Jacks of all trades

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 May, 2012, 12:00am


Administrators in Hong Kong have always attracted criticism - fair or otherwise. Nothing is ever really right, as far as the public is concerned, and this situation goes back to the earliest years of British rule.

During the colony's first 20 years, the Hong Kong government had few trained administrators. Things changed for the better in 1862 with the launch of the Hong Kong Administrative Service. Three Hong Kong cadets, as they were known, were recruited; one of these, Cecil Clementi Smith, ended up as governor of the Straits Settlements. Now known as administrative officers - or more commonly AOs - the last appointed cadets started work in 1960 and have since retired.

New Territories postings provided valuable experience for younger cadets and gave more hands-on responsibility than was possible in the secretariat. For decades after its lease to Great Britain in 1898, the New Territories remained curiously peripheral to the established areas of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

Until the early 1960s, New Territories postings had more in common with typical colonial service appointments in Africa or Southeast Asia than elsewhere in Hong Kong, and the cadet was left relatively free to go his own way, enjoy an open-air life in beautiful surroundings and exercise considerable responsibility at a relatively young age.

As elsewhere in colonial administration, generalist skills were considered vital. An administrator was expected to be a jack of all trades. District officials had to manage complex files, chair rural committees in the vernacular, inspect drainage systems - and somehow make useful recommendations on all of them.

Cadets were not generally required to fill posts that needed specialist technical skills, such as marine, public works, education and the medical and sanitary services. Despite this, the supposed transferable skills of generalists won out occasionally. Geoffrey Robley Sayer, a cadet who wrote two detailed accounts of early Hong Kong, was appointed director of education in 1938.

During the first decades of colonial rule, almost no administrators had any working knowledge of either spoken or written Chinese. The third governor, Sir George Bonham, actually preferred that his administrators did not have any specific Chinese skills, as he believed the years spent acquiring the language were 'warping to the brain'. Many Hong Kong cadets, however, became accomplished Chinese speakers, such as K.M.A. Barnett, who mastered several Cantonese dialects.

Other cadets, such as Sayer and James Hayes, became noted amateur historians who greatly contributed to our knowledge of early Hong Kong, as well as New Territories village life and customs. Reginald Johnston became private tutor to the last Manchu emperor, Aisin Gioro Puyi (and was later played by Peter O'Toole in the film The Last Emperor). He ended up as the last British commissioner for Weihaiwei, the small port in Shandong province leased to Britain at the same time, and under similar conditions, as Hong Kong's New Territories, but which was returned to China in 1930.

A few Hong Kong cadets rose to become governors, either in Hong Kong or elsewhere. Possibly the two most successful were Clementi and Sir Alexander Grantham, who both served in Hong Kong at periods of considerable internal and external challenge.

Those who transferred to the Hong Kong Civil Service - usually after independence in other territories had curtailed their careers there - often brought other language skills with them. Sir David Akers-Jones, chief secretary and later acting governor in the late 80s, transferred from the Malayan Civil Service in the late 50s, where he had become a fluent Hokkien speaker. Those who came to Hong Kong from Africa - and there were many in the 60s - obviously found Hausa or Swahili of limited use in their new postings.

Governor Hercules Robinson introduced the cadetship. After the second world war, Chinese were recruited into the service, followed, a lot later, by women.