Epidemics in Hong Kong: Story of the Tung Wah Smallpox Hospital Memorial Arch

Hong Kongers, the Coronavirus is not our first rodeo!! Various kinds of much more dangerous and deadly plagues and diseases have been invading Hong Kong over centuries. It is a history of humanity, living on this planet simply involves it and it is an intangible part of it.

Hong Kong has shown it is resilient and can withstand many different kinds of disasters be it typhoons, floods, droughts, economic crises, even wars but epidemics due to the density in HK have been sometimes tough to manage. During this tricky period for HK and now the world, i thought it might be interesting to share the story of the Tung Wah Smallpox Hospital, in Kennedy Town as reminder of the city's courage to counter a much more fiercer epidemic that Hong Kong has ever seen: the smallpox epidemic of the 1930's.

Now, the outbreak of bubonic plague happened in 1894. The first case occurred in May that year in Tai Ping Shan and quickly spread into entire city. There was an immediate need for a hospital. The first two established hospitals were run by European staff while the third one was staffed by Chinese personnel of the Tung Wah hospital. But even with the best treatment by the end of 1894 the plague had claimed over 2,500 victims (mortality rate of 70-90 percent)!! One-third of the population fled Hong Kong.

The Tung Wah Smallpox Hospital was originally erected in 1894 in Kennedy Town as a government-managed epidemic prevention clinic. The foundation stone of the new hospital was laid on 18th November 1901 by Sir Henry Blake, Governor of Hong Kong at that time.

Source: Gwulo: Old Hong Kong, www.gwulo.com

However, since the bubonic plague was disappearing and there was an increase in small-pox cases, in 1907, the government handed it over to Donghua Hospital as a smallpox prevention and control bureau. The Donghua Pox Bureau was officially opened in 1910, and an arch was established at the junction of Belcher's Street and Victoria Road . At that time it was mainly using Chinese medicine to treat smallpox patients and vaccination.

By 1936, the number of smallpox incidents was decreasing so that the hospital was used only during seasonal epidemics. Not until the year 1938, Hong Kong’s worst smallpox epidemic. The Tung Wah Pox Bureau was then returned to the government for use as an infectious disease hospital.

It has reached its peak in mid-March 1938 where an average of 40 cases were recorded daily, nearly all of which fatal. Thousands of people were vaccinated and all unvaccinated residents were cause for concern. Also, mainland refugees fleeing the Sino-Japanese War only deepened the problem.

Source: A report in the Post dated April 30, 1938, South China Morning Post.

Tung Wah Smallpox Hospital was no longer able to accommodate the surging numbers of smallpox victims. The shutdown of connections between Hong Kong and the important surrounding ports became one of the inevitable measures for preventing a foreseeable pandemic. Smallpox outbreak in Hong Kong eventually has claimed 1,920 lives and was the biggest smallpox epidemics the city has ever seen.

The hospital building was eventually demolished after the Second World War. Only the Memorial Arch as a visible remain reminds us about the history of different epidemics in Hong Kong. About the times so distant and yet so similar to our current reality. The Arch stands in a little garden next to the bus terminus in Kennedy Town.

Address: 18 Sai Ning St, Kennedy Town

To end this article we would like to say that the Covid-19 or the corona virus is not the same epidemic that we've seen in the past. Experts say that the fatality rate of COVID-19 is very low and is a lot less lethal even than SARS! It is however harder to control because it spreads more easily. Thus, taking precaution and hygiene is key!! -

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