Hong Kong in the late Fifties and early Sixties

Submitted by Andrew Craig-Bennett on Fri, 08/06/2010 - 13:04
The Government of the People's Republic found some uses for Hong Kong even whilst the official embargo lasted; there were and are numerous front companies for mainland interests; everybody knew and knows who these are.

A very good way to check on the political loyalties of an organisation used to be to check whether it closed on the First of October or the Tenth of October. If the former, it was a PRC business; if the latter, it was a Taiwan business. (This distinction applied even to the girlie bars of Wanchai )

Hong Kong in the Fifties was not quite the centre of "China Watching" that it later became, with all sorts of folks either pretending to be spies or pretending not to be spies, but the China-watching industry started then.
I mentioned much earlier that there was one group of people who did not choose to live in Hong Kong, but who found themselves there anyway - the farmers of the New Territories.

In the Fifties, farming in the New Territories was becoming increasingly marginal, and the Government was concerned about the possible risk of Communist infiltration across the border.

The New Territories farmers seemed to be the group most likely to be targetted by the Mainland, so the Government came up with a Brilliant Solution to both problems at once.

They offered farmers in the New Territories Assisted Passages to Britain. An awful lot of people took up the offer, moved to Britain and started either laundries or restaurants.

A cynic would point out that the reason why most Chinese restaurants and takeaways in Britain produce food that no Chinese gourmet would recognise is that their owners never had their hearts in the restaurant trade!

The farmland of the New Territories became, in effect, depopulated; the hillside farms were abandoned and eventually they were taken into the Country Parks - one of modern Hong Kong's great sucesses.

The 1960s were probably the defining decade in the formation of the Hong Kong identity as it is today.

There were severe typhoons, there were water shortages, there was a serious threat of invasion from the Mainland and there were the worst riots in the history of Hong Kong.

Despite this, the population and the GDP per head of that population went on growing like Topsy. In 1960, Hong Kong was an unimportant unimportant place; in 1970 it was marked on the map of the world that most people carry round in their heads.

We now come to the Governorship of Sir Robert Black, from 1958 to '64. Another intellectual; he read Latin and Greek for pleasure and had spent the years from 1942 to 1945 as a guest of the Emperor of Japan, having been captured whilst organising guerillas, asa member of the Intelligence Corps, in North Borneo.

He is best remembered for founding the Chinese University of Hong Kong (from the language of tuition - HKU uses English, CUHK uses Chinese), for handling the peak of the refugee influx (triggered by the famine that followed the Great Leap Forward) in the course of which he demanded and got British financial support for the public housing project, and for dealing with a sucession of natural disasters.

To start with the natural disasters, Typhoon Wanda was the second worst typhoon in the history of Hong Kong*; certainly no typhoons since have been as bad. It therefore acquired legendary status with those who experienced it telling those who did not, “You’ve never seen a real typhoon!” for several generations afterwards.


Hong Kong also became famous, or infamous, for Hong Kong Flu, because the H3N2 type flu pandemic of 1968-9 was first observed in Hong Kong – the flu was a bird flu type. About one in two hundred died in Hong Kong - and about 33,000 in the USA, whence the virus was carried by returning servicemen.

Hong Kong was extremely short of water – one third of Hong Kong’s land area is rain water catchment, but its nowhere near enough – in the Fifties the use of sea water for toilet flushing, distributed through separate mains, was started and it carries on today, but the growth in population outstripped the water resources. A desalination plant was constructed, but it was horribly expensive to run.

In 1963 water was rationed to four hours per day. With people in the squatter camps relying on standpipes, this was pretty severe.

The only solution was to buy water from the mainland, and a pipeline was built from the Dong Jiang (East River), one of the tributaries of the Pearl River, to Hong Kong, opening in 1964.

Initially the water supplied through this pipeline was 230,000 tons per year – today it is 1.1 billion tons, and accounts for 70% of the water consumed in the SAR.

Obviously, this gave the Mainland a foot on Hong Kong’s throat, and the “water weapon” was in fact used during the 1960’s, although HK Government websites don’t say that now.

This, along with the question of land leases in the New Terrritories, was the second factor which made the eventual return of Hong Kong to China inevitable.

* The worst typhoon was in November 1937; at that time the naming system was not in use. the typhoon hit at night accompanied by a severe storm surge - storm surges, caused by the low pressure over the typhoon centre, generating a rise in sea water of maybe a metre or so, across maybe a hundred miles of sea, are magnified immensely by the deep bays in the coastline of Guangdong, including Hong Kong, and can reach five metres and more. Hong Kong harbour itself, having two entrances, is less subject to these effects. The 1937 typhoon killed 11,000 people, mainly because such a surge occurred at night and had not been predicted.


The typhoon that struck Hong Kong occurred on 2 September 1937.

The following abbreviated information is from an article cutting entiled 'Typhoon's Toll':

Thirty vessels were driven ashore by the typhoon. Other vessels were damaged by collision with one another.

The tide rose 13 feet against a normal height of 7 1/2 feet. The Praya being underwater came up as far as Des Voeux Road. The Post Office (today's Worldwide House) and shops on Connaught Road were flooded. On the mainland the seawater reached the lower end of Nathan Road. The force of the wind caused small fish to be blown many yards from the sea onto buildings 20 feet above the ground.

During the typhoon a tidal wave overwhelmed the village of Tai Po and demolished practically all the buildings and fishing boats. The wave was said to have been 18 feet high, and swept into Tide Cove and washed away almost a mile of railway embankment. The (KCR) service to Canton was suspended for 10 days.

The Aberdeen fishing fleet of about 40 junks foundered at sea. Five survivors were picked up five days later by the P. & O. S.S. "Mirsapore" . The men stated that 450 people had been drowned. Other wreckage proved that thousands of the floating population had lost their lives.

Matsheds on bathing beaches suffered a great deal of damage and the 'Lido Lady' at Repulse Bay was blown ashore. Damage to local property was comparatively small.

It is estimated that the number of lives lost exceeded ten thousand.

The typhoon is the severest in the history of Hong Kong. It is estimated that the maximun wind speed reached 167 m.p.h (Hong Kong Electric Company Ltd anemometer chart).

Submitted by
Ho Lim-peng (not verified)
Sun, 08/08/2010 - 17:40

The British also gave support to pro-Taiwan elements in the NT, including many former KMT army personnel who had fled to HK after the Nationalists had been defeated on the mainland, thereby effectively establishing buffer zones adjacent to China. Evidence of this was provided, right up until 1997,  by the huge numbers of Taiwanese flags in evidence in such seemingly unlikely areas as the Hong Kong shoreline of Deep Bay, and on numerous outlying islands.  American relief organisations and, reputedly, the Taiwanese intelligence services, were very active in these areas   

Up until the 70's, most HK mainstream Chinese newspapers such as Singtao and South China Morning Post were openly pro Taiwan with the blessing of the Brit HK colonial govt. On Oct 10th, the newspapers would include a ROC (Taiwanese) paper flag as a bonus so the readers can display the flag to celebrate ROC's national day. Many did. This began to change when communist China unseated Taiwan as the legit member representing China at UN.

Breskvar, you're right:

[...] the Government was forced to exercise water rationing on 2 May 1963. This allowed the public 3 hours of water supply every day. On 16 May, the restrictions were further tightened so people only received 4 hours of water provision on alternate days. By 1 June the water stored in reservoirs had declined to 175,000,000 gallons, only 1.7% of the total storage capacity! The Government declared that it could only supply water to the public for 4 hours, every 4 days. Restrictions remained in force for nearly a year until 27 May 1964, when Typhoon Viola struck Hong Kong, bringing with it heavy downpours.

Read the full article on this Government website.

I recall the water shortage and was a student at KJS at the time.  To promote awareness of the problem, one of the softdrink companies ran a slogan competition and offered prizes (such as several crates of their product).

I was fortunate to win a prize for my slogan: 'make a bucketful do what a bathful did.'  

We had to fill our bathtub with water and then 'scoop' what we needed as we needed it. 

We came to HK in late 1953, (I was 10) and there was water rationing all the time until we left in 1956. At one stage water was restricted to one and a half hours every other day - 6.00 to 7.30 a.m.! In that time we all had to bath, dress and fill up every available utensil for two days, including the bath. The ironical bit is that any water left in two days went down the plug hole ready for the next lot!

My wife and I arrived in HK Aug 1963. Rented a flat in Merry Terrace on Seymour Road (Runs between Caine Rd & Robinson Rd). We were on the 5th. floor, so the water took time to reach us when it was turned on. Lived there for 3 years. Were active in the Methodist church and the Soldiers & Sailors home.

Hello Herb,

Merry Terrace is still standing today. I see that it was completed in 1963 (http://gwulo.com/node/19524), so were you the first people to live in your flat?

We've also got pages for the Methodist church (http://gwulo.com/node/8134) and the Soldiers & Sailors home (http://gwulo.com/node/5691). If you can add any photos or anecdotes to any of these pages, we'll enjoy seeing them.

Regards, David

Hi David,

We moved into Merry Terrace in Sept 1963 and lived there until Aug 1966. We went back to HK in 1985 for a visit and Merry Terrace was still there. Thanks for info about Methodist Church & S & S. I'm working on my memoirs for the kids and grandkids. By the way I worked at Little Sai Wan.

Thanks again,


Our family doctor Dr. Yau Mo Sai had his office on Nathan Road near Austin Road. Whenever grandpa got sick and could not travel, my task (we had no phone) was to go ask the doctor to come over (I riding in his car) after he has closed his office.  One trip coincided with the flu pandemic so his tiny waiting area was packed with people who had, or thought they had, the flu, or were there for flu shot each costing $5.

On water rationing, I lived on level 3 and when level 2 residents (there were several families) turned on their tap, we had virtually no water pressure which was most inconvenient at cooking time.  So we worked up a schedule for fairness and to make the best use of the rationing period.  There was a real fear of water shortage or worse none at all.  So people us included bought containers to store water in the kitchen.  For small family like us, this was not a good idea because our low consumption often led to old-stored water being poured down the drain.

Greetings Richard.  Somewhere I read and saw a photo of a captured tiger in HK many years ago and before my time - the extent of my knowledge on this subject.  When farmers leave and the land no longer farmed, natural vegetations will gradually move in giving tigers more habitat area to roam and hunt and other wild animals too to support the top food chain.  This process of ecological change can be slow and take many years and they might also need an influx from the mainland.  Without poultry/red meat farms to raid, I wonder if conditions can support tiger population growth.  I was fortunate not to have encountered a tiger during my hikes to Shatin wearing light clothings and Japanese flip-flops. Not an ecologist and have no data, so don't take my words too seriously.  Regards, Peter