Hong Kong: Pearl of the Orient


Dark, ominous, forbidding; jutting out across the East like a huge firedragon: the land of China. It dominates the world around it, looming over the tiny lands that lie around it like pebbles sprinkled on an expansive beach. Some of these pebbles, tucked under the People’s Republic of China on the South China Sea, represent the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong. This colony, composed of Hong Kong Island, an area on the mainland, and over 230 surrounding islands, covers a total area of only 399 square miles.

Known by some as the “Pearl of the Orient,” Hong Kong has indeed been a pearl of great price for those who have borne the gospel to her. When missionaries arrived there for the third time in 1955, they found the field white, ready to harvest; all they had to do was thrust in their sickles and reap in great abundance.

Since that time, when Mission President H. Grant Heaton wrote, “the only limit placed on the number of converts we can bring into the church here is our ability to handle them properly,” the Church has experienced great growth and development in Hong Kong.

Since the first baptisms of that era, in 1956, the Church has increased to about 4,000 members located in 13 branches. (Statistics from the Statistical Department, Presiding Bishopric’s Office.) Members enjoy seven chapel buildings—two standard chapels, two remodeled buildings, and the top floors of three others. They have also purchased land to build a district center. The branches and district, formerly led by American missionaries, are now completely staffed by Chinese members. As Elder Ezra Taft Benson, now president of the Council of the Twelve, indicated, “In the timetable of the Lord, the door is now open, and this is apparently the time for the work in Asia.” (Improvement Era, March 1970, p. 14.)

Yet the Chinese people were not always so receptive to the restored gospel. In 1853, three missionaries were called to teach the gospel to the Chinese: Hosea Stout, James Lewis, Chapman Duncan. They went forth with great hopes, grateful to be able to share the gospel.

These hopes were destroyed some weeks later, however, when they finally arrived in Hong Kong. “We did not find a cordial welcome,” Lewis wrote, speaking in understatement. Instead, he explained, missionaries of other churches had aroused antagonism toward them, and, not speaking Chinese, the missionaries were almost helpless. (See “Life History of James Lewis,” p. 3.)

So, despairing of success, friendless, and lacking means of support, these three good brethren left the land of Hong Kong less than two months after they had arrived. They had performed no baptisms. They left no one interested in the gospel. James Lewis arrived home $400 in debt, no small sum for that time. Hosea Stout returned to find his wife dead, his new home occupied by strangers, his relatives gone from the area. The sacrifice these men offered to open the doors of Hong Kong for the Chinese people to receive the gospel was great. James Lewis called the mission “the great trial of my life.” (“Life History,” p. 2.)

It was almost a century before missionaries returned. Then, in 1949, when Elder Matthew Cowley stood atop Victoria Peak and dedicated the land to missionary work, the light of the gospel again began to shine in Hong Kong. A mission was established, under the presidency of Hilton A. Robertson, former mission president in Japan and Hawaii. At that time a few seeking souls were baptized before the missionaries were withdrawn in 1950 because of the Korean Conflict and the revolution in China. The seeds were planted; and when missionaries returned to Hong Kong in 1955 it was time for the harvest.

The Church was well received when the emissaries of Jesus Christ came in 1955, and the new members were enthusiastic missionaries. One brother, after baptism, was so excited about this newfound truth that he organized many of his friends and relatives into study groups, then invited the missionaries to come teach them. When the missionaries began, they were pleasantly surprised to find that these people were not attending to be convinced of the truth of the gospel; instead, they were there to learn the requirements for membership. The brother who had introduced them to the gospel had borne such a fervent testimony that they had already received the testimony of the Holy Ghost in their hearts. Six missionaries were assigned full time to teach these people.

Most of the people the missionaries contacted were refugees from China. President Heaton wrote:

“To the missionaries who labor among the refugee people of this area, the fulfillment of the promises which foretell the bringing together of the seed of Israel from the nethermost parts of the world has a real and actual fulfillment. Each day the missionaries may meet people from all parts of the Far East. … To those who have received the … gospel during their exile here, their condition here … has taken on the meaning of an actual gathering to a place where the gospel can be taught to them and where they can receive the blessings of the gospel of salvation. To them, their refuge is indeed a ‘Zion.’” (Mission History, December 31, 1957, p. 23.)

Many of these modern “children of Israel” flocked to the Church, for the gospel spoke to their spirits and they accepted it with grateful hearts. In fact, the number of Hong Kong converts was so great that the major problem of the Church was integrating them effectively. Each new convert needed much more teaching in gospel precepts; each needed to be appointed a duty, so he could be an active part of the Church, and so he could grow and develop through service. These challenges were almost overwhelming for the missionaries in Hong Kong, upon whom the stewardship of the branches was laid. Not only were they called to “missionary,” but they were also responsible for the spiritual growth of those who accepted the gospel.

The hunger for the gospel that brings these souls to the Church can be measured by the very real ostracism from family and friends that some suffer by joining the Church. This threat is very powerful and painful, for the Chinese people traditionally have strong family ties. Furthermore, those who are ancestor worshipers (which represents no small number among the older generation) interpret conversion as a break in the family chain; they, who worshipped their ancestors so faithfully, have lost the great honor of descendants who will worship them after they die. Many Buddhists see the acceptance of Christ as a great tragedy; it represents a denial of family tradition.

Some parents take a more liberal view, however. Andy Ning, one of the 13 branch presidents in Hong Kong, tells how his parents agreed to allow him to be baptized if he felt it would make him a better person. When he decided to go on a mission, however, their liberality ended. They asked, “How much will they pay you?” Brother Ning explained that he would have to pay his own way and that he would be gone for two years. Such a practice represented too great a break with their way of life and they responded, “Well, if you’re determined to go, then do so, but never come back.”

It is a hard thing to leave father and mother for the gospel’s sake, but those who truly love the Lord do not find the barrier insurmountable, for they know, as did Peter, that salvation is not found in ancestors, but only in Jesus Christ. (See John 6:67–68.) As in other countries, of course, the Church does all it can to keep families together, and encourages children to abide strictly with their parents’ wishes until they are of legal age.

The Church organization in Hong Kong faces an additional challenge: a severe absence of married men. While more men than women join the Church, most marry late for economic reasons. Furthermore, many strong members of the branches grow and progress through Church leadership positions, then leave the Hong Kong area. This forces the branches to continually train new priesthood leaders, without being able to enjoy the results of their efforts.

The practice of moving from Hong Kong is not unique to Church members. People in Hong Kong generally feel insecure because of the location of their colony. Standing on the border of China as they do, they feel the constant threat of Chinese occupation. The pressure created by this situation, coupled with the beckoning invitation of greener pastures, causes many Hong Kong citizens to emigrate elsewhere.

But perhaps the greatest reason for emigration is the standard of living prevalent in Hong Kong. Though that standard is not low when compared to most countries—television sets and refrigerators are becoming increasingly more common—Hong Kong is still the most densely populated area in the world and has all the problems attendant to such living conditions. Its four million people crammed into sixty-two usable square miles is comparable to the same number of people in only half of the metropolitan Salt Lake City area. (The Salt Lake City area has about 500,000 inhabitants.)

Crowding and uncertainty about the political future of the colony induce many to leave the area. Church statistics demonstrate the reality of this problem. Church membership in Hong Kong grew by over 3,000 people from 1960 to 1965, but in the next two years the membership dropped by over 1,000, despite the baptism of several hundred more people. (It should be noted that many of these “drop-out” members were not emigrants, but were people whom the branches could not locate.)

In 1970 and 1971 a few hundred more converts were baptized, but the total Church membership in Hong Kong dropped during that period, mostly due to emigration.

Even with Hong Kong’s unique problems, she still continues to witness an increasingly stronger Church. There is currently an elders quorum in every branch. Seventeen Chinese missionaries are serving in Hong Kong, sixteen of whom are natives of Hong Kong; all are making personal financial contributions toward their missions. Many members in the area are serving as district missionaries.

Perhaps the attitude toward leaving the Hong Kong area is also changing. Many members are beginning to feel as one brother expressed it: “I was born a Chinese and have a reason to be a Chinese. I can serve God best by staying here in Hong Kong and serving my local brethren.”

Thus does this Oriental colony, smaller in land area than most of the major cities of the world, contribute in its own way to the kingdom of God on earth—that the kingdom of heaven may come.

[photos] Top: Primary children cluster to have their picture taken. Center: Resettlement area for mainland refugees, Li Cheng Uk, in Kowloon. Bottom: Tower in the Tiger Balm Gardens, Hong Kong.

[photos] Top left: Serene interior of the Kam Tong chapel. Center left: Mother and child. Top center: The Tang family making efficient use of space in their one-room apartment. Top right: Elder Tommy Tam enjoys preaching the gospel in his own tongue. Bottom left: One of the many junks that ply the harbor water. Bottom right: View from the hill above Kowloon and its harbor.