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Elgin Street and the Old Summer Palace

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Sipping sangria in a tapas bar at Hong Kong’s Soho District, looking out the window, one could spend hours watching cosmopolitan humans spewing out one of the world’s longest elevator systems. Next to it, a street sign reads “Elgin Street.” Hardly anybody knows who Elgin was, or what he had done to deserve a street named after him. If not because of a recent deliberation with a quaint academic about Hong Kong’s early colonial days, I would not have bothered to research about him either. By reading up on the history which embroiled the life of this forgotten character, however, I’ve discovered the justice in history.

The Wikipedia summary of Lord Elgin is as follows:

James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin and 12th Earl of Kincardine, KT, GCB, PC (20 July 1811 – 20 November 1863), was a British colonial administrator and diplomat. He was the Governor General of the Province of Canada, a High Commissioner in charge of opening trades with China and Japan, and Viceroy of India.[1] As British High Commissioner in China during the Second Opium War in 1860 he infamously ordered the destruction of one of Asia’s most important historical sites, the Old Summer Palace in Beijing.

This condensed profile seems representative enough but for the description of “diplomat”. He did not seem to be a very diplomatic kind of person to me.

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that back then in Britain, there were in fact fierce parliamentary debates about the country’s behaviour towards China. But Prime Minister Palmerston had the press behind him. Facts were grossly distorted and disproportionally exaggerated to incite public outrage against the Chinese, which eventually gave Palmerston the democratic mandate to “do something about China”. Using the free press to propagate lies and fabricate casus belli is evidently an old trick.

Elgin’s leadership in the looting and burning of the old Summer Palace was well documented. Consulting only “Western” sources for this piece, I’ve selected a few typical records to provide a taste of the scale of this historic vandalism:

Baldwin Project: On Sunday morning, the 7th of October, the orders against looting were withdrawn, and officers and men, English and French alike, rushed excitedly [319] about the place, appropriating every valuable which it was within their power to carry. What could not be carried away was destroyed, a spirit of wanton destruction seeming to animate them all. Some amused themselves by shooting at the chandeliers, others by playing pitch-and-toss against large and costly mirrors, while some armed themselves with clubs and smashed to pieces everything too heavy to be carried . . .

In many similar accounts, the soldiers were described as being totally drunk. Surprised? The French, to give them credit, were against the senseless arson ordered by Elgin, evidently an Empire fanatic whose unhappy life would end in a few years.

Lord Elgin gave orders that its palaces should be levelled with the ground. The French refused to aid in this act of vandalism, which they strongly condemned —a verdict which has since been that of the civilized world. But Lord Elgin was fixed in his purpose, and the work of destruction went on.

A couple of weeks later, after signing the Treaty of Tianjin, Prince Kung tendered a banquet which the British refused to attend, worrying about poisoning. The French could not refuse the offer of good food, and no doubt bragged afterwards to their culinarily less refined ally how amazing it had been.

Milwaukee Sentinel Feb 9, 1976: Sir John Michel and the British First Division marched in a light powdery snow on Oct 18, 1860, and set the Park and its 200 buildings on fire.

The burning took three days. Interestingly, the two brass lions outside the Summer Palace, being too heavy and perceived worthless, were spared. Elgin had no idea that they were solid gold with brass coating, and could have easily paid for the whole war.

In his 1975 history of the two Opium Wars, English poet Jack Beeching described the incalculable value of the real estate that was lost to posterity:

The [old] Summer Palace was the treasure-house of China – such a concentration of visual beauty, artifice and wealth as neither existed nor could once again have been brought into being anywhere else in the world. Here had been brought together and put in order irreplaceable libraries and collections of splendid paintings.

Incontrovertible as the looting and senseless destruction were, one could still find contrived justifications that are more pathetic than infuriating now. One being that “almost twenty” British and Indian prisoners were abused. When such a small number is given in approximation, I always suspect generous rounding up. Still, it was only “almost twenty”. This was 1860, before any Geneva Convention (which hasn’t done any good in Vietnam, Guatanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib etc. etc. anyway). The invaders were viewed as hired-guns of drug smugglers, and no doubt treated like pirates. Were they not? In any event, this triggering excuse is equivalent to accepting modern “terrorists” burning down the British Museum and Windsor Castle, probably the Buckingham Palace as well, to revenge the tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis tortured in their own country, in the 21st century.

Another popular argument is that “the Chinese were weak and corrupt, totally screwed up, so it served them right.” This statement is true. But using China’s weakness as justification for aggression and senseless destruction is as cynical as a murderer telling a man: “Good thing I killed your dumb and crippled parents, otherwise you’d not have had the chance to become the tough and independent man that you are.”

I did not mean to dwell on what happened one and a half centuries ago, in a very different world. My interest was accidentally piqued. But in researching the subject, it occurred to me that given a long enough vision, history seems to maintain justice through its ironies.

The victor, ego inflated by military success, industriousness and productivity sapped by easy money, commenced a downfall which soon accelerated into the collapse of a global empire. Guns and lucre were much more addictive and impairing than opium. After a fleeting spike on history’s timeline, the Empire’s only lasting legacies are a globalised language, scientific milestones, music, theatre, and great beer! — all civilisation products of talents who in all likelihood never shared the imperialists’ violent ambitions. The gunboats — the pride of fanatics such as Elgin — have virtually disappeared but for the occasional appearance as supporting actors in skimpy “coalitions of the willing”.

The loser, no thanks to the invaders’ brutal alarm, did eventually wake up to it. In the ensuing century, it suffered further humiliation, and struggled through one painful transformation after another, to be reborn.

Meanwhile, Lord Elgin remains hoisted on mild-steel poles, in a bohemian restaurant district in Hong Kong, China. In principle, Elgin Street seems incongruous, like an “Osama bin Laden Square” in Washington, or a “George W Bush Avenue” in Bagdad. But his name has long faded into obscurity, lost the emotional power needed to warrant the hassle of renaming a side street. Elgin is nothing more than a street name now.

Lord Elgin's name immortalised above some neighbourhood garbage

Lord Elgin’s name immortalised above some neighbourhood garbage

Originally posted at the Guo Du Blog

  1. pug_ster
    April 5th, 2013 at 04:25 | #1

    Interesting. Most streets in HK from the imperialist days like Nathan Road don’t share such dubious honor. Hong Kong has renamed many streets after 1997 but I am surprised that they forgot about this one.

  2. vspam
    April 5th, 2013 at 10:04 | #2

    Former colony should rename everything and relegate it in the history book or museams. There are more people deserving to be honor with street name. Start with “Victoria Harbor”.

  3. April 5th, 2013 at 22:51 | #3

    @pug_ster
    I don’t think HK renamed many streets after 1997. At least all the streets I know (those with a colonial flavour) have not been renamed. The only exception maybe Tamar? I think the name has been changed due mostly to significant redevelopment. My personal opinion is that these names (including Elgin Street) should stay. History is history. Trying to constantly reinvent the past serves no purpose. Even a very ugly page in the history book may carry some unintended benefits (and definitely some lessons) for the victim, hence my comment that the long-term justice in history lies in it’s ironies.

  4. April 6th, 2013 at 00:02 | #4

    In some ways, this is a concrete example of how the Brits raped and pillaged the Chinese, and after getting away with such atrocious crimes, are able to hold their head high and rewrite history. One’s rapist is another’s hero.

  5. April 6th, 2013 at 02:50 | #5

    @YinYang
    Even a bit more than that. These days, those in control of the international Free Press can break into someone’s house, steal his car, kill his parents and baby, rape his wife, then lecture him about how to treat women with respect, equality, etc. “None of that backward chauvinistic attitude from now on OK?”

  6. Zack
    April 6th, 2013 at 06:12 | #6

    in light of such history, it makes so much sense why the PRC considers its inception as starting from the outbreak of the opium wars ( as eric x. li notes in his essays in reference to a Chinese memorial) and also why the area of the Summer Palace has been allowed to remain the ruins it is today, even as a heritage site, because it serves as a warning to current and future Chinese that they must never take their security for granted, and that the only thing standing between civilisation and the excesses of the barbarians is a strong military.

    i wonder though, should the West’s much desired war with China come to fruition, would all their Capitols and national buildings be immune to such ransacking and devastation? Do they even deserve to evade righting the scales?

  7. April 7th, 2013 at 03:02 | #7

    @Zack
    I believe the Chinese are not seeking revenge. They are quite good in letting go of the past as long as it’s been properly recorded, and nominal lessons have been learnt. But incredibly, some in the “West” are playing the same old game in the 21st century, helped by the Free Press just as Palmerston was.

  8. April 7th, 2013 at 13:16 | #8

    @YinYang
    Hmm… Your last picture gave me a thought – instead of getting rid of British street names such as Victoria or Elgin, perhaps a better alternative is to reassign such names to their proper place in HKSAR, such as streets in close proximity to landfills, garbage processing centers, sewage treatment plants, recycling facilities, etc. >;-]

  9. Black Pheonix
    April 9th, 2013 at 06:13 | #9

    @Mister Unknown

    Or just the streets where they have rampant vice and piracy.

  10. DalianPaul
    April 10th, 2013 at 23:57 | #10

    Guo Du :@Zack I believe the Chinese are not seeking revenge. They are quite good in letting go of the past as long as it’s been properly recorded, and nominal lessons have been learnt.

    Are you being serious? I would hardly describe the Chinese (even in generalization) as being “quite good at letting go of the past.” The above post is one example, the recent events with Japan being another (using the Japanese invasion of 75 years ago as a pretext to calling for war nowadays).

  11. qfrealist
    April 11th, 2013 at 00:21 | #11

    The 19th cent British were total imperialist criminals with Victoria, queen (Sax-Coberg of German heritage) at the helm, and wished for total world domination and exploitation of resources to feed the growing British industrial empire.

  12. April 11th, 2013 at 01:00 | #12

    @DalianPaul
    My comment that you referred to wasn’t very long. Perhaps keeping the entire sentence together would have lessened your incredulity. Oh well, forgetfulness depends on perspective you see. If I were a salve trader and opium pirate, I’d like the entire episode erased while I lecture the world about human rights. The Coalition of the Willing, for example, would probably want to assign the one million plus dead Iraqis to the dustbin of forgotten history now, rather than later.

    Hmm, Japan has not recorded history properly, and nominal lessons have not been learnt according to other non-forgiving Asians. But of course Asian opinions tend to stem from their small-mindedness, although they have been not been hunting down hundred-year-old war criminals the way Holocaust victims did.

    China is calling for war with Japan? Wow. You see, I have stopped reading the Free Press for some time now; and am quite heavily contaminated by simple facts and Chinese propaganda. I’m therefore quite ignorant of this major move by China. Must rush now. Have to do a few useful things for a change.

  13. April 11th, 2013 at 19:21 | #13

    @DalianPaul
    The only reason modern Japan has any claim on the Diaoyu islands is because of Japanese invasion in 1895. The Chinese or Korean public knows this fact but not the Japaenese or western public that have been fed misinformation.

    Both PRC and ROC forgave the Japanese people and never seek retaliation after WWII. The only possible reason for conflict is Japanese’s claim on the islands that they took from China in 1895. Less so you attribute this to propaganda, Taipei position’s on the islands are that they belong to China.

  14. DalianPaul
    April 13th, 2013 at 09:17 | #14

    @Ray

    I have no issue with China’s sovereign claim.

    On your comment that PRC/ROC forgave the Japanese people and never seek/sought retaliation … I haven’t seen too much evidence of forgiveness, especially from the time I lived in Dongbei (1996 to 2006). Unsurprisingly, the people in that region tend to have strong feelings.

    On the issue of retaliation, I agree with you but sentiment now, especially among the more nationalistic appears to be a wish for confrontation (now that China is growing stronger). Hence my comment on calling for war. Some do still use the events of WWII/Japanese Occupation as a reference point in seeking revenge. I feel this viewpoint is much more apparent with youth than older generations which in itself is an interesting paradigm but I do, rightly or wrongly, (see my other post in the Lincoln/Mao thread) think much of that is down to the patriotic education campaign that began 20 years ago.

  15. DalianPaul
    April 13th, 2013 at 09:21 | #15

    @Ray

    On your comment about Taipei’s position, I did find the agreement with Japan ‘granting ROC trawlers fishing rights’ a rather surprising development.

  16. April 13th, 2013 at 19:35 | #16

    Getting all twisted up by the scars of history, not knowing how to “let go” and move on, is a curse.

    Allowing historical lessons to be erased, facts and records perverted, by aggressors who have only accepted (temporarily?) defeat, but showing no sign of remorse (even bidding time for a revival?), so as to be perceived simplemindedly as being “magnanimous”, is plain stupidity.

    Hopefully, experience, if not necessarily wisdom, will continue to help China find AND assert a sensible balance between the two.

  17. DalianPaul
    April 14th, 2013 at 08:38 | #17

    @Guo Du

    I’m going to leave the discussion there. There may be a couple of points I would like to expand on, however, usually I try not (even with my first comment) to get involved in the Japan/China argument. That is for the two countries (and peoples) to work out. Emotion and patriotism – when I am neither Chinese nor Japanese – an area where I don’t like to get beyond the fringes.

  18. April 14th, 2013 at 19:36 | #18

    @DalianPaul
    I fully agree. If everyone can take this attitude, half of the world’s disharmony would vanish right away. Of course just how long is “right away”; “soon”; “short-term”; “long-term”, etc. depends on cultural background, upbringing and experience, and varies significantly. Trying to impose our own prejudice on other’s (we’re ALL shaped by prejudice or there would be no civilisations!) is a common and unnecessarily cause of pointless disharmony, according to my own biased view anyway.

  19. teaz
    May 2nd, 2013 at 05:28 | #19

    ive said this many times before. hong kong remains a british colony. likewise, taiwan remains a japanese, and u.s colony. real liberation will involve complete destruction and removal of any traces of imperialism. n.

  20. teaz
    May 2nd, 2013 at 05:31 | #20

    Ray :
    @DalianPaul
    The only reason modern Japan has any claim on the Diaoyu islands is because of Japanese invasion in 1895. The Chinese or Korean public knows this fact but not the Japaenese or western public that have been fed misinformation.
    Both PRC and ROC forgave the Japanese people and never seek retaliation after WWII. The only possible reason for conflict is Japanese’s claim on the islands that they took from China in 1895. Less so you attribute this to propaganda, Taipei position’s on the islands are that they belong to China.

    misinformation implies it’s accidental. the psyops done by the west/japan goes through a lot of planning, and is purposefully executed with lots of funding. we are talking lots of full time spin doctors working around the clock. just like the psyops they do about nazi germany. if the japanese killed jews, instead of Chinese, im sure everyone would be villifying japan.

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