Bubonic Plague and Hong Kong’s First Urban Renewal
Cecilia Chu 朱慰先
Years from now, when the impacts of Covid-19 have been overcome, the pandemic of 2020 will likely be remembered as a salient historical episode in which societies across the globe struggled to come to grips with an unprecedented disaster. While popular accounts of epidemics throughout history have often tended to portray them as singular cataclysmic events, those events are also windows that, upon closer examination, reveal the hidden social dynamics and relations of power of a place. Moreover, because health crises often became catalysts for new planning and building initiatives, revisiting these events may enable a better understanding of the politics of development and the urban milieus that shape them.
As we contemplate how the story of the pandemic of 2020 will be retold in the future, it is timely to revisit the aftermath of another epidemic that occurred over a century ago in Hong Kong: the bubonic plague outbreak of 1894 that killed more than two thousand people and gave rise to the colony’s first major urban renewal project. Although that development, in Taipingshan, has been widely seen as the government’s first major step toward long-term planning aimed at improving the health of the population, it is far from a triumph for benevolence. By retracing some of the lesser known dynamics of that case, this essay elucidates some of the inherent logics of urban development that continued to shape the forms and norms of the city over the following century.
Taipingshan and the Conundrum of Urban Development
When the first case of plague was reported in Hong Kong in 1894, the colonial government was thoroughly unprepared to combat a major epidemic outbreak. Although colonial surgeons had for years been warning about the danger of disease outbreaks in the crowded, unhygienic tenements of Hong Kong’s Chinese district and had been pushing for more stringent building regulation to improve living conditions, their suggestions were repeatedly ignored by the administration. The main reason behind the impasse was economic: a belief that excessive regulation would drive away property investment. Such worries were longstanding, owing to the government’s heavy reliance on maximising its fiscal revenue through a ‘high land-price policy’ adopted at the beginning of colonial rule.1 By keeping a strict limit on land supply while not imposing too much restriction on development, it was able to ensure a good return from land auctions and property taxes. While this system was lauded for its success in creating a competitive ‘free’ land market, it also led to a chronic housing shortage and rampant property speculation that drove up rental costs to an exorbitant level. The problem was worst in Taipingshan, where many low-income Chinese laborers had little choice but to share bed spaces in crowded and often poorly constructed tenements. Ironically, the high rental return offered by these dwellings through subdivision also made them an extremely profitable property holding. Many European and Chinese landowners preferred to invest in this type of building rather than the better-built European houses designed for single families.
The shock of the plague and its devasting impact on the economy prompted the government to rethink its development strategies. When the number of cases began to subside in the autumn, a sanitary commission was set up to advise on measures to prevent a future return of the plague.2 By this time, in accordance with the germ theory of disease, medical experts had already identified the plague bacilli as being the cause of bubonic plague. But colonial doctors and engineers continued to explain disease transmission by referring to the principles of miasma, asserting that the plague was spread through air rising from the ground where the bacillus flourished. This explanation fit well with the observation that the soil of Taipingshan was soaked with sewage discharged from dysfunctional drains and broken floors of the buildings above. After surveying the area, the committee concluded that the best solution was to demolish all the buildings by fire, cast away the contaminated topsoil and redevelop the area with better built houses, ample open space and a much more efficient drainage system. To this end, it was recommended that the government resume ten acres of land for redevelopment. Compensation would be paid to property owners via a government-appointed Arbitration Board.3
This drastic move to rebuild Taipingshan from the ground up led to immediate complaints by property owners, who argued that aside from a few extremely dilapidated houses, many could be made ‘hygienic’ by disinfection and minor alterations. They warned that burning the houses and removing the polluted soil would likely reactivate the plague bacillus and thus invite unimaginable disasters.4 Furthermore, they pointed out that wholesale demolition of the district would diminish the housing stock, thus exacerbating overcrowding and worsening sanitation. Above all, such actions would violate the principles of the ‘free’ housing market as a cornerstone of the colonial capitalist economy. Rather than wasting public money to destroy existing buildings, they suggested that the government should provide rent relief for landlords and tenants to carry out hygienic improvements themselves, arguing that the best result could only be accomplished by ‘mutual help between landlords, tenants and the authorities.’
In hindsight, these suggestions appear self-serving. Nevertheless, they underscore the uncertainties involved in the struggle to combat a deadly disease whose cause and prevention methods remained unknown. When, amidst a worsening recession, the number of cases fell in the autumn, the local press began to renege on its earlier support for demolishing all the houses in Taipingshan and turned their attention to issues of property-rights protection and compensation for landlords. In the Legislative Council (Legco), unofficial members representing the colony’s commercial sector also reversed their earlier consent to the redevelopment project. These included Paul Chater, director of Hong Kong Land, and Alexander McConachie, chairman of the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce, who noted that, upon careful inspection, they had found that Taipingshan in fact consisted of ‘a great deal of excellent property, excellent streets of concrete, well-laid down channels, and excellent granite steps, and much other valuable property.5 Although their motion to ‘preserve’ Taipingshan was narrowly defeated, it incited further public criticism not only against the project but also at the government’s failure to carry out necessary public works such as the expansion of new reservoirs to increase the water supply and improvement of drainage that were considered vital for disease prevention.
Landlords of ‘Insanitary Properties’
The opposition to the Taipingshan redevelopment by Legco’s unofficial members was perhaps not surprising given that all were intimately connected to the colony’s largest property investment firms and many were wealthy landlords themselves. Their position was therefore closely aligned with that of the Chinese property owners. Indeed, an analysis of the property distribution in the Taipingshan district reveals a number of interesting aspects of investment practices that have thus far received little attention in Hong Kong’s historiographies.
The first of these is the mixed pattern of property ownership. Although Taipingshan has long been referred to as a ‘Chinese town,’ it was in reality a hunting ground for housing investors that cut across races and ethnicities. This can be discerned in the full list of resumed properties published shortly before the colonial government began to settle compensation for property owners in 1895.6 This list shows that nearly one-third of these owners were non-Chinese, among them Europeans, Indians, Parsees and Portuguese, as well as several major commercial firms and philanthropic institutions.
The second was the concentration of property ownership in the hands of a few large landholders. The 417 houses resumed by the government were held by just a total of just 71 registered owners, most of whom held multiple properties. Most of these houses were built between 1874 and 1882, a period of intense property speculation and escalating land prices in Victoria. Almost all of the lots were divided into back-to-back tenements and three-quarters were registered as ‘coolie lodging houses’ – presumably the most profitable and in-demand type of rental property. These buildings were documented in an 1882 housing survey by sanitary engineer Osbert Chadwick, who deemed the Chinese houses in Taipingshan to be unhygienic and substandard.7 On the 1895 list, it was noted that close to one-third of resumed properties were in ‘very bad conditions’ and some of them had partially collapsed.
Why were so many of the buildings in Taipingshan left in such a ruinous state? One might presume that, as speculative tenements built with the sole purpose of maximizing short-term rental profits, their owners were unwilling to spend much money on their upkeep. Another possible explanation is that some lot holders had divided their lots and sold them out as sections without title deeds and registration records, leading to a situation where some section holders did not pay crown rent and some parts of lots had no one to take care of them. This divided lot problem was acknowledged in a report by the Land Commission in 1887, which observed that over the years, many houses in the city were built without regard to their original lot boundaries and many owners transferred their property without informing the Land Office.8 It seems probable that the non-payment of Crown rent and loss of control over land sales in Taipingshan was a matter of concern from the government. From this perspective, the resumption of the lots would not only allow the rebuilding of better and ‘healthier’ buildings but also for the government to enforce proper registration of new owners and to ensure annual taxes were paid. Consequently, although the renewal of Taipingshan was framed as a ‘sanitary improvement project,’ it also served to tighten planning control and allow land sub-divisions to be regularised.
Finally, the list revealed the affiliations of all the major property owners in Taipingshan. Of the four top landlords, three were engaged in the building trade or worked in government departments responsible for land dealings. After these came two large commercial companies, the Hong Kong, Canton & Macau Steamboat Co. and the Hongkong Fire and Insurance Co. Ltd. The list also included many other names of well-known people, among them members of Legco, wealthy merchants and compradors, and professional architects.
Although public opinion was largely against the Taipingshan resumption, a few commentators criticised the landlords. In an article published in the Hong Kong Telegraph titled ‘Plague Smitten Street,’ the author began by asking ‘Who are the owners of property which has been condemned as “unfit for human habitation and plague-begetting hovels?”’ The piece then went on to list the owners whose houses were deemed to be in the worst condition, revealing that these were in fact some of wealthiest persons in the colony. It ended by condemning the immorality of these landlords who treated their poor labouring tenants as their ‘milk cows.9
Property Rights and Regime Legitimation
What the article sought to point out was an intrinsic irony: that despite their oft-proclaimed commitment to improving the welfare of Hong Kong people, many of the elite with money and power were complicit in perpetuating a health crisis. The revelation of the landlords’ identities also suggests that the public at the time was not unaware of the collusion prevalent in development practices, leading to the question how such a situation became accepted as a norm that continued to shape Hong Kong’s urban milieu.
While it is beyond the scope of this essay to answer this question, revisiting the redevelopment of Taipingshan provides some hints about the emerging discourse of development and planning practices in early Hong Kong. One of these was the convergence of interests between different factions of the propertied class. Despite the racial divide and discrimination that existed in a colonial context, European and Chinese property owners tended to support each other when their common interests were threatened, as exemplified in their joint resistance to sanitary regulation that they believed would impinge on their investment returns. Owing to its dependence on maximizing fiscal revenue from land leasing enabled by a high land-price system, the colonial government had been reluctant to impose effective regulation to improve housing conditions, a problem exacerbated by the fact that many officials, Legco members and constituency representatives were themselves involved in property speculation.
Although the plague outbreak of 1894 resulted in urgent demands to rectify the ‘unhygienic’ state of the city and led to the first large-scale urban renewal scheme in Hong Kong’s planning history, the effectiveness of the project was questionable and its implementation was challenged at every step of the process. What the unfolding dynamics make clear is that, notwithstanding the different viewpoints toward Taipingshan, all of those who spoke about the project made repeated appeals to preserve the ‘collective interest of Hong Kong’ as maintained in its property rights, rule of law and laissez-faire economy. This suggests that behind all the contestation and conflict, there was a growing consensus in support of a particular rationality of urban development. While the moral claims centred on the role of private property ownership are familiar to all capitalist societies, they proved to be exceptionally powerful in Hong Kong and were intimately tied to real estate to a degree unseen elsewhere. The rise of a particular ‘speculative governmentality’ was nurtured in a land system that helped legitimate the governance practices that shaped, and continue to shape, Hong Kong’s unique developmental path.
Cecilia L. Chu
Associate Professor in the Division of Landscape Architecture at the University of Hong Kong. Co-founder and current president of Docomomo Hong Kong and an editorial board member of Journal of Urban History and Journal for the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong.
1 Cecilia Chu, ‘Combating Nuisance: Sanitation, Regulation, and the Politics of Property in Colonial Hong Kong,’ in Robert Peckham and David M. Pomfret, eds., Imperial Contagion: Medicine, Hygiene, and Cultures of Planning in Asia (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013).
2,3 ‘Sanitary Improvement of Taipingshan,’ CO129/263, 741-742, 1 October 1894, British National Archives.
4 Hong Kong Daily Press, July 20-August 17, 1894.
5 ‘Report of the Meeting of the Legislative Council,’ 17 September 1894.
6 Hong Kong Daily Press, 11 March 1894.
7 Osbert Chadwick, Report of the Sanitary Conditions of Hong Kong, CO882/4, 1882, British National Archives.
8 Report from the Hongkong Land Commission, 1887, British National Archives.
9 Hongkong Telegraph, 4 June 1894.
This essay is based on a chapter in the author’s forthcoming book, Colonial Urban Development in Hong Kong: Speculative Housing and Segregation in the City (Routledge, 2021).
Fig.1 A view of the Chinese tenements in the city of Victoria, 1870s (Source: Wellcome Trust)
Fig.2 Proposed new layout for Taipingshan with ample open spaces and wider streets, 1895 (Source: British National Archives)
Fig.3 Original layout of Taipingshan’s land lots before demolition, 1894 (Source: British National Archives)
Fig.4 Taipingshan after demolition looking east, 1895 (Source: British National Archives)
Fig.5 Property ownership between different ethnic groups and institutions in Taipingshan before 1894.
Fig.6 Introduction video of the vertical fabric