It is an event that neither Hong Kong, China nor Britain are likely to be celebrating. Nevertheless, on this day – January 26 – in 1841, the British flag was first unfurled at Possession Point by Royal Navy sailors.
Photo: Chris Needos.
At the time, Hong Kong was a sleepy backwater, though it would prove to be a handy trading outpost. “Albert is so amused at my having got the island of Hong Kong”,wrote Queen Victoria in 1841.
First Opium War, via Wikicommons
The Convention of Chuenpee ceded Hong Kong to the British after the First Opium War in which 600 Chinese soldiers died.
Within five months, British officials began selling land in Hong Kong and the territory formally became a British possession a year later.
Possession Point was originally named Tai Hang Hau, or “Big Puddle”. The area was redeveloped into a Chinese-style garden which is today known as Hollywood Road park.
The British destruction of Beijing’s Summer Palace in the 19th Century encapsulates how the emotion played a major role in forming modern China.
Matt Schiavenza writes: In June 1840, following the breakdown in negotiations with the Qing Dynasty over the trade of opium on Chinese territory, a large British military force captured the city of Canton (now Guangzhou) before marching up the coastline and entering central China at the Yangtze River delta. Within two years, Great Britain had routed China and, during the subsequent peace treaty, extracted significant concessions: control of Hong Kong (in perpetuity), the widening of trade in new ports, and extraterritoriality for British subjects in China—a privilege obtained by American and French governments soon afterwards.
These events comprised the First Opium War, a defeat which began a era known in China as the “century of humiliation.” And only when Chairman Mao Zedong stood atop Beijing’s Gate of Heavenly Peace on October 1, 1949 and proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China did this “century”—which actually lasted 109 years—come to an end.
Since then, the “century of humiliation” has been a central part of the P.R.C.’s founding mythology, of which the short version is this: Long the world’s pre-eminent civilization, China fell behind the superior technology of the West over the centuries, an imbalance that finally came to a head with the loss in the Opium Wars. This begun the most tumultuous century in the country’s—or any country’s—history, one that featured an incessant series of wars, occupations, and revolutions and one that did not end until the victory of the Communist Party in China‘s 1945-49 civil war.
Ben Chu writes: Chinese Whispers was once a party game. A message would be relayed in hushed tones through a long line of people and emerge at the other end amusingly garbled. Most of us have found alternative amusements nowadays, but the name survives as a figure of speech; an idiom used to signify how facts or a story tend to get twisted over time and distance.
Why ‘Chinese’ though? There seem to be no concrete answers. One theory has it that messages relayed between the lonely watchtowers of the Great Wall suffered this kind of distortion. Another is that China was once a byword for misunderstanding and confusion in the West, something to do with the supposed ‘inscrutability’ of the Chinese. It doesn’t seem to be a very old usage, with the first references only appearing in the middle of the 20th century. But whatever the provenance of Chinese Whispers, there’s something rather appropriate about the name.
China has always loomed large in the Western imagination because it provides a handy screen on to which we can project our dreams and nightmares. First the dreams. The Jesuit missionaries of the 16th century projected China as a country in which men like them achieved, promoted as councillors to emperors, ignoring (or perhaps ignorant of) the fact that the ostensibly meritocratic, imperial exam system was riven with corruption and nepotism. That tradition of wishful projection continues today.
Many executives of Western multinationals talk of China as a new capitalist Jerusalem, a land of eternally high GDP growth, the biggest untapped consumer market on the planet, the place where the state sees its proper function as to help the private sector to make money. Of course, occasionally they will come up against an awkward fact that challenges this dream – reports of baby milk formula adulterated with a harmful chemical by a Chinese manufacturer, for instance, or a corruption scandal – but these are seen as tests of faith to be overcome. They cannot be permitted to interfere with the glorious vision.
Then there are the China nightmares. The French philosopher Montesquieu, in the 18th century, reviled China as a country where there reigned “a spirit of servitude”. In a similar vein, the Victorians projected China as a place where intellectual progress had come to a pathetic stop. What they were both doing was imagining China as the very antithesis of everything they wanted their own nations to be: free, vigorous and expansive. Read the rest of this entry »