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United Kingdom
Hong Kong

The people of T’ong
John Charles takes a sideways look at the fate of empires
as the ‘handover’ of Hong Kong to China arrives.

States and empires build up territory by force and then justify their gains by resorting to nebulous concepts like ‘manifest destiny’. Or they seem to have existed always and feel no need for explanations. The Roman politician Cato the Elder ended every speech urging the destruction of Carthage merely on account of its trading rivalry with the Republic. But the Roman general Scipio wept as his men levelled the city and enslaved Carthage’s inhabitants; more percipient than most, he feared such a precedent would echo down the ages and bring disaster to Rome.

Few great empires have so intelligently predicted their own demise as the Romans, least of all those whose territories are conveniently continuous – suggestive of natural boundaries – such as the German Third Reich, the Sweden of Gustavus Adolphus, the Russia of Peter the Great, the United States during its westward expansion, or China throughout its magnificently recorded past. Ironically, China has been given its size, shape and national consciousness largely by outsiders: by ‘foreign’ dynasties like the Qin or the Ming (1368-1644), or in response to invasions such as the audacious British seizure of Hong Kong in 1842.

When Commissioner Lin was sent by the Imperial Government in Beijing to ‘investigate’ the opium trade, he went to what was then one of the most remote parts of the Empire, inhabited – according to the Grand Geographer of the Imperial Household – by the T’ong race. Only a few bewildered fishermen observed the first British landing.

The city of Kwangjou (Canton) was soon deeply involved in the British opium trade. The Imperial Commissar reported that ‘the Men of T’ong are dissipated and ineducable’. Civilization was a difficult import from Beijing.

Similar attitudes prevail today. China is like post-industrial Britain in reverse: the North has the authority, the command, the historical consciousness and the power born of snobbery; the South has the guts, the energy, the wealth created by risk-taking and derring-do.

In 1949 Chinese armies swept the Kuomintang virtually out of the continent and, for reasons known only to themselves, halted just before crossing the muddy Shun Chun River. On the other side was British Hong Kong, an impertinent ‘scab on the backside of China’, according to Chiang Kai-Shek. It had been his clear intention to take Hong Kong back. But while the British Government fussed over the strategic importance of this under-populated backwater, it nonetheless reinforced its presence in Hong Kong with 140,000 troops and a large naval force. Ernest Bevin, British Foreign Secretary in the post-war Labour Government, declared with more aplomb than accuracy that Hong Kong was ‘the Gibraltar of the Far East’. What this ‘Gibraltar’ was supposed to do awaited clarification.

In the meantime, Hong Kong’s population of 370,000 was swollen by crooks, prostitutes and bewildered, honest, ordinary folk who are the principal victims of any war.

Many were, and remain, cultural victims: people others intend to harm just because they are who they are. Britain’s ‘evil empire’, conceived in greed and executed in violence – according to its critics – nevertheless gave refuge, and eventually housing, to over four million ‘displaced persons’. The Hong Kong Government, with its public-housing projects, is the world’s largest landlord.

Today the Shun Chun river has been bridged and canalized, and even its name is near vanishing-point. Shenzen, a Chinese city named after the Northern Chinese version of the same river’s name, is a mass of stained concrete and stained humanity that at first sight promises to give Hong Kong a run for its money. Over 70 per cent of Hong Kong’s manufacturing is now here, replicating the purpose-built slums, multi-storeyed factories and work ethic of the city of promise across the border.

Hong Kong factory workers are lucky. They live in clean, if a bit austere, dormitories; they eat cheap, if a bit monotonous, food; they have chances for improvement, like the lavatory cleaner who boasted that he would soon be given a brush; the lights of Hong Kong blaze at night.

People on assembly-line jobs in China’s Shenzen are paid between a third and a fifth of those in Hong Kong. On the famous hand-over day, 30 June, many Chinese expect Rich Man’s land to open its arms and receive them, issuing them all golden slippers to walk the golden streets. They will be sadly disabused.

When Major General Bryan Dutton, garrison commander of Hong Kong, hands over to his Chinese successor, it will be to a man who earns less than a British sergeant.

Yet this man will be expected to control corruption and restrain the instincts of Northern troops who are regarded as ‘smelly’, ‘poverty stricken’ and ‘ignorant’ by the local nouveaux riches whom – let us not forget – most of China has yet to meet. Why should they have met them? They are Cantonese, after all, the ‘Men of T’ong’ – just another part of China’s growing Empire.

John Charles is a writer based in Tokyo and has been a regular visitor to Hong Kong.

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