Chinese swell Masonic ranks

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 April, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 April, 2001, 12:00am

The Freemasons, one of the last bastions of colonial rule, are being taken over by locals, according to an investigation by the Sunday Morning Post.

More than 50 per cent of Masons who practise the Craft, as members call it, are Chinese, in a society that once discouraged locals from joining.

The Masons now even toast President Jiang Zemin at dinners held by the Masonic lodges, the individual groups that Masons join.

The Freemasons have long been dogged by accusations that they represent a web of self-interest among the upper echelons of society.

Many predicted that they would fold once British rule was ended in Hong Kong, but local Chinese are now swelling the numbers.

The Grand Secretary of the Irish branch of the Masons, Patrick Chau, said: 'It is a natural change, nothing deliberate. Many business organisations have been localised, so why not us?

'Only 10 to 15 years ago there were not many Chinese, maybe as few as 10 per cent, but the Irish constitution is 75 per cent Chinese.'

Masonry was born in medieval Europe, drawing together stonemasons who developed elaborate ceremonies and initiation rites.

But by the 17th century aristocrats were being allowed to join. By the 18th century the three branches of Masonry were officially formed - the English, Scots and Irish.

In Hong Kong the Irish lodges make up the Provincial Grand Lodge of the Irish Constitution and now have around 360 active resident members.

The English branch has around 320 active members, 55 per cent of whom are local - almost double the 30 per cent proportion in 1990. The Scottish Constitution, however, has just 160 members - 80 per cent expatriate and 20 per cent local.

Judges, policemen, businessmen and civil servants still roll up to practise their three great principles: brotherly love, relief and truth.

But now both the Irish and English branches have seen the creation of almost entirely Chinese lodges.

John Li, the Master of one lodge, said: 'It made sense. We were bursting at the seams with new members, nearly all Chinese, so why not launch our own lodge.

'I know some of my friends see the Masons as a colonial thing, but Chinese want to join. Without us what would happen?'

In Britain the Masons have not recovered from the publication of The Brotherhood in the 1980s, which showed the tendrils of the organisation extended to the highest levels. The organisation has been controversial ever since.

In Hong Kong, the Masons' image is not without blemish. They were blamed for the downfall of Anglican Dean David Smethurst.

He was forced to resign in 1987 amid accusations that he had kept a list of brethren connected with St John's Cathedral.

Secrecy still prevails, despite some protestations to the contrary.

One Hong Kong barrister said: 'The reality is that power is in the hands of a select few in Hong Kong. You have to ask: is it healthy that many of them should be members of a secret society? Why do you think I prefer not to be named?

'At the very least they should be asked to register their membership if they hold public positions,' he said.

Peter Nunn, a retired British army officer and the District Grand Secretary for the English branch, said it was made clear in the run-up to the handover that Beijing would turn a blind eye to the society. 'They told us that as long as we observed the laws of Hong Kong there would not be a problem. But there was one condition: we could not export Masonry to the mainland,' he said.

That does not mean mainland Chinese are not in their sights. One senior Irish Mason said representatives of Xinhua had been guests at the Freemasons' headquarters, Zetland Hall in Kennedy Road.

Mr Nunn would like to see his own lodge, once the preserve of the military, bring in new blood.

'It would be great to have someone from the PLA. But they never let the poor sods out of their barracks.'

Graphic: FAM29GET