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The British Crown Colony of Hong Kong is something of an Asian miracle. Tiny in area (391 square miles), with a population that is overwhelmingly Chinese, this free world outpost throbs with life, builds incessantly, and is undaunted though it borders Red China's Kwantung Province.

No one doubts that the massive military power of China could seize it almost at will. But for all that, Hong Kong is in the midst of a public housing program whose dimensions might dismay New York. Everywhere, houses, hotels, and factories are going up, while amid the tall structures of Hong Kong's central district there are rising three sixteen-story buildings and one of nineteen stories: skyscrapers by Far Eastern standards.

Since the Colony seems to exist within the lion's mouth, its position appears extremely precarious to the foreign observer. Yet there is no panic and very little fear among either its Chinese or European citizens.

The island of Hong Kong, a rock in the ocean, has no more natural resources than Rockefeller Center. Its adjacent so-called New Territories -- leased in 1898 from China for 99 years -- are physically part of the Chinese mainland. The Colony's water supply is dependent upon the summer rains, collected and stored in expensive reservoirs. Even in the luxury hotels -- although new reservoirs will soon relieve the shortages -- water flows only from 4:30 to 8:30 P.M.
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Return to Flashback: Hong Kong's Future, Then and Now

Possessing less than 62 square miles of usable land, Hong Kong must wrest "new land" either by sea or by leveling stony hills in order to accommodate its population of 2.5 million and to absorb a natural annual increase of 75,000 persons. (By contrast, in the Pacific, New Zealand with its 104,000 square miles has a population of approximately 2 million.)

The colony seems to draw its very life from Red China -- the source of more than half of its coal and of huge quantities of food. A constant supply of eggs, poultry, oil seeds, beans, garlics, fruits, fresh vegetables, live pigs, and canned edibles flows into Hong Kong from such Chinese centers as Tientsin, Tsingtao, Canton. Peiping permits substantial shipments of food to go to this market in order to accumulate foreign exchange, but it is careful to manipulate the supply in order to keep prices at high levels. And along with the food, to satisfy strong local demand, come Chinese window glass, silk yard goods, sawn timber, camphorwood chests, cotton textiles, drawn lacework, paper, and cement.

A Chinese city

Hong Kong, with its more than 2 million Chinese, is one of the world's great Chinese cities, and as you walk its streets, especially at night, you are strongly aware that this is how it was in the cities of China before the Reds stifled their brightness and liveliness and muted their voices. Long after the European shops have closed for the day, the indomitably industrious Chinese are at work, while others who are not working are affirming their joy in living.

The narrow, crowded streets swarm with people buying, selling, or making things in the open. Overhead lines of washing flap in the breeze; the fishy smell of Chinese cooking arises from the stalls; the sound of clattering mah-jongg counters comes from inside the houses; rickshaw boys doze beside their vehicles; children sleep soundly in slings on their mothers' backs while their mothers cook, shop, gossip, squat over rice bowls, or work.

During the last world war, when the Japanese captured Hong Kong, it even then appeared to be hopelessly overcrowded. Japan expelled a million Chinese to live as they could in the villages and fields of South China. But since British rule was re-established only ten years ago, Hong Kong has taken in 700,000 refugees from Red China and has had to find jobs and housing for perhaps a million new people.

Hong Kong was faced with the question of caring for an enormously swollen population just when its once great trade with its giant neighbor shriveled, first under the American and later under the United Nations embargo on the export of strategic goods to China. Meanwhile, China's new trading methods were designed to bypass Hong Kong as much as possible.

The Colony's future then looked black. Foreign visitors called it a "dying city" and wondered how it could ever survive with a great part of its normal trade being sacrificed for the common good. But the political refugees, who constituted so large a part of Hong Kong's problem, made their own contribution to its solution.

On their own

Tens of thousands of them were an abundant source of labor. The businessmen, bankers, and industrialists among them had brought from northern China new techniques and business and organizational abilities and stubbornness of will which exceeded even those of the native southerners -- Cantonese. They asked aid of no one, for they had their own capital.

Confident, vigorous, aggressive, they built factories that produce a wide variety of goods for local consumption and for export to Southeast Asia and the Western countries. (Complaints are now rising in the United States -- on the part of manufacturers, not consumers -- about the import of Hong Kong dress shirts.)

Today at least 50 per cent of the population is directly or indirectly dependent upon local industry. But here again the Western observer is likely to shake his head incredulously. For he sees that hardheaded businessmen who had lately fled from Red China to save their fortunes and their lives have chosen to resettle and invest their money in a tiny outpost of capitalism that is, at some points, within sight of Red China.

The Western observers, moreover, who are inclined to see political struggle in terms of black or white, are the more bewildered when they note the constant crossing of the frontier by Hong Kong Chinese who go to visit friends in Canton and other cities, or when they read in the local press such an item as this: "The motorship Tjiwangi arrived today from Singapore with 1400 Chinese en route to China."

This year the crossing at the great holiday of the Chinese New Year was especially heavy -- approximating a Klondike gold rush. The returning visitors reported that the Chinese customs at the border station of Shum Chun had been lenient with them and numerous persons had profited by selling watches, nylon stockings, and other luxuries they had smuggled into Canton.

The news set off a stampede towards China. Many cooks and other domestics quit their jobs, invested their savings in luxury goods, and took the first train to China. But the gold rush was short-lived and the amateur smugglers returned to their jobs, as the Communists at Shum Chun tightened their controls.

Orderly calm

Hong Kong is one of the world's great Chinese cities. But among both its Chinese businessmen who wear conservative British dress and its coolies in black blouse and trousers, there is at least one common attitude. In the words once applied to it by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Chinese Republic, Hong Kong maintains an "orderly calm." No nationalist fervors burn among its citizens. They are torn by no political ructions. The huge Chinese majority of the Colony remain there law-abiding and industrious for the compelling reason that they want to be there.

The Colony's government is autocratic. But it permits complete freedom of opinion, and Communist newspapers are freely published. The publisher of a local Chinese language Communist newspaper recently gave a large cocktail party with much fanfare at one of the city's leading hotels -- the Gloucester. It was attended by the local brethren, Communists from Southeast Asian countries, consular representatives, Western newspapermen, and many Westerners who detest Communism. One of them told his host that he had come only to drink Mao Tse-tung's wine to Chiang Kai-shek's health. "To Chiang Kai-shek's health," he said, and his friends around him joined him in the toast.

But the Communists perhaps had the last word, for they incessantly photographed the Communist-hating Westerners, and their photographs appear in the Red China press as "proof" that Westerners delight in fraternizing with Hong Kong Communists.

A great port and one of the world's few free ports, Hong Kong is a so-called "tourist's paradise." Here one of some 6,000 tailors will make you a dress or suit of clothes within twenty-four hours for a fraction of the price you would pay at home. Here French perfumes, Swiss watches, American typewriters sell for less than they do in their country of origin.

While many currencies are shaky, Hong Kong's currency is freely convertible into any currency of the world. The street money-changers, as though by way of commentary upon our sometimes massive mismanagement of "aid," will give you 100 to 120 Laotian, Cambodian, or Vietnamese piastres for an American dollar, while the United States, to the enrichment of local speculators in these countries, is wasting $240 million a year supporting their musical comedy currencies at the arbitrary rate of 35 to the dollar.

Foreign investors

Although Hong Kong is next door to Communist China, substantial quantities of capital are sent to this island Colony for investment from Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaya, and Indonesia. This inflow of capital reflects the stability of Hong Kong and the confidence that foreigners place in it. It also reflects the less stable conditions prevailing in some of the other Southeast Asian communities.

Overseas Chinese have invested heavily in Hong Kong. One Chinese businessman in Manila is reliably reported to have invested the large sum of H.K. $10 million in Hong Kong real estate, and it is estimated that in 1956, no less than H.K. $200 million (approximately U.S. $33 million) was transferred to Hong Kong from Southeast Asian countries.

The Colony's taxes are incomparably low. Its police force of about 6000 men is courteous, efficient, and honest. Its law courts, where the practice of the English courts is followed except as it has been modified by legal legislation, administer the law swiftly and justly. Its public health, despite appalling overcrowding, is, by virtue of superb management, excellent. Its water is drinkable from the tap -- a rarity in Asia. The island is free from epidemics of diseases that often plague much of Asia: cholera, typhus, smallpox. No other Asian city is as clean as Hong Kong.

Nowhere else in this part of the world are men so free to criticize their government without fear. The majority of them work overlong hours for small pay, and neither the Chinese nor the Europeans of the Colony have pretensions toward anything except a fierce, nineteenth-century kind of mercantilism.

One finds that men are free here, and none of the people of Hong Kong, with the exception of the Communists, are hankering to rid themselves of British rule. On the contrary, they are addressing constant petitions to Sir Alexander Grantham, the able, well-liked governor of the Colony, to continue in office, although he has served for an unprecedented period of ten years and would like to retire to Britain with his American-born wife.

Housing the refugees

Asia is now the principal field for American aid. Last year 70 per cent of our economic and technical aid went to Asia. Hong Kong was not among the beneficiaries. It has survived through its own efforts; it managed to accommodate 700,000 Chinese political refugees, and it has achieved the extraordinary feat of housing them. The tiny colony not only gave immediate sanctuary to the refugees but then undertook on its own a herculean task of rehabilitation.

The problem became acute in 1953 when 300,000 squatters colonized slopes and ravines too steep for normal development, where they built huts of boards, pieces of tin, sacking flung on frames. Density was at the rate of 2000 persons per acre, accompanied by a large number of pigs, chickens, and ducks that shared the huts. Drugs were made and sold; brothels and gambling houses flourished; and every form of crime was bred amid the filth, the disease, and the darkness.

The Colony was required to provide decent, permanent, fireproof housing for several hundred thousand people. (On a comparable scale of population, New York would suddenly have to receive, house, and find jobs for more than 2 million people.) Hong Kong also had to find land for the housing -- a problem that was partially and terribly solved by fires that swept the squatter settlements and made 70,000 people homeless. The Colony did not wait for outside aid, although, as some of its residents say, the problem of 700,000 Chinese refugees was certainly as much a world problem as that of 700,000 Arab refugees who have lived miserably in the desert for years with most of their support coming from the United States and little of it from the Arab states. In any event, the Hong Kong government became financier, contractor, and landlord, and it has housed over 300,000 persons. But there still remain more than 300,000 squatters who are anxiously awaiting resettlement.

No place to hide

However difficult living may be for huge numbers of Hong Kong's Chinese, they do not want to become citizens of Red China. When you ask them whether China will one day reclaim Hong Kong for its own, they say yes. But they believe that the day lies in the vague future. Chinese and European businessmen, in reply to the same question, say that Hong Kong's fate will be decided by the play of international forces beyond their control, and since they cannot do anything about it there is no point in becoming upset by it.

It is true, they say, that they live next door to 600 million Red Chinese and that the Colony is indefensible. But how much safer, they ask, are London, Paris, Rome, Bonn, all of them only minutes removed from Russian air bases in the satellite states? They suggest that the world has been made one by the monstrous weapons of our nuclear age, and in such a world they see no greater safety in New York than in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong therefore goes about its daily business of making money and enjoying its blessings with a kind of purposeful fatalism, convinced that it is no nearer the possibility of holocaust than any of the great world capitals. It is not corroded by despair. It does not use tranquilizing pills. It does not read how-to-get-peace-of-mind books. It merely goes calmly about its workaday tasks, an orderly community in a region torn by conflict and a center of stability whatever the earthquakes that occur near it.


Copyright © 1957 by The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June, 1957; Hong Kong; Volume 199, No. 6; pages 16-22

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