The British Empire Library

Love is a Grapefruit: The Golden Needle: The Biography of Frederick Stewart (1836-1889)

by Dr Gillian Bickley

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Colvyn Haye (Hong Kong 1953-87)
Gillian Bickley's book should have wide appeal in Scotland as well as in Hong Kong, and further afield among educators and others interested in perspectives promoting better understanding between East and West.

It is particularly timely with the handover of Hong Kong to China as a reminder of the lasting legacy of the early teachers and administrators of the Colonial Service, and as a tribute to the many Scots who took their talents to the Far East.

As Lord David Wilson of Tillyorn puts it in his perceptive introduction to the book, "Stories about the heroic endeavours of many a lad of parts - the young man from a lowly background who reaches high position through good education and great determination - are the very fabric of Scottish ambition".

Frederick Stewart was born in a humble village in North Eastern Scotland, the son of an Aberdeenshire crofter tailor, who became the first headmaster of Hong Kong's Government funded Central School (later renamed Queen's College), laid the foundations for the Education Department, influenced the development of education in modern China (through pupils like Sun Yat Sen and Robert Ho Tung), and finished as Colonial Secretary and occasional Acting Governor. Not bad for a struggling boy from Rathen Parish School who won a bursary to Aberdeen Grammar and went on to Aberdeen University.

Intended for the Church, an advertisement for a Headmaster and Inspector of Schools in Hong Kong at #500 a year (with house), caught Stewart's eye. As Gillian Bickley remarks, "It is a wonder that Stewart, renowned both as student and adult for his modesty, was bold enough to apply. Possibly he took confidence from the restriction to applicants under twenty five, (and) the recent appointment to the Chinese Consular Service of his former Aberdeen Grammar School junior, G. P. Thomson, also a tailor's son, encouraged him." But it was the patronage of his University Principal, the Very Reverend P. C. Campbell, who remembered him from early Greek classes, that clinched it. Campbell recommended Stewart to the Bishop of Hong Kong, Chairman of the Board of Education, who had been begging the Church Missionary Society for an energetic Christian schoolmaster 'willing to teach the rudiments', and Stewart was the answer to his prayer.

Old Colonial hands will be amused by Stewart's voyage to Hong Kong from Southampton on the SS Indus as a 'Chief Cabin Passenger'. The P&O overland route via Gibraltar, Malta, Egypt, Aden, Ceylon, Madras and the Straits to China, was a leisurely and luxurious affair not unlike the voyages of the Corfu and Chusan before air travel succeeded the sea.

Trials and tribulations awaited the earnest young Stewart in Hong Kong after the ease of shipboard life (beef tea and gargantuan meals when not lazing on deck chairs), not the least being his introduction to the Central School when pupils crammed into the hall chanting by rote at the tops of their voices drowned out his cries for "Silence!" Then there were the traditional Chinese attitudes to education and the prejudices of the bureaucrats of the Secretariat (from the Governor down) against change.

Stewart had strong views on the relative importance of English and Chinese as mediums of education (he believed in both), the education of women (not as 'the superfluity and mistake' held by contemptuous traditionalists) and the modernisation of Chinese thought (he saw himself as a facilitator) believing in a consistent policy of educating pupils in Western knowledge while preserving their Chinese identity.

Of course Stewart made enemies who eventually forced him to resign. The sinister Dr Ernst Eitel succeeded him as Inspector of Schools (effectively Director of Education) and used his closeness to the choleric and unbalanced Governor Pope Hennessy to harass the demoted Head of the Central School. Stewart was shunted sideways by apparent promotion to Acting Colonial Secretary and blocked as Registrar General.

The feuds and infighting of the bureaucracy in the Nineteenth Century will fascinate all Hong Kong readers with any experience of the vagaries of the Government Secretariat in this century. Nothing has really changed, only the personalities, and many of them make this section of the book more interesting than the rather sober pilgrim's progress of Frederick Stewart to his early death of pneumonia at the age of 53.

Gillian Bickley brings dedication and scholarship to her tribute to Frederick Stewart. Perhaps she overstates the importance of the Central School and Stewart's place in education in early Hong Kong by omitting the pioneering work of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches through their schools which pre-date Stewart, but there is little doubt that he was a man revered as a scholar and teacher by the Chinese as 'The Golden Needle', remembered 'like the breezes of Spring'.

British Empire Book
Dr Gillian Bickley
David C. Lam Institute for East-West Studies


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