Hong Kong in the Twenties

Submitted by Andrew Craig-Bennett on Fri, 06/11/2010 - 12:46
The rather unsatisfactory Stubbs was succeeded, from 1925 to 1930, by the very different Sir Cecil Clementi,

a fearsomely intellectual type who, being already fluent in Greek and Sanskrit, had no trouble adding Cantonese and Mandarin to them within a couple of years of arriving in Hong Kong as a junior officer. He was an enthusiastic admirer of Chinese culture; he even published a book of Cantonese Love Songs! He spent much of his career in Hong Kong, initially dealing with land reform in the New Territories, and managed to deal very well with the tremendous upsurge in Chinese nationalism that occurred in the late twenties - in Hong Kong this was usually in the form of strikes.

He was the Governor responsible for Kai Tak airport.

Needless to say, he got a road (not a very important one) and a school named after him, but he did even better in Singapore, his final post, where there is an entire town named after him.

When one comes across people like Clementi and Lugard, one wonders what would have happened had the entire Colonial Service been composed of such people, rather than brutal idiots like Stubbs?

The pattern to this part of the story is that, following the events of the Boxer Rebellion, which, so far as China is concerned, culminate in the 1911 Revolution, Hong Kong becomes a different sort of place; its no longer a small trading post on the edge of a great Empire; it has become an outpost of another Empire, the British Empire, which is competing for influence over the corpse of the Chinese Empire.

As such Hong Kong has gained what by the standards of the 1890s is a defensible perimeter, and the Royal Navy decides that, if only to keep an eye on the Germans, the French and the Russians, it needs a Far East Fleet. Hong Kong is the only practical base for this, and the Great and Ancient Hong oblige by building the Taikoo Dockyard, whose drydocks can take the biggest ships that the Navy is likely to send to Hong Kong.

The Taikoo Dockyard, which built and repaired merchant ships as well as repairing warships, and which survives, corporately, today as half of Hong Kong United Dockyards, although physically it is now Taikoo Shing, was the only heavy industrial enterprise that Hong Kong ever had, but near to it the same company built the Taikoo Sugar Refinery, which refined sugar cane from the Philippines and sold sugar across the length and breadth of China.

China was no longer a scary place for Westerners, as it had been in the days of the Opium Wars; if you wanted to travel to Canton, you took the train; if you wanted to go to Shanghai, you took a coastal steamer, and if you wanted to get to Chungking, deep inland, you took a river steamer from Shanghai up the Yangtse Kiang.

Hong Kong was not now a window onto China; it was the back office for more energetic enterprises in every town and city in China.

Meanwhile China itself was falling apart; the 1911 Revolution had disposed of the feeble remnant of the Qing Dynasty, but the Republic was about four steps too far ahead for China, and it collapsed when Yuan Shi-Kai staged a military coup and tried to declare himself Emperor - that failed and almost every other general, following his example, set himself up as a local warlord.

Shanghai was the real political centre of China; it was there that the Nationalists and the Communists joined forces and then fought between themselves. Hong Kong was mere colonial backwater in all of this; it produced no news and no new ideas for China.

One thing that Hong Kong did produce was yachts... the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club had been founded in 1894 and it flourished, with superb local sailing conditions. That in turn encouraged local boatbuilders and by the Thirties Hong Kong had a reputation as a place to get a good long distance cruiser built in teak. In the Thirties, one of these, the Tai Mo Shan, named after Hong Kong's biggest mountain, was sailed back to England by four RN officers, who were given leave on condition they did some spying on Japan on the way.