How Did Christianity Become So Influential in Hong Kong?

On 16 June, an estimated two million people marched against a proposed bill that would allow for criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. And as the thick night air descended on the crowd, a hymn began to echo through some corners of it: “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.” 

The hymn eventually became a kind of protest anthem, especially for the many devout Christians who took part in the marches. “I am very certain that Jesus would not have stayed home enjoying the air-conditioning,” a young protester told the New York Times, one of many international media outlets that noted—with some surprise—the “striking influence” of Christianity in the protest movement. 

Perhaps the hymn even reached the ears of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who is herself a devout Catholic. That is not unusual in the upper echelons of Hong Kong society, where political and professional leaders often ascribe to some form of Christian faith. Research by the government’s University Grants Committee has found that nearly 25 percent of Hong Kong’s university students are Christian—mostly Protestant—which is remarkable considering that Christians account for just under 12 percent of the city’s population. 

In protest and in power alike, Christians have far more influence than their overall numbers in society would suggest. The story of how that came to be is a story of colonialism, regional politics and the inadvertent consequences of government policy. And it all starts in a bucolic corner of an otherwise hectic city. 

When Britain first assumed control over Hong Kong Island in 1841, one of the first orders of business was to make room for an Anglican cathedral. England was once a Catholic country, but when King Henry VIII was refused permission to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he set the country on the course of establishing its own official church – one that is similar to the Catholic Church in many respects, but with a few important exceptions, most notably the fact that it is the king or queen of England, and not the Vatican pope, who sits at the head of the institution.

 

Political and religious power were separate yet intertwined, and this explains why St. John’s Cathedral was one of the first permanent structures in Hong Kong when it was built on a hill overlooking Victoria Harbour in 1849. It was—and still is—the only building in the territory with freehold ownership of its land; all other land is owned by the government and leased out for varying amounts of time. Built in a simple Gothic style, with a single belltower, the cathedral wouldn’t be out of place in a country village. It looks out over Hong Kong’s original nexus of power: Government House to the south, the Court of Final Appeal to the north, the former military headquarters to the east and the corporate headquarters of Central to the west.

Hong Kong was a useful base for missionaries looking to spread their word in China. Before the arrival of the British, missionary activity in southern China was limited to Canton, and only for parts of the year. The rest of the time, missionaries retreated to Portuguese-controlled Macau, which was a Catholic stronghold that was not especially amenable to Protestant proselytising. Although Hong Kong’s British rulers may have been Anglican, they took a liberal attitude towards faith, and there were no restrictions on what kinds of Christians could operate in the newly established colony.

That attracted characters like Karl Gützlaff, a German Lutheran who had previously worked in Thailand and Korea. Gützlaff was a polyglot who had already translated the Bible into Thai. After moving to Macau in the 1830s, he quickly learned to read and write Chinese, and he also spoke Cantonese, which made him useful to British businesses looking to smuggle opium into China. He worked with them in the hope of winning more converts, but China’s restrictions on foreign missionary activities led him to start a school in Hong Kong that would train Chinese missionaries who could operate unimpeded on the mainland. 

Gützlaff was also instrumental in producing a Chinese translation of the Bible that inadvertently changed the course of Chinese history. When the translation found its way to a Hakka peasant named Hong Xiuquan, Hong convinced himself that he was the brother of Jesus Christ, and he started his own version of Christianity that drew millions of followers. They started their own pseudo-Christian state, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, and occupied much of the lower Yangtze Valley, around 1,200 kilometres north of Hong Kong. The rebel state existed for 14 years before the Qing Dynasty wiped it out in one of the most lethal wars in human history, killing up to 100 million people in the 1850s and 60s.

Gützlaff never lived to see that period of destruction; he died in 1851 after serving as Chinese Secretary to the Hong Kong government, a role he gained not only because of his Cantonese skills, but because he had previously won British trust by serving as a spy for them in mainland China. He was both an evangelist and imperialist, a role that came to haunt him when it turned out that many of the Chinese men he had baptised and trained as missionaries were not Christian at all – they were simply stringing Gützlaff along so he would give them the money they needed to feed their opium addictions. 

Not every Christian mission was as ill-fated. The Catholic Church established a foothold in Hong Kong when Swiss priest Theodore Joset established a parish in 1842. The following year, he built a church at the corner of Pottinger Street and Wellington Street, which drew a number of Catholics from Macau, whose economy had been in decline for years. Eventually, the elegant Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was built further up the hill in 1888; it still stands today, in all of its French Gothic glory, but it is hidden from view by the large Caritas charity headquarters on Caine Road. 

For most of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Hong Kong’s British rulers had little interest in setting up the framework of a fully-functioning society; their goal for Hong Kong was to extract as much wealth as possible. In response, many Christian organisations filled the void. In 1842, American-born Baptist missionary Henrietta Hall Shuck helped set up Hong Kong’s first school for Chinese girls; the same year, British missionary William Lockhart established a hospital on Morrison Hill that was open to both Europeans and Chinese.

Christianity may have been a foreign religion, but many missionaries came to Hong Kong with the specific goal of making it indigenous. Their insistence on translating the Bible and promoting local clergy helped convince many converts that being Christian was not incompatible with being Chinese. “Perhaps it is because the unique political, economic and cultural circumstances of Hong Kong blurred the boundaries of certain elements in the identity formulation,” writes religious scholar Wong Man-kong. “Some Chinese Christians developed deep attachments with China and dedicated their lives for the national cause.”

One of those Christians was Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary leader who overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Born in Guangdong and raised in Hawaii, he was educated at a Christian school before moving to Hong Kong, where he was baptised in 1884 by an American missionary from the Congregational Church of the United States. Sun attended services at To Tsai Church, Hong Kong’s first independent Chinese church. 

To Tsai Church grew out of the work of Protestant missionaries who preached in Hong Kong’s Chinese neighbourhoods. Chinese converts took up their work, eventually branching out to operate without any foreign involvement. In the early 20th century, it merged with Hop Yat Church, whose striped neo-Gothic structure opened in 1926 where Caine Road turns into Bonham Road. It still stands there today, surrounded by the luxury apartment towers of the Mid-Levels.

Although Christianity had made inroads into Hong Kong’s Chinese population by the early 20th century, its influence was generally limited to a few small communities here and there, including far-flung villages like Yim Tin Tsai, a Hakka settlement that converted to Catholicism in the 19th century. That began to change after World War II, when the influx of refugees fleeing instability, poverty and political persecution in mainland China presented the Hong Kong government with a challenge. The Star Ferry riots in 1966 and the especially harrowing 1967 riots made it clear that the government’s laissez-faire approach was no longer working.

One response was compulsory education, which activists had long been pushing for. Ever keen to minimise the financial burden of its responsibilities, however, the Hong Kong government established only a limited system of government-run schools, instead offering subsidies to third-party organisations to run their own schools. Many of those organisations were churches. 

“Starting in the 1960s, there was a boom in church-run education,” says Chan Shun-hing, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University’s Department of Religion and Philosophy. He notes that roughly 50 percent of the city’s primary and secondary schools are run by churches. “Many of these are elite schools that attracted young people with a lot of potential,” he says. “They know very clearly about the formula of success, of the way to achieve upward mobility. They encourage their family to work hard, study hard – and choose an elite school.” 

Many of the students at these schools are not Christian in a formal sense, but they do instil a sort of passive Christianity. Janice Yeung graduated from Sacred Heart Canossian College, a Catholic secondary school, in 2012. “My family is not Christian,” she says. “They sent me to a Christian school as they thought that [it was a] famous school with a high chance of entering university.” She and her classmates prayed before school, before lunch and at the end of the school day. “After studying in a Christian school, I understand more about God and the strength [He] can give to me when I am lost,” she says. 

A disproportionate number of Hong Kong’s elite were products of those church-run schools. Former Chief Executive Donald Tsang grew up as the son of a police officer and studied at Wah Yan College, another Catholic school. Carrie Lam was born into a working-class family in Wan Chai, but she was educated at St. Francis’ Canossian College, a well-respected Catholic girls’ school. When she became Chief Executive in 2017, she attributed it to divine intervention: “God called upon me,” she told reporters.

And it isn’t just government where Christians are well represented. “Medical doctors, lawyers, architects – it’s not only officials,” says Chan. Christians have also found themselves on both sides of the political divide. Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, grew up in a Christian family and has described his faith as one of his motivations for campaigning for democracy. His father, Roger Wong, is better known for a more conservative brand of activism: he is a leader in a number of Christian groups that have taken a strong stance against gay rights. 

Although Christian groups played a prominent role in the Umbrella Movement, holding regular prayer sessions and building makeshift shrines in Admiralty and Mongkok, many Christians were opposed to the protests. Chan says this was particularly true for evangelical Protestants who were concerned that taking a position critical of the central government in Beijing might harm their chances at gaining new followers on the mainland. 

“Their main concern is to save the soul and to help people enter into the kingdom of heaven – and to help the church to grow. If you take part in a social movement you challenge the government – the Chinese government. And these organisations are concerned they will be blacklisted by the government which could affect their work in mainland China, which has always been the harvest field for evangelicals.”

That changed in 2015, when the Chinese government began demolishing churches in an attempt to staunch the growth of Christianity on the mainland. Chan says that religious leaders previously known for their conservative politics, such as pastor Lo Hing-choi, have been vocal supporters of the anti-extradition protests. 

And so the strains of “Hallelujah” waft through Hong Kong’s streets – an unlikely song in an unlikely place, but a reminder of the influence Christianity has had over the past 178 years.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of a conservative pastor who now supports the anti-extradition protests. His name is Lo Hing-choi, not Wu Chi-wai. The article also stated that Sun Yat-sen was born in Hawaii, but most accounts point to his birthplace as being in Guangdong. We apologise for the error.

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