“130 Years of Medicine in Hong Kong From the College of Medicine for Chinese to the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine” by Frank Ching

The Hong Kong College of Medicine circa 1908 (Wikimedia Commons) The Hong Kong College of Medicine circa 1908 (Wikimedia Commons)

130 Years of Medicine in Hong Kong  places particular focus on medical and financial factors. Each chapter begins with an abstract in the style of an academic paper and frequent subtitles help with the location of specific information. As Hong Kong has been heavily involved in a number of pandemic scares in the 21st century, a look at the history of the Hong Kong University Faculty of Medicine that has tackled SARS and various Avian influenzas reveals how historical factors can shape an institution.

Ching tells the story of Western Medicine in the city from the opening of the Hong Kong Medical College for Chinese in 1887. This facility, set up by the London Missionary Society, trained Chinese to be doctors. Students graduating from the college, struggled to get their qualifications recognised by the Hong Kong government reluctant to put Chinese doctors on the same footing as Europeans. As the years passed, Chinese doctors continued to break barriers placed on them. One chance to show their worth was dealing with the bubonic plague outbreak in Hong Kong in 1895. Local doctors collaborated well with those bringing experience from the far reaches of the British Empire.

One of the first graduates of the college was the instigator of the 1911 revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty, Sun Yat-sen. Sun practiced in Macau and then later, when he could have worked in Hong Kong, was persona non grata due to his revolutionary activities. Due to a lack of opportunities, many subsequent graduates left to work in the Straits Settlement causing something of a brain drain.

In 1911, the college moved its premises to Hong Kong University and became the Faculty of Medicine. The college struggled financially, one of its financial saviors was the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1920s. In 2005 philanthropist Li Ka-shing donated one billion HK dollars to the university and today the medical faculty bares his name. This renaming caused some controversy at the time.


130 Years of Medicine in Hong Kong: From the College of Medicine for Chinese to the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, Frank Ching (Springer, December 2018)
130 Years of Medicine in Hong Kong: From the College of Medicine for Chinese to the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, Frank Ching (Springer, December 2018)

130 Years takes us through a myriad of medical and administrative developments brought about by talented people. Once of the characters who stands out is Doctor GB Ong. The faculty was shut after the Japanese occupied Hong Kong in 1941 and many of the doctors went to China to escape imprisonment, including Ong, who


like the majority of the university’s students, fled to China. It was a hazardous three month journey from occupied Hong Kong to Chungking, the wartime capital of the Nationalist Government, under the most trying circumstances. In China, which itself was fighting a war of resistance against Japan, life was extremely hard. Ong and schoolmate, Harry Fang, sold their own blood for money.


Harry Fang became an orthopedic surgeon. He and Ong worked with Francis Stock and AR Hodgson on surgical techniques. Hodgson was famous for the operating technique that would put HKU on the world map in the 1950s. “The Hong Kong Operation” involved entering from the front of the body, rather than the back, to operate on the spine. This revolutionary technique had great success. Ong became the first ethnic Chinese Chair of Surgery at HKU and contributed greatly to research on esophageal surgery.

Ching covers the relationship of Hong Kong medicine with Mainland China thoroughly. With China closing up after the communist takeover in 1949, HKU looked to train doctors from other countries in Asia. This switch was possible as English was the medium of instruction at the faculty. From 1984 onwards, although China began to open up and again send students, the planned 1997 handover of the city from Britain to China loomed large, and Hong Kong was under threat of losing doctors en masse to emigration. The difficulty of dealing with a secretive Chinse government over SARS also caused its frustrations. However, Ching tells us that inflexible Beijing perhaps helped HKU get an accolade it didn’t deserve. Doctors in China may have isolated the SARS virus before HKU—which was recognized by WHO for this achievement.


The problem, as is frequently the case in China, was politics. Since the highly respected senior microbiologist Hong Tao had made the pronouncement in February that chlamydia was responsible for the mystery ailment, the Ministry of Health had accepted this view and the official Chinese establishment would accept no other view.


This book gives a lot of information while allowing those interested in medical history to do their own analysis, but there is a lot to wade through, such as transcripts, financial statistics and details of a doctor’s golf swing. Despite this, the reader will be rewarded with some unique anecdotes such as that of a eunuch suffering from gout.

130 Years lays the ground for further work on the various pandemics that have threatened the region, also it’s a timely reminder of how Hong Kong’s unique history and blend of East and West has led to real advances in medical and health sciences.

Frank Beyer's writing has appeared in the LA Review of Books, Anak Sastra and Headland Journal.