Not all bad

Reflections of a militant Asian

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DEAR FORMER BRITISH Colonial Oppressors,

I have an important message for you, which is being delivered rather late. Sorry about that. Truth is, we miss you. (Cringes awkwardly.) In part. In some locations.

With the magic glasses of hindsight, we realise there exist a few things we actually appreciate about the time you spent with us. Oh, we don’t miss the casual racism, the air of superiority, the pith helmets and so on – and we definitely don’t miss British ‘food’. Importantly, we acknowledge that terrible things often happen when one culture tries to manage another, and wouldn’t for a moment trivialise any of these darker elements.

Yet narrowing our scope to specific aspects of the history of the British Empire, and its evolution into the Commonwealth of Nations, we find that a serious, academic, data-driven look back in time reveals some surprising unspoken benefits that go under-expressed. As a rather militant Asian, it grieves me to say this, but really: you guys were not 100 per cent bad. And you’ve left some good things behind.

This is a huge subject, so this short essay will deal only with one fractal image, which I hope will stand as a microcosm of the whole.

My focus is the British Christian-missionary community, many of whom arrived in my birthplace, Sri Lanka, and my current neck of the woods, Hong Kong, as missionaries in the days of the British Empire, and stayed on as the Empire evolved into the Commonwealth. Asians such as the present writer have tended to be rather negative about people we cruelly characterise as a group of insensitive Bible-waving idiots trying to subvert our wonderful ancient cultures. (The present writer comes from a Buddhist–Muslim background.)

But is that the whole story? Or even the real story? Longer-term studies suggest we gained specific (and startling) benefits from the missionaries we love to malign.

I start by widening the focus of this address from former colonial oppressors to include ourselves, and give this wider community a specific request: Please can we have our homophobia back?


PLEASE CAN WE have our homophobia back?

Yes, we really do want it back. It is an important personal possession that we have had since time immemorial, and it has been stolen from us. We need to have it returned intact – huge, ugly and odorous. Only then can we deal with it.

I’ve lost count of the times I have read or been told that homophobia was introduced to Asia by Westerners. The accusatory finger is pointed squarely at British missionaries.

An unrecognisable picture is painted of Asia as a sort of freewheeling LGBT paradise before these nasty palefaces arrived with their judgmental wagging fingers, forcing men and women to – quelle horreur! – have sex with each other, instead of with our normal same-sex partners, as we would have sensibly preferred. They forced us to swear allegiance to boring heterosexuality and commit to maintaining homophobic attitudes. We tried to resist, but what could we do?

This is patently absurd, but the claim is extremely common. I have seen versions of it repeatedly, even in the reputable media outlets for which I have worked, including the BBC and The New York Times. As I am writing this, another meme pops up on my computer screen from a Hong Kong friend: ‘The Church invented homophobia.’

Some of these assertions come with factoids attached, telling us that homosexuality was not illegal in Asia before those vile colonials passed laws against it. Others point to the existence of ancient stories such as ‘Cut Sleeve’, a tale about a Chinese nobleman who was so devoted to the male friend sleeping next to him that he cut off the sleeve of his garment to avoiding disturbing his rest. How free and sexually fluid we used to be before the white people arrived!

What rubbish.


WHAT IS NOT being said?

I never know how to respond to such allegations, so rarely say anything. But most adults in Asia know instantly that none of this is remotely true because we can simply remember: it really wasn’t that long ago.

Asian communities have until very recently been horribly, viciously, stupidly, grimly homophobic, including my own. (Many among us still are – take a look at surveys of attitudes to LGBT people in Japan or China.) If we pretend that homophobia was imported by wicked white people from the West during the Empire/Commonwealth days, then Asians can’t do what needs to be done: acknowledge it, apologise for it, learn from our past attitudes and move on.

I believe that one of the reasons why Asia has been glacially slow to legislate against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and largely refuses to move towards same-sex marriage, is because of this widely repeated claim that the problem comes from white people, not us. We are stupidly, idiotically self-righteous on this issue, and our attitude flies in the face of the facts.


THIS WRITER HAS been working on a non-fiction book with the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Asia as one of the themes, and it led me to dig back through various files to find out what actually happened. I will focus on Hong Kong, as a city in which Britishness and Asianness rubbed up against each other for a century and a half, first as part of the British Empire, and now as a strictly unofficial part of the Commonwealth. (For technical reasons, Hong Kong cannot be listed as a current member of the Commonwealth. However, the community clearly shares the two key characteristics that identify Commonwealth nations: mixed feelings of nostalgia and resentment about British rule and an addiction to milky tea. In Hong Kong’s case, thanks to unpopular recent leaders, affection for the British era is strong.) Indeed, it has been frequently said that Britain had such a hands-off attitude to Hong Kong that the colony was actually largely autonomous and independent in the three decades before the 1997 change of sovereignty, and subsequently has gradually become more of a colony of China. In other words, ironically it was decolonisation that turned Hong Kong into a colony. As international bookshops are replaced by mainland bookshops with a restricted range of titles, and human rights activists are turned back at Hong Kong’s borders, there is plenty of evidence that this is so.

And now to history: In 1967, homosexual acts were decriminalised in the UK. This led to widespread discussion of the subject all over the Commonwealth and in Hong Kong, which was technically still part of Britain.

At the time, members of the Anglican Church and the theatre community in the British Crown colony of Hong Kong urged the local government to make the same change. There were definitely sympathetic ears in the Hong Kong government. But ultimately the decision-makers declined – not out of homophobia, but out of sympathy for local views. All research had shown that the local populace, who were more than 90 per cent ethnically Chinese and non-Christian, had strong feelings of disgust for homosexuality, which was seen as ‘the white man’s disease’ and associated with the darker elements of Western life, such as blue movies and sexual experimentation.

So calls for change were rebuffed because the representatives of the locals were unshakably opposed to it. Get that? Yes, the main bastion of the Christian church, overwhelmingly British and colonial, was pushing for decriminalisation of homosexual acts, while the local populace, who were technically atheists (most had atheistic or non-theistic beliefs), stood powerfully against repealing the laws. The Christians lost their fight to decriminalise homosexuality, the atheists won, and the push for gay rights was abandoned.


THE ANGLICANS AND their friends resumed their battle from time to time, but made little progress. In 1979, there was another major attempt to push for decriminalisation. This time, a key mover was Elsie Elliott (later to become better known as Elsie Tu). She came to Hong Kong from the UK as a missionary from an ultra-strict evangelical Protestant tradition called the Plymouth Brethren. She set up a school for poor children in a tent, and was so popular that she became a hero to both Easterners and Westerners.

Ms Elliott felt she had personal reasons to be hostile to gay people. A young male relative of hers had been sexually molested so violently by a male assailant that the child had been hospitalised. In those days, the populace in general failed to draw distinctions between gay people, sex criminals and paedophiles.

But some folk began to take a more sympathetic view. By that stage, Ms Elliott and other members of the international Christian community had moved to a strongly anti-discrimination stance. She urged the British government in Hong Kong to change the laws that made homosexual acts illegal, but was again told that the local populace would object. The governor at the time, Sir Murray MacLehose, was both pro-religion and pro-gay rights, and privately told her that he shared her feelings but had to follow the views of the wider community. If they could not repeal the laws, they could apply them selectively. MacLehose discreetly made it known to the police department that they should not arrest gay people unless they had also committed other crimes, such as pimping or molestation.

In September of 1979, the fiery missionary decided to aim straight at the blockage. Ms Elliott wrote to the senior Chinese representative on the Legislative Council, a lawyer named Yuet-keung Kan (known as Sir YK), explaining that she had initially shared the atheistic community’s opposition to decriminalisation but the time had come to move on to a more progressive, inclusive stance.

To her distress, he gave a bland reply promising to consider her views, but he and others continued to block all calls for reform.

When HIV/AIDS became an issue in Hong Kong in the 1980s, the biggest provider of care and counselling for the gay community was the Anglican Church, known as the Sheng Kung Hui. The typical response from non-Christian organisations was to ban HIV carriers from their premises.

Laws against male-male sex acts were finally repealed in Hong Kong in 1991, almost a quarter of a century after the Anglican Church and the theatre community had begun campaigning for them to be dropped.

It’s sad that today, the lazy, feckless media (yes, I am talking about my colleagues and myself) tackle this issue only by interviewing the most conservative Christians and then concluding that white people ‘introduced homophobia’ to Asia.

Today, according to a recent survey by the Equal Opportunities Commission, just over half the population of Hong Kong is in favour of increased protection for the rights of gay people. Among strongly conservative groups of all cultures in Hong Kong, including theistic and non-theistic groups, the figure is, as one might expect, significantly lower. The exception is Christianity, with 49 per cent of practising Hong Kong Christians supporting the introduction of legislation to protect the rights of gay people. So even now, Christians are more sympathetic to gay causes than other groups from the half of society that is not left of centre. But you’ll never see this in a Hong Kong newspaper.

Amplify, an international gay Christian organisation, has twice held its annual conference in Hong Kong as it found its spiritual community to be so gay-friendly. At the 2013 conference, three-hundred Hong Kong Christians turned up to hear gay and lesbian church pastors from a dozen countries.

To sum up: Yes, it may be possible to argue that formal legislation against homosexuality was introduced to numerous places during the era of the British Empire and continued in the Commonwealth of Nations era. But so were laws against bank robbery, and it’s ludicrous to conclude that it was fine to previously rob banks. And yes, China had no laws against homosexuality – but that was because the official line was that gay people did not exist. Homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder in China until after the turn of this millennium. And the story ‘Cut Sleeve’? Most communities around the world, Eastern and Western, have ancient stories that include non-heterosexual characters. Believe me, their existence doesn’t make this planet free of prejudice against LGBT people.

It’s worth doing some research to see the bigger picture. There are some two-hundred countries or territories in the world. The twenty-three or so that have legislated in favour of same-sex marriage are almost all in cultures with strong Catholic or Protestant roots. East Asia, the most atheistic part of the world, has made the least progress in this direction. Correlation is not causation – but neither can we ignore the statistics.

We need to kill the lie that homophobia is a ‘white people problem’ that was introduced by our colonial oppressors, particularly the British as they grew their Empire and established the Commonwealth. Unless we, in Asia, take responsibility for our own homophobia, we are not going to move forwards.


NOW A QUICK mention of another thorny issue: Democracy. History books tell us that Hong Kong, like much of Asia, was part of what used to be called ‘the Third World’ until an economic miracle, which started in the 1970s and ran through the 1980s and 1990s, occurred.

But what actually happened in that period? In the 1970s, the above-mentioned Murray MacLehose was Governor of Hong Kong. He was a strong believer in the ‘servant-king’ principle, a Judeo-Christian idea that underlies Western democracy. We can express it in straightforward terms as: in societies with non-Christian roots, the people tend to be seen as serving the leader. In societies with Christian roots, the leader tends to be seen as serving the people.

With this in mind, Murray MacLehose decided to do away with the word ‘colony’ entirely. He started calling Hong Kong a ‘territory’. He binned his title ‘Colonial Secretary’ and told staff that, from now on, all references would be to the ‘Chief Secretary’. It sounded more modern – and made it clear that one day a locally born individual could fill that role. A society must choose its own leaders, because leaders serve society, right?

MacLehose found it utterly ridiculous that the only official language of the colony was English, a tongue spoken by only a minority of people. He changed the law to make Chinese an official language of Hong Kong. This simple change in the law had a huge psychological impact. The city’s leaders may have been British and Christian but their message was that the culture of the local people was ultimately the important culture.

He put the migrant crisis at the top of his agenda – literally hundreds of thousands of refugees from China were living in shantytowns in Hong Kong’s rural areas. He demanded cash from the British government to begin construction of five satellite cities in the New Territories – probably the single biggest building project ever seen on the planet. New housing was prepared for 960,000 people, with plans for expansion to more than double that number.

Some of the leaders who came after MacLehose continued his democratising principles. Under Chris Patten in 1995, residents were allowed for the first time in history to vote for every single member of the legislative council. It turned out to be the last time, too. When the British Empire quite literally sailed away from Asia in 1997, with Patten joining Prince Charles on the deck of the Royal Yacht Britannia, his all-elected legislative team was replaced with an all-appointed team. Over time, this was gradually replaced by a structure in which appointed officials hog many seats, while the elected seats are shared between pro-establishment and pro-democracy legislators, with a balance maintained in favour of the establishment. Yet to be fair to the Chinese leaders, they changed very few things in Hong Kong in the years immediately following the handover. Only now, twenty years later, do we see regular examples of the city’s authorities acting more as if this was a standard city in mainland China rather than a free-wheeling Westernised community.


AND THE MISSIONARIES? What were they doing around the world during the days of the British Empire and the Commonwealth of Nations? This writer comes from liberal circles and writes for the liberal media. He is aware that the politically correct view is that missionaries are simpletons who come from the West to spread pernickety superstitions to blameless locals.

We ignore the inconvenient fact that in reality the vast majority are medical personnel, NGO workers, teachers and people who run social enterprises, and many have a policy of not mentioning their faith unless asked. Christian-founded organisations such as Save the Children and Oxfam have edited their Christianity out of their websites and documents.

But that’s today. We’re talking about British Empire and Commonwealth history here, so let’s turn our lenses on the past. Probably the most astonishing study of the effects of colonial missionary work came from a chance discovery by a sociologist named Robert Woodberry, son of a professor of Islamic studies in the US state of North Carolina.

About fifteen years ago, Woodberry stumbled on an old book: a 1925 atlas of missionary bases. Like any good scholar looking for data to mine, he started cross-referencing the statistics in the book with other available data from the same areas. What he found was startling. There was a remarkably close correlation between places that had been bases for missionaries from the West and places that grew traditions of liberal democracy – and enjoyed the benefits that came with it, including economic growth and a boost in public health.

Being an extremely careful individual, Woodberry conducted numerous statistical and other re-interpretations of the data to make sure he wasn’t just seeing things. Correlation is not causation, as mentioned above. But after literally years of statistical examination, he published his findings in 2012 in the American Political Science Review, that discipline’s top journal – and won numerous awards.

The short version of his main finding goes like this: Places in which independent Protestant missionaries settled in the 1800s could be seen to have developed far more strongly than places without them.

Example: The colonial era saw British missionaries going to Ghana and setting up an entire education system for people of all types, as well as printing presses for general use. But in neighboring Togo, the French rulers severely restricted missionary access. Instead, the French elite dealt only with Togo’s elite. A century later, during the days of the Commonwealth, Ghana was measured to have a significantly more developed educational system that produced benefits in numerous areas of society while Togo lagged far behind.

Woodberry found many similar cases. Why did the presence of certain types of missionary make a difference? No, there was no magic to the rituals. The answer was much simpler.

He realised that international business people and foreign envoys dealt with the elite of any country: in practice, to all intents and purposes that meant rich males. In contrast, missionaries – and particularly independent Protestant ones – focused on educating the poor, teaching women to read and so on. They set up clinics for families. They built schools. They introduced Western practices of hygiene. In the short-term, elite males might think such activities (serving the poor) as a waste of time. But in the long-term, it was clear that empowering the poor and educating women actually gave communities a huge boost.

One more case study: Thanks to bestselling novels such as The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (HarperCollins, 1998), the Congo is recognised as one of the locations where Europeans did enormous harm in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But the historical data reveals that the business people exploiting the land in the name of King Leopold II of Belgium were the ones who committed the notorious atrocities in that country, while the international campaign that eventually stopped them – around 1904 – was led by John and Alice Harris, a pair of British missionaries.


WHAT CONCLUSIONS CAN we draw from this? International trade may well be good for the development of a society in some circumstances through the economics of trickle-down – but the boosting of the education and health of women and children, which was fostered almost entirely by missionaries, created massive long-term benefits.

This writer considers himself a born sceptic – and so I needed to see if British colonial-era missionaries really did produce measurable benefits in my home town of Hong Kong, a key city in the network of the British Empire.

Again, we find a gulf between conventional wisdom and the data. The popular story is that in the mid-nineteenth century the British arrived as evil drug-smuggling scum who came to this part of the world to poison the Chinese. How much truth there is to that assertion is a topic for a different discussion.

But what we do know is this: British colonial missionaries fought against the distribution of opium to anyone of any colour. And once the British were finally persuaded to drop the trade, it was picked up by the Chinese, who expanded the business.

Missionaries did not have the power to stop Chinese drug distributors, so they turned their attention to their usual targets: the education, health and welfare of the poor. The first formal schools for the public in Hong Kong were opened by Hong Kong missionaries to serve European and Chinese young people.

The London Missionary Society established the first school of Western medicine in the Far East, the Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese, in 1877. The teachers were Christians. The school became the foundation of the University of Hong Kong. One of its early alumni was Sun Yat-sen, a Christian who would later become the founder of modern China.

But, of course, only a minority of people could get into Hong Kong University. What about the others? Colonial missionaries set up a vocational trade school to teach poor, uneducated youngsters skills with which they could earn a living. This was so popular that the Hong Kong government copied the idea and established a technical college that has now grown into Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the biggest educational establishment in the city. Missionaries also established Hong Kong Baptist University, and Lingnan University.

At the same time as setting up a strong education system, missionaries focused on establishing centres to improve the health of families in Hong Kong. The London Missionary Society set up a hospital, the Tsan Yuk Hospital, in 1922. It was so popular that the government took it over and expanded it from 1934. Christians also founded the Hong Kong Adventist Hospital and the Tsuen Wan Adventist Hospital.

In Hong Kong today, the Anglican Church alone runs fifty kindergartens, thirty primary schools and more than fifty secondary schools, including some of the city’s top schools, such as St Paul’s Co-educational College, Diocesan Boys’ School and Diocesan Girls’ School. The Church also runs two hundred and thirty social-service units.

Also the Protestant community runs seven hospitals (although they are discreet about it – there is often no indication to patients that they are being served by Christian organisations). The Catholic community runs six hospitals.

In the 1980s, Christians noticed that one part of Hong Kong Island, the eastern district, did not have a hospital of any kind – and there were a significantly larger number of accidental deaths in that area. People who were injured in accidents simply could not get to a hospital in time, and so needlessly lost their lives. The churches collected data and petitioned the government to build a hospital in the area. Today, the Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital is one of the best-equipped in the city. Again, its Christian roots have been rendered invisible.


AN OBVIOUS CRITICISM of the argument in this essay is that its focus is restricted to one small place: Hong Kong, a single post-British city. British colonial missionaries working through the Empire and post-Empire eras may have made outsize and positive contributions at this location, but could this not be an exception? Perhaps missionaries were murderous vagabonds outside Hong Kong’s borders, in the rest of the countries that are members of the Commonwealth of Nations?

Clearly that’s a major question that invites a larger study. Yet we can widen the scope of this study relatively easily by looking over the border. Many British missionaries came to British Hong Kong with the aim of making a difference in mainland China. They crossed the border to set up schools and clinics. While there is no room in this essay to examine everything they did, I restrict my focus to one of their pet interests: foot-binding.

Again and again, we see the same story. A British missionary goes to work as a teacher or doctor in China, and ends up campaigning for women’s rights, with a particular focus on unbinding the feet of women.

There are numerous detailed academic studies of the history of this pernicious practice, which continued for centuries in China. In these, we read that there were various campaigns to prevent it by both the Chinese as well as foreigners. In the middle of the nineteenth century, leaders of the Taiping Rebellion tried to outlaw foot-binding, but failed.

Christian missionaries took up the campaign in the later years of the 1800s and in the early 1900s. In histories that record the end of the practice, certain names appear over and over again. There is John MacGowan, a campaigner for gender equality; there was Alicia Little, who founded the Natural Foot Society in China in 1898; while Timothy Allen argued that followers of Christianity had to see men and women as equal in the eyes of God. All were British missionaries in China. All made a huge contribution. The outcry against foot-binding eventually spread from the missionaries to the local populace.

Foot-binding was finally outlawed in 1912 by the new government of the Republic of China, led by Sun Yat-sen, the missionary-educated graduate from Hong Kong.


KEEPING THE BALANCE: In interviews, Robert Woodberry has worked hard to ensure that he hasn’t over-egged his dish. He fully admits that there were surely racist missionaries, and some who had no measurably positive effect on the communities in which they settled. But the sheer statistical weight of the evidence for a beneficial effect overall is hard to deny: the elements associated with missionary activity, in particular the focus on the health, welfare and education of women and children in poor communities, have been hugely positive in numerous locations.

One of the curious aspects of missionary work in Asia is that it tends to be discreet, because of likely hostility. You show your religion through your acts, not your mouth, said Harriet Noyes, a late nineteenth-century American missionary to China who set up a girls’ school called True Light Middle School at which she unbound her students’ feet and produced dozens of nurses, more than one-hundred female doctors and almost three-hundred teachers. Ms Noyes appears to have been following the dictum attributed to St Francis of Assisi (although there’s no proof he actual said it): ‘Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.’

It’s impossible to miss the irony in the way that colonial businessmen (and the vast majority were male) talked about the indirect positive effects their activities would have on the economies of the countries they exploited. Yet many of them left, taking riches with them. But missionaries, shunning the spotlight and focused on the education and health of women and children, may ultimately have had a bigger effect.

Australian author John Holliday, who is not religious himself, became intrigued by the untold story of a relative, Walter Medhurst, who travelled from the UK to Asia in 1816 to convert the people of the region to Christianity. The tale had so many twists and turns that he turned it into a well-received book, Mission to China (Amberley Publishing, 2016). But Holliday admits that, in truth, Medhurst converted very few people to his religion, instead devoting his time to improving the education and health of the poor. Yet so great was his influence that Holliday subtitled the book ‘How an Englishman brought the West to the Orient’.

Why did so many missionaries focus on education and welfare rather than doctrine? Clearly, people aren’t going to read the Bible if they can’t read or are in poor health. And there’s probably a deeper psychological reason too. As M Scott Peck wrote in his bestselling psychology book, The Road Less Travelled (Simon & Schuster, 1978), ‘it is in this whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has its meaning’. The connection between doing voluntary work and personal health is so profound, a doctor said in The New York Times in October 2017, that physicians should ask patients whether they smoked, exercised, ate healthily and did volunteer work.

Scott Peck also emphasised the point that you can’t deal with a problem without owning it – which is where this essay started. He wrote: ‘I can solve a problem only when I say “This is my problem and it’s up to me to solve it.” But many, so many, seek to avoid the pain of their problems by saying to themselves: “This problem was caused me by other people, or by social circumstances beyond my control, and therefore it is up to other people or society to solve this problem for me.”’

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About the author

Nury Vittachi

Nury Vittachi is a Hong Kong-based journalist and novelist of Sri Lankan origin.

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