dirty bill of health

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 May, 2008, 12:00am

Nineteenth-century travellers to the Far East often commented on the cleanliness of the Japanese - both personally and in a civic sense - and unfavourably contrasted this with the general Chinese indifference towards civic filth. Like many trenchant observations made before 'political correctness' rendered the world mealy-mouthed, much uncomfortable accuracy resided in those remarks.

'Outside my gate is not my problem' was - and largely remains - the prevalent cultural attitude in Chinese society. Thus, while individuals were often particular about personal cleanliness, the broader issue of civic hygiene did not concern them, and the usual outside perception of Chinese communities worldwide was of public squalor.

Following the 2003 Sars epidemic, and the subsequent Team Clean campaign, many more cleaners and street-sweepers were employed to pick up after the general population, but Hong Kong's civic leaders often display great reluctance when confronted with much-needed change. This mindset was also apparent in the 19th century.

The Chadwick Report, a major government investigation into Hong Kong's public hygiene situation, commissioned in 1883, concluded that more than 20 per cent of the city was dangerously insanitary and should be demolished immediately. Polymathic leader Sir Kai Ho Kai, a Scottish-trained medical doctor, barrister, triad leader and Legislative Council member, strongly opposed stringent sanitation measures among the Chinese community. As a leading tenement landlord, Sir Ho Kai and his friends

would have suffered considerable financial losses from additional expenditure on improvements and recurrent maintenance costs had these measures been enforced.

His attitude unfortunately reinforced the prevalent European view of the Hong Kong Chinese elite, which maintained that if educated people in positions of influence and responsibility knew change was urgently needed and yet bluntly refused to act, then what better could be expected from the illiterate majority?

And what were the consequences of selfish inaction? A devastating outbreak of bubonic plague struck Hong Kong in 1894 and recurred - every couple of years - until the late 1920s. Feel free to draw your own parallels to today's repeated avian flu outbreaks, annual summertime cholera scares and the Sars disaster - the past often provides a very reliable guide to the present, especially in Hong Kong.