19 October 2010 - 11 Heshvan 5771 - י"א חשון ה' אלפים תשע"א
Sir Matthew Nathan: Hong Kong’s Jewish Governor Print E-mail

Nathan Road in Kowloon, Hong Kong, is a major thoroughfare and sometimes refered to as the Golden Mile for its bustling commercial activities flanking its two sides. Nathan Road was originally named Robinson Road after its early Hong Kong governor.

In recognition of the monumental achievement of another Hong Kong governor, Sir Matthew Nathan, the British Colonial office made the switch from Robinson Road to Nathan Road.

In spite of the popularity of Nathan Road, few locals as well as the former residents of Hong Kong know much about the protagonist of the Nathan Road, Sir Matthew Nathan. Reports of his governorship in Hong Kong are often trivial and reveal very little of his immense achievement in Hong Kong and character.

Unlike his predecessors as well as the Hong Kong governors after him during the British administration, Sir Matthew Nathan did not rise steadily through the ranks of British colonial administration, and had little experience as colonial governor before assuming the governorship of Hong Kong.

He was trained as an engineer and held the position of major in the Royal Engineers. Among all the governors of Hong Kong, he was also the only Jew and the youngest governor. He was only thirty-nine years old when he took office in 1904.

In spite of his youth and perhaps inexperience as governorship, his legacy in Hong Kong is long lasting and illustrious. He advocated technical training in Hong Kong and his effort contributed enormously to the foundation of the Technical Institute of Hong Kong.

His technical training as an engineer also played a pivotal role in his contribution to the development of Hong Kong’s transportation system and its development, particularly Kowloon.

During his tenure as governor of Hong Kong, he pressed for the widening of existing roads. In fact he pressed for the laying down more roads mainly in Kowloon—than other Hong Kong governors before 1950.

Kowloon in his times was virtually undeveloped, and settled by a small community of Europeans, Portuguese-Asian Mestizos from Macau, a small community of native Chinese and a large contingent of British Armed Forces, mostly Sikh soldiers stationed in the Army Barracks in Chatham Road, Kowloon.

The acquisition of the New Territories in 1890 increased the area under British Administration in Hong Kong to several fold.

The original cession of Hong Kong Island, included part of the Kowloon Peninsula, and Lantau Island. To reach out to the vast tract of newly added land Nathan saw the need for a railroad and a well-developed network of roads.

The planning of a railway line from Hong Kong to China was already proposed before Nathan’s governorship began in 1904. However, the few companies which could finance the project reached a stalemate with the British colonial office when they attempted to monopolise the railway line.

Nathan intervened when he assumed office, and arranged a loan, which was more reasonable without surrendering any ownership. Nathan was obsessed by the construction of the railway line from Hong Kong to the border with China Proper. Not only did Nathan brilliantly help to handle technical problems confronting the construction of the Kowloon- Canton Railway, he was equally at ease in resolving the financial impasse facing the funding problem of the railway. This was thanks to his liaison role, in which he was sometimes acting between the lending companies and the British colonial office, and at other times between Chinese and British officials.

The proposed railway line linking Hong Kong to China was named the Kowloon-Canton Railway and it comprised of two sections, the Chinese section that ran from Guangzhou to the border of China and Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong section that ran from the border to the southern tip of Kowloon Peninsula.

He readily offered his technical advice to the construction and engineering teams whenever the construction encountered a technical problem. The construction of the railway line needed tunnels to allow its penetration into the mountain range separating Kowloon and the New Territories, as well as the leveling of small hill barriers to the progress of the railway line. Dynamite and the conductive wire was needed for the explosives in order to remove the massive rock. The delivery, security and placement of the dynamite and accessories required a lot of coordination in terms of transportation, licensing, and engineering, which were largely facilitated by Nathan.

Without Nathan’s assiduous effort in overseeing the initial construction of the Kowloon-Canton Railway, the railway line would definitely not have been completed as planned. Nathan even offered his technical advice for the construction of the Chinese section, suggesting that the railway line bypass Weichow, thus saving enormous amounts of time and money. The completion of the Kowloon-Canton railway  was not realised until 1910, three years after the departure of Nathan.

Taking advantage of this strategic position of the Kowloon Peninsula to enhance the efficiency of the Hong Kong section of the Kowloon-Canton railway, he persuaded the British colonial administration to modify its original plan of locating the Ferry and Railway terminal in Yau-Ma-Ti and to move it to the southern tip of the Kowloon Peninsula, the shortest distance from Kowloon to Hong Kong.

After the Royal Engineers of Hong Kong heeded his proposal to place the Kowloon-Canton Railway terminal at the southern tip of Kowloon Peninsula, which was later called South Tsim Sha Tsui, Nathan proceeded to further suggest a landfill project to enlarge the area of the southern tip of Kowloon Peninsula, where the railway terminal building would be constructed.

His plan was to make the southern tip of Kowloon Peninsula the grand hub, accommodating the ferry terminal, the train terminal and the bus terminal, all in a small tract of land. All of his proposals concerning the placement of the Hong Kong side of Kowloon-Canton railway and the grand union of bus, ferry and railway terminals were fulfilled.

The success of transporting both people and cargo through Kowloon, to and from Hong Kong Island and the New Territories for nearly a century, is owed largely to the location of the terminals in Tsim Sha Tsui.

In Nathan’s era, it seemed to be a huge gamble to undertake the huge project of the Kowloon-Canton Railway as well as the construction of the associated terminals and the enlargement of the designated area in the tip of Tsim Sha Tsui.

By 1920, when another Jewish coreligionist, Kadoorie (a well known name in Hong Kong), decided to build the renowned Peninsula Hotel, one of the most important Hong Kong landmarks, the importance and the development of the Kowloon Peninsula terminals was confirmed and reassured. The Peninsula Hotel is located only a couple of blocks from the hub of ferry, bus and train terminals at the tip of the southern Kowloon Peninsula.

Nathan proved his financial genius on yet another occasion.

In 1904, when Nathan took office, Hong Kong had an oversupply of low value silver coins. The amount of 5 cent and 10 cent silver coins being circulated greatly exceeded the need of the Hong Kong population. This phenomenon greatly depressed the value of coinage.

Nathan immediately ceased the further supply of these coins in order to allow restoration of Hong Kong coinage to its proper value. He even demonetised the silver coins in order to stem the slide of the Hong Kong coinage.

In 1906, a violent tropical storm hit Hong Kong and the destruction was devastating. Many of the commercial as well as residential areas lay in ruins; the death toll and injuries tallied to more than 20,000. Nathan sensed the urgency of establishing a signal station to warn Hong Kong residents of approaching storms.

Thus during Nathan’s governorship, a signal station was placed next to the Hong Kong Observatory, which stands on the top of the small hill overlooking Tsim Sha Tsui and the Victoria Harbour. For nearly the whole of the 20th century, the signal station proved vital in providing advance warnings of approaching storms to Hong Kong residents as well as to the boats and ships that dotted the Victoria Harbour.

Also during Nathan’s governorship, Hong Kong’s tram service began operation. Its first line ran from Kennedy Town to Shau Kei Wan, in 1904.

During his tenure as governor of Hong Kong, Nathan was honorary president of Hong Kong Judaic Society and he helped negotiate the lease that expanded the Jewish cemetery in Hong Kong.

Nathan did not complete his term as Governor of Hong Kong; he left after three years of service in 1907. He was criticized as being unsociable because he did not attend many of the tea parties, charity balls and the lavish dinner parties as well as the church services so typical of the British elite in Hong Kong during the colonial era.

It is quite understandable that being Jewish, he should be excused for not attending the Church of England Sunday services.

The Sunday church service was indeed an important social event for the British high society members in Hong Kong to get acquainted and enhance friendship in a rather informal ambience.

As a bachelor, he had the disadvantage of not having a wife to accompany him in charming the ladies of the British ruling class in Hong Kong.

Instead, he would indulge himself in his leisure to resolve the growing transportation and settlement problems confronting the young colony. It was rumored he was being unfairly reported as being out of touch with the upper class of the British residents of Hong Kong and he was subsequently victimised by vicious gossip against him.

Given the short interval of his service and the hostile social atmosphere, Sir Matthew Nathan was nonetheless able to lay claim to a vast accomplishment: He laid down a solid foundation for the future development of Hong Kong’s long and successful development of its transportation and import/export industries.

(Issue Dec 09/Jan 10)

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