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
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