Monday, December 10, 2012

Flibbertigibbet



The first of three pages of a newsclipping saved in a scrapbook at HSBC London archives.

 Flibbertigibbet is a label that would best describe me when I am in the act of committing much of my research. I often flit from here to there all the while exhibiting a distinct lack of focus. Hopefully I will fare better than the Flibbertigibbet of mythical times who so exasperated his master that he was thrown down a hill. He then rolled into a valley, and was transformed into a stone. Anyway, back to me. As per usual, I set out to do one thing this morning and ended up doing quite another.

My initial plan had been to edit and then to post the second part of my talk to the Hong Kong branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, but I got distracted by a story that was a small part of the talk. Thomas Jackson’ had a routine of doffing a soft hat, and performing a wee dance with his cane as he entertained dignitaries at banquets with his version of The Wearing O’ the Green. I then recalled other musical entertainments in Hong Kong, most particularly the airs played at a banquet held in Jackson’s honour when he prepared to leave in 1902 for England. The banquet was chaired by Ho Tung as a representative of the local Chinese merchants.

An aside: One of my life’s regrets is that I do not touch-type. When I was a student in the early 1960s, the choice was between Physics and Typing. I chose Physics merely because there were three girls in Physics and the rest were all boys, while there were only two boys in Typing. I was fifteen years old, what can I say? The odds in Physics looked good to me.

I mention this only because in spite of being a somewhat flighty sort of researcher, I decided to transcribe nine pages worth of that 1902 news clipping before I finished my next blog piece. Thankfully, there is such a thing as voice recognition software, albeit with warts and all. I mention this because I may have missed some of the decidedly odd errors that such software can be counted on making. For example, Masterman Bank came out as: Masterman spanked.  I did catch that error, although since the bank was soon bankrupted, the voice recognition may have been channeling the sentiments of the creditors.

But enough of all that. The news clipping is now transcribed in its entirety, and is posted to my web site (link beneath). At some point I will take the time to properly annotate it. The dozens of names mentioned are daunting to individually research – even for a professional flibbertigibbet such as The Moi – so they will have to wait. Even without such annotations, the piece is still worth a read.

The early 1900s concerns about currency standards and the balance of trade between China and other nations are still with us today. Plus ça change. I guess Thomas Jackson didn’t fix that one for us. That being said, the sanitation issues mentioned in the speeches were addressed in his lifetime, and in some measure thanks to men like him. Today, Hong Kong is one of the cleanest cities in the world, if not the cleanest. Also, going by the great gushes of water which I recently saw being used to hose down sidewalks in Hong Kong, I would guess that the issue of water shortages constraining trade was also solved, in spite of the fact that the Chinese merchants were fretting that Thomas Jackson with his “good joss” was about to leave the Colony.

In this article, Jackson was referred to as the outspoken member of the Legislative Council. That is a nice little insight into how he conducted himself there, a nicety that is rarely revealed by simply reading the minutes of meetings. Clearly he was not a wilting violet. Also, it is interesting the extent to which acts of personal kindness keep being mentioned by members of a number of communities, in this and other such tributes. I had already documented evidence of this generosity of spirit towards his Irish neighbours and extended family, so it is not surprising to see evidence of it also in Hong Kong.

Another bit that intrigued me was Ho Tung’s take on the legislature’s impact on prosperity:

No one who is even superficially acquainted with the history of Hongkong can ignore the fact that you Thomas Jackson] took over this very responsible office at a time of greatest doubt and uncertainty attending the commercial affairs of the young Colony. Although blame was sought to be saddled on the executive on account of the legislative measures which it enacted for the depressing state of affairs, it cannot be denied that far more potent factors throughout the East were contributing to bring commercial disaster upon Hongkong. The vicissitudes of banking, like all other trades, became apparent in the reports and balance sheets issued by our local bank at this time. The carping criticisms which its detractors leveled at it were unmeasured and unrestrained.

There is also a reference to the Savings Bank in the article, a bank which was started under Thomas Jackson’s watch. It was designed to serve the needs of small depositors, ones who at that time did not have access to the kind of chequing privileges that we take for granted today. It nearly got derailed because Governor Bowen and got into a tiff with the Colonial Office. In the end, the ordinance to set up the bank was passed and seven months later it had already received $50,000 in deposits. Once again, this is another success to chalk up in part to Thomas Jackson and his gift for calming troubled waters.

One phrase in the article that I particularly liked is when Jackson describes the main part of his philanthropic contributions as: beggar-in-chief. Also, he says that if he could choose one word for his feelings upon leaving, it would be thankfulness. Finally, Jackson’s trust in my word is my bond – the handshake style of financial contracts that he had grown up with as a son of an Irish farmer – clearly stood him in good stead with the oral contracts that were the norm in Hongkong at this time. He went so far as to state: I maintain that a Chinaman's word is better than his bond.

As for why I cared about the Irish airs played at the banquet – I will save that aspect of the article for the next post. After all, that was the part of the next post that derailed me into this sideways step. The story of these airs belongs with the story of The Wearing O’ the Green.It may become a separate post.

Here is the link to the transcribed news clipping: 1902 May 19. The Overland China Mail.

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