Europe in China/Chapter 10

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Pre-British History of the Island of Hongkong.

Geological upheavals had felicitously formed Hongkong of the toughest material and placed it just where the Continent of Asia—large enough for the destinies of China, Russia and Britain—juts out into the Pacific, as if beckoning to the rest of the world to come on. Small as a dot in the ocean, Hongkong was yet formed large enough for its own destiny: to act as the thin end of the wedge which shall yet open up China to the civilization of the West; to form Britain's Key to the East, as the combined Malta and Gibraltar of the Pacific; to be China's guarantee of British support along the strategic line formed by India, the Straits Settlements and the China Sea.

Previous to its cession to the British Crown, the Island of Hongkong was too little known to be accorded special notice either in the Annals or in the Topographies of the Chinese Empire, to which it belonged.

Hongkong, and the opposite portion of the mainland of China, known as the Peninsula of Kowloon, together with the few tiny islets situated close inshore (Kellett Island, Stonecutter's Island, Green Island, Tree Island, Aberdeen Island, Middle Island, and Round Island), all of which are at the present day comprised within the boundaries of the Colony, formed, since time immemorial, a portion of the Kwangtung (Canton) Province. The Island of Hongkong (covering an area of about 29 square miles) is situated, 76 miles S.E. of Canton, near the mouth of the Pearl River, the eastern banks of which are lined by the Tungkoon District (24 miles S.E. of Canton city) and the Sanon District (52 miles S.E. of Canton city), of which the Kowloon Peninsula and Kowloon City Promontory from the south-eastern extremities, whilst Honglxong is separated from Kowloon Peninsula by a channel of one nautical mile in width.

For many centuries Hongkong formed a part of the Tungkoon District, but when the eastern half of the latter was constituted a separate District, called Sanon, the territory now included in the British Colony of Hongkong came under the jurisdiction of the Sanon Magistrate who resides in a walled town on the Canton River called Namtau (or Sanon), and who has under his direction a Sub-Magistrate residing at Kowloon city, a small fortified town, situated close to the British frontier, in the north-eastern corner of Kowloon Peninsula. The land-register, however, which forms the Domesday Book for the few arable and vegetable fields possessed by the Colony remained all along at Tungkoon. Thence used to issue from time to time the tax-gatherers to dun the villagers for the payment of the grain tax and to worry them into taking out licences for ground newly brought under cultivation.

The fishing grounds also, all along the coast of Hongkong and Kowloon, were parcelled out, under special licences for which the Sanon Magistrate's underlings used to collect annual fees. The waters of Hongkong, with the beautiful, roomy and almost land-locked harbour, enclosed on the North by the Peninsula of Kowloon and its eastern Promontory, and in the South by the Island of Hongkong with its several bays, were under the special supervision of the Marine Constabulary Station of Taipang, a walled town in the north-eastern portion of Mirs Bay, some 30 miles to the North-east of Kowloon city. But when the Colony became British, the head-quarters of the Colonel in command of the Marine Constabulary stations of Taipang and Kowloon were removed to the citadel of Kowloon city.

The above-mentioned administrative and executive arrangements date back, in their present form, no farther than the commencement of the present Tatsing (Manchu) Dynasty and notably to the reign of the enlightened Emperor Kanghi (A.D. 1662 to 1722), who took quite an exceptional position in that he positively encouraged foreigners to come to his Court and systematically favoured foreign trade. During his reign the water-ways of Hongkong which, with the Kap-shui-moon and Sulphur channels in the West, and the Ly-ee-moon pass in the East, formed all along the natural highway of commerce, connecting Canton and the South-west coast with the ports of Swatow, Amoy, Foochow and Shanghai on the East coast of China, rose into commercial importance.

As to the history of Hongkong previous to the rise of the Tatsing Dynasty (A.D. 1644) very little is known.

There is, however, on the Kowloon peninsula, and within British territory, an ancient rock inscription, on a large looselying granite boulder, which crowns the summit of a circular hill, jutting out into the sea, close to the village of Matauchung, directly West of Kowloon city. This inscription, consisting of three Chinese characters (Sung Wong T‘ong, lit. Hall of a King of the Sung) arranged horizontally, was originally cut about half an inch deep in the northern face of the boulder. The Chinese Government believe it to be a genuine inscription, about 600 years old. The original characters, having become nearly effaced in course of time, were renewed at the beginning of the present century (1807) by order of the Viceroy of Canton, the date of this restoration being recorded by a separate inscription the characters of which are arranged perpendicularly. The memories attaching to this inscription and to the whole hill, which still shows the outlines of the original entrenchments, are so sacred in the eyes of Chinese officials and literati, that excavations and quarrying were prohibited in that locality under the severest penalties. When the Peninsula was leased and subsequently ceded to the British Crown, the Chinese Government specially stipulated that the rock inscription and the whole hill should remain untouched. Nevertheless, quarrying has occasionally been attempted there since the locality came into British possession.

Chinese history states that, when the Sung Dynasty was overturned by the invasion of the Mongols under Kublai Khan who subsequently seated himself on the throne of China (A.D. 1280), the last Emperor of the Sung Dynasty, then a young child, was driven with the Imperial Court to the South of China and finally compelled to take refuge on board ship, when he continued his flight, accompanied by a small fleet. Coasting along from Foochow, past Amoy and Swatow, he passed (about 1278 A.D.) through the Ly-ee-moon into the waters of Hongkong. After a short stay on Kowloon Peninsula, he sailed westwards until he reached Ngaishan, at the mouth of the West River (South-west of Macao). But meanwhile the Mongols had taken possession of Canton and hastily organized a fleet with which they hemmed in the Imperial flotilla on all sides. The Prime Minister (Luk Sau-fu), seeing all was lost, took the youthful Emperor on his back, jumped into the sea (A.D. 1279) and perished together with him.

Within a few months previous to this event, the Imperial Court had rested for a while in the little bay of Kowloon, called Matauchung. Tradition says that Kowloon city and the present hamlets of Matauchung and Matauwai were not in existence at the time, and that the Imperial troops were encamped for a time on the hill now marked by the inscription, whilst the Court were lodged in a roughly constructed wooden palace erected at a short distance from the beach, on the other side of Matauchung creek, at a place now marked by a temple. There, it is said, the last Emperor of the Sung resided for a while, on ground now British and in sight of Hongkong, waiting for news from Canton concerning the movements of the Mongols, and hoping in vain to receive succour from that treacherous city.

Tradition further states that, ever since the downfall of the Sung (A.D. 1279) and all through the reign of the Mongol Yuen Dynasty (A.D. 1280 to 1333), Hongkong was a haunt of pirates. The bay of Shaukiwan (close to the Ly-ee-moon pass) and the bay of Aberdeen (close to the Lamma channel) were specially dreaded by peaceful traders, because piratical craft used to issue thence plundering or levying black-mail on passing junks. These pirates, it is said, were generally engaged in fishing whilst men stationed on the hill tops kept a look-ont for merchant vessels. The descendants of these piratical fishermen gave, in subsequent years, an endless deal of trouble to the British Government. It was this piratical predisposition of the fishermen residing in the neighbourhood of Hongkong that had caused the early Portuguese navigators to give these Islands the general name Ladrones.

During the reign of the native Ming Dynasty (A.D. 1468 to 1628), a period of comparative peace and order ensued whilst the fishing vessels of Shaukiwan and Aberdeen confined their depredations to the regular levy of a small fee, willingly paid by junks benefitting by the short cut afforded by the Ly-ee-moon and Lamma channels or by the safe anchorage which some of the bays of Hongkong provided in case of an approaching typhoon. Both the Peninsula of Kowloon and the Island of Hongkong now began to be peopled by peaceful and industrious settlers from the neighbouring Tungkoon District. The town of Kowloon was formed about this time by settlers speaking the Cantonese dialect, called Puntis (lit. aborigines). These Puntis, after denuding the hill sides of all available timber or firewood, took possession of all arable ground to be found on the territory now British, and took out licenses for such fields from the Tungkoon Magistracy. Thus the hamlets of Matauwai (near Kowloon city) with Kwantailou (Eastpoint) and Wongnaichung (on the Island of Hongkong) were among the first to be formed, and to them were added later on the hamlets of Sookonpou (Bowring-town), Tanglungchau and Pokfulam. Some of the fishing villages, Chikchü (Stanley), Shekou (between Cape Collinson and Cape D'Aguilar), and Yaumati (on Kowloon Peninsula) now rose also into importance. Among the people then residing on Hongkong a number of families of the Tong clan held all the best pieces of ground and the members of this Tong clan looked upon themselves as the owners of Hongkong.

Some time, however, after the Puntis had occupied the best portions of Kowloon and Hongkong, settlers from the North-east of the Canton Province, speaking a different dialect, called Hakkas (lit. strangers), began to push their way in between Punti settlements. These Hakkas cut the grass from the hill sides for fuel, made charcoal as long as there was any timber left, formed vegetable fields on hilly or swampy ground neglected by the Puntis, started granite quarries, or worked in the Punti villages as blacksmiths or barbers. Thus the Hakka villages of Mongkok, Tsopaitsai, Tsimshatsui and Matauchung were formed on Kowloon Peninsula, and on Hongkong Island the hamlets of Hungheunglou, Tunglowan, Taitamtuk, Shaiwan, Hoktsui, Wongmakok, and Little Hongkong. Similar hamlets were formed by the Hakkas at the quarries of Taikoktsui, Hokün, and Tokwawan on Kowloon, and at the quarries of Tsattsimui, Shuitsingwan, Wongkoktsui, and Akungngam on the Island of Hongkong.

Thus it happened that, ever since the Ming Dynasty, two distinct tribes of Chinese, differing from each other in language, customs and manners, formed the native population of Hongkong and Kowloon. As a rule, the Puntis were more intelligent, active and cunning, and became the dominant race, whilst the Hakkas, good-natured, industrious and honest, served as hewers of wood and stone and drawers of water. But from the first advent of the British and all through the wars with China, the Puntis as a rule were the enemies and the Hakkas the friends, purveyors, commissariat and transport coolies of the foreigners, whilst the fishing population provided boatmen and pilots for the foreign trade.

Later on, a third class of natives, speaking another dialect (Tiehchiu, or Swatow dialect), settled at Shaukiwan, Tokwawan, Hunghom and Yaumati. These people, generally called Hoklos, were all seafaring men, bolder in character than either Hakkas or Puntis, and specially addicted to smuggling and piracy. Among all the pirates on the coast, these Hoklos were most dreaded on account of their ferocious and daring deeds. In later years, these Hoklos supplied the crews of nearly all the salt smuggling and opium smuggling boats, the terror of the Chinese revenue cruizers.

After the downfall of the Ming Dynasty (A.D. 1628), the scattered remnants of the Ming army, still hoping to retrieve the fortunes of the Ming and to expel the Tsing (Manchus), took refuge on the Island of Hongkong (about A.D. 1650). Thereupon the Emperor Kanghi issued an Edict, cancelling all leases issued for Hongkong and calling upon all loyal subjects of the Tatsing Dynasty to withdraw themselves and all supplies of provisions from the Island, until all the rebels who had taken refuge there were starved out and exterminated. All the agricultural settlers, Puntis and Hakkas left Hongkong forthwith—an exodus which, in the history of British Hongkong, was repeated several times—until the rebels had been dislodged and order restored, when they returned and had their licenses renewed.

Chinese tradition has nothing further to say of Hongkong, except that, at the beginning of the present century (A.D. 1806 to 1810), the present Victoria Peak (1,774 feet high) formed the look-out and the fortified head-quarters of a pirate, named Chang Pao, famous in popular local history for his daring exploits until, having conquered several districts bordering on the Canton River, he was bought over by the Viceroy of Canton and entered his service.

As to the name of Hongkong, the Chinese are not in the habit of naming an island, as a whole, apart from any prominent place or feature of it. Previous to the cession of Hongkong, there was no term in existence designating the Island of Hongkong as a whole. The principal port on the South of the Island, now known as the port of Aberdeen, was always known among Puntis, and fishermen especially, as Heung-kong (lit. port of fragrance) and is so known among the natives generally to the present day when referring to the anchorage as distinct from the village of Shekpaiwan (Aberdeen village) and the village of Aplichau (Aberdeen Island). The Hakka village of Heung-kongtsai (Little Hongkong) is situated two miles farther inland. The stream which, by a pretty little waterfall, falls into the sea at Aberdeen village (at the present paper mill), has nothing to do with the native term Hongkong, but it attracted European vessels which used to replenish their empty water-casks there. These European mariners, mistaking the name of the anchorage for that of the whole Island, marked the Island of Hongkong on their charts accordingly, and in subsequent years, on the occasion of the Treaties of Chuenpi (A.D. 1841) and Nanking (A.D. 1843), the term 'Hong Kong' was adopted as a designation of the whole Island and thus passed into general use, both among foreigners and natives, and finally the term 'Hongkong' was used as a designation of the whole Colony (including Kowloon).

Along the northern shore of Island there used to be, previous to the British occupation, a narrow bridlepath leading, high above the beach, across rocks and boulders, all the way from Westpoint to a hamlet near Eastpoint called Kwantailou, described in the first census (May 15, 1841) as a fishing village with 50 inhabitants. This path was used by the crews of trading junks, in cases of wind and tide being unfavourable, to track the junks along by a towing line attached to the peak of the foremast. Now this hard-trodden path standing, to an observer from the opposite shore, clear out from the grass-grown hillside, like a fringe or border along the skirts of the hill, was by the natives called Kwantailou (lit. petticoat string road), and the hamlet at which this path ended was naturally called by this same name. But among the Hakkas, the Island of Hongkong, or rather this northern portion of it, is to the present day called by the same name Kiuntailou.

The name of the Kowloon peninsula, which covers an area of four square miles, is derived from a series of nine peaks or ridges (Kau-lung, lit. nine dragons) which form the northern background of the panorama spread out before an observer standing on the northern slope of the Island of Hongkong. After these nine dragons, both the city of Kowloon (which is in Chinese territory) and the Peninsula of Kowloon (ceded to Great Britain in 1861) are named.

Previous to the British occupation of Hongkong, the population of it probably never exceeded, at any one time, a total of 2,000 people, including Puntis, Hakkas and Hoklos, whether ashore or afloat.