Gillian Bickley: The Golden Needle. The Biography of Frederick Stewart (1836-1889)

“A Gentleman of suitable Literary and Moral qualifications
is Wanted immediately to fill the post of Master of the Central School and Inspector,
of the Government Free Day Schools at Hong Kong. The Salary is L500 a year, with
a House. The Person filling the post will be required to teach the English Language
and the general subjects of English education to Native youths, and to superitend
the Native Schoolmasters throughout the Island, under the direction of a Local
Board of Education appointed by the Governor. It will be requisite for him to
acquire the Chinese Language and to have a competent acquaintance with scholastic
duties; but it is not considered desirable that his age should exceed 25 years.
[…]”

Barely more than five months after the publication of this
announcement in the Aberdeen Journal of August 7th 1861, Frederick Stewart,
a 25 year-old Scotsman, left Southampton to take up his appointment in the far-flung
colony acquired by Great Britain 20 years earlier.

In The Golden Needle, Gillian Bickley, an Associate
Professor of English at the Hong Kong Baptist University and a resident of Hong
Kong for the past 23 years, gives us the fruit of eight years of research on the
life and career of the man who is presented not only as the founder of the public
education system in the colony, but also as someone whose influence extended well
beyond the field of education and the territory’s borders.

The book, which is based on a wealth of documentary evidence
from the four corners of the globe, is divided into 40 chapters dealing with Stewart’s
youth and studies, his journey to Hong Kong, his work as Principal of the Central
School and the various posts he occupied at the end of his life.

The young teacher who set foot in Hong Kong on February
15th 1862, was not in the mould of the typical colonial bureaucrat. The son of
farmers from a small village in the north-east of Scotland, he had nonetheless
made it to King’s College at the University of Aberdeen thanks to his parents’
sacrifices and his own efforts. So, as G. Bickley reminds us, he was in a better
position than anyone to appreciate the value of education, and that is no doubt
why he took his mission so much to heart. His actions were motivated by two passions.
First of all, brought up in a very religious environment and destined—before
his departure—to be ordained himself, Stewart considered the spread of a
“Western-style education” as inextricably linked to the spread of Christianity.
Next, he was very much attracted to the challenge of knowing a new culture and
acquiring a new language.

Shortly after his arrival in the colony, Stewart discovers
that Hong Kong is still, in many respects, the “barren rock” described
by Lord Palmerston some 20 years earlier. Above all, the education system given
to the inhabitants leaves a great deal to be desired, both in terms of the quality
of the teaching and the limited number of people it reaches. At the time of Stewart’s
arrival, Western-style education was restricted to two or three religious schools
whose primary function was the training of missionaries destined to go and work
in China. The others were for the most part small village schools partially subsidised
by the government and offering a strictly Chinese education, identical to that
applying in the rest of China. The government’s decision to set up a Central
School by bringing together several public schools was born from the need to provide
some pupils with an education in English in order to train interpreters capable
of bridging the gap between Western and Chinese workers in the civil service and
in trade.

The establishment of the Central School (later renamed
Queen’s College) was entirely entrusted to the young Stewart who made the
most of the opportunity to put to work his ideas on education which were diametrically
opposed to traditional Chinese educational practice. Stewart was not sparing in
his criticism of both the methods and content of the Chinese way of education:

“The Chinese have no education in the real
sense of the word. No attempt is made at a simultaneous development of the mental
powers. These are all sacrificed to the cultivation of memory. The boy who can
repeat correctly the writings of Confucius or Mencius is considered a great scholar
although he may be as ignorant of their meaning as if they were written in a language
of which he did not know the alphabet. […] [The teaching] embraces then, neither
History, nor Geography, nor Arithmetic, nor the simplest elements of science—subjects
which, in the West, are considered so indispensable.” (p. 75)

If Stewart was convinced that only a Western education
could lead to the cultural enrichment of the individual and that English was the
only possible vehicle for such an education in Hong Kong, he was, however, greatly
in favour of young people learning their own language and culture. Thus he went
by the principle of giving an equal place in the Central School to the teaching
of both, so that the pupils might receive a Western education while still keeping
their Chinese identity.

Gillian Bickley sets out all the hurdles that Stewart had
to overcome during the course of his career to put his ideas into practice. As
a School Inspector the young teacher was forever faced with the critical situation
of teaching in the small village schools scattered throughout the territories
of Hong Kong and Kowloon and the hostility of the villagers regarding any reform
of the system in place (p. 77).

However, over the years, he gradually succeeded in having
English books translated into Chinese and in introducing them into the schools.
The setting up of the Grant in Aid Scheme, a subsidy given to all schools (private
and public) meeting certain standards, clearly contributed to the rise in the
educational level all over the colony. At the Central School itself, Stewart managed
to deliver quality education in spite of the scant means at his disposal. Shortly
after his arrival, he introduced an entry examination in Chinese, imposed the
requirement of regular attendance, divided the pupils up into several classes,
and separated the teaching in English (in the morning) from that in Chinese (in
the afternoon). As the only foreign teacher for a long time, he had to watch over,
with the aid of Chinese assistants, three classes at once. It should be noted
that in spite of the Principal’s religious beliefs, the Central School’s
educational programme remained secular, Stewart being satisfied to preach the
scriptures in the street—more often than not to no avail.

The Central School was, however, a victim of its own success.
Many pupils entered this institution solely for the purpose of learning English,
and the demand for English speakers in business was so high that many of them
left school without finishing their studies, or even sometimes in mid-year. Stewart
deplored such a situation:

“Engrossed in the pursuit of gain, the Chinese who
have flocked to Hong Kong have left behind them their traditional regard for education,
and allowed themselves to settle in an apathy characteristic only of barbarism.
Nothing seems to find favour with them which does not bear a market value. Hence
the comparative success of the Central School, English being convertible into
dollars; hence, also, the the neglect of the vernacular schools, Chinese
being unsaleable” (p. 90).

Frederick Stewart’s methods were seriously challenged
with the arrival in 1877 of the eighth Governor of the colony, Sir John Pope Hennessy,
who was another to have firm ideas about education. The language issue was the
main sticking point between the Central School’s Principal and Her Majesty’s
new representative. Indeed, the latter considered that too much importance was
placed on the teaching of Chinese and that the pupils’ level of English was
very inadequate as a result. His intention was “[…] to modify the curriculum
of the Central School, and other schools, so as to make the education given in
the school ‘a kind of education suited for mercantile employment in Hong
Kong’” (p. 211). This viewpoint went right against the grain of Stewart’s
beliefs, for whom education should first serve the individual before the community
(p. 83).

More than a century later, the reader cannot fail to observe
that this issue is still—more than ever—current. The authorities and
business circles of Hong Kong continue to deplore the English level of most of
the territory’s inhabitants, including the most highly educated among them,
and the Government’s decision to make Chinese the compulsory language of
instruction in most high schools, both at the junior and senior levels, is far
from receiving universal assent among the population.

For Gillian Bickley, Stewart’s influence on Hong Kong’s
education system cannot be overestimated. First of all, the number of children
enrolled in government schools multiplied sevenfold between 1862 and 1889, while
the population had barely doubled during the same period (pp. 95-96). Moreover,
there is no doubting that the prestige gradually acquired in the colony by the
Central School contributed to raising the standard of the other public schools
in so far as many young people aspired to pass the entrance examination to this
institution. The writer also points out that by the very nature of its teaching,
which inculcated the best of Chinese and Western values, the Central School had
a strong influence on the future of the colony, as of China and many other countries
via the pupils passing through it, beginning with Sun Yat-sen, the founder of
the Chinese Republic. In this context, the writer quotes Alice Ng:

“The role of the educational system in Hong Kong as
an agency in the fermentation of political and revolutionary ideas is not the
consequence of the inclusion of an explicitly political content into the school
curriculum. […] The impact of these ideas, of course, depended very much on
the personality and mind of the individual. This explains why Queen’s College
… produced during these years faithful servants of the Ch’ing [Dynasty],
as well as revolutionaries who worked to overthrow it…” (p. 109)

Frederick Stewart resigned from his position as Principal
of the Central School in 1881 and then took up several important posts in the
colonial administration: colonial secretary (a position he had already occupied
on a temporary basis), Police Magistrate and Registrar-General. The writer points
out that the former school teacher “continued his work of mediation between
the western and Chinese communities” (p. 262) to the point of being described,
in an editorial in the China Mail, as “a friend of the Chinese”
(p. 229). He also continued to exert an influence over education, particularly
through his efforts in the field of girls’ education. Hennessy’s replacement
by Sir George Bowen in 1883 was marked by a return to the educational policy advocated
by Stewart. At the end of his life, Sewart also occupied the position of Dean
of the Faculty of Medecine, the first institution of higher learning in the colony,
which would later become the University of Hong Kong.

Gillian Bickley’s work is without question well researched
and the bibliography to be found at the end of the book will be a welcome addition
for all interested in the history of Hong Kong in general and the issue of education
in particular. However, it is to be regretted that the writer did not lay out
her principle sources in the body of the text. The division of the book into many
small chapters following both a thematic and chronological order makes the work
feel light and pleasant to read but gives rise to numerous repetitions and criss-crossings
in time which are sometimes confusing. Through the life of an exceptional man,
unfortunately not as well known as he should be, The Golden Needle paints
a portrait of Hong Kong society and colonial administration at the end of the
last century. Above all, it gives much food for thought about the problems besetting
the education system in Hong Kong today, still drawn between two worlds. But,
after all, isn’t this system one of the founding components of the “Hong
Kong identity”?

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