In today’s post-racial world, personal connections forged across diverse cultural backgrounds are taken for granted. Nevertheless, common points of contact must be found before meaningful friendships can evolve.
Given the human tendency towards easy, comfortable friendships, especially after a long week, coteries of like-meets-like are most people’s preferred recreational environment. This was particularly the case in small colonial societies, including the one in Hong Kong, and remains the case in expatriate circles here today.
Pre-war, the colony had few possibilities for a positive intercultural connection. Language – far more than race – was a major barrier towards greater understanding; then as now, few European residents (other than police, missionaries and some government administrators) could converse in Chinese, and the pool of Chinese who combined fluent English skills with a decent cultural understanding of the West was also limited.
After the trauma of the Pacific war and Japanese occupation, a group of pre-war Hong Kong residents decided to make a concerted effort to create a different, and hopefully better, society. As far as they were concerned, the world could not – and should not – ever be the same again.
One of the few positive effects of a major global conflict is the diversity of individuals who get to know one another in the turmoil, who probably would have never met in peacetime.
From these idealistic beginnings, one of Hong Kong’s forgotten post-war initiatives, the Sino-British Club (SBC), started life. Formed in 1946, early members were remarkable for their personalities, and the influence of the war years on their lives. Most had either been prisoners of war or were connected in some way with the British Army Aid Group, a multi-ethnic organisation drawn mostly from Hong Kong residents that operated in wartime China.
The SBC was chaired by K.M.A Barnett, a senior government official and Chinese linguist who had been a Hong Kong POW.
Other government officials, especially New Territories administrators, combined keen amateur scholarship with professional lives that happily dovetailed with their personal research interests. James Hayes, in particular, published prolifically for decades on his areas of specialisation: the New Territories and culture.
Solomon Bard, a White Russian medical doctor, violinist and amateur archaeologist, was very involved in the SBC.
Geoffrey Bonsall, the University of Hong Kong librarian who had driven convoys in west China with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit during the war, was also an SBC enthusiast. There were many, many others.
Unfortunately, by the mid- 1960s, local society – and the SBC – had changed. Gradually, many of the “old guard” retired elsewhere, and their early energies and commitment were not replaced.
In the usual Hong Kong way, inward-looking cliques eventually formed and splintered off, and organisational divisions became bitterly personal.
In particular, an influx of affluent refugees from elsewhere in China with no affinity to Hong Kong – or interest in the place beyond somewhere to make their money and escape political upheaval – did not share the community-minded, adversityforged values of an earlier generation of “Hong Kong belongers”.
After struggling for some years, the SBC was formally wound up in 1974. But its cultural legacy continues in areas now taken for granted. These include, among others, the Royal Asiatic Society, established for the formal study of Hong Kong history, ethnography, culture and society; the Hong Kong Philharmonic; and the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong