The British Empire Library

Southern District Officer Reports: Islands And Villages In Rural Hong Kong, 1910-60

edited by John Strickland

Courtesy of OSPA

Dr Patrick H Hase {Hong Kong Administration 1972-96)
The great city of Hong Kong regularly appears on our television screens, and its finance houses and banks are major players on the international financial scene. A hundred years ago, and it was already the city which dominated men’s minds when they thought of Hong Kong. Already by then it was the second greatest port of the British Empire, and one of the most important industrial cities in Asia, a self-consciously modern metropolis, a full-time player on the world stage.

However, in 1898, an area of rural land on the border of the old Colony of Hong Kong was leased from China to ensure the security of the Colony. By this lease some 675 villages, and half-a-dozen small market towns and fishing ports, with a population of 200,000 people, were added to the Colony, as the New Territories.

This area was, at that date, a quiet and undeveloped place. It was mountainous, and communications were difficult: apart from a few adventurous souls who left to work overseas, few villagers left their villages except for trips to their market. The great majority were subsistence rice-farmers, growing most of what they ate and wore. Their life-style was simple and entirely pre-modern.

This area was administered in the normal way of the British Empire, being divided between two District Offices, North and South, with District Officers acting as Magistrates and Land Officers, and overseeing whatever development was needed. In due course, from the 1960s, the area was largely to become part of the urban area of Hong Kong, through the Hong Kong Government New Towns Programme, but, down to I960, it remained entirely rural.

This rural hinterland to the great city of Hong Kong is little known. This book gives us an insight into how District Officers went about their work. The District Officers were encouraged to visit every village in their districts, to write up what they heard from the elders, and to take action on whatever needed attention. By great good fortune some of these notes survive, and have been gathered together in this book. They show us District Officers working in ways perhaps more familiar in Africa, constantly moving around their district, meeting with village elders, trying to better the circumstances of the villages with the tiny funds at their disposal, trying to find jobs for those without work, liaising with agricultural and other experts, and acting to combat outbreaks of illegality. They show us District Officers, both European and Chinese, sitting and talking with villagers, in an easy and friendly way, and the elders giving their views freely and robustly. This book is invaluable in showing us so clearly this almost unknown facet of Hong Kong life.

Of particular interest is that many of the notes that survive date from the immediate post-War years, when the devastation of the Japanese Occupation had to be repaired. Hunger, disease, lack of education, joblessness, all were major problems. These notes show us the District Officers working on these problems, slowly achieving real results. This is exactly the time when the Communist Government came into power in China, and there the Party dealt with exactly the same problems, but with much bloodshed. This book is invaluable as showing how the Hong Kong Government dealt with the same problems, in the long run at least as effectively.

The Royal Asiatic Society, Hong Kong Branch, is to be congratulated in this series of books (of which this is the tenth) on the history of Hong Kong, as is the Hong Kong University Press on an excellently produced set of volumes. The price is extremely reasonable.

British Empire Book
John Strickland
Hong Kong University Press
978 988 8028 38 2


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