Hong Kong’s Industrial History, Part VIII: The Ill Fate of Rennie’s Mill, AKA Little Taiwan

Tiu Keng Leng feels like a place without history. When it rose from the shores of Junk Bay in the late 1990s, it consisted of self-contained housing estates, most of them built atop a shopping mall, an entire suburb of identikit towers that are neither here nor there. 

Not much has changed since then. Two decades after most of the area was completed, the streets remain canyons of soaring blank walls. A waterfront promenade has taken shape, along with ribbons of greenery that thread through the towers, but most public life in the area takes place indoors, amidst the chain stores of the many different shopping centres.

Rennie’s Mill in 1907. Photo courtesy HKU Libraries

What isn’t obvious is the hidden history that exists beneath this place. Less than 30 years ago, Tiu Keng Leng was a thriving town known by many as Little Taiwan because of its high concentration of residents loyal to the Republic of China, whose red-and-blue flag flew proudly over the area’s piers and pitched-roof houses. At the time, the area was known as Rennie’s Mill, because of an even earlier chapter in its history. In 1890, a wayward Canadian named Alfred Herbert Rennie arrived in Hong Kong to work as a sales representative for the Oregon-based Portland Flouring Mills. When Britain leased the New Territories from China in 1898, Rennie sensed an opportunity to launch his own business. With the support of two of Hong Kong’s most prominent businessmen, Catchick Paul Chater and Hormusjee Naorojee Mody—the respective founders of Hongkong Land and the Star Ferry, among other enterprises—Rennie opened the Hongkong Milling Company in January 1907.

He built the mill on the shores of Junk Bay, just below Devil’s Peak, in an area the Tanka boat people knew as Ziu3 Geng3 Leng5 (照鏡嶺, “Mirror Ridge”), a reference to the shimmering reflection of the mountains in the sea. It was a huge, state-of-the-art facility, but Rennie was not cut out for such responsibility. Before coming to Hong Kong, he had spent his life drifting from job to job. He began his career as a clerk at a dry goods firm in Hamilton, then moved to Texas to run a cattle ranch with his brother. When that didn’t work out, he moved to Winnipeg to work as a grocery store clerk, then as a manager for a railroad company, before serving as a secretary to the premier of Manitoba, John Norquay. 

The Rennie’s Mill refugee camp in 1957. Photo courtesy Cornell University Press

In contrast to his previous positions, the time Rennie spent representing the Portland Flouring Mills was his most successful. Under his watch, the company became one of the biggest importers of American flour to China, whose lack of industrial infrastructure made it dependent on foreign imports. But that success turned out to be a curse, because with so many loyal Portland customers, Rennie struggled to find clients when he started his own mill; he was now competing with his old employer. 

It also turned out that milling flour in Hong Kong was not necessarily cheaper than importing it from abroad. American and Canadian mills made much of their profit by selling nearby farmers a wheat byproduct, millfeed—a protein-rich substance left over after flour is milled—but there was no market for this in Hong Kong or China because farmers were in the habit of using soymeal and other feed for their animals. Rennie bought several hundred pigs so he could raise them on his millfeed, but most of them died. The reasons why aren’t exactly clear, but it was another stroke of bad luck.

To make matters worse, Rennie imported a load of Indian wheat that was infested with weevils, which invaded the mill and proved hard to exterminate. At the same time, Rennie had bought large quantities of wheat in advance, hoping to profit from a rising market. But when global wheat prices unexpectedly collapsed , he was stuck with a load of overpriced grain; it was cheaper for customers to simply import flour from abroad. Desperate, Rennie falsified his financial documents, reporting huge profits when there were none. Hong Kong’s business community saw through the ruse and Rennie’s reputation was ruined.

Just one year into operations, Rennie’s mill was a disaster. On 14 April 1908, he was sailing to the mill when he tied a heavy despatch box around his neck and jumped overboard near Lei Yue Mun. Apparently, the box floated, along with Rennie, and a crew member on his boat jumped into the water with a life buoy in order to save him. Rennie kicked him away and floated off to drown.

Rennie was unsuccessful even in death. As news of his suicide travelled through Hong Kong, rumours spread that he had hanged himself from a rafter inside the mill, and soon people began referring to the area around his ill-fated enterprise as Diu3 Geng2 Leng5 (吊頸嶺, “Hangman’s Ridge”), a subtle but pointed twist on its original name. It stuck, despite the true circumstances of Rennie’s death.

Rennie’s Mill Middle School in 1995. Photo by Dezza Wong at gakei.com

It was in this very inauspiciously named place that the British colonial government established a refugee camp for former Nationalist soldiers in 1950. The Nationalists had just lost a civil war against the Communists and those loyal to the regime led by Chiang Kai-shek were fleeing the mainland – along with millions of other refugees caught up in the poverty and political turmoil unleashed by the war. 

Between 1945 and 1950, more than 2.4 million people flooded into Hong Kong, crowding into tenements, building shacks on rooftops and erecting wooden shanties on precarious hillsides. Of all these newcomers, the Nationalist soldiers were the most politically contentious for Hong Kong. Eager not to displease its imposing new Communist neighbour, the government decided to resettle the soldiers and other Nationalists in the most discreet place it could imagine: Rennie’s Mill.

It wasn’t simply a question of appeasing Beijing. In the 1950s, the embers of the civil war continued to burn in Hong Kong, with many refugees divided between Communist and Nationalist camps. Occasionally the smouldering ashes erupted into flames, as was the case in the 1956 riots, when clashes between the two sides killed 59 people. In his doctoral thesis on Rennie’s Mill, historian Kenneth Lan On-wai notes that the Nationalist refugees in Hong Kong consisted not only of soldiers, but of anyone fleeing the civil war who had an association with the Nationalists: “Politicians, landlords, academics, teachers and many other people who had become cynical of the new regime.” 

Many were forced to beg on the streets, with some even sitting on top of cars until their drivers paid them to leave. Since many of the Nationalists were northerners who did not speak Cantonese, local Hongkongers viewed them with suspicion, and the government worried they would cause political conflict – and so came the decision to provide them with their own settlement. The move “illustrates the policy of the Hong Kong Government toward the postwar refugee crisis,” writes Lan. “To maintain social harmony while trying to avoid confrontations between Nationalist and Communist elements in Hong Kong.”

Rennie’s Mill in 1963. Photo courtesy Ko Tim-keung

For three years, the government provided food rations to the settlers in Rennie’s Mill. They were cut off in 1953, leaving the community to fend for itself. Residents scavenged wood and stones from the nearby hills and built themselves houses, and various charities provided them with support, some of them Christian missionaries that had been expelled from the mainland, others funded by the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government in Taiwan. As the settlement grew, residents festooned it with Republic of China flags and installed five giant Chinese characters on the hill above town: zoeng2 zung2 tung2 maan6 seoi3 (蔣總統萬歲): “Long Live President Chiang.”

It might be tempting to imagine Rennie’s Mill as a remote village, and while it was indeed isolated, it quickly swelled to 30,000 residents, the size of a small city. It had its own clinics, schools, shops and industries. The Kuomintang eagerly promoted the settlement in its propaganda, describing it as a “Spiritual Fortress Against Communism” and a “Lighthouse of Freedom.” When a road was built to the town in the early 1960s, along with regular KMB bus service, the Hong Kong government worried that its influence could spread throughout the colony, upsetting the delicate political peace that had been achieved in the late 1950s.

That led the government to gradually offer more and more support to the town. In 1961, its official designation was changed from refugee camp to “resettlement area.” That opened the door to government regulation of the built environment—residents would no longer be able to build their own houses as they saw fit—but it also paved the way for electricity, clean running water and sewerage services. Most significantly, it gave the inhabitants of Rennie’s Mill the benefit of being considered official Hong Kong residents rather than refugees. 

Rennie’s Mill in 1983. Photo courtesy HKU LIbraries

Ironically, instead of giving Rennie’s Mill residents a permanent stake in the future of their town, the policy change laid the groundwork for its eventual clearance. As Hong Kong prepared for the transfer of sovereignty from Britain to China in 1997, it became clear that Beijing would not tolerate the presence of a Nationalist enclave on its territory. Rumours that Rennie’s Mill would be demolished began swirling in 1985, and in 1989, an official announcement was made: the community would be cleared and its residents rehoused. 

By then, the town’s Nationalist character was on the wane. The Republic of China no longer offered financial support and the younger generation of residents were becoming integrated into mainstream Hong Kong society, with many moving into the urban areas to escape the isolation of Rennie’s Mill. There was little resistance to the clearance, except to the compensation being offered by the government, which at first was a paltry HK$4,000 per household. Residents protested until a final deal was reached, offering them HK$7,000 for each square yard of space in their houses. 

Today, very few traces of Rennie’s Mill remain, including a two-storey dormitory inscribed with the date of its construction: “The 51st Year of the Republic of China,” or 1962. The rest of the politically inconvenient settlement has been erased from the map. Even the area’s name was changed. Hangman’s Ridge was considered too morbid to be the name of a bedroom community, so Diu3 Geng2 Leng5 (吊頸嶺) was officially changed to Tiu4 Ging2 Leng5 (調景嶺), which sounds similar but means “Ridge of Adjusting Situation.” 

So it turns out Tiu Keng Leng does have a history after all: a surprisingly colourful history of ill-fated colonial enterprise and Chinese political drama. But like so much of Hong Kong’s past, it lies just below the surface, obscured from view – not entirely by accident.

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