Hong Kong’s backstreet shops offer unexpected windows into local customs frequently assumed to have died out – or which are said to have done by Chinese needlessly embarrassed by the lingering material evidence of earlier cultural practices. The still-prevalent habit of spitting, indicated by the availability of spittoons, is but one obvious example.
Another such “relic” is the ready availability of rattan canes. All come with small handles on the top, and are not purchased to repel bad-mannered dogs during a morning walk. Instead, they are used for the corporal punishment of children. Significant gradations in thickness and length clearly indicate that new ones are purchased as youngsters evolve in their naughtiness from crabby infants to wayward teenagers.
Despite legal prohibitions, the thrashing of children remains commonplace in Hong Kong. Cases of particularly brutal cruelty are occasionally brought before the courts but, all too often, abusive domestic situations are downplayed or ignored by relatives and neighbours. The frequent sight of ill-disciplined Western children running amok only helps reinforce the traditional Chinese view that, without frequent “physical correction”, their own children would swiftly progress from occasional cheekiness to routinely failing grades, with promiscuity, drug abuse and an early death in the gutter foreseeable outcomes.
School canings were legal in Hong Kong until 1991. Hong Kong’s Catholic institutions were notorious for this kind of discipline and the most brutal exponents – as elsewhere in the world – were the Irish Christian Brothers. Displays of bottled-up anger and frustration by deeply damaged individuals who should never have joined these orders in the first place were commonplace. As recent court cases worldwide have indicated, more than a few brothers entered the order in a sad, and ultimately futile, attempt to conceal their own religiously tormented sexual identities; internalised self-loathing rapidly evolved into externalised violence directed towards helpless young targets. These characteristics soon became obvious to the unfortunate boys entrusted to their “care” by well-meaning, frequently poor parents who genuinely thought a worthwhile education would result.
A close friend, who had the misfortune to attend one such local college, vividly recalled the ageing, sweaty-faced Irish brother who spent far more time lecturing adolescents on “the filthy habit” of masturbation than teaching his allotted academic subject. Brother X wielded the cane with great enthusiasm over the smallest classroom infractions; particularly favoured objects of “correction” – for obscure individual reasons – were the most confident, well built, good-looking teenage boys. My friend maintained that, judging by the unmistakable physical evidence Brother X displayed while deploying his cane, this unsavoury individual was a confirmed sadist who clearly “got a rise” out of his disciplinary duties.
None of this is breaking news. From Ireland and Britain to Australia and North America, the Christian Brothers have been publicly embroiled in shocking controversy in recent years. Wherever they have been permitted to operate, revolting stories about the abuse of vulnerable young people have eventually surfaced. With each documented case, incontrovertible evidence of systematic abuse becomes more apparent - as does the calculated, long-term institutional cover-up by the Catholic Church.
In Hong Kong, however, where these religious orders have maintained a major presence since the 19th century, a significant scandal about the premeditated, predatory abuse of young people has yet to erupt.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong