucasians and the Indians, plus some people from just about everywhere else. The prominence of Parsees, Jews, Armenians and so on is notable right from the outset.

Owing to the geography of the place, Hong Kong society is stratified vertically according to social rank; the higher up the Peak you are, the richer you are.

The social rule seems to have been that the lower classes never fraternised, the middle classes did so cautiously and the upper classes did so all the time. This degree of fraternisation probably has everything to do with the level of education and facility in languages, although I think I am right in saying that Chinese members of the Hong Kong Club were unknown until the nineteen sixties, and that at a much earlier stage Chinese people could not own houses on the Peak. Until the 1940's the front seat on the Peak Tram was marked, "Reserved for the Governor"

Mind you, women weren't allowed in the Members' Bar of the Club at lunch time until much more recently, (specifically, the Sexual Equality Ordinance of 1996) and I am not sure if they are allowed in the Jackson Room at lunch time even now.

There was (maybe there still is) a society called the Tripehounds; this consisted of the Taipans of the leading Hongs plus the Governor and the Secretary and they all foregathered in the Club and ate tripe on Thursdays.
Race, class and education are the Third Rail in this sort of narrative.

Dealing first with race, there is a very old Hong Kong joke that there was no racial tension in colonial Hong Kong because the British and the Chinese despised each other equally, so nobody had a chip on their shoulder.

To this we may add the quite widespread Chinese belief that the Han Chinese not only comprise most of the population of China*, but evolved as a quite separate species, instead of coming out of Africa like the rest of us, and the British preference, when offered the choice between racialism and snobbery, for snobbery, every time!

At the top of Hong Kong society, racial differences are a non-issue, and one reason for this is that the whole place is made up of people who are more or less first or second generation immigrants, interested chiefly in the making of money. There is no aristocracy, just a very, very, grand bourgoisie. "Old money" wears out pretty fast if its custodians are not up to making more of it, but conversely family alliances, without regard to race, can carry on for two or even three generations. In this context, it is interesting to note who sits on whose Board, and the arrangement of cross shareholdings. Family dislikes are, if anything, even more durable.

I suspect that Renaissance Italian city states must have been somewhat similar.

Education is the biggest third rail of the lot; in Hong Kong one issue that everyone has to face is the medium of instruction - Cantonese or English? Then there is the question of how history should be taught - Qian Qichen, then VP of China, caused an almighty ruckus in 1997 when he said that "some Hong Kong history textbooks do not accord with reality".

In the colonial period the British were not terribly good at handling this one and I am not sure that its much better now. Hong Kong schoolboys and schoolgirls used to get two sorts of history lesson - History and Chinese History.

The British were keen not to foster too strong a sense of Chinese identity in Hong Kong and the Chinese have tended to go too far the other way and to generate a reaction against being identified as "Chinese". The Hong Kong identity is therefore a very complicated one.

*Genetically, this is nonsense, but the minority races do tend to Han-ise themselves by speaking Chinese and adopting Chinese customs, and even where a minority race language is clearly not a Chinese dialect it gets called a Chinese dialect anyway.


As far as I can tell, compulsory education didn't arrive until 1971. The 1955 Hong Kong Annual Report's chapter on Education begins:

Education in Hong Kong is voluntary, and there is great public demand for it.

It also has a table showing enrolment in the different types of schools as of 30 June 1955. It gives an idea of how much support the government provided:

  Pupils %
Government 21,016 8%
Grant-aided 14,554 6%
Subsidized 55,553 21%
Private 154,430 59%
Special Afternoon classes 16,497 6%

In Hong Kong 1975, Report for the year 1974, things have changed. It notes that education is now free and compulsory - but still only for primary schools :

Since September 1971, education has been free in all government Chinese primary schools and in the great majority of aided primary schools. [...]

The Education Ordinance 1971 gives the Director of Education powers to enforce school attendance where parents appear to be unnecessarily withholding their children of primary school age.

Regards, David

It seems to me that anybody who could afford it in HK sent their children back to the UK to be educated. (See Growing Famililies and Growing Expectations at www.thehongkonglegacy.com)

Indeed there were. I am told, schools in the UK, that specilised in HK expatriate children.There were certainly schools in the 'colonies' which specialised in bringing up young men to run the Empire.

Again see www.thehongkonglegacy.com where it is mentioned that in 1863 there was a set up The Diocesan School For Boys.

I have also read that the shrinkage of "traditional English Public Schools" in their true sense in the UK,  began with the ending of Empire.