• 隔世凶年|戴啟思
  • 2020-02-26    


When the Plague Came to Town

It is a world away now, but in 1894 the residents of Hong Kong faced a contagion far deadlier than a novel coronavirus.

In the summer months of that year, the bubonic plague came to town. When it left a few months later, about 2,500 people had died, and some institutions Hong Kong had changed dramatically in ways that affect us even today.

The plague settled in a crowded part of Hong Kong Island, in the Taipingshan district of Sheung Wan. It spread quickly amongst overcrowded and unsanitary hovels there. When it took a grip on a victim, it rarely let go of them. Mortality rates exceeded 90% of those infected.

The colonial Government was at a loss to know what to do. A Swiss doctor, Alexander Yersin, was living and working in Hong Kong in 1894. Although he discovered the plague bacillus and identified its transmission source-rats-it would take several years before an effective anti-plague serum was produced. The Government was committed to doing its best by deploying what it believed might work: Western medicine. This powerful engine for securing public health ran up against another uniquely local institution: Traditional Chinese medicine.

Western medicine won out when the crisis was over but not because it was vastly superior to Traditional Chinese medicine-recovery rates were about the same whether you were under a Western doctor or a traditional practitioner.

It came out on top because government officials were forced to take public health seriously. They needed to intervene in a deadly health crisis, and Western medicine was the tried and trusted instrument to bring about necessary changes. Western medicine would be forced on the people of Hong Kong for their own and the community's good at the expense of traditional treatment.

One Western medical method used to fight infectious diseases was strict isolation. In February 1891 the Governor, Sir Wiliam Des Voeux, attended the launch of an engineless hospital ship to provide accommodation for contagious medical cases. The authorities moored the vessel, called the Hygeia, off Kennedy Town.

On the same page of the 'Hong Kong Daily Press' that reported the launch of the Hygeia was a news item about the Sanitary Board finding it a severe nuisance that neither it nor the Government had the authority to prevent private persons from excavating latrines wherever they wished. One member, a Dr Cantlie, expressed concern that someone planned to build a latrine next to the Alice Memorial Hospital. (The hospital is long gone, but it occupied a site on Hollywood Road near Aberdeen Street.) Nothing better presages the plague of 1894 than this news report.

The medical authorities had only a few years to wait before the Hygeia became fully functional with bubonic plague victims. The Western doctors wanted to move cases to the hospital ship to isolate the case. That meant the patient severing ties with their home and traditional medicine.

That was too much for many sufferers who ran off rather than committing themselves to exotic and strange medications administered by 'ghosts'. Stories spread that by going offshore to the Hygeia for treatment then if you died-as most did- you would not receive a decent burial and your body would be sent to Europe for medical research.

The administrators of the original Tung Wah hospital, established in 1872, in Sheung Wan offered to take in plague patients and treat them more traditionally. They also suggested that the authorities should cease house to house inspections looking for plague victims which were a source of great resentment. The colonial powers did not agree with this offer and these suggestions. They sought to treat the plague in much the same way as they would in a European city.

As it was, a significant part of the population-only a quarter of a million at the time-alleviated pressure on the authorities by taking off to Guangzhou. About 80,000 crossed the border, some of them infected. They were then the problem of the Imperial Government.

The authorities were determined not only to see that the treatment of plague victims met their exacting standards, but they were also committed to clean up the filthy hovels that nourished the plague. Although the source of the epidemic was unknown, clean air, rubbish clearance and gallons of disinfectant seemed to improve people's chances.

Not many Chinese wanted to do this work. Not knowing how the disease was transmitted, most thought it dangerous and unreasonably intrusive. Nor did many Europeans and Eurasians wish to venture into dirty and airless shacks where a fatal disease lurked. The result was that there were not enough civilians who volunteered to help the Sanitary Board undertake its dangerous work.

The colonial Government turned to the Army. The garrison regiment was the King's Shropshire Light Infantry. Officers and men of the regiment accompanied by Chinese guides and labourers volunteered to go into the hovels and clear away spaces for fresh air and thoroughly treat alleyways and lanes with disinfecting chemicals and marking the cleared and clean areas with whitewash earning them the name of the 'Whitewash Brigade'.

Soldiers and civilians died doing this work. When it was all over, the Government struck a medal for those who had risked their lives. About six hundred and fifty medals went to the military and about one hundred and fifty more to civilians.

The lessons learned in combating the plague were long-lasting. The Government took public health seriously. It funded Western medical services in preference to local associations that still tried to offer Chinese medical treatment to the local population. Arguably, the eclipse of Chinese medicine went on for too long a time, and it contributed to the delay in the emergence of a properly regulated Chinese Medicine profession.

The other main lesson that the colonial Government learned was town planning. Shortly after the plague had subsided, the Legislative Council enacted the Taipingshan Resumption Ordinance to provide for the clearance of the airless slum dwellings where the disease had prospered.

That law was followed in 1903 by the Public and Health and Buildings Ordinance. This law stipulated that new dwellings had to comply with regulations that provided for adequate spacing and ventilation as well as minimum requirements for room sizes. The effect of that law was to shape the appearances of domestic homes for many years after.

This newfound attention paid to public health did not get rid of the plague entirely. The 1894 outbreak was one instance of a plague pandemic which came and went over the next thirty years or so. When it did return to Hong Kong, however, the authorities were better prepared.

If you need a reminder that things now could be worse-much worse-I commend a visit to Blake Garden, a small open leisure space in Taipingshan.

It is situated just off Hollywood Road and not far from the Man Mo temple. It is where the plague-infested slums were razed to the ground in 1894. A red plaque installed by the Antiquities Authority informs visitors that 'The bubonic plague, one of the most disastrous calamities that afflicted Hong Kong for three decades first broke out in the Taipingshan district in 1894'.

About the author

Philip Dykes is a Senior Counsel. He has lived in Hong Kong for over thirty years. His interests are in literature, language, history, fine art and photography. He worked as government lawyer until 1992 and he is now in private practice.

A red plaque installed by the Antiquities Authority at the Blake Garden.(Picture: Wikimedia Commons)
The original Tung Wah hospital was established in 1872, in Sheung Wan.(Picture: Hong Kong Antiquities and Monuments Office)


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