The Shakee Massacre

On June 23rd 1925, a hundred thousand Cantonese labourers and students had taken to the streets to show support for the May Thirtieth Movement (Mandarin: Wusa Yundong 五卅运动) and outrage at the subsequent Shanghai Massacre, in which the British Shanghai Municipal Police opened fire on the protesters. In an unsettling kind of parallelism, the British would enforce the same colonial justice in Guangzhou as they did in Shanghai. The British, French and Portuguese opened fire on the Chinese protesters and killed 52 and wounded over 170 people.

never forget this day

The British reports on the incident blame the Chinese fully for the massacre that occurred during the protests -even though they could have called for the ceasefire at any time. Indeed, the European powers remain adamant that it was the Chinese who opened fire on the foreign concessions in China, which caused the Europeans to retaliate with Lewis gun fire and sharp ammunition (a type of light machine gun used in the first world war instead of rubber bullets and tear gas as is the case in the current Hong Kong protests.) In light of this, it is perhaps good to learn about why these protests were taking place in the first place, and what the British, French and Portuguese were doing inside Canton (henceforth to be referred to as Guangzhou).

Background

The 20’s in China were characterised by the inhumane conditions the people had to work under, especially under supervision of the colonisers; extremely low wages (in Shanghai it was reported that a labourer in a Japanese cotton mill would make 15 cents a day, a pound of rice cost 6.2 cents), child labour (children under 12 had to work to support the family), work days exceeding 12 hours a day, just to make ends meet. This era was also marked by the remarkable resilience of the people as they rose up en masse, as they yearned to be free of the yoke of western imperialism and rampant capitalism.

The tension between the Chinese people, the Chinese warlords and the colonial powers was mounting. While the exploitation of the Chinese people continued, the colonial powers sought to safeguard their enterprises by tightening down their laws. On the 19th of June 1924 in Guangzhou in the foreign concession Shameen (Mandarin: Shamian 沙面) the Vietnamese activist and revolutionary, member of the Đông Du Movement, known as Phạm Hồng Thái attempted to assassinate the governor-general of French Indochina, Martial Merlin. His attempt failed, and he drowned himself in the Pearl River (Mandarin: Zhujiang 珠江). While his assassination had little to do with the Chinese government, and more to do with the horrible conditions in Vietnam, the colonists were spooked. They imposed new regulations on the Chinese population. All Chinese servant entering and exiting the foreign concession were required to carry with them their official papers. After 9 o’clock in the evening, any Chinese not carrying a pass would not be allowed to enter the concession territory twice. However, all Europeans, Japanese, Indians or Vietnamese were free to go as they pleased. Indeed, the Chinese were restricted movement in what should be their own land and own territory.

The outrage of the Cantonese people at British Imperialism manifest itself in strikes. With the support of Sun Yat-Sen and the Chinese Communists the 3000 or so Chinese servants frequenting the foreign concessions went on strike. Indeed, the perseverance of the strikers was such that the British concession asked the Guangzhou government to put an end to it. The Cantonese government did not acquiesce to their request.

By the end of 1924, a hundred labourer’s unions had joined in on the movement. The numbers had then swelled to 150.000 people, the majority of all unionised labourers of Guangzhou. In 1925 the movement spread to Hong Kong. The Cantonese government offered free passage to those Hongkongers who wished to return to China to escape the oppressive conditions under British rule. Many chose to move to Guangzhou. Within a very short period Hong Kong was depopulated. The movement grew… millions of hearts yearned for one word in unison: Freedom.

This entire movement came to be known as the Canton-Hong Kong Strike (省港大罷工). A moment in history where Chinese, no matter a subject of the Queen or a citizen of the Republic, clasped their hands together, united against injustice and oppression.

The Day of the Massacre

Many of the protesters during the movements were labourers from the unions, but also present were students of various Cantonese colleges, middle schools and elementary schools and cadets from the Whampoa Military Academy. The protesters carried banners with slogans such as “打倒帝国主义” (dadao diguozhuyi – overthrow Imperialism), “取消一切不平等条约” (quxiao yiqie bu pingdeng tiaoyue – annul all unequal treaties), “协助上海五卅惨案” (xiezhu Shanghai wusa canan – show support for the Shanghai Massacre). The protest would proceed in an orderly fashion as the marching route was planned beforehand. There however was one road the protest would march through that spelled trouble, it was the road that faced the Shameen concession directly: Shakee (present day Liu Er San Road 六二三路 – literally 623 road, named after the incident which occurred on June 23rd).

The protest in an orderly fashion.

The Europeans on Shameen had already prepared for battle, as if expecting an assault. The ships were readied, the perimeter of the island of Shameen was barricaded and the French even went as far as moving their valuables onto a ship, for fear of their headquarters being looted. By 2 p.m. the protesters had reached Shakee, when the Lingnan Students and the soldiers of the Xiang army reached the middle of the street, the European troops suddenly opened fire on the protesters.

The Ling Nan Students carrying their flag “Ling Nan Xuexiao” (Ling Nan School)

This is where the reports differ, according to the English reports, it was the Chinese who had premeditated this assault and opened fire on the British (personally, I find this unlikely, as none of the Chinese positions were fortified, Guangzhou was in no position in terms of military strength to challenge the concession on Shameen, and there was little resistance from the armed forces present among the protesters when the massacre commenced). Regardless of who shot first, upon hearing gunfire, all of the other European troops opened fire on the unarmed crowd with support from the nearby battleships. The panicked crowd attempted to disperse, and many were forced into the water. It is said that on this day, the canal between Shameen and Shakee ran red. The barrage of bullets continued until 3:15 p.m., the European troops had seen little resistance from the Chinese troops and therefore ceased to fire.

The first responders came from the Guangzhou Guanghua Hospital. They reported arriving to a nightmarish sight. About 40 corpses riddled with bullets were strewn across the street. Some with torn open bellies, others with holes in their heads. Some had exit wound greater than the entrance wounds and others vice versa. In the end the official report claimed a total death toll of 52 people and 170 wounded, it is very likely that more were killed and even more died from their wounds later.

Indeed, the Shakee Massacre is a true massacre, quite different from the one that unfolded at Tiananmen and, luckily, very different from how the Hong Kong government is currently handling the large scale protests in Hong Kong. Indeed, through this incident we can see how Europeans deal with peaceful protests. It is yet another example among many others of the horrors of Western Imperialism in Asia and indeed the world. The blood of the innocents that stains the hands of these colonisers proves their evil and inhumanity. This is the result of not strengthening the people, this is the result of disregarding threats and treating foe as friend and friend as foe.

A memorial stele was erected on the site of the massacre with the inscription: never forget this day. That too is the message I would like to impart upon the reader today. This atrocity occurred not even a hundred years ago, yet many people have forgotten about this incident. How can we face the victims of these crimes when they ask us what we did to make sure something like this will never happen again? What will we say when they ask us if they died for nothing? Well, did they? Did we rid the world of exploitation, of Colonialism, of Imperialism? No, instead, we forget they ever marched, and we forgot they ever died for our liberties.

No longer. Today we remember.

The memorial stele erected in memory of the massacre with the inscription: 毋忘此日 (never forget this day)

References

Jia Qianjun 贾仟军. “Shaji canan yanjiu” 沙基惨案研究. Master’s thesis. Shandong shifan daxue 山东师范大学 (2016).

June twenty-third : the report of the Shakee massacre, June 23, 1925, Canton, China. Canton: The Commission, 1925.

Wang Fuchang 王付昌. “Shaji canan shangwang renshu dingzheng” 沙基惨案伤亡人数订正. Zhongshan daxue xuebao 中山大学学报 no. 1 (1994).

China and France at War: Treaty of Tientsin (1885)

Today on the 9th of June we remember the signing of the Treaty of Tientsin of 1885 (not to be confused with the Treaty of Tientsin of 1858 that ended the first phase of the Second Opium War). This treaty marks the end of the Sino-French war, often referred to as the Tonkin War. It was a war fought over the dominion over Tonkin (Đông Kinh 東京), the north of present day Vietnam under control of the Qing Dynasty at the time.

Qing Forces in Tonkin during the Sino-French War

To the surprise of many, including the Qing court, which went into the war with a mind to appease France and to make compromises, the Chinese armies did markedly better against the French army than they did typically against other Western powers at the time. This can be owed in particular to Liu Yongfu’s command of the Black Flag Army and Tang Jingsong’s Yunnan Army. The combined Chinese and Tonkinese efforts succeeded in damaging the French armies and sapping their morale, it finally caused General de Négrier to suffer defeat in the first time of his illustrious career. Despite the occasional victories, the Chinese still suffered heavy losses. Toward the end of the war, due to a strategic blunder by Lieutenant-Colonel Herbinger, the Chinese armies gained a strategic victory in Tonkin and maintained control over the region. Despite their best efforts, however, the victory was to no avail as it was mitigated by French victories elsewhere which include the humiliating annihilation of the Fujian fleet and the destruction of the Foochow Navy Yard, the taking of the strategically important Pescadores (Peng Hu Xian 澎湖县/澎湖縣) off the coast of Taiwan and the subsequent naval blockades facilitated by France’s naval superiority. France also attempted to invade Formosa (Taiwan 台湾/臺灣), yet the well-equipped and experienced Huai Army under Liu Mingchuan stationed there was effective in halting the French, preventing them from advancing and bogging them down in a long and fruitless stalemate as the French invasion force had difficulty advancing beyond Keelung (鸡笼/雞籠, present day 基隆).

The French on the Pescadores posing with the townsfolk.

France’s naval supremacy off the Chinese coast can be owed to the factionalist splintering of Chinese power. The Beiyang fleet, which contained China’s most advanced ships, was held off from fighting. Furthermore, besides the rather systematic approach to the defense of China in a total commitment to the war as proposed by Zhang Zhidong, there seemed to be a reluctance coming from the Empress Dowager and her court. There is a lesson to be learnt here about full commitment and unity. If China had been less divided into factions and committed fully to the idea of defeating the French and thereby driving them out of the region once and for all, chances were that China would have succeeded in winning the Sino-French war. Alas, internal struggle manifest like an illness in the Qing empire and it was never cured, and the people suffered its consequences.

For fear of escalation the Qing commenced negotiations and acquiesced to most of France’s demands. The Qing acknowledged French suzerainty over Tonkin and agreed to retract all Chinese forces from the area. Liu, having lost much of the Black Flag Army’s strength in the war against the French, had no choice but to obey the terms and leave Tonkin. He only left with his elites, however, and disbanded the rest of his army without confiscating their weapons. These disbanded Black Flags remained in Tonkin and continued to resist French control in an arduous campaign of guerrilla warfare under the Cần Vương (勤王) Movement, whose aims were to expel the French colonisers from Vietnamese territory and to put Hàm Nghi (咸宜) on the throne. Their efforts to expel the invaders failed, though not for lack of effort. Hàm Nghi was betrayed, captured and exiled, only to die on foreign soil, where his body remains to this day.

Captured female freedom fighters against French Colonisation in 1886 (labelled as pirates by the French)

The results of the war rippled through China, France and Vietnam:

  • It gave pause to the Self-Strengthening Movement in China but simultaneously sparked a wave of nationalist sentiment in the South of China.
  • The difficulty of French campaign had an impact on the momentum and enthusiasm of French colonial expansionism, which in turn gave pause to their planned invasion of Madagascar as the war-mongering Prime Minister Jules Ferry was sacked.
  • The treaty effectively meant the Qing gave up its suzerain status in Vietnam by acknowledging its status as a French protectorate. It allowed for the complete colonisation of French Indochina.

French Colonialism in Vietnam

Why was France in South-East Asia in the first place?
France justified its taking of French Indochina under the excuse of giving the savages civilisation. Regardless of how arrogant and supremacist this idea is on its own, it was also nothing but a badly hidden excuse for their real purpose in the area: the worship of the colonist’s one true god known as money. The colonisers’ motives are revealed through their treatment of the locals; the following segment shall seek to illustrate this point.

While the French Republic was active in the region of South-East Asia, taking Cambodia, Laos, Annam and Cochinchina before taking the area of Tonkin, the end of the Sino-French war marked the beginning of an era of French dominance over the entire region. Up until 1897 the French rule in Vietnam was marked by resistance and the slow consolidation of French power by pacifying the various pockets of Vietnamese resistance. From 1900 onward, the French colonisers began their serious attempts at submitting the Vietnamese in heart and mind as well as beginning to devise the most efficient methods of exploiting the local resources.

Realities of Colonial Rule

The people of Vietnam, famous for their extraordinary history of resisting and defeating foreign invaders, did not sit idly by while the France continued to sully Vietnamese pride. Indeed, anti-colonial sentiments grew into a more systematic organisation that manifested itself in movements like Phan Bội Châu’s Đông-Du. Naturally, the anti-colonial organisations did not emerge out of thin air. The lived experiences of the Vietnamese people under the realities of the French “reign of terror” proved time and again that change needed to come. The severity of their suffering fuelled the engines of resistance. I have taken the liberty of using Truong Buu Lâm’s and Rydstrom’s research on the Vietnamese Experiences of Colonialism to sketch a glimpse of Vietnam under French colonial rule.

Economic Exploitation
From 1880 to 1939 the land dedicated to rice production in Vietnam quadrupled in size, yet in the same period not only did the average peasant not get a share of the increased rice production, his rice consumption actually dropped. Not because he had now began to eat bread, there was no substitution of other food.

Another form of exploitation comes in the form of forced labour for public works only the French and collaborators benefitted from. These labourers were forced to work in mines and rubber plantations, the inhumane treatment of the workers, while severely underpaid, and a lack of medical care in abysmal working conditions is only one step removed from slavery; this parallel to slavery is only made more apparent as the punishment for running away was torture and death.

“Working at a rubber farm is easy: Go as a strong man, return a walking corpse.”

A rough translation of Vietnamese poem on French exploitation

The Government
Needless to be said, all high positions in the French colonial government were reserved for French officials. While the traditional monarchies of the protectorate states of Laos, Cambodia and Annam/Tonkin still existed underneath the French administration, the rulers and their courts were reduced to not much more than ceremonial figureheads and puppets on strings. Instead, true power in French Indochina rested in the hands of the Governor-General and the various councils that replaced each other over time as well as Paris itself. Any attempts at the inclusion or promise of “uplifting” the indigenous in the colonial administration, such as what was attempted by Sarraut and Varenne, was met with immediate backlash and resistance. Similar to the colonial administration, the police forces and the armed forces stationed in French Indochina were invariably lead by Frenchmen, though much of the rank-and-file was made up of indigenous soldiers or foreign soldiers from other French colonies.

Worsening Education Levels
By 1939 about 80% of the Vietnamese population was illiterate. Contrasted with pre-colonial times when the majority of people had some kind of literacy. Moreover, in a country with more than 20 million inhabitants, how is it possible that the only university in the country only has 700 students? Indeed, even the secondary schools, built for the ethnically French, only rarely accepted Vietnamese students. Simply said, French rule seems to have retarded the progress of Vietnam, and if you were to ask me, it almost seems to have been a deliberate obscurantist attempt to keep the people uneducated.

Police and Military Terror
It was generally ill-advised to speak ill of the French colonial government. There was a great fear among the Vietnamese to be overheard by security agents. The French would employ these “agent provocateurs” to evoke any lingering seditious sentiments in political debate, after which they would promptly be arrested and interrogated. In fact, to this day it is said that at quiet nights near the old Saigon police station on Catinat street one can still hear the cries of terror, the wailing, the moaning and the trembling voices of anguish of those tortured by the security force.

The French army would hunt down any voices, any party involved in the anti-occupational movement deemed a threat against French sovereignty and they would torture them and kill them to leave an imprint on their friends and family. They would do these acts of terror in order to scare the Vietnamese into submission, so that they would never attempt to resist France again.

‘If you do not comply with French colonialism, a ghoulish theater of murder will be back, for new victims’

Quoted in Rydstrom

Gendered atrocities
While the brutality of the sexual violence that occurred in the American invasion of Vietnam decades later has often been highlighted, the equally as brutal and longer lasting French sexual violence designed to dehumanise, to strip-naked of its human identity, to submit and to “civilise” the Vietnamese people has escaped such attention.

“Once, our gatekeeper signalled that the French enemy was coming. So we went down to the tunnels [beneath the pagoda], but some did not [manage to come along]. Then the French burned, and killed, and also raped about 10 [pregnant] women.”

Old Quyen as quoted in Rydstrom

Rydstrom notes that Vietnamese women were conquered twice, once as Vietnamese and once as women. French soldiers would rape women and girls, to extract information, to punish, to warn the rest of the community. During these episodes, pregnant women would be singled out as targets of sexual violence. She would be subject to extreme suffering because of her symbolic status as someone producing more enemies for France to worry about in the future. As such, pregnant women and their foetuses would often be killed as a projection of ultimate dominance over the conquered. There are many accounts I could relegate, but I could not bear to dwell upon them for too long for the sake of my own sanity, and I do not want to subject the reader to the same. I refer to Rydstrom’s article if you want to know.

The rape of women is an especially powerful and dreadful weapon frequently used in wartime, but occasionally also in peacetime. The attack on the reproducer of a population is an attack on the reproducers of the collective. The men who belong to the group of the raped collective are therefore seen as incapable of defending their own (in Vietnamese culture being unable to protect your own is a great humiliation), and are feminised in the process. This ruthless violence against women was used as a means to punish these seditious elements.

“They raped women, sometimes until they died.”

Quoted in Rydstrom

These facts all serve to show us that life in Vietnam under colonial rule was plagued by misery and is aptly described by many as hell. It speaks volumes about this French “reign of terror” that during their reign Vietnamese nationalism soared to new heights. Even though any sedition or resistance to colonial rule was usually sniffed out and put an end to, the Vietnamese people never did give up. Here too is a lesson to be learned: no matter how high the stakes, no matter what the odds, the Vietnamese fought for what was right. If the true worth of a human is measured by their virtues, then the Vietnamese freedom fighters of this era could count themselves among the richest.

In conclusion, if the regional suzerain becomes weak, other nations will start to pick at the borders. Vietnam could have been spared the abject terror that was French colonialism if the Chinese state were to have been more capable of defending its protectorates. The Sino-French War serves as a grim reminder that no matter how virtuous or vengeful your state is, none of it matters against ravenous predators with absolute power. The only way to resist such savage and overwhelming strength is to match them bullet for bullet, to be united against our common enemies and to be willing to win, whatever the means, even especially when the odds are stacked against us. We remember not for any country, or for any government, but for those who suffered, so that this level of human tragedy may never happen again.

Keep your eye on this blog if you want to remember.

References

  • Buttinger, Joseph, and William J. Duiker. “Vietnam.” Encyclopædia Britannica. February 07, 2019. Accessed June 09, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/place/Vietnam/Effects-of-French-colonial-rule.
  • Feng, Pan 冯攀. “Zhong Fa zhan zheng shi qi Zhang Zhi Dong de jun shi fang lue” 中法战争时期张之洞的军事方略 (ZHANG Zhidong’s Military Strategies during the Sino-French War). Yi bin xue yuan xue bao 宜宾学院学报 11, no. 7 (2011): 31-34
  • Ji, Yun Fei 季云飞. “Zhong Fa zhan zheng qi jian Qing zheng fu de kang fa bao tai ce lue” 中法战争期间清政府的抗法保台策略. Li shi yan jiu 历史研究, no. 6 (1995): 87-95
  • Rydstrom, Helle. “Politics of Colonial Violence: Gendered Atrocities in French Occupied Vietnam.” European Journal of Womens Studies22, no. 2 (2014): 191-207. doi:10.1177/1350506814538860.
  • Trương, Bửu Lâm. Colonialism Experienced: Vietnamese Writings on Colonialism, 1900-1931. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 2003.
Left a soldier of the Black Flag Army, right a French marine.

An Extension of Hong Kong Territory

Today we remember that exactly 121 years ago, on the 9th of June in 1898, the United Kingdom and the Qing Empire signed the lease known as the Convention between the United Kingdom and China, Respecting an Extension of Hong Kong Territory (中英展拓香港界址專條).

The United Kingdom hereby extended its Hong Kong territory by another 300.000 square kilometers (115.831 square miles). The United Kingdom deemed an expansion of territory as necessary to protect its colony of Hong Kong. To this end, the United Kingdom “leases” (without paying rent) the New Territories from the Qing Empire for a period of 99 years until June 30 1997, which was deemed “as good as forever.”

The lease, however, did not last forever. On July 1st 1997 the entirety of the Crown Colony, including Hong Kong and Kowloon, was reverted to Chinese rule.

Whereas the UK only had control over Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon peninsula immediately due North of Hong Kong Island, this new treaty granted the UK a significant increase in colonial territory.

The Context

In the spring of 1898 the Qing was forced to sign several other similar leases with the Germans, the Russians and the French over the territories of Kiaotschou Bay ( 膠州灣/胶州湾) for the Germans, Dalian (大连/大連) and Port Arthur (旅順口/旅顺口) for the Russians and Kwang-Chou-Wan (廣州灣/广州湾) for the French, while also signing away Weihaiwei (威海衛/威海卫) in Shantung to the English.

It should be clear that the Qing Empire did not sign this lease out of free will. After all, which Empire would give away territory to other nations for free? It was the humiliating and unexpected defeat at the hands of the Japanese in the First Sino-Japanese War, known in Chinese as the 甲午海战 (jiawu hai zhan), that signalled the weakness of China (even with its now modernised military) to the predators and vultures circling above its head. Like sharks smelling blood, the various Western powers swarmed China and endeavoured to divide it among themselves. Indeed, the famous cartoon published on 16 January 1898 from Le Petit Journal says more than a thousand words.

British Rule in Hong Kong

One might think the British were “bringers of civilisation” who raised Hong Kong from a sleepy fishing village to a booming metropolis. One might even think Hong Kong was better off simply because of the “benevolent and progressive” British rule. Indeed, in this train of thought one might even think that Britain, “marching at the head of civilisation,” managed to justly subordinate Asia to Europe in Hong Kong. After all, civilising the dark Asian continent is the divine mission of all Europeans. This section shall serve as a reminder as to what kind of a ruler the Briton truly was in Hong Kong.

A Brief Overview of Early Colonial Hong Kong until 1900

The area of Hong Kong came into British possession after the First Opium War (1839-1842), a war of aggression initiated by the United Kingdom when the Daoguang Emperor of China ordered Viceroy Lin Zexu in China’s own “war on drugs” to seize and destroy 1000 long tons of British opium. British merchants had for several decades been smuggling opium grown in India to China to balance the British trade deficit. As a reaction to the “insult” the Chinese had given by destroying the opium, the United Kingdom declared war, and brutally bombarded Chinese coastal cities, sailing up its rivers, blocking major ports and disrupting trade. The Chinese Empire was powerless against modern weaponry and utterly unprepared against a naval invasion. To end the war the Treaty of Nanking was signed; besides paying indemnities, opening trading ports and guaranteeing extraterritorial rights for British expatriates, Hong Kong was also ceded for an indefinite length of time. As is apparent, Hong Kong was a colony taken forcefully by British powder and lead in a war to open China’s markets and to facilitate the British drug trade in China.

19th century depiction of Viceroy Lin Zexu overseeing the destruction of the opium by lime, salt and sea water in June 1839

In the early days of the colony the British were unrealistically optimistic about the future of Hong Kong. They saw the colony as the centre of British power in China, the capital of Anglo-China as it were, and it would soon rival ancient Carthage, Tyre and even Rome in terms of population and magnificence. These romantic predictions did not come to pass, the colonisers had grossly overestimated the importance of Hong Kong as an offshore entrepôt. Instead of growing like they had wished, Hong Kong began to stagnate. In this stagnation and disillusionment the colonisers began to believe that in order to further secure and expand British power, the Chinese people as well as their government required further “chastisement” in the form of a good thrashing.

“The fewer Chinese inhabitants in the colony the less will be the trouble”

Friend of China 1848

Hong Kong attracted criminals, vagabonds, outlaws and all troubles they bring with them like moths to a fire. The colonists became increasingly outnumbered as more and more “undesirable” Chinese migrated to the colony. The Friend of China argued that “the fewer Chinese inhabitants in the colony the less will be the trouble.” It continued: “indeed, with the exception of those actively engaged in commerce, servants, and mechanics, we are better without Chinamen.” Personally, I would argue that if they didn’t want China in the colony, they shouldn’t have built the colony in China.

“…we are better without Chinamen.”

Friend of China 1848

The period of stagnation ended in the 1850’s. Hong Kong found its role as a depot for the opium trade as well as being a hub for the so called “emigration business,” or in other words: the coolie trade. Both forms of trade were strictly illegal, and was accompanied by the same kinds of abuse as is often associated with human trafficking. The cruelty, the overcrowding and other abuses came to the light, and it forced the colony to regulate the trade. Furthermore, Hong Kong grew in importance as the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), the single most bloody rebellion in human history, forced many Chinese merchants to migrate to the colony. Victoria Harbour grew to have “the largest annual turnover in tonnage of any port in the world.” In essence, the sickly, faltering colony was nursed to health by the United Kingdom on the twin teats of human trafficking and drug dealing and then raised to wealth by feeding on the sap of chaos, war and famine.

Nevertheless, the greed of the coloniser could never be satisfied, Chinese officials had undermined and circumvented the original concessions, the Cantonese people still had dignity and pride, an ill state of affairs that required rectification. Indeed, a second war needed to be fought to “engender the widespread conviction among the Chinese, of their inferiority in the warlike, or in any other arts, to the foreigners.” (Friend of China, 11 May 1843, 34)

The 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment of Foot at the Storming of the Fortress of Amoy (present day Xiamen),
26 August 1841 (First Opium War)

This war did come to pass, and is referred to as the Second Opium War. As the name suggests, this too was a war fought to secure the British Opium trade in China. This war was fought when China was in a state of Empire wide crisis as the horrors of the Taiping Rebellions swept through China. The British, sensing opportunity to strike, took advantage of the weakened state of the Qing and launched their assault once more on the Qing Empire. The Qing State lost and that resulted in, among several other demands, the cession of Kowloon to the British in 1860. In 1865, the HSBC (Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) too began to have a role to play in the opium trade, the bank was founded for the purpose of managing the opium revenue. Hong Kong continued to exist and develop in a stable manner until 1898, when the colony gained the New Territories.

Being Colonised and Participating in Ones Colonisation

Chinese residents of Hong Kong were subject to nightly curfews, registration schemes, annual censuses and police searches. The British laws were fickle and increasingly criminalised daily activities, forcing many Chinese to come in contact with the uglier side of British law, especially since the prosecution rate in Hong Kong’s criminal courts was 3 times that of England and Wales. The abysmal conditions and the pervasive idleness of the British regiments stationed in the colony would result in the soldiers frequently unleashing their frustrations (violent, sexual or otherwise) against the local Chinese population. Their excessive violence remains a stark reminder as to who was master and who was slave. This relation is also made thoroughly apparent in how most interactions in the colony went, whether personal or printed. The Europeans communicated with the Chinese in a condescending, patronising manner, exacerbated by the fact that the Europeans communicated with the Chinese in English, making little to no effort to learn the language of the locals. As is the case in any colony, the more affluent colonists made good use of their status and took many Chinese coolie servants for cooking, carrying their sedan chair, opening the doors and, of course, to bed. As many of the colonists were men, it was common to have relations with Chinese prostitutes, live-in mistresses and “protected women.”

Yet, one has to wonder, is the plight of the people of Hong Kong merely a result of Western Expansionism alone, or were the locals complicit in their own colonisation? A story of colonisation is often not only the result of the oppression of the coloniser, but also the collaboration of the colonised. The people of Hong Kong were complicit in the maintenance of the colony and all of its structures. It is not fair to see the people of Hong Kong merely as a passive agent to which bad things happened, in the same way it is unfair to say Hong Kong was built by the British. On the contrary, despite systematic barriers for people of Chinese descent in Hong Kong, such as being racially segregated and barred from high positions in the Hong Kong government, many gifted individuals succeeded in navigating the colonial system, and one way or another, built great fortune for themselves and their descendants.

So, if one wishes truly to denounce colonialism, one needs to do more than to point the finger at the coloniser; one needs to realise that three fingers point back at oneself and reflect upon what we did to facilitate our own suffering. We must and will never make the same mistakes again… not as long as we remember.

Keep your eyes on this blog if you want to remember.

References

  • “Convention between the United Kingdom and China Respecting an Extension of Hong Kong Territory.” The American Journal of International Law 4, no. 4 (1910): 295. 
  • Munn, Christopher. “Anglo-China: Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong.” Dissertation, University of Toronto, 2013. National Library of Canada.
  • Wu, Yiching. “Prelude to Culture: Interrogating British Rule in Early Colonial Hong Kong” Dialectical Anthropology 24, no. 2 (1999), pp. 141-170
Sedan chair carriers and their English master
Create your website at WordPress.com
Get started