Paul V. Coates – Confidential File, Nov. 5, 1959
November 5, 2009 | 2:00 pm
Hunger Way of Life in 'Pearl of Orient'
Hong Kong -- In this bedlam of political intrigue, British pomposity, sly international trade, glamour and abject poverty, I've learned a very disturbing thing about myself.
I never thought the time would come when I could turn my back on a hungry child. But it has.
After just a few days in Hong Kong, you become hardened to the starvation around you. It's such a massive condition, involving so many hundreds of thousands, that it becomes impersonal.
There's nothing you can do about it, anyway. You can make the futile gesture of tossing a few coins at the countless beggar children. But if you give a coin to one of them, you are immediately mobbed by dozens of others who seem to come at you from nowhere. They plead, whine, tug at your clothes and curse when you try to break away from them.
So you quickly learn not to do it. For a while, you feel a twinge of guilt at being able to walk away from the pitiful sight of diseased, starving children. And then, suddenly, you don't even notice them any more.
They become just part of the luster in the British crown's "Pearl of the Orient."
I've seen hunger in other places. But it's different here. There's a hopeless permanence about it. In Hong Kong, hunger is a way of life. And you get the feeling that it always will be.
Infants are literally taught to hold out their hands for alms before they are taught to walk. (See cut, at right.) It's standard practice for grimy, tubercular old women to "rent" babies from the Hong Kong slums and carry them strapped to their backs as they beg in front of the lush European hotels.
Begging is not considered a crime or a disgrace here. It's an accepted profession of a people who are ill-equipped to do anything else.
This is the first time I've had a look at British colonialism in action. And "action" is hardly the word. Their obviously cynical policy in this Crown colony is to let things stay as they are.
Say what you will about our behavior toward backward countries. We have, it's true, our Ugly Americans. But we have a sense of international responsibility to better the plight of other people where we can.
In all the years the British have ruled Hong Kong, they have never put through a law for compulsory education. They have never offered free education.
So, generation after generation of Chinese kids have been born to beg. If they survive the filth, the disease and the starvation diet, they can grow up to become illiterate coolie labor, prostitutes, smugglers or petty thieves.
With the emergence of Red China, the problem of Hong Kong became even more severe. More than a million refugee poured into the free territory right after the revolution. The British have established a quota of 50 a day now. But hundreds still find a way to get over the border. Babies are being born of these wretched people at the rate of 8,000 a month.
The Red China escapees lead lives of unbelievable filth in caves that pockmark the Hong Kong hills. And nothing is done to lessen the misery of their existence.
There isn't even a sufficient system of reservoirs to overcome a chronically serious water shortage. The coolie cave dwellers wash their clothes in the same murky water that they must use for drinking.
According to Kipling, East is East and West is West. And the British seem determined to keep it that way.