Scottish Hong Kong: A Legacy Hidden in Plain Sight

Snatches of The Proclaimers echo down a back entrance to the Hong Kong Football Club’s Sports Hall. 

“When I wake up, well I know I’m gonna be… I’m gonna be… Can you bring that volume up, please? Thanks.” 

A soundcheck is underway for the St. Andrew’s Ball, the elaborate celebration organised by the St. Andrew’s Society to mark the day of Scotland’s patron saint, an event which has been hosted in Hong Kong since the 1870s. Pennants bearing crests and names decorate the hall: MacGregor, Dalgleish, Brechin, Donnelly. The society’s bold blue and red tartan is projected above the stage where the band is warming up, shielded with perspex as a precaution against Covid-19. 

Jenna Fitzgerald, the society’s Chieftain, dashes amongst the tables directing catering staff, running through speeches, all the while holding back guests clamouring to get inside the hall ahead of a strict schedule. Many amongst the eager crowd, in their doublets and Prince Charlie waistcoats from Yuen’s Tailor, are Hong Kong Chinese mirroring the long relationship this place has had with Scotland, even resulting in instances where Hongkongers have adopted aspects of Scots culture as a way of life. 

The Chieftain finally relents. As a sea of tartan trickles in, a tall moustachioed man in a red kilt strides out from the crowd and raises his hand in a fist bump. This is Drew Cameron of the Hong Kong Pipe Band. “Some of the first British people to land in Hong Kong would certainly have been Scots, or there would have been Scots among them,” he explains moments later, perched incongruously by a ball pit with a beer in hand. The Hong Kong Pipe Band tunes up inside this children’s play area. 

“They’re explorers because Scotland is a small country,” he continues. “Apart from in modern times where we’ve had income from oil, most Scots were working class. The gentry tended to be people with an English connection, but your average Scot was just hard-nosed working class and had to get on with life. The weather isn’t particularly favourable. It’s bloody cold. That carries a kind of person and a society. They’re grafters, they work hard. They want to better themselves, exploring, creating, inventing – a bit like Hongkongers.” 

Clearly, something of Scots culture agrees with the local populace. Cameron gestures to the band. “The Hong Kong Pipe Band started out around 80 to 85 percent Westerners. It very quickly caught the interest of locals and it now probably comprises 80 percent Hong Kong Chinese.” 

In a postgraduate thesis titled The Highland Bagpipe in Hong Kong: a study of its role, function and development, piper Anthony Ho Wai-chung records how Scottish culture captured the admiration of regular Hongkongers like Liu Kwok-fai, who would go on to join the Scout Pipe Band after seeing the Black Watch and the Queen’s Own Highlanders performing at the Queen’s birthday ceremony. “It was the bagpipe music that Liu loved most, not only the unique sound quality of the swirling chanters and suspension of the drones, but also the appearance of the instruments and the tartan dress. ‘The whole physical appearance was smart, brave and proud,’ said Liu. He dreamed of squeezing a bag tied to a number of sound pipes and dressing-up in a handsome uniform.” 

Stories like this are common among Hong Kong pipers. Chris Lee has played the bagpipes since he was 12. “I first heard the pipes when I was in the Boys’ Brigade when I was seven years old. I heard them but I could not see them. I was very curious. The sound – very powerful and loud.” Kelvin Ho has been a piper for 30 years. “I saw a performance of the Police Pipe Band when I was 17 and immediately sought it out, learning how to play in the Civil Aid Society. Hong Kong is a very international place and that’s why we get to experience this culture.”

Manifesting in both obvious and subtly unexpected ways, Scots-Hong Kong Culture continues to evolve in its many expressions through ritual, music, dance and dress but also attitudes. Ho makes reference to Red Tartan, another of Hong Kong’s 40 odd pipe and drum bands. “They march and play with the Fire Dragon in Tai Hang every year – that is every year until the pandemic. They’re just as loud as the festivities!” Unique blends of Hong Kong and Scots culture like this one, are a hallmark of a territory where it isn’t uncommon to hear the strains of pipes whether marking the sacrifice of the Free French with a rendition of “The Marseillaise” or closing out the Rugby Sevens with the perennial favourite, “Scotland the Brave.”

Tartan, the distinct check pattern which is often mistakenly referred to as plaid, has also been enthusiastically taken up by people in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Police Band’s bright trews always lend a striking flash of colour to an average of 500 engagements each year including Force parades, Remembrance Day ceremonies and concerts. Though the police may soon bid farewell to their MacIntosh tartan in favour of more China-centric uniforms, other institutions and businesses, such as the Scout Association of Hong Kong and the University of Hong Kong maintain theirs.  “It’s very welcome. We encourage it,” says Cameron of Hongkongers who make Scots traditions their own. “There’s this myth that tartan, bagpipes and kilts are pure Scottish culture that date back centuries and centuries which is a load of old tosh.” As a culture that has survived through sharing itself with others, it is perhaps the welcoming and affable nature of the Scots, rather than their trappings, which has attracted internationally minded Hongkongers seeking to adopt a medium to express their own identity and to signal a sense of belonging.

In part it is a quirk of Scotland’s history, its own union with England and absorption into Great Britain, that has led to a subsequent desire to assert a distinct identity and resulted in the export of Scottish culture that would otherwise have remained obscure and parochial. For 35 years, the Dress Act of 1746 outlawed the wearing of Highland dress, including kilts and the use of tartan patterns, which only served to guarantee their enduring worldwide influence rather than the intended goal of suppressing rebellious Scottish elements. A loophole provided that Scotsmen serving in the British army could wear their native garb thus creating the conditions which brought Scottish traditions to the far flung corners of the world, including Hong Kong. 

Members of the Hong Kong Police Pipe Band perform at a Remembrance Day ceremony. Photo by Billy Potts

Often perceived as the hand of British colonial expansion, it is unsurprising that Scotland’s culture has left a lasting impression on Hong Kong. Yet so much of this influence, spanning politics, culture, commerce and literature, goes unnoticed for its ubiquity. One might hike the Maclehose Trail without a thought for the Glaswegian governor who made Chinese an official language of Hong Kong, who created the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) and who oversaw the construction of the MTR. One might just as easily gaze on the Central skyline without a second thought for the HSBC logo, designed by Henry Steiner as a modified St. Andrew’s Cross – the emblem featured on the Scottish flag. The Saltire motif continues within the bank’s criss-crossing inner structure, an enormous nod to the bank’s Scottish roots and its Aberdonian founder, Sir Thomas Sutherland. Carousing in the bars on Lockhart road, few would spare a thought for James Stewart-Lockhart, the former Registrar General and Colonial Secretary who was instrumental in the acquisition of the New Territories in 1898. 

As January closes out, Hong Kong looks to the Chinese New Year but a few may also mark Burns Night with a supper of haggis, neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes), accompanied with songs by the Scots national poet, Robert Burns, on or around his birthday, January 25. The signs of a longstanding and constantly evolving cultural partnership are all there, hidden in plain sight.

This is the first in a new series of articles on Scottish influence in Hong Kong.

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