One hundred years ago today (January 26, 1914, was Lunar New Year's Day), the German cruiser SMS Emden, commanded by the gallant and widely respected Captain Karl von Muller, was anchored in Victoria Harbour, enjoying a warm welcome from local dignitaries and the sizeable German expatriate community based here.
SMS Emden was a particular favourite in Hong Kong. With sleek lines and painted brilliant white, she was known by local mariners as the Swan of the East and was a frequent visitor to Hong Kong en route to, or from, the German naval base at Tsingtao (Qingdao, Shandong province).
The next day was the German emperor's 55th birthday, which meant that Captain von Muller could reciprocate the lavish hospitality he found in the city with a formal reception. The great and the good of Hong Kong's expatriate elite descending from The Peak for the occasion were treated to the spectacle of every ship on the China station being "dressed overall" (when decorative flags and bunting are hoisted from masts and yards to celebrate a special occasion) in respect for "Kaiser Bill" (Wilhelm II).
These were times when maritime affairs were central to most people's existence and local newspapers from the era read more like Shipping Today than general news publications. The China Mail in 1914 contained lists of warships on the China station and interminable details on steamer arrivals, passenger liners and naval appointments - even features about trends in German warship design and the future of submarine warfare.
In 1914, 43 per cent of the world's trade was carried on British shipping and Germany was the country's only serious rival in maritime affairs, undertaking a significant 12 per cent share. German merchants were well represented in commercial shipping circles in Hong Kong: Melchers & Co had been founded in 1866 and Jebsen & Co in 1895. The German contingent numbered 342, according to the 1911 census, and was one of the largest European communities in Hong Kong. This was a British maritime hub in Asia with a distinctly German flavour.
As the sound of tinkling crystal and the voices of distinguished guests engaged in desultory cocktail party chatter emanated from the Emden on that cool January evening, few of those gathered on her decks could have foreseen the developments the year would bring. Within six months, war would force these close friends and allies to become enemies overnight and the Emden would become one of the most renowned battleships of the war. Long before the Kaiser celebrated his next birthday, the popular German Club, which stood at 7 Kennedy Road, would be closed and requisitioned by the authorities, and prominent German merchants interned. The Emden would become a deadly curse on British and Allied shipping, and be widely known as the "Kaiser's pirate ship".
Throughout those early days of the war, however, Hong Kong could not release itself from the affectionate embrace of Muller and the Emden nor overcome its reluctance to regard the popular expatriate German community as the enemy.
During research at the national archives in Berlin for his forthcoming book, The Germans and Hong Kong, 1843-1997, Bert Becker, associate professor of history at the University of Hong Kong, recently unearthed documents that demonstrate the strength of pro-German sentiment in Hong Kong at the outbreak of the first world war. Becker found a telegram sent by the governor to the German consul, Arthur Voretzsch, on August 3, 1914, just two days before war was declared.
"In that telegram, the governor of Hong Kong, Sir [Frances] Henry May, assures Voretzsch that if war broke out he would still allow Germans to do their business in Hong Kong under oath that they would not seek to damage British interests," says Becker.
It seems an astonishing guarantee, given the circumstances, even though, as Becker points out, "the relationship with the British was relaxed, friendly and good" and German merchants held board positions at HSBC and on the Chamber of Commerce.
"Sir Henry May was extremely German-friendly and even criticised the editor of The China Mail for negative stories about Germany in his newspaper," says Becker.
Becker also found a handwritten letter from May to the consul, sent on August 5, just as news of the declaration of war reached Hong Kong, in which the governor writes, "My dear Dr Voretzsch, I am grieved to tell you that the worst has happened and that our countries are now at war. I would give my life if I could avert such a catastrophe by so doing."
Poor May sounds almost heartbroken and was no doubt inconsolable when London ordered him to close down the German consulate on August 12, leaving the neutral United States consul responsible for the welfare of German and Austrian civilians. And during those opening months of war it was not only the governor who seemed to find it impossible to develop the required animosity towards former friends and colleagues. On October 6, according to a US consular report, the Legislative Council passed a bill that "allowed German firms to conduct new business", subject to certain restrictions.
As May was expressing his grief to the German consul, the Kaiser's pirate ship, repainted a dull battleship grey, had already captured a Russian mail steamer, the Ryaezan, and was escorting her to Tsingtao, avoiding a fleet of French warships en route. It was a relatively minor victory but an ominous sign of things to come from the Emden and her daring crew.
The German commander-in-chief, Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee, realised there was little scope for German naval success in Eastern waters, and no chance at all once the mighty Japanese fleet (largely built in Britain) joined the Allied forces. He therefore decided to leave the Emden with just one support ship and allow Muller free reign to cause maximum disruption to Allied shipping interests in the East while the main fleet made a dash for the western seaboard of the US. Lone privateering in waters patrolled by the navies of four Allied nations was a suicidal task but one that Muller obviously relished - for it was he who suggested to von Spee that he stay in Asian waters.
Muller's ship had space in which to roam and, long before radar was invented, lots of places to hide. Her biggest threat was not destruction by the enemy but a lack of fuel, as there were few ports not controlled by the Allies and, at her maximum speed of 24 knots, the Emden had a range of only 1,065 nautical miles, which meant little more than two days sailing before running out of coal.
The Emden's notoriety started to develop in earnest while German merchants were still doing business in Hong Kong, being required only to report to the provost marshal once every two weeks. Her capture of the British steamer Indus, which was bound for India, on September 10, was widely reported, as was Muller's humane and courteous treatment of the British merchant seamen - he offered them the chance to heave to and surrender their vessels and always dispatched prisoners to a neutral vessel for safe return to port. When his crew recovered a much-needed cargo of soap, the manufacturer in question did not miss the opportunity for a commercial product endorsement in an advertisement in a Calcutta newspaper: "The men in the Emden and their clothes are now clean and sweet, thanks to ELYSIUM soap. Try it!"
Successfully evading the British Royal Navy and her allies, refuelling from captured coalers bound for British ports and capturing and sinking numerous merchant ships, all with chivalrous style, Muller was, for some 100 days, the focus of the world's attention. On September 22, he sailed unchallenged into the British commercial stronghold of Madras (modern-day Chennai, on India's east coast), which was, according to his report, "lit up like a Christmas tree", and dispatched 130 shells into the oil storage depot, causing an inferno and widespread panic but taking care to minimise civilian loss of life. There were only five fatalities but it was a major embarrassment for the British and made headlines in the press here, where news of the Emden was eagerly awaited.
While Hongkongers and soap manufacturers were enjoying the daring exploits of the Emden, Winston Churchill, first lord of the Admiralty in London, was furious. The location and destruction of the Emden was made the top priority of the supposedly invincible China fleet.
The ship's reputation achieved legendary status in what The China Mail reported - in a headline on October 31 - as "The Emden's escapade at Penang". Muller slipped into the strategic port on the Malay peninsula with a dummy fourth funnel erected so that she resembled the British cruiser HMS Yarmouth. Flying British colours, she sailed into the heart of the anchorage, just beneath the red-brick walls of Fort Cornwallis, and sank the Russian cruiser Zhemchug at anchor while her captain was ashore, apparently engaged in sexual activity with a local female friend. It is said Captain Cherkassov, who was later court-martialled, witnessed his own ship sinking while gazing open-mouthed and trouser-less from the window of his bedroom at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel.
On exiting Penang harbour, the Emden sank the small French destroyer Mousquet and, displaying characteristic gallantry, Muller ordered the picking up of all survivors from the water and offered them medical attention. When they were handed over to a British merchant ship for safe passage to shore, the French officers made a point of personally thanking Muller for his considerate treatment.
Today, the car ferry from Penang to the Malaysian mainland passes through the anchorage that was the scene of that sea battle and the story is told in a display within Fort Cornwallis, which is a historical landmark.
The China Mail reflected the sentiment of the colony in a protracted November editorial about the Emden: "Her exploits must move us to a certain amount of admiration. We can afford to salute Commander Karl von Muller, her commanding officer according to the last official information, for his enterprise because he seems to be behaving not merely with humanity but with consideration towards the British crews. He is making history because he is doing what hardly anyone thought could be done."
A warm tribute indeed for an enemy cruiser decimating British shipping in time of war, but the audacious victory at Penang coincided with a hardening in the treatment of the German community in Hong Kong. According to a US consular report seen by Becker, the Americans regarded it as "strict, even to harshness". London had demanded a tougher line. There is no evidence the harsher policy was connected to the well-publicised humiliation being inflicted by the Emden, but that may have been a contributory factor.
From late October 1914, all German women and children were expelled, German businesses were wound up and German men of serving age were interned, first on Stonecutters Island and later at a special internment camp in Hung Hom.
"It was therefore with mixed feelings that … English merchants in Hong Kong, donning for the occasion the uniform of the Defence Force, marched off their German competitors or partners to internment camps and solemnly mounted guard over them under the inscrutable gaze of the Chinese," local historian G.R. Sayer later wrote.
"It was impending ruin for the German merchants," says Becker, and the US consul stated in his official report that, at that time, those merchants controlled 70 per cent of the trade in Hong Kong.
The change in policy did not imply any local antipathy though. In her recollections of a privileged childhood growing up on The Peak, Margaret Ough (born 1907 and the daughter of a Queen's College headmaster) remembers, "There were quite a few Germans in Hong Kong, amongst whom my parents had some good friends. Most of these were interned in prison camps."
In Philip Bruce's book about the Hong Kong Volunteer Force, he includes the account of one volunteer tasked with guarding his former German friends in Hung Hom.
"It is embarrassing for a zealous sentry to be hailed vociferously as 'Good Old Bill' and asked whether he has remembered to load his rifle," he wrote.
Neither did the interest in the exploits of the Emden wane.
"She was a commerce raider who had been a regular visitor to Hong Kong [and] who was capturing ships that may also have been known here," says Paul Harrison, curator and conservator at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. "Hong Kong was a maritime place and people would have closely identified with this local theatre of the war."
The Hong Kong press from August 1914 onwards was littered with cheap propaganda about German atrocities and foul play, and there was no shortage of local jingoism. Hong Kong contributed manpower and money to the war effort, and financed two Vickers FB5 fighter aircraft, but there remained a public affection for the Emden and a noticeable reluctance to designate the German community as foes.
"Propaganda was intended to change the public sentiment by demonising the Germans, hence the stories about raping nuns and pitch-forking Belgian babies," says Harrison. "People in Hong Kong, though, had far more exposure to German people than a shoe mechanic from Leicester, for example, so it was much harder to demonise Germany here."
While respected merchants such as Jacob Jebsen contemplated their fate in the Hung Hom internment camp, the Emden also ran out of luck - and sea room. During an attempt to destroy the British communications centre on the Cocos Islands on November 8, HMAS Sydney, one of the few Allied ships not charged with hunting down the Emden, intercepted a wireless signal from the station from only 52 miles away. While the German first lieutenant, Kurt Hellmuth von Mucke, was still ashore with the landing party, the Sydney used her superior firepower to overwhelm the Emden in a ferocious engagement. It was, of course, front-page news here and was greeted with an air of sadness, as though Hong Kong had lost one of her own.
"I have read many accounts that the Hong Kong community took a sense of pride in the Emden's exploits," says Harrison, and his assertion is supported by historian Jan Morris, who, in her 1988 book, Hong Kong, writes: "The exploits of the Emden, sinking British ships all over the Indian Ocean, were much admired by the colonists, who had happy memories of the cruiser from pre-war visits."
Having deliberately run his crippled ship aground on a reef, Muller had no choice but to surrender. He was taken as a prisoner of war to Malta, the British Admiralty fearing a public relations own goal if the highly revered Muller was taken to Britain.
In a final heroic twist to the tale of the Emden, the landing party stranded on the Cocos Islands escaped in an abandoned schooner and made their way to Constantinople, to report for duty (the Ottoman Empire was a German ally). Several of that landing party were to serve at the Battle of Jutland, in 1916.
For such a high-profile naval character so closely associated with Hong Kong, very little is known about Muller personally, except that he was a taciturn, reserved and modest officer who employed meticulous attention to detail and was adored by his crew. Having been awarded the Iron Cross, he retired from the navy in 1919, the year after the war ended, and died in 1923, aged 49, in Brunswick, northern Germany, from malaria. He first contracted the disease during his duties as an officer on the East Africa station before the war.
"To the end he was a man nobody knew," says Dan van der Vat, author of Gentlemen of War, an award-winning book about Muller and the Emden.
So was Hong Kong's affection for Muller and the Emden just part of the deeply embedded sympathy and respect for all things German, an affinity with a ship that had graced Victoria Harbour so often, or was there really something special about Muller?
"Muller was not typical but exceptional," insists van der Vat, who thinks the captain should not be underestimated. "His boss, Graf Spee, was more the classic Prussian officer: fair but ruthless. Muller was admired by the British for his gallantry and the way he treated his victims. And for the fact that he cut such a swathe in the Indian Ocean against massive odds and without support."
Whatever the reason, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the SMS Emden was Hong Kong's favourite German warship, that there was a deep affection and respect for the German community a century ago that would not be undermined by wartime propaganda and that Hong Kong could never quite come to terms with the idea of the daring Swan of the East being an enemy.