Poem: Colonizing the Mind

August 22, 2012Louie Crew

In Hong Kong’s earliest days as a colony.
American schoolmaster S. R. Brown
reported success to the Morrison Education Society
which had hired him as their missionary.

They chose Brown because of his patient,
careful work in teaching the deaf – persons
largely ignored by others in the U.S. in the 1840s.
Brown was uniquely qualified
to teach students with special needs.

Hong Kong was mainly a collection of nomads,
with few proper families – pirates, sailors,
and the prostitutes who serviced them.

There were few children, and those were misfits.
No privileged child lived there
and Brown’s school, in English, could not
prepare anyone for the Mandarin exams
required for major government appointments.

Observe Brown’s care:

“We often find it necessary to spend more time
on interpreting the textbook
than in merely reciting the lesson.
Not only every new word needs to be defined,
but every new form of expression,
and every particular idiom or combination of words;
and it is not infrequently a half hour’s task to unravel
and expound a paragraph of moderate length
so that the pupil shall clearly perceive, not merely
what each part signifies but how all the parts hinge
upon one another, and are combined together so as
to convey an unbroken train of thought…” 1

Small wonder that most of the several powerful families
in Hong Kong today descend from Brown’s pupils.

He taught them not only biology,
but also how to think about and write about biology
in English. Those trained for the Mandarin exams
knew nothing about the ways of the foreigners
who would soon rule them for 150 years.

Brown also addressed moral education.
When the school first began, he reported lots of lying
and stealing. But “During the whole of last year,
the morals of the school-boys have appeared to me
in general unexceptional. No instance of theft or falsehood
in the upper two classes has come to my knowledge.”

Clearly Brown was proud of the changes he prompted in them.

“They are all habitually impressed with a feeling of contempt
for the character of a liar. I have heard them,
when some instance of falsehood or low cunning has occurred
among the natives around them, say
with a look of disgust, “That is Chinese.”

We teach more than we think we teach,
including our own contempt, which often we don’t notice.

140 years later my American colleagues and I
asked our students at Chinese University in Hong Kong
to write a speech to give to the Kipling Society
on “The White Man’s Burden.” “Begin,” we
instructed, ‘Good evening. I am your burden….’”

China was set to resume sovereignty
just ten years later. My colleagues, recently out of Yale,
anticipated rich irony and clever invention
in the students’ reponses to the assignment; yet

“You won’t believe
what they wrote,” one colleague said during a break
on the day they turned in the papers.

“They apologized,” I answered matter-of-factly.
“They apologized for being our burden.”

“How did you know?!” he asked.

Byron told me so, I replied:

“So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are: – even I
Regain’d my freedom with a sigh.” 2


  1. All Brown quotations are from Anthony Sweeting, Education in Hong Kong, Pre-1841 to 1941: Fact & Opinion. Hong Kong University Press, 1990. Page 166-167
  2. From “The Prisoner of Chillon.” The Poetical Works of Lord Byron. London: Oxford UP, 1945. 336-340.

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