The British Empire Library

Hong Kong Then

by Brian D. Wilson

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by James Hayes (Hong Kong Administrative Grade, 1956-88)
In recent years, many books have been written about Hong Kong. Very few of them are by people like Brian Wilson who, for long a head of department in the Hong Kong Civil Service, assisted in the former colony's gradual transfoiTnation into the huge metropolis it is today. The author's aim is to describe what life was like for Westerners and Chinese over time, in a place whose population grew from around 1 million at the time of his arrival in 1948 to the 5.5 millions when he left in 1983: 'an increase that (as he reminds us in his preface) had to be fed, housed, found jobs, policed, administered, and given cultural and recreational outlets'. He achieves his goals in a satisfying and often illuminating way, by taking us through the experiences and observations of his own career.

As was customary with administrative officers, he filled many posts during his thirtyfive years in Hong Kong, in his case mostly in departmental appointments, his final posts being Commissioner for Transport, and then (1976-83) as a long-serving Director of Urban Services, working with and to the former Hong Kong Urban Council, but with added personal responsibilities which included the preservation of the territory's antiquities and monuments.

Without more ado, I found this book to be a good 'read'. The author's style is straightforward and to the point, like the man himself. Knowing his own mind, he was decisive, yet kept his feet on the ground. The text can be read as nostalgia by former residents or, as providing 'inside' information, by both the general reader and researchers into Hong Kong's history. It is enlivened by amusing tales, and by the occasional sharp comment on people and situations.

I found the sections dealing with his work in the then rural New Territories, and in the city when in charge of old-style urban cleansing, are among the most lively and interesting parts of the book, and was pleased to see that two papers deriving from these experiences are reprinted in the appendices.

My favorite story is at page 75. Interrupted when stripped to the waist and working in the garden of his DO's quarter one hot weekend, he was required to sign a warrant to commit a villager to 14 days' observation in a mental hospital. A few days later, he received a memorandum from the Medical Department's Psychiatric Specialist, saying in effect, 'if you are the Mr Wilson who signed the committal warrant, you signed in the wrong place and it appears that you have committed yourself. When do you wish to come in? We will try to have a room ready for you.'

Any disappointments? I wanted the book to be longer. It whets the appetite for more of the same. Also, an index would have been useful. The book's 41 chapters in my edition are untitled, and it is not easy for a reader to check contents or retrace his steps to retrieve some gem - I understand this has been corrected in later editions. The photographs are on the dark side, although printing technology can do wonders for old images.

This is not Brian's first book. The Ever Open Eye, published by the same press in 1998, is a compelling account of the author's war service with the Irish Guards in Northwest Europe in 1944. In practically identical and attractive formats, the pair make a handsome showing on anyone's book-shelves.

British Empire Book
Brian Wilson
The Pentland Press
1 85821 773 3
The author has kindly consented for this book to be made available in full on the website here.


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe