Hong Kong, Fever and Form
How Disease Shaped the First Layout of the Colonial City
香港·熱·形式 – 疾病如何塑造殖民地的早期佈局
Hong Kong Island in the early 1840s was as peripheral and as untested as the British Empire could conceive, both in terms of its perceived economic usefulness and geopolitical location. Yet, two years after its initial colonising, a malaria epidemic of 1843, the ‘Hongkong Fever’, emphatically reshaped the early entrepôt city and strengthened collective resolve to make the half-hearted endeavour succeed.
Shortly after the British colonised Hong Kong, an influx of Chinese migrant labourers, merchants and vendors, and a smaller addition of European and Parsee commercial investors followed. A tiny colonial civilian administration managed these, in part supplied and almost wholly enforced by seconded British military personnel. It is therefore unsurprising that the military would impose a dramatic reconfiguration of the city’s urban morphology, and through this, its social and racial redeployment.
On 3 May 1843, one month before the island would be conferred the title of a crown colony, Plenipotentiary and soon-to-be-Governor Sir Henry Pottinger rode to the most westerly stretch of the city of Victoria on the northerly shoreline known as West Point. It is was area that lay just below the present-day Main Building of the University of Hong Kong. Upon this undulating terrain of rocky scrub, an extensive military barracks ranged in three tiers upon the hillside, constructed probably in late 1841.
Major-General Alexander Fraser, Lord Saltoun, had subsequently expanded West Point. Pottinger was concerned that Saltoun wanted to commandeer the entire site of the Ordnance District, a strip of land at the base of Cantonment Hill, a zone further eastward, at the heart of the city of Victoria and immediately to the east of Government Hill, and so would jeopardise the contiguity of the governor’s vision of a linear city.
Pottinger hoped that he could offer a suitable adjacent area of ground and so convince the major-general to continue to consolidate his base at West Point. He wrote to Saltoun the following day, attaching a crude, unmeasured sketch of the marked-off area.
Saltoun was not the only interested party shifting his aspirations to the centre of the colony. Vice-Admiral Sir William Parker also wanted to have his navy stores relocated to a more secure area within the Ordnance District adjacent to the military. It suited both Saltoun and Parker to consort with each other to consolidate their hold on that central location. Events would soon play into their hands.
The army arranged the West Point barracks into three clusters corresponding to three levels, built upon the terraces of abandoned paddy or cultivated land. Their structures were most likely timber framing on brick bases—a similar approach to early tong lau shophouse construction.
The first alarm within the colonial community was raised on 5 July when news appeared of an outbreak of fever at West Point. At the start of the year, the total number of rank and file troops on the island of Hong Kong was 1,201 European and 550 ‘native’ (Indian, Ceylonese and Malay) soldiers. Sickness among them began in early May. By mid-July, 408 patients were admitted, of which 294 were cases of fever. During this period 39 men died, 25 from fever.
By August the fever had become widespread, earning itself the name ‘Hongkong Fever’. From May until its eventual decline in November, the fever would claim the lives of twenty-four percent of the military personnel and ten percent of the European civilian inhabitants. We have only a limited account of its effects upon the Chinese population though they appeared to have suffered as badly. Initially, medics had assumed a localised, site-specific source of miasma as the cause of the outbreak. But over the next three months, as attacks of malaria spread across the small city, a paradigmatic shift occurred in people’s minds.
In mid-July, Saltoun assembled a committee of physicians to pinpoint the source of the outbreak. It listed several possibilities arising from a combination of the ‘faulty construction of the Barracks’: their position away from cooling south-westerly breezes; the need for men to march long distances each day under the hot sun to reach the camp; and the requirement that each soldier serve on regimental guard every third night. Yet, even these seemed unconvincing, and they surmised ‘that some other cause is in operation, which cannot be detected’.
Saltoun’s response was to vacate West Point, bury the dead nearby, and decant the living into two moored vessels. By 26 July the barracks were empty. A week later, somewhat unexpectedly, the families of the 55th Regiment arrived from Calcutta. With new troops also soon expected from England, Pottinger realised the urgency of constructing barracks across the island.
The Valley Experiment
Along the opposite extremity of the shoreline city, three miles to the east of West Point, Jardine Matheson & Co., the largest and most influential of the Canton trading houses, had invested immediately and heavily into Hong Kong at their enclave at East Point (part of present-day Causeway Bay). Around the same time, there were also signs that Pottinger had begun to consider the potential of the Wong Nai Chung Valley—soon to be misleadingly renamed ‘Happy Valley’—adjacent to East Point. This valley was an abandoned network of paddy fields and streams within the largest area of naturally level ground along the north side of the island.
While an 1841 report had spelt out the advantages in choosing the valley as the capital of Victoria, another incentive for Pottinger to investigate this option may have been that marine lots sold that year had taken a significant percentage of the valuable shoreline away from Government control, and that future reclamation in front of these influential owners might first involve a sticky legal battle. Pottinger instructed his cousin, Land Officer Alexander Gordon, to take another look at Happy Valley’s potential.
Submitting his report on 6 July, Gordon proposed a scheme with a praya wall, lined with warehouses. He proposed draining and channelling the marshland into a canal system, with European houses and shops to the north and seawards, Chinese to the rear, all encircled by a ring road above which the wealthier residents would build their villas.
At about this time, malaria struck along the east side of the island. The worst concentration of cases was, unfortunately, in the very area Gordon was proposing for the new city. This turned public sentiment against the project. Of a row of small houses initially constructed there, only a few were ever occupied, and of the mansions constructed following the 1841 land sale, by 1861, only one remained standing. The valley experiment proved a sorry affair.
The Miasma–Dwellings Link
The outbreak of a third season of fever in 1843 marked an important shift in hypothesis as to its cause and remedy. Though vague notions of climate, overcrowding and general locality were presumed, now, however, for the first time, the medical profession had, almost with one voice, concluded that the cause was also the unsuitability of certain modes of construction.
At the same time, the Friend of China newspaper dropped accountability for the fever directly into the lap of Pottinger’s administration. The paper alluded to an official notification it had published in April aimed at preventing further construction prior to a reformulation of land policy that could legally commence following the formal exchanges of the ratified Treaty of Nanking with China scheduled later that year—that is, once Hong Kong was considered to be a ‘crown colony’.
A notice for the verification of possession and clarification of the terms of ownership was not unexpected. What was a surprise was instructions concerning the forcible halting of construction, contradicting previous pressure put upon them by the land officer’s department to ensure that each owner spent a minimum percentage of the plot purchase price on construction work.
What seemed contradictory was that the halting of construction would risk annulling the very stipulations of ownership that the government had initially imposed. The government notification ordered an almost complete cessation in building work. It was this cessation, coincident with the worst attack of malaria since colonisation that co-joined to provide the community with a potent new thesis: that the fever was inextricably linked to the combined effects of the form, construction quality, material use, and the siting of built accommodation in Hong Kong.
Doubtless, there was some truth in these observations. The abandoned pits of building sites along Queen’s Road since enforcement of the notification must have proved perfect receptacles of stagnant water for mosquitos to breed within. So, following the closure of West Point and the enormous panic that deaths across the city were beginning to produce, Pottinger was finally persuaded that a plausible link existed between unsanitary locations and malaria.
In August 1843 he appointed a Committee of Public Health and Cleanliness to investigate, formulate, and implement any rules they thought necessary for the colony. No rules were enacted, but the committee did recommend and undertake four projects, all to do with the draining of standing water: the clearing and enlarging of drains at the west end of the city; the provision of a new drain along Queen’s Road; the raising of the road near the Lower Bazaar which flooded during rainstorms; and the provision of a new watercourse along the Upper and Lower Bazaars. From this emerged a concerted effort to provide cohesive drainage and sewerage across the growing road network, which would become a key concern during Governor John Davis’s administration, beginning in May 1844.
At the same time, when air appeared to circulate freely and other aspects of the land such as drainage and vegetation were considered favourable, other factors had to be found to account for the unhealthy nature of a location. For an increasing number of experts from the new chattering class in Hong Kong, the higher the elevation above sea level, the safer it seemed.
Height, of course, was not enough. West Point itself sat elevated but in an apparently dangerous location. There seemed little point in rebuilding upon the site. The barracks were soon demolished and their parts auctioned off. However, before its demise, West Point held a secret. As the army corps lifted the boards from the platforms in preparation for the barracks’ removal, it was found that ‘the floors were totally rotten, and beneath them, a quantity of water was lodged’. Henceforth, barracks would be elevated upon solid, well-built masonry.
Merchants Versus the Military
Through 1843, a battle of two visions for the future of the city was also taking place. Malaria would not just form a backdrop to this struggle, but would directly intervene in the decision-making.
The combatants were Pottinger and Saltoun, and the prize—a thin strip of coastal land below Cantonment Hill, which would ultimately form the area that now known as Admiralty. On the one side was a civic concern for a unified shoreline where a mercantile community might lavish their considerable expenditure upon fine palaces and godowns and make good use of the waterfront access. On the other, a concern for the wellbeing and control of troops within a new self-contained, fortified military cantonment with all the necessities of provision and good governance.
This strip had been known as the ‘Ordnance District’ and had historically comprised part of the earliest military settlement that had, at the beginning of 1841, straddled the Albany Nullah and covered part of the foot of Government Hill. Yet at the same time, a mixture of godowns, two market bazaars, and residential buildings dotted the area, and there was no determination on the part of Pottinger to root them out. On the contrary, he saw it as desirable if this shorefront area to the north of the Queen’s Road could be protected from further military encroachment. For, by now, this strip had become one of the most valuable possessions left available for leasing by the Crown and so would comprise the centrepiece for the January 1844 land sale.
Pottinger had always been sympathetic towards the dire need for barracks. But as he was frequently absent from the island performing diplomatic and trading duties, Saltoun was better-placed to steal the initiative. In mid-June, one month before the medical committee gathered at West Point, Saltoun directed Royal Engineer Major Edward Aldrich to ‘examine this place [Hong Kong] with a view to the best defensive positions being selected’.
By 28 June, Aldrich had produced his report. He ignored all of Pottinger’s concerns, even going one step further by suggesting that the entire area should be ‘confined entirely to the Military Department’. What seems surprising in this document is that, with cases of the ‘Hongkong Fever’ multiplying around him as he wrote, Aldrich appeared almost exclusively focused upon the compressive virtues of defensible space and surveillance rather than the expansive ones of ventilation and contagion prevention. Regardless, the epidemic in the following months would consolidate Aldrich’s proposal, for, in his mind, it was not just the strategic defence of a town that was required but also the very creation of a self-supporting military community within it. Aldrich, therefore, integrated the defence and accommodation programmes to strengthen his hand. He requested the acquisition of existing adjacent buildings, and would soon gain permission to design a whole barracks system from scratch.
Having had his conditions for site-selection ignored, Pottinger then wrote to Saltoun repeating his belief that the West Point area was the ideal position for a cantonment. But it was July, and the political world around him had shifted with the climate of sickness. The epidemic at West Point and the wholescale evacuation of the area scotched any idea of a cantonment there, leaving Aldrich’s proposal unchallenged.
And so the city would be bisected. The Ordnance District and the area behind would become a cantonment in all but name, home to the Murray Barracks and Admiralty. Bit by bit, building elements would be added into Pottinger’s ‘no-go’ zone, and private property edged out.
Hong Kong’s New Form
Once the land around Cantonment Hill was set to be removed from civilian use, an inevitable sequence of events unfolded. First, it became clear that the ‘Central District’, the commercial district to the immediate west, had to be consolidated, requiring expansion up the steep mountainside. The Chinese Upper Bazaar, the twin streets of shophouses that climbed up southwards from Central quickly emerged as a blunder, a blockage in need of speedy rectification.
This need for the Europeans to climb was reinforced by the belief that higher-altitude dwellings would protect inhabitants from the fever. Pottinger would use the January land sale of 1844 to push the Chinese out of Upper Bazaar and into Tai Ping Shan. This was also Hong Kong’s first ‘resumption’ of land for public purposes, initiating what would become an increasingly habitual instinct by the colonial government of compulsory purchase.
With the Wong Ngai Chung Valley project abandoned, and Central now cut off, Wan Chai’s wealthy residential-cum-commercial quayside of Spring Gardens was no longer viable. It was, reluctantly, released to local Chinese. Thus the malarial outbreak of 1843 had the compound effect both west and particularly east of pruning the city of Victoria back to its initial root. It threw the hastily preconceived though messily more equitable arrangements of spatial control temporarily into the air. Once the pieces landed in 1844, redeployment was swift and precise. A unified, integrated vision of a city was sacrificed for that of overt stratification and separation. The uncertainties of future military security placed immediate advantage of martial space over commercial space, and likewise, European space over Chinese space, with centrality and height playing more essential roles in the emergence of social status.
Nevertheless, arguments continued, and through the subsequent years from 1844 to 1846, as a visually cohesive city emerged, thoughts shifted—especially for the European community—towards commerce, leisure, and social bonding.
A shifting thesis for the causes of malaria would continue. Hong Kong also emerged as a site of heated discussion across the British Empire’s broadsheets. A byword for failure through the effects of a diseased climate coupled with a local government, it was criticised for its moral decrepitude in failing to stem petty crime and corruption, while accused by merchants of hindering the island’s integration with China trade.
However, constructing a healthy city provided the foundations for attracting and encouraging the free flow of commerce and people, allowing Victoria on Hong Kong Island finally to reach some form of critical mass by the late 1840s, becoming more seriously accepted as an important trading port.
The perceived link between modest changes of altitude and surviving the ‘Hongkong Fever’ must also have fed into newer statistical methods employed by the home government. The Registrar-General’s Office in London began to correlate disease with topographical elevations, which in turn fed into the sanitary approaches of Europeans in Shanghai from the 1850s and Tianjin in the 1860s.
In Hong Kong, the politicisation of health would also evolve along racial lines. Most noticeably, the forcible relocation of Chinese residents from Upper Bazaar to Tai Ping Shan led to a splitting of the city between Chinese and Europeans. What the authorities neglected was equally discriminatory, for example, the long-term lack of piped fresh water to the western section of the town. This, coupled with unsanitary conditions, would culminate in the government-ordered destruction of Tai Ping Shan in 1894 following an outbreak of bubonic plague. A clear historical thread can therefore be traced between a ‘solution’ to malaria in 1844 and the ‘solution’ to the plague fifty years later.
Colonial Hong Kong may have been a mistake of history, an unloved consequence of a trade war between two civilisations that shared little respect or understanding for each other. Malaria may not have been the only baneful, emergent property of ill-contrived occupation and relentless, heedless exploitation of a limited terrain. But it was a significantly important one that, through the purgatory of an epidemic, reconfigured both policy and space out of which the post-traumatised city was inexorably to emerge.
Christopher Cowell, Assistant Professor of Architectural History at the Department of History of Art and Architecture, Trinity College Dublin.
This is the abridged text of an essay originally published as ‘The Hong Kong Fever of 1843: Collective Trauma and the Reconfiguring of Colonial Space’, in Modern Asian Studies 47, no. 2 (March 2013), pp. 329–364.
Fig.1 Murdoch Bruce, Spring Gardens, 1846
Fig.2 Thomas Collinson, Ordinance Map of 1845 (detail) – Pokfulam Road
Fig.3 West Point shown on Old map of Hong Kong island (credit William Dallas Bernard William Hutcheon Hall, 1845)