The Irish Jesuit in Hong Kong

By Garreth Byrne

The first Opium War (1839-42) was fought between China and Britain, and the second Opium War (1856-60), also known as the Anglo-French War in China, was fought by Britain and France against China.

Hong Kong Island, with its fine natural harbour, was leased to Great Britain in the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, and became a Crown Colony in the British Empire. In 1898, the New Territories on the Kowloon peninsula were also leased to Britain until the handback in 1997.

A fenced border still separates Hong Kong from the mainland, and visas are needed by mainland business and tourist visitors who wish to travel to Hong Kong.

Until 2047, Hong Kong will be a Special Administrative Region (S.A.R.) with a local legislature and its own banking and currency system. 

There is continuing disputation between Hong Kong and the mainland government, as HK citizens feel that their business, education and civic culture has evolved differently from that of the communist-ruled mainland. Students and others demonstrate.

I have travelled by train from Guangzhou to Shenzhen, a city of eight million on the mainland side of the border. I have walked from the Shenzhen railway station to the customs and immigration buildings. 

With my Irish passport, I signed exit and entry forms and got through easily.

As you walk across that bridge, at a spot called Lo Wu, you can see steel fencing along the contours of the nearby hill and an occasional watchtower. You walk down to a station platform on the MTR metro to board a train that takes you past water buffalo on farmland and areas of sub-tropical vegetation, including banana trees and fish farm lakes. 

The train stops along the increasingly crowded outer suburbs of Kowloon, until reaching Homantin Station, a short taxi ride from cheap hotels and shops off downtown Nathan Road.

Cheap hotels in Hong Kong, one of the most expensive cities in the world, are found in cluttered high rise buildings, mostly in side streets. They are functional and ugly and cater to the needs of backpackers and others who travel on limited budgets. 

One I stayed in was round the corner from Jordan metro station. I went through a corridor past the desk of the security officer and took the lift up to the fourth floor, where I had to ring for a security door to open, then registered at the reception. My room cost the equivalent of €22 and consisted of a bed, chairs, desk, wardrobe and a shower.

All around me was a maze of main streets and side streets colourfully lit up at night. Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Thai, Mexican and Western eating places, with prices to suit all pockets, contended for customers. 

Shopping malls and department stores sell expensive branded goods, but the traditional indoor and outdoor baazars and markets in the Temple Street area sell food, clothing and tourist knickknacks at knockdown prices – you could even haggle sometimes. 

In good weather, it is pleasant to explore city parks of varied size. Bird parks are special tree-lined niches, where elderly Chinese men congregate at seated stone tables, hang up their pet caged birds on tree branches and play cards or mahjong and sip green tea from flasks.

Signs of Religion

In the clutter of banal high rise buildings around Hong Kong, you will pick out many old and modern religious buildings. The central mosque, with Kowloon Park behind it, is a prominent rectangular building. There are Buddhist temples with ornate gardens around them. Church buildings of many sizes, shapes and architectural styles are hemmed in by rows of commercial buildings and blocks of flats. 

The first Christian community started in Hong Kong in 1841, as foreign missionaries from Britain and elsewhere arrived in the territory along with colonial administrators, traders and professionals. Irish missionaries were found among the influx – Jesuits, Lassale Brothers, congregations of nuns and later the Columbans. The Irish influx also included Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians.

A survey done in 2014 calculated that Hong Kong numbered 870,000 Christians of various denominations, i.e. 11.8% of the total population of more than 7 million.

The Protestant churches run 144 secondary schools, 192 primary schools, many kindergartens and nurseries. Included in the secondary sector are 33 secondary schools, sponsored by Hong Kong Shen Kung Hui, a church body of the Anglican communion.

In August 2015, there were about 384,000 local Catholics, and 160,000 Filipino Catholics in Hong Kong. In education, there are 320 Catholic schools and kindergartens, which have about 286,000 pupils. Smaller numbers of schools and kindergartens are under the auspices of Buddhist, Taoist and Muslim charity organisations.

The Christian contribution to teacher training and other forms of higher education in Hong Kong has been enormous. In the school year 2011-2012, about one quarter (24.6%) of university students were Christian.

Christian hospitals, schools, welfare services and charities impartially serve a society of many faiths and none. Hong Kong society would be much depleted without them.

Meeting an Irish Jesuit Missionary

In February 2011, I spent several weeks in Hong Kong, awaiting documentation for a new work visa that would take me to an English teaching job in North East China. I was advised to pay a social call on Fr. James Hurley S.J., an Irishman living in retirement at a Jesuit secondary school for boys, called Wah Yan College, off Waterloo Road in Kowloon. 

A huge mural map of mainland China adorned one wall, showing the routes taken by the eminent Italian Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci (d. 1610), who evangelized among the Chinese in the final decades of the 16th  century.

I was ushered upstairs to a third floor residential area, where Fr. James Hurley, in his 90s and still sprightly, greeted me warmly. He showed me a private oratory before leading me to his small sitting room. 

On the mantelpiece were several framed photographs. I noted one taken with IRA prisoners at Long Kesh (The Maze) south of Belfast. He told me that he had visited the prison and celebrated Mass there during one of his visits home in the 1980s.

After studies in Dublin, including Milltown, Fr. James first set sail for Hong Kong in 1952. After ten years’ pastoral work, he was appointed acting Head of Foreign Languages Department at a third level institution, and served also as Catholic chaplain to the HK Federation of third level students.

Students at that time were against colonialism and many forms of injustice and were concerned with the colonial status of Hong Kong and the failure to recognise Chinese as an official language. Dissident students were expelled. There were years of demonstrations. Fr. James defended the students, while quietly encouraging non-violent activity.

During his years of public and private life in the territory, he published reports and books on education and other topics, and gained wide respect among the Chinese Christians of Hong Kong. Many other Irish Jesuits have worked in Hong Kong.

Before leaving, I asked Fr. James Hurley S.J. how, as a foreign missionary, he felt about the sharp decline in religious belief and practice in contemporary Ireland, especially in parts of Dublin. He grinned and said: “I think it presents an opportunity.”

The Holy Rosary Church in Chatham Road is a very busy place on Sunday mornings, with Masses in Cantonese and English. At English Mass, there are more Filipino and Chinese in the congregation than people from America or Europe. 

One morning outside the entrance, I heard an Irish accent and introduced myself to Fr. Richard Sheridan, a member of the Columbans who was helping out at the Rosary parish on a temporary basis. He kept in touch with a small community of Columbans in the city, many with experience of the Philippines and South Korea, and also knew some older Columbans who have taught English in Chinese universities, having been sent to the mainland through an educational charity called Aitece. In the city of Guangzhou several years ago, I met an Irish Columban sister teaching English at a university. 

She told me she had retired as Principal at a girls’ secondary school in Hong Kong and was enjoying her third level job on the mainland.

My most unusual encounter with the Christian presence in Hong Kong was a chance conversation with a 15-year-old schoolgirl at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Kowloon. I went to the reception area one afternoon. In a corner, I caught sight of a school exhibition. Photographs of watercolour paintings by students of CCC Secondary School were on view. 

I asked a Chinese girl in a school uniform to guide me through the watercolour display. There were a dozen depictions of scenes from the Bible. I identified maybe seven – Moses on Mount Sinai, the Burning Bush, the Parting of the Red Sea, the Last Supper, the Journey to Emmaus. The rest was a mystery to me, so the girl politely told me. Her English was accented but fluent, as she enjoyed this rare opportunity to practise conversation with a native speaker from Europe. 

I finally asked her what CCC stood for, and she said it was the Christian Church of China.

I thanked the girl and went away impressed. Some months later, I looked up the Christian Church of China on the internet. I learned that The Church of Christ in China was founded in 1918, when discussions on unity by 17 Protestant missionary societies formally started. Founding members included many denominational churches, mainly Presbyterian, Congregational and evangelical traditions. Apparently some Irish Presbyterians were also involved.

The communists came to power in 1949 and the CCC only operates in Hong Kong. Today this minority religious organisation has 30 secondary schools, 26 primary schools, 6 kindergartens and 1 special child care entre. The number of baptised members is around 30,000 (figure of 2006). Through the educational and social service organisations, the Council serves more than 75,000 children and teenagers.

Hong Kong is world famous for its magnificent skyscrapers, its stock exchange, its banks and insurance companies, its gigantic import-export trade. Most Hong Kongers are hardworking citizens earning modest incomes in jobs and professions unrelated to high finance. The majority of its 7 million or more inhabitants have philosophies of life inspired by Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism and other traditions. The Christian minority of less than 12% is a vibrant minority, and its institutions make an enormous contribution to the cultural and social life of the society.