While COVID-19 are stopping the world on current days, a 19th-century pandemic still haunts Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan district. Nearly 130 years ago, the neighborhood was an epicenter of one of the deadliest pandemics on record, and like many former zone in which plague spread, the area still carries with it the weight of that tragedy.
At the time the waterfront city was a British colony and vital port of trade. As such, it experienced a mass influx of mainland Chinese laborers, from tradespeople to servants, who came to the city in search of employment. As a result, almost 200,000 individuals settled primarily in Sheung Wan, then known as Taipingshan. In fact, the British had relegated the Chinese community to the area as early as the 1840s in order to develop land elsewhere.
In a coexistence of so many people on such a small area, families and workers were living on top of each other in unspeakably squalid conditions, in which goods, people, and even pigs shared single rooms, as did cattle, with calves often slaughtered at home upon reaching maturity.
This was, of course, in dramatic contrast to the lives of the city’s European residents, who lived in comparative splendor just meters away.
Taipingshan, however, was all but primed for tragedy and in early 1894, that tragedy arrived in the form of the bubonic plague.
Within Chinese communities the mortality rate was as high as 90 percent, and fever, swollen glands, delirium, and even black tongue were only a few of the symptoms of the disease. But this wasn’t the only problem: just as the brutal effects of the plague spreaded, there also developed a secondary, figurative kind of “disease”, one that magnified the sociological schism between the ruling Westerners and the Chinese, and which led to mutual hostility between the two cultures.
Even if the true carriers of the disease were most likely fleas and rats brought to the region on opium ships, the blame for the plague’s arrival was placed swiftly on the shoulders of Chinese community, that became a scapegoat. And the only solution was to “purify” the island by expelling the infected.
Once those efforts began, they were swift, ruthless, and carried out with no real regard for Chinese customs, especially those concerning death. What the British saw as necessity, the Chinese saw as barbarism, and what the Chinese saw as sacred, the British saw as superstition.
As result, in May of that year, an aggressive assault began on the Chinese district. A team of mostly British soldiers called the Shropshire Regiment, also informally referred to as the “whitewash brigade,” was assembled for a door-to-door inspection, disinfection, and in worst cases, total destruction of those houses in which infected were found, or even suspected. By the time these “inspections” were finished, some 7,000 people were displaced, and over 350 homes destroyed.
The very same month a ship, the Hygeia, was sent out less than a mile from the harbor. Scheduled by the British as a “floating plague hospital”, it was essentially just another method by which to isolate Chinese victims of the disease.
But the death was not the end of the indignities the Chinese community faced during this pandemic. When dismantling the bodies of plague victims, the British violated virtually all Chinese rituals and traditions associated with death and especially burial. A proper burial in Chinese culture, aimed to avoid suffering in the next life, consisted, essentially, of an intact body, a coffin, and an interment in one’s home village.
However, as any account of the pandemic agrees, bodies of the dead that were taken from both the Taipingshan area and the Hygeia were treated by the British only as potential disease carriers: piling up in the streets, dead bodies were often disposed of in group “plague pits” or, in some cases, simply abandoned, and they were buried in cement-covered graves on the outskirts of the city.
Thus, impelled by the prospect of death itself, and above all by the threat of being denied a proper burial, close to 100,000 Chinese laborers began to return to their hometowns in a mass exodus. Not surprisingly, the evacuation caused the city to come to a virtual halt, leaving the Europeans to fend for themselves.
Only the Tung Wah Hospital helped to lighten the situation, providing free coffins to victims of the plague and helping facilitate the return of their bodies to their native villages, who would have been unable to manage or afford their own death preparations. Re-named Tung Wah Coffin Home in 1899, it is still in existence today, as part of the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals.
After the destruction of Taipingshan, the area was rebuilt and gradually became something of a center for hospitals and other medical facilities. Although the “Tung Wah Coffin Home” eventually moved to the Sandy Bay area, the main hospital stayed (and remains still today) in Sheung Wan, where it is very active in this period due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Some locals state there are clues to the past in these side streets, and some stressed there are actual spirits still left, and that the treatment of the plague victims’ bodies left many unhappy ghosts in the neighborhood.
Ghosts apart, the area is now very popular and the rents have skyrocketed, but the tragic, profound physical and psychological suffering that occurred here probably will never fade.