The British Empire Library

Hong Kong Metamorphosis

by D.C. Bray

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Patrick H Hase (Hong Kong 1972-96)
Denis Bray was born in Hong Kong, and entered the Hong Kong Government in 1950, retiring in 1985 as Secretary for Home Affairs and Deputy to the Governor, but continuing to live in Hong Kong. He is thus uniquely qualified to write about the recent development of Hong Kong. His book, however, is not a history, but a series of eminently readable and sparkling reminiscences. Many parts of his career are passed over. He merely describes those events which, looking back, he remembers with affection and continuing interest.

The book opens with a fine and sunny description of a happy childhood, in Foshan, Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Chefoo. His family's return to England as war approached, his education at Cambridge, and his discovery of rowing follow, in an equally beguiling account.

Most of the book discusses Denis's early career in Hong Kong. Eew personal details intrude. What we see is Denis the classic Colonial Service administrator; "everyone knew that our job was to look out for the ordinary citizen" (p. 138), and "championing the interests of the people where he was working against the tendency of London to give more importance to the interests of Britain" (p. 171). Time and again, Denis describes situations where "play it by the book" bureaucrats were creating unfairnesses for ordinary people. Denis, bending the rules, or introducing some extra-legal administrative procedure which could be slipped past the powers-that-be, eliminates the unfairness. Slaughterhouse butchers, villagers in New Territories villages, hawkers in urban streetmarkets, taxi-drivers, factory-hands forced to commute on wildly inadequate bus-services, all were helped by schemes introduced by Denis. Many of his reforms have subsequently been vilified, but no-one reading in an unbiassed way Denis's account of the introduction of Letters "B" (p. 76), or the Small House Policy (p. 163-166), could fail to see the need for the new policy, nor the skill and intelligence with which Denis undertok the work.

The later part of the book, on the years when Denis was Secretary for Home Affairs, will prove of interest to later political historians, giving glimpses of an insider's view of the negotiations on the future of Hong Kong. Despite this, I found this part of the book of less interest. Loyalty to the system makes the descriptions thin and the reticences are widespread.

At the end of the book is a short "Epilogue" in which Denis gives his views on the political development of Hong Kong after his retirement. His rejection of the Patten position is made clear, as is his espousal of a slow-but-steady development towards universal suffrage for the Legislative Council and for the election of the Chief Executive, with development of a ministerial system as the inevitable concomitant to these.

Hong Kong was lucky to have had Denis in senior positions throughout the formative years of modern Hong Kong. Without innovative, intelligent, and vigorous officers like him, what would the place have been like? At the same time, Denis, too, was lucky. Eor much of his early career he had the sympathetic support of Ronald Holmes as his immediate superior; almost the only man with the imagination to countenance Denis's guerilla attacks on the shibboleths of administration, and, more important, with the intelligence and drive to support them when he was satisfied they were needed.

All in all, this is a book of considerable charm, in which the author's intelligence, wit, and basic decency come over very clearly; it is thoroughly to be recommended to anyone interested in today's Hong Kong.

British Empire Book
Denis Bray
Hong Kong University Press
962 209550 X


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