For most of its history, Hong Kong has been tied to the sea and ships. Today’s urban metropolis of skyscrapers and financial institutions is a relatively recent development.
Where there are ships, there are seamen; some of Hong Kong’s most venerable if not necessarily best-known institutions relate to their welfare. Strong to Save is a history of these institutions, culminating in the establishment of the Mariners’ Club a half-century ago. One can hardly think of anyone better suited than author and historian Stephen Davies to tell this story. Davies has an encyclopedic knowledge of anything to do with the China Coast, ships and seafaring; his writing manages to be rigorous without being dry.
That being said, this is a very detailed and comprehensive treatment of a rather specific topic. Nevertheless, it records the history of Hong Kong from a perspective less often covered, that of the quotidien needs of relatively ordinary, albeit largely transient, workers who contributed so much to Hong Kong’s development.
Like many Hong Kong stories, this one starts before Hong Kong itself and, interestingly enough, it seems to have started with impetus from Americans. The American Seaman’s Friend Society formed its first mission in Whampoa in 1829.
The issues were both practical—seamen needed a place to stay when they were between jobs or just on leave—and spiritual. The two usually went hand in hand, with the institutions established catering to both needs. Sailors, it seems, often preferred the profane to the sacred; attempts to reduce drinking foundered as often as not.
These on-the-whole well-meaning efforts were blighted by the exclusion of Asian seamen until embarrassingly late in the 20th-century; whatever its merits, Hong Kong was a colonial exercise. Davies gives an overview of the institutions, such as the ghaut serang system, established in parallel to provide similar services for non-Western seamen. Lascars, non-Chinese, non-Western seamen seemed to have been tended to as early as the 1840s, whereas the first known Chinese seaman’s boarding house seems to date from 1872.
The first part of the book, up to about the First World War, contains considerable color. Many of the details of these early period are fascinating, such as the note that the proportion of Asian seamen increased rapidly with the shift from sail to steam:
Sailing ships were almost entirely western-crewed, traditional Chinese sail giving no training or habituation in going aloft. By contrast, steam ships were very early on to make the shift to mainly Asian crews.
Strong to Save can be read as a straightforward history, but it illuminates in other ways as well. The Mariners’ Club is an example of a non-governmental colonial institution that survived the transition from colony to Chinese SAR. There are of course a great many of these—from the Jockey Club on down— that make Hong Kong the unique and somewhat peculiar place it is, but this story is a reminder of how far down into Hong Kong life these institutions penetrate, so much so that hardly anyone gives them a second thought.
Strong to Save also makes it clear how much of Hong Kong Government policy was ad hoc: leaving things to market forces if possible, relying on social organizations such as churches to provide services, a reluctance to provide funding and subsidising through the use of discretionary land use. This modus operandi can still be discerned in the way much of Hong Kong is run, in the fragmentation of the educational system and the reliance on charities for much of Hong Kong social services. In its description of the early decades of the development of the Sailors’ Home and other institutions, Strong to Save, whether by design or not, provides a good and well-documented example of how these policy-making tendencies came about.
Strong to Save forms parts of the Royal Asiatic Society’s Hong Kong Studies Series and comes complete with timelines,many black and white plates, and an extensive 130 pages of notes and bibliography. This edition from CityU HK Press is a considerably more elegant production that academic books are wont to be.