Food supplies, soccer and new towns: HK’s former chief secretary David Akers-Jones looks back at six decades in his adopted home

07-May-2019 Intellasia | AFP | 6:00 AM Print This Post

Today we continue our series on veteran Hongkongers whose personal histories are interwoven with that of the city since the second world war. In this Lessons From The Past report, Gary Cheung features former chief secretary David Akers-Jones, who spearheaded the development of new towns in the New Territories in the 1960s and 70s. He points out that today housing is the main source of unhappiness, as was observed by former governor Murray MacLehose in the 1970s.

When he retired from the Hong Kong government in 1987, David Akers-Jones and his wife chose to stay in Hong Kong because they scarcely knew anywhere else. Had they retired to his hometown in England, they would have been strangers in their own land.

In 1945, Akers-Jones left his village in Sussex in South East England to join the British India Steam Navigation Company as a merchant navy officer. “When I went back to my native village in England many years ago, things had changed so much. The church in which I sang as a choir boy was shut,” he said.

“If I walked down the village streets, I would have been like the old man in a Chinese poem in which children see him walking down the street, and say ‘who is he?’” said Akers-Jones, who was Hong Kong’s chief secretary and briefly acting governor before his retirement.

He was referring to Coming Home, written by Tang dynasty poet He Zhizhang, which depicts the alienation an old man feels upon returning after many years to his native village. The poem ends with the children from the village asking him: “Where are you from?”

The death of Akers-Jones’ wife, Jane, in 2002, added further to his solitude. But he insisted he was more emotionally attached to Hong Kong than to Britain. “I have some relatives in my hometown and they have me as a relative. But we don’t communicate,” he said.

Yet his more than 60 years in Hong Kong, since he landed at the former Kai Tak Airport in 1957, have been rewarding. He oversaw the development from scratch of towns in the New Territories, a large chunk of rural land that was leased to Britain by China for 99 years in 1898.

In his official capacity he also became the first Hong Kong civil servant since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China to visit the land behind the “bamboo curtain” in 1973. He was briefly acting governor of Hong Kong after the sudden death of governor Edward Youde in 1986.

Akers-Jones embarked on a long journey to the other side of the world after he boarded a steamship for Bombay in London in 1945. The 18-year-old spent the next four years travelling around the ports of Southeast Asia. After graduating from Oxford University, he joined the Malayan colonial civil service in 1954 where he learned to read and speak Chinese. It was a skill that would prove valuable three years later when the end of British rule in Malaya prompted another move.

“I didn’t travel as far as China when I was a merchant navy officer. I was offered either a short stay in another British colony in Africa or a transfer to Hong Kong,” he said. “Now was a chance to come to Hong Kong and see China.”

Akers-Jones and his wife arrived in Hong Kong in the summer of 1957 to join the colonial government as an administrative officer. “The plane skimmed down from Fei Ngo Shan to the runway of the old Kai Tak Airport. We crossed the Victoria Harbour by launch,” he said.

He worked in the Commerce and Industry Department for two years, during which time he was part of the government team which ensured that the colony had several months’ supplies of rice in warehouses and stockpiles of firewood for cooking.

Given the tense relationship with Beijing since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Hong Kong government was prepared for the worst-case scenario of China cutting off supplies of food to Hong Kong.

“It was a very unsettled time for that particular moment. We kept the stock of firewood to cook the rice. These are essential commodities that I looked after. I worked with groups of rice merchants intimately at that time,” he said.

In 1959, Akers-Jones was posted to Tsuen Wan as district officer, the government representative in the area. He was involved in many works there from their inception. “It was a very interesting and rough time. We had to acquire land and move villagers out of their homes to widen the road. That would become Castle Peak Road, which would eventually run from Kowloon all the way through the New Territories.

“We were helping to ensure factories to be built in Tsuen Wan, textile, dyeing works… and so on. There were a lot of industrial activities in Tsuen Wan. There were thousands of factories which offered work for tens of thousands of people,” he said.

“There was no proper market at the time. I helped build the temporary market in Tsuen Wan,” the retired official said.

In 1962, he was transferred to Yuen Long, near the border with mainland China, as district officer. At the time, Yuen Long had a team in the first division of Hong Kong’s soccer league but there was no soccer pitch in the district.

Akers-Jones said they mobilised the community leaders in Yuen Long to organise activities to raise fund to build the soccer pitch on land provided by the government. The pitch, now known as Yuen Long Stadium, was the first one built in the New Territories’ new towns.

As district officer, Akers-Jones was president of the local Sports Association and subsequently became the European vice-president of the Hong Kong Football Association. The post would bring him to China on a clandestine visit in 1973. Though the trip was approved by Governor Murray MacLehose, Akers-Jones said he was told to fly to China from London because crossing the border from Hong Kong would give rise to speculation about the reasons for the visit.

“We travelled from London to Cairo, Rangoon and Shanghai, and then to Beijing,” he said. In Beijing, Akers-Jones met China’s top sports officials to discuss the dispute of China’s membership of Fifa, the governing body of world soccer. In 1958 China accused Fifa of being a “bourgeois voice” and walked out of the Fifa Congress in Stockholm, vowing never to return. The seat was occupied by the representative of Taiwan and China had no representation. Akers-Jones told Chinese officials China’s membership should be put to a vote at Fifa’s annual meeting. In 1979, China regained its membership of Fifa, which the following year demanded Taiwan change its sporting name to Chinese Taipei.

Akers-Jones became the secretary for the New Territories in the late 1970s and rose through the ranks to become chief secretary in 1985. After the sudden death of governor Edward Youde rocked Hong Kong in 1986, Akers-Jones served as acting governor until the following April.

He retired from the government shortly after David Wilson took over the governorship in 1987 and chaired the Hong Kong Housing Authority from 1987 to 1992.

Akers-Jones was critical of the last governor Chris Patten’s electoral reform package, which gave 2.7 million residents the vote in Hong Kong’s last elections before the 1997 handover. Beijing believed it breached the Basic Law the city’s mini-constitution and Sino-British agreements already in place.

Akers-Jones was branded a traitor by his detractors back in Britain in 1993 when he accepted Beijing’s invitation to become a Hong Kong affairs adviser. He was blasted as a “Pekinese lap-dog” by the Daily Mail and the “Chief Useful Idiot to China” by The Independent.

The retired official dismissed the accusation against him as “absurd”. “Knowing China is very important. To describe people who understand China as traitors is unfair,” he said.

Bread-and-butter issues facing Hong Kong people are always on the mind of Akers-Jones who turned 92 in April. He said former governor Murray MacLehose, who served as governor of Hong Kong from 1971 to 1982, had said in the 1970s that “the shortage of housing is the main source of unhappiness for the people of Hong Kong”.

“I think probably today the main source of unhappiness is still housing. For the young people coming out of universities, [they are] finding anywhere to live which is not comfortable and acceptable, and flats which are smaller, smaller and smaller. That was a great problem,” Akers-Jones said.


Category: Hong Kong

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