Hong Kong 1950: the sky was high and the emperor far away

Cover of my copy of "Myself a Mandarin"

Well, specifically the government of mainland China was far away (the British were very much there). The 1950s were a time when Hong Kong forgot about China.

Austin Coates was a Special Magistrate in Hong Kong just after the end of China’s civil war and his book, “Myself a Mandarin,” is an awfully fun, quick read.

Coates discusses Hong Kong’s separateness from (and ignorance of) mainland China during this time:

“Without noticing it, I had forgotten all about the Chinese civil war and the dangers, and had become engrossed in a small and comparatively ridiculous local Hongkong problem, almost as if China did not exist. As I was in due course to discover, this is one of Hongkong’s most peculiar, and somehow endearing, characteristics. It is separated from China, not by distance, but in time and in mental climate.

“When Europeans first settled there, in 1841, Hongkong was a steep, gaunt, scrub-covered rock with only a few hundred Chinese villagers living on it. As a great port and city, it developed from its own special Victorian origins. China, by contrast, belongs its own thousands of years of history, stemming from another time, and responsive to other stimuli.

“Thus while, on the other side of the border, a civil war of world importance might rage, people in Hongkong were able to pursue their own small personal wars, undeterred by greater events. …” (pages 3-4)

Today, Hong Kong cannot ignore mainland China and is in the midst of an awkward dance to define its relationship with its new overseer. Hong Kongers still like to hold themselves separate from the mainland as is starkly demonstrated by the recent derogatory nickname of “locust” being bestowed on mainland Chinese tourists visiting Hong Kong.

Controversial "locust" ad published in Hong Kong's Apple Daily

I’m staying well clear of that controversy, but it does mark another interesting turn in the relationship between Hong Kong and China.

At the time Coates was in Hong Kong, however, mainland China and Hong Kong ignored each other (and indeed the border was firmly shut):

“… Far from harassing the colony, the new government in the main left it alone … Hongkong settled down to seventeen unprecedented years of tranquility in its relations with China.

“Tranquility induced, in the earlier years at least, by relations being almost non-existent. Indeed, never was Hongkong’s separateness from China, and from events there, more manifest. Genuine news from China, as opposed to the happy talk and happy song pealing forth day and night from China’s radio stations, was scanty and unreliable. Nor, extraordinary as it may seem, were Hongkong people particularly interested in China news; they had their own local problems and anxieties.” (pages. 7-8)

Myself a Mandarin: Memoirs of a Special Magistrate” by Austin Coates was originally published in 1968 and is out of print in UK and US (you can buy it used on Amazon for a pretty penny). You might still be able to buy a new copy in Hong Kong as I seem to remember seeing it in Dymocks once. The copy that I have cited to was published in 1980 by Heinemann Educational Books (Asia) Ltd.

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One response to “Hong Kong 1950: the sky was high and the emperor far away

  1. Pingback: Piracy on the Hong Kong-Macau ferry | Expat Lingo·

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