Every year we have the excitement of wondering when the Easter holiday will fall, but why is this so? Our expert historian columnist Dr Richard Lee, who happens to be a longtime friend of theDesk Sai Wan community, unravels Easters of the past in Hong Kong.
It may not appear so, as the rain drizzles down in a grey and dull Causeway Bay, but Easter is nearly here. Normally I would join many Hongkongers (more than 5% of the population in 2016) as they exit the city for exotic Balinese beaches or the beauty of Japan. But this year I cannot travel so I ask myself what is Easter in Hong Kong like, what can I do?
Why is Easter not in April?
It is true that traditionally, as in from the 4th century AD, a simple equation has been used to calculate the date of Easter – it is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox (or the point when the sun goes from the south to the north of the celestial equator).
This could happen anywhere from late March to late April. But this should not apply to Hong Kong. In the 16th June 1928 edition of the China Mail sandwiched between the cricketing results and a weather report, an article reported the successful passing of the Easter Act.
This Act imposed on British colonies a single, secular date for Easter — the Sunday following the second Saturday in April. Never again would there be a late March Easter. However, though enacted, this Act has to this day never actually been implemented, and Easter remains changeable. As to why this is the case, nobody seems to know.
Love, suffering and stupid people
Easter is celebrated in many different ways by Western Christianity but the core remains the same, the celebration of the resurrection of Christ, the triumph of light over dark.
With 23% of the Hong Kong population thought to be Christian the Easter message has as much resonance in the city today as it does elsewhere in the world, and indeed has had for as long as Hong Kong was a British colony.
As early as 1890, St Peter’s Seaman’s church had been holding Good Friday services. However, the types of Easter services have changed over the years. In 1903, for example, St Peter’s Church, although still holding Easter services within the church itself, also had a church launch pootling from ship to ship in Hong Kong harbour conducting onboard services.
By the 1920’s Good Friday sermons were common across Hong Kong, though their messages often varied. In the 1925 Good Friday sermon delivered in St John’s Cathedral by Rev. T. B. Powell urged his congregation to ‘take on the sufferings’ of Christ whereas the cheerier Union Church sermon delivered by the Rev. E. K. Higdon celebrated how Christ lived not how he died.
The St. Andrew’s Church sermon delivered by Rev. E. K. Quick was in contrast refreshingly simple; Pilate was a coward and the people who condemned Christ were stupid. By 1934, as the Hong Kong Telegraph reported that sermons reached such heights of popularity that the first ever open-air Easter celebration was held in the South China Athletic Association Grounds at Caroline Hill, where it was attended by 1000 people.
Although such open-air sermons are largely relegated to history the importance of sermons remains and most churches and cathedrals in Hong Kong still provide Good Friday sermons.
Matsheds in the rain and other sports?
As Hong Kong slowly closes, I wonder what the non-religious can actually do over the holiday. An idle search of various hobby groups in Hong Kong pulls up endless Easter hikes and the prospect of an active Easter looms.
However, a sporty Easter is not a new thing. A retrospective of the surprisingly cold 1925 Good Friday by the China Mail shows many Hongkongers resorted to sports over the Easter holiday. People had flocked on mass to try the new Fanling golf course, and improve their game before the heat of summer hit.
The adventurous (given it was too cold to swim) flocked to Repulse Bay to while away the time in the beach matsheds around which the recent rain (8.38 inches in 16 days) streamed, whilst a weak sun shone intermittently. The most optimistic went to the Cricket Club where they were much disappointed to find the grounds still waterlogged from the recent rains.
Yet such difficulties were not an impediment to football where Scotland vs “the Rest” put on a spectacular display, much to the delight of the very large crowd that had assembled to watch. Over the years such traditions have not changed. I could still spend my Easter hiking, running, training learning martial arts, or engaging in the more genteel sports of snooker and darts, as many will this year.
When battleships visited for Easter
What does Hong Kong offer for the Easter tourist? At first glance the answer might be not much; the number of visitors to the City has been steadily dropping with arrivals falling 8.3 percent in 2016 alone.
Yet historically, many people were drawn to Hong Kong over the Easter holidays. Among the most unusual guests to visit Hong Kong for Easter Week in 1928 was a large squadron of 20 Japanese ships, including the battleships Fuso, Mutsu and Nagato.
On arrival, they were given a lavish greeting. While 3000 Japanese warrant officers and men passed their time at the races, movies in dinners and ‘tiffin’ a lucky few (Japanese) Hongkongers would get passes to visit the battleships. Unlike most visitors to the City, we know what became of these ships.
By 1943 the Mutsu had been mysteriously destroyed, the crew of the adjacent Fuso desperately trying to save the wounded. The Fuso itself had been sunk by American forces in the last ever battleship versus battleship conflict, the Battle of Surigao Strait in 1944.
The Nagato which was the only Japanese battleship to remain afloat at the end of WW2 was sunk as part of the American nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946. Not all Easter visitors are to Hong Kong were so famous.
So then what is Easter in Hong Kong? Is it a time of quiet reflection or religious observances? Is it a time of celebration and entertainment? Yes, it is all these things and it always has been.
However, for me, the Easter article that affected me most was published by the Hong Kong Daily Press on the 26th of April 1908. It was a small article that told a simple story of an orphanage in China, established by nuns, in whose bare rooms crowds of young girls lived.
Nearby was a tower with a precarious opening in which a father could leave an unwanted girl with the hope a fellow traveller might cast her into the tower to die. By 1908 fellow travellers were bringing the children to the orphanage. It reminds us perhaps that Easter can be a chance, as Rev. Powell suggested in 1925, to think about death and sacrifice, whether we are religious or not.
Richard Lee is a published archaeologist and educator. In addition to researching material culture, he operates the Hong Kong History meetup dedicated to making Hong Kong’s heritage more accessible to the public.
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