The colonial Government changes its mind...

Submitted by Andrew Craig-Bennett on Thu, 07/01/2010 - 22:05

Gweilos sometime say that the entire upper class of Hong Kong, apart from Li Ka-Shing, speak Shanghaihua at home. This is nonsense (think, for instance, of the Lee Hysans, whom we met in the BAAG) but there is a germ of truth in it - the capital stock of Hong Kong gained immensely, both financially and intellectually, by the arrival of most of the upper class of Shanghai. Not boat people, not even yacht people, they were more like entire ship people.

Tales are told of industrialists who had ordered plant and equipment in the States and the UK and who ordered the ships carrying it to discharge it in Hong Kong instead.

Meanwhile, their new, Guangdonghua speaking, labour force was pouring across the border with the Mainland, at a rate of around a hundred thousand a month. Many of these people were members of the educated middle classes - Hong Kong abounded in doctors, accountants and engineers.

Colonial Hong Kong had not had to think much about immigration; people came if they wanted to, and until the declaration of the People's Republic on the First of October 1949 they could go or stay depending on what sort of a job they could get and whether they had to take care of relatives.

The latter point is important; Confucius requires you to respect your parents and grandparents and to tend the graves of your ancestors, consequently people tended to move to Hong Kong to work and then to move back again, much as they move into and out of the seaboard cities in China today.

The Colony therefore operated what was called the "touch base policy" - anyone who came to Hong Kong and settled in an urban area was welcome.

With the closing of the border in 1949, Britain strengthened the garrison in Hong Kong (plenty of troops and ships and aircraft, this time!) and issued indentity cards to anyone over 12. The concern was mainly that Hong Kong might be infiltrated by hordes of Communists. The "touch base policy" remained in place - if you could get into Hong Kong illegally - (under the wire, in a packing case, by swimming or, most often, by boat) and get to a built up area, all you had to do was to walk into the cop shop, tell them you had arrived and ask for an ID card.

Meanwhile the Government of Hong Kong became very anti-Communist. The proposals for direct elections to Legco were shelved, in case the people voted Communist (which, considering they were mostly refugees, was very very unlikely!) American pressure for handing Hong Kong back to China suddenly melted away; but there was a debate in the House of Commons about handing Hong Kong back because, with the closure of the border, the entrepot trade died away. (This debate was remarkably unpopular in Hong Kong!)

The end of the entrepot trade was not sudden; other ports in China gradually stopped handling foreign ships but Hong Kong continued to trade with the mainland until the UN Embargo was imposed following China's intervention in the Korean War.

In 1947 Sir Mark Young, who never really recovered from his treatment by the Japanese, retired and was replaced by Sir Alexander Grantham, who has not a street or even a pier but a fireboat named after him...

He had spent most of his career in the Hong Kong Civil Service and was a very long serving Governor; in post for eleven years.

Unlike Mark Young, who wanted to bring in democracy, Grantham was an old reactionary type of Governor, who believed in firm government and no nonsense.

However, the best laid plans of mice and men dae gang full aft agley, and Grantham's did, in a most unexpected way...

The naming of the fireboat is appropriate because he is associated with the Shep Kip Mei Fire, which happened during his governorship and which changed Government policy overnight.

Until the fire, the Hong Kong Government had not felt obliged to do anything special for the refugees; if you were born in Hong Kong, you presumably had somewhere to live and the Government would provide you with ruimentary education and medical care. If you were an immigrant then the Government assumed that your presence was temporary and did nothing for you at all.

Consequently the refugees, arriving at the rate of 100,000 per month, lived in shanty towns known as squatter camps, because, of course, they had no title to the land they were occupying. They threw up huts, got water from illegal standpipes and got electricity by illegally tapping into the Grid. No education or medical care was provided for them.

Then one of the squatter camps, at Shek Kip Mei, burned down, on Christmas Day 1953.

A snippet of cine film, here:

According to the official version of events, the fire, which killed several hundred people and left 53,000 people homeless, caused the Government to reconsider its policy, and to embark on the world famous Public Housing Programme.

According to a later, revisionist, history, based on a review of Government records, the Government was not quite so noble as that - there were several such fires, and the Government became concerned about the risk to public order caused by the homeless and by the Mainland sending "relief missions" to the burned out camps.

At all events, the Government cleared the site of Shek Kip[ Mei and built these:

500 square feet per family, communal lavatories and washbasins, no kitchens - you cooked in the corridors...

But - they were fire proof, the roofs didn't leak, there were shops on the ground floor (hawkers used to walk round the outside corridors with food) and if you were a child you went to school on the roof of the block and played, safely, in the corridors.

From memory, rents were HK$12 per month for an apartment (basically, two rooms) and HK$100 for a ground floor shop. I think the space allowance was 24 square feet for an adult and half that for a child. It was not uncommon to have two families sharing a flat.

The Government had, at least, noticed you. And compared to what you find in most of the world, where nothing is ever done and where shanty towns still stand and still burn down, frankly, pretty d**m good.

All but one of the original Shek Kip Mei buildings, which is now preserved as an Ancient Monument and used as a Youth Hostel, have been torn down now.

The design was copied, and copied, and copied...

Of course, you might not feel grateful enough not to riot...

This is a photo of the 1956 riots, which came about when

(1) a Mainland Chinese aircraft exploded in mid-air and the PRC Government blamed Hong Kong Reactionary Elements for planting a bomb in it*. This created some tension.

(2) Shortly afterwards, on the Double Tenth, (the tenth October - the day on which Sun Yat Sen declared the Chinese Republic, celebrated as National Day by the Kuomintang) some KMT sympathisers in Hong Kong ("Reactionary Elements") hoisted the Chinese Nationalist flag that you may see flying next to the Union flag in the picture of the Liberation ceremony, above, on the resettlement blocks at Shek Kip Mei. A Housing Authority officer ordered the flags removed. This caused the Nationalist occupants of the new blocks to go on the rampage, attacking Communists and their sympathisers wherever they could find them, which was broadly speaking elsewhere in Kowloon and in particular in Tsuen Wan, where there was a similar resettlement area.

The wife of the Swiss consul was caught up in this and was burned alive in her car in Kowloon.

The Army was brought in support of the Police and by the time the riots were over, two days later, the rioters had killed fifteen people and the Police and Army had killed forty-four. Four men were tried for murder and sentenced to death later.

* They may well have done so. They (i.e. the KMT secret service operating in Hong Kong) certainly had planted a bomb with a timer supplied by the CIA, on an Air India Lockheed Constellation that had been scheduled to carry Zhou Enlai to the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955; see here:

The fact that, the year before, two fighters belonging to the PRC Government had shot down a Cathay Pacific DC4, in international airspace, under the entirely mistaken impression that it was Chiang Kai-Shek's private plane, was of course an honest mistake and not the same kind of thing at all... 

Fortunately the aircraft had a remarkably good crew; the captain managed to ditch the burning plane in the sea and the Chinese radio operator got out a Mayday before dying of wounds, so some passengers survived, otherwise nothing would have been known.

see here:

I pointed this out to my colleagues in Beijing when they got mighty excited about the US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in SaraJevo; needless to say they had not been taught about it.

edited to add: I am pretty sure that the building in that picture is the one now preserved as a youth hostel!

And, talking of preservation, here is Sir Alexander's fireboat:


As you see, she's been preserved! She's actually in Taikoo Shing, which is a private (very middle class) housing development built on the site of the Taikoo Dockyard (see above..)


Submitted by
Don Ady (not verified)
Sat, 07/03/2010 - 22:44

I first arrived in Shanghai in 1946 to attend the Shanghai American School.  Going on to age 14.  My trunk went on to Manilla, but I had a large suitcase and didn't miss it much for the six weeks it took for another ship to bring it back.

The Gold Yuan, if in fact I remember correctly, was in late September 1946 exchanged at about 2000 per one US dollar.  By 1948 this had shot up to 2,000,000:1.  Roaming the streets had been all sorts of legitimate entrepreneurs, plus sleazy conmen and scam artists, offering currency exchange.  Money was tied up in packets of 100 bills, folded by tens, with additional packets turned 90 degrees for bundling.   The simplest con was to for instance have one 1000 Gold Yuan enclosing nine 100 gold yuan bill within its fold.  The con artist would do a magician's disappearing act while the customer was had only time to make the outer fold counts. 

It was necessary if you held gold yuan to swiftly exchange it or spend it.  Some with bank deposits caught unawares might withdraw life savings worth only enough for the ride home in a pedicab.  Foreigners holding their own currencies were insulated from this problem.

Inflation moved most apace in Shanghai.  Other cities lagged a bit behind in the exchange rate.  Frequent flyers could (illegally) make a lot of money trading from city to city.

Somewhere in the middle of 1948 a new currency was issued, starting at an exchange rate of 4:1.  There was a new draconian policy - speculators were shot on sight by roaming squads.  That made a blip in inflation, but not for long.  Soon the rates were zooming faster than ever. Within a year, before the regime change, it was back to twenty million to one, again.  With both currencies, that is inflation worse than Germany post World War 1.  I still have a couple bills of 500,000 gold yuan denomination.  Orginally, worth about five cents US and now quite worthless.

Regards,  Don Ady