Shattering a barren rock image

Andy Ho

Hong Kong had long been taken for granted as just a barren rock when it first fell into the hands of the British colonisers. But this portrayal is now being dismissed by the Chinese media as a fallacy.

As Chinese authorities seek to cast a new identity for their post-1997 Special Administrative Region, the issue of whether the territory was formerly a place of poverty has assumed ideological significance.

Beijing is apparently unhappy with the theory that British colonial rule helped elevate Hong Kong from poor fishing village to the world's eighth largest trading entity. The Chinese propaganda machines have been trying to play down the British factor in the territory's story of success.

Local left-wing papers, for instance, now insist that a steady supply of cheap food, water and labour resources from the mainland, coupled with a tolerant Chinese policy, is what made Hong Kong tick.

Recently, the mainland media has gone a step further by suggesting that Hong Kong had been a brisk Chinese town, even before the British invasion.

A few weeks ago, the Guangming Ribao, or Brightness Daily, carried a feature headlined 'Hong Kong not a barren land before British occupation'.


The publication is one of China's 36 major central-level national papers, focusing on educational, scientific and cultural affairs.

It cited census statistics released on May 15, 1841 that a total of 7,450 people were then residing in 15 villages and a town on Hong Kong Island. As the heart of the community, Stanley at the southern tip of the island was referred to as a 'big town' with a population of about 1,200.

British troops set foot on the island on January 25, 1841 and stayed for about a month. They re-occupied on March 3 that year. These figures are thus considered a fair portrayal of the status of the island around the arrival of the British forces.

The Guangming Ribao, edited in Beijing, observes that Hong Kong Island was 'by mid-19th century standards fairly densely populated'.


'In recent years, articles on the development of Hong Kong often harp on the theme that Hong Kong has evolved from a fishing village, or a barren island, into a modern metropolis,' the paper says. 'This is actually a deviation from truth stemming from a misunderstanding of Hong Kong's pre-occupation history.' The paper refers to a series of 1838 portraits of Hong Kong Island by a French painter, depicting spectacular overhead water diversion pipes for irrigation. The pictures were collected in the book of Pictures of China Trade published in 1924.

'This illustrates that, even before the British occupation, Hong Kong's agricultural irrigation works was of a fairly high standard.


'The territory is hardly a barren island,' says the daily.

According to taxation records during the reign of Emperor Daoguang, the Tang clan had already developed large plots of arable land in Tai Tam on the eastern part of the island. Bolstered by other historical evidence, the paper concludes that it is simply untrue that Hong Kong was a barren rock one-and-a-half centuries ago.

The image of Hong Kong as 'a barren island with hardly a house upon it' can be traced to a private letter dated April 1841, between the then British foreign secretary, Lord Henry John Temple Palmerston, and the senior British superintendent of trade in Guangdong, Captain Charles Elliot.


Three months earlier, the captain had forced the Qing state to re-open foreign trade in Guangzhou and to cede Hong Kong Island to the British under the Convention of Chuenpi.

Lord Palmerston, however, was angry that Elliot had failed to exact better terms.

The derogatory description of Hong Kong perpetuates. Baroness Lydia Dunn, for example, has borrowed the phrase in her preface for the Government's official annual report this year.


Like many other authors, the former senior executive and legislative councillor had dwelt on how 'a barren island with hardly a house upon it' has transformed into 'the thriving, prosperous, go-ahead society it is today'.

Dan Sachar, a political science major at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, has posted his thesis on Hong Kong on the Internet. 'In 1841,' he writes, 'the mostly barren, rocky island of Hong Kong was ceded by China to the British.' The American perhaps developed his image of Hong Kong from Frank Welsh's often cited narrative, A Borrowed Place: The History of Hong Kong.

Sir Alexander Johnston, the first Superintendent of Hong Kong, was quoted in the book as saying: 'the only inhabitants were of a migratory character and principally engaged in fishing'.

It is this kind of remark about the status of Hong Kong in the 1840s that the Chinese media have found objectionable.

The Guangming Ribao also asserts that Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories were equally prosperous when they were lost to Britain.

Apart from agriculture, the trading of salt, pearls and incense was already well established.

The daily points out that official salterns were set up in northwestern Kowloon Bay and the areas of Kowloon City during the Song period, preceding the Qing dynasty.

Meanwhile, the first traditional Chinese seminary disseminating Confucian teachings in the New Territories can also be dated back to the Song dynasty. The tally of such schools in Hong Kong during the Qing period stood at 449.

More signs of prosperity were found during the renovation of the Temple of the King of Monkeys in Kowloon City in 1822.

A list of sponsors inscribed on a stone tablet shows that more than 100 shops had contributed to the event, indicating that trade and commerce were playing a vital role in the territory.

The Chinese intellectual newspaper's efforts ought to be applauded. Casual commentators will have to think twice the next time they are to render passing remarks on the territory's history.

Nevertheless, given the current climate, with many unresolved problems surrounding the imminent transfer of sovereignty, it remains doubtful whether Hong Kong people can find solace in the argument that it was more than a barren island 150 years ago.