Monday, January 21, 2013

Hong Kong & Ireland: Two British Colonies

An excerpt from a speech delivered to the Hong Kong branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in November 2012. Since then, I rewrote it a bit to better suit the format of a blog.

The early days of the British Colony of Hong Kong benefited from the fact that men such as Thomas Jackson, the renowned Hong Kong banker of his day, grew up in Ireland experiencing life on both sides of the table – Colony and Empire. It is also worth noting that the 19th century government of Hong Kong was thick with Irishmen. At least eight of the early Governors had Irish ancestry. Clearly, most of them knew how to play the game. It also probably helped that by the time that Hong Kong became a Colony in 1841, England had already learned a trick or two from its long-term, botched management of Ireland, not to mention having learned from the taxation-without-representation debacle in America. Been there. Done that.

When I look at Irish history up to 1841, the year that Thomas Jackson was born and Hong Kong became a Colony, there are three long-term, inter-generational realities worth mentioning. Their effects shaped the values and actions of these Hong Kong Irishmen, whether they had arrived to govern or to conduct trade. They included the experience of:

  • Unfair land ownership policies coupled with a lack of urbanization. For centuries in Ireland, power and wealth had been based on owning land. The laws were heavily skewed in the favour of the landlord, who was all too often absent and based in England. The Irish economy was essentially a rural economy, with little urbanization. Ireland had no coal, or major industries, aside from the linen trade, so the fuel to build cities simply wasn’t there. The country’s culture was essentially rural.
  • The impact of proxy wars.  These wars which were fought by France and England and others in Ireland over several centuries resulted in a dangerously militarized countryside. This meant that most males were skilled at fighting, either as members of a formal army on the one side, or as guerilla activists on the other.
  • A cultural chasm that divided people along religious, political, and economic lines. As a result of the proxy wars as well as the effects of land ownership policies, Ireland was deeply divided. This polarization obscured the fact that policies governing land ownership and voting rights were the more likely roots of the divide - not religion. Religion was often exploited as a diversionary proxy for what was really wrong.

It is easy to see how Ireland’s history could have served as a cautionary tale to Irishmen in places of power in Hong Kong. Add to this, the fact that most of these Irishmen who served in Hong Kong had lived in Ireland during the Great Famine, or had family who did. The focus of the book that I am currently writing is Sir Thomas Jackson, so I will stick to how all this influenced him.

Jackson served as the Chief Manager of HSBC in the mid to late 1880s. At the time, the Bank could almost have been called The Irish Bank of Hong Kong - at least going by the numbers of Irishmen serving in the upper levels of management.  Many of them came on his coattails. Most of these managers were also related to each other, partly by blood and partly by the fact that they’d grown up on neighbouring farms. Photos of them in Hong Kong wearing suits and holding top hats can be deceiving. Three realities particular to their class are worth mentioning:
  • Until they had come to Hong Kong, most of them had been wearing shirts that were hand-sewn by their sisters.
  • Their education was not at the prestigious schools favoured by the British banking class.
  • Most of them grew up eating their family meals in the company of the hired help.
 Andrew Hugh Gilmore JACKSON, the man on the right, was a nephew of Sir Thomas. Like his uncle, he grew up as a farmer’s son, and then worked at HSBC. Later, he worked as an independent broker. He died in Hong Kong of Hong typhoid fever in 1918. He is buried at Happy Valley, just across the street from the Race Track that he and his uncle often frequented. The surname of the person on the left is MOORE. I know nothing more of him.
I’d like to touch briefly on four ways in which Jackson’s childhood experiences, both at the macro-level of Irish history, and the micro level of life on his family farm, influenced his actions as a banker. This is just a taste. There is much, much more to say and to learn about all this.

Firstly, he never stopped his practice of reaching across the class divide. He usually ate his mid-day tiffin with the young bank clerks, even when he was Chief Manager. He had a saying that rubbing the old file against the young flint brings out the best qualities of both. Members of the Chinese merchant community also appreciated his inclusiveness. At a banquet in 1902, they celebrated the unvarying kindness and courtesy exhibited by you towards us as a distinct class. Unlike many other Europeans of his time and place, Jackson was remarkably free of racism.

Secondly, he and his board resisted the pressures to move the head office from Hong Kong to London – even though the pressures to do so were considerable. As realtors always say: location, location, location. What this meant for the early Hong Kong banks was that the ones that failed had head offices elsewhere and became too disconnected to be attuned to the needs of the Chinese community. Unfortunately, HSBC eventually had to leave the island as a result of WWII when Japanese troops overran Hong Kong, and imprisoned their staff. Several HSBC staff lost their lives at this time. Some of these men were also Jackson’s relations. One of them had been baptized with his name.

 Thirdly, Jackson insisted on investing the bank’s profits where those profits were made.  One consequence of the Bank’s policy of investing locally was that since local businesses felt that they were supported and could trust in that ongoing support, they flourished. As a result of the successes of local businesses, even more coin flowed into the bank’s coffers. This commitment to the local community was another reason why HSBC survived the currency crises of the 1890s, a time when many banks bit the dust. Adding to this commitment, Jackson also set an ethical standard by not lining his own pocket in side deals. Had he done so, he could have retired as a much wealthier man, but he saw this as a conflict of interest and felt the need to set an example.

Fourthly, he took good care of his staff. Pensions, decent pay, medical care – you name it. Better than the norm. He set up a staff cafeteria, and insisted on supplying good quality food. As his daughter described it, he was so much afraid that the clerks would be tempted to save money by buying cheap and inadequate food instead of having the dinners they needed.  When he first retired, few men would have acted as he did just before taking his leave. The Bank’s balance sheet was in great shape, thanks in part to his efforts, but he deferred the announcement of the Bank’s profits so that his successor could get the credit. You don’t have to be a genius to imagine the positive effects of that on bank morale.

There is at least one last thing that may or may not be fairly attributed to his roots. Lucky Jackson, as he was also known, was a gifted currency trader. Did it help that he had grown up hearing stories of a cousin from Co. Louth who ran silver mines in South America? Did he learn as a result what kind of news mattered in currency trades and what kind of news didn’t? I can only guess. And what about the influence of his wife’s roots on his work? She was definitely a force in his life. Did it also help that she was the child of a Singaporean merchant, ship-chandler and ship captain and had several brothers and brother-in-laws who shared all the latest gossip about ships, silk, tea, silver bullion and opium? Probably. But more of that anon.

Grave marker at Stanley Military Cemetery in Hong Kong. Thomas Jackson Houston, a great-nephew of Sir Thomas Jackson, died of dysentery while a prisoner of war. He had been married in Hong Kong, and had taken his wife, Margaret, who was about to give birth, to Australia for safety. He arrived back in Hong Kong just in time to be captured. OBITUARY - DIED IN HONG KONG Mr. And Mrs. J.K. Houston, 14 St. Jude's Avenue have been informed of the death, in a camp at Hong Kong, of their son, Mr. T.J. Houston, B.A. of the Colonial Administrative Service. Mr. Houston had a brilliant scholastic career and in 1934 won a Mathematical scholarship in the Cambridge University examinations. He was a pupil at Methodist College and gained exhibitions in both his Junior and Senior Certificate examinations. He entered Queens University in 1930 and two years later was awarded a Major Scholarship at Christ's College, Cambridge. In June 1933, he obtained a first-class honours degree in mathematics and mathematical physics at Queen's University.

So, there we have it: The Irish Bank of Hong Kong - in all but name.

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