How Colonial Hong Kong Banned the Eating of Dogs
Here, we go briefly into the history of how Hong Kong managed to stamp out the Chinese tradition of eating dogs - despite a long standing policy of non-interference in native cultural practices.
(No dogs were harmed in the making of this article.)
Today, the farming, slaughter and consumption of dogs in Hong Kong and the rest of Greater China is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. There remain a few holdouts in certain areas, but for the most part Chinese will react in much the same as Westerners when shown and offered dog meat.
But it had not always been this way. During colonial rule over Hong Kong, the British elite sought to stay out of interfering with the traditions and ways of the Hong Kong Chinese natives. So long as such ways did not challenge British rule, the colonial government stayed out of its way. In January 1841, Captain Charles Elliot, Britain's chief superintendent of trade, remarked that the Chinese population on the island "shall be governed according to the laws and customs of China, every description of torture excepted".
To the British there would be good reasons for this policy. British policymakers' analysis of the single biggest British colonial conflict of the era - the Indian Rebellion of 1857 - would conclude that British social reformers had pushed the natives too far with top-down social interventions. Not saying that that was actually happened, but that was the conclusion at the time. The result was a commitment to abstaining from broad social intervention in the practices of native cultures.
This would apply to a broad swath of policies, including even ones that the British would feel very strongly about. And by the time the British came to Hong Kong, they had a taboo against eating dogs, while the Chinese did not.
The Dog-Eating Taboo
The British dog-eating taboo had begun to develop with the Metropolitan Police Act in 1839, which banned dogs from pulling carts (this ironically led to the death of thousands of dogs as they were no longer useful to their owners as beasts of burden), and continued into the late Victorian period as dogs became more companions than tools.
The Chinese also kept some dogs as pets, but they ate others too. The culture seemed to have been able to compartmentalize one against other. Some breeds were raised for companionship - the Pekingese - while others specifically for food - the now somewhat unfortunately named Chow Chow.
The consumption of dog meat especially in southern China, and namely the Guangzhou province which borders Hong Kong, was widespread. It would be a mistake to assume that this historical practice was back then restrained to just a few weirdos on the street. 19th century British writers would write of vast open-air meat markets and restaurants specializing in serving dog meat to their patrons. Connoisseurs valued dog meat for its medicinal value, preferred puppy meat for its tenderness, and called it the "fragrant meat" in Cantonese. There is even a Cantonese phrase that says when dog meat is thrice boiled, even the immortals tremble and become weak-kneed with desire, so delicious and wonderful it is.
(This clash of cultures went both ways by the way. The British looked upon horror at Chinese people eating dogs, but the Chinese felt the same about people eating oxens and cows. Per records, they "greatly discouraged" the slaughter of oxen for their meat.)
A History of Animal Cruelty Controls in Hong Kong
Nevertheless, the British sought to take some steps towards what they saw as a reform of Chinese traditions and cultural habits.
They began with an 1845 ordinance dedicated towards preserving "good order and cleanliness" in public areas. A subset of this ordinance made illegal certain ways of treating animals. However, this ordinance was spottily enforced, with just three people charged in 1864 and then 33 in 1888.
The Hong Kongers thought it weird that Westerners would care so much about how they treated animals. One legislator wrote of an amusing historical event:
> Once a Chinese was arrested by the police in Hong Kong for cruelty to a rat. It appeared that the rat had committed great havoc in his household, stealing and damaging various articles of food; when at last it was caught the man nailed its feet to a board, as a warning to other rats. For this he was brought before the English Magistrate, who imposed a penalty of ten dollars. He was astonished, and pleaded that the rat deserved death, on account of the serious havoc committed in his house. The Magistrate told him that he ought to have instantly killed the rat, and not to have tortured it. The amazed offender paid his fine, but murmured that he did not see the justice of the British Court in not allowing him to punish the rat as he chose
Then in 1903, the Hong Kong government passed new ordinances dedicated towards better treatment of livestock. This meant rather mundane things like no longer allowing excessive crowding of cattle whilst in transit from one location to another and the removal of sharp-ended bamboo pens that would cut into the flesh of animals if they brushed against them. Here is another example:
> A dozen or more ducks and fowls tied tightly, so tightly as often to break their legs, hung on hooks and a small slit made in their throats, so small that it takes them ten minutes or more to die
That same year, Hong Kong founded its first organization dedicated towards animal welfare with the Hong Kong Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (HKSPCA). For the most part though, it remained a rather weak force in Hong Kong society, with limited influence amongst the populace, but steadily lobbied the government for stricter ordinances on the slaughter of livestock. They saw the amelioration of animal cruelty as a duty by the Europeans to bring upon the poor Chinese race.
Chinese natives decried these new ordinances, this imposition upon a way of life. One mainland Chinese writer from the then-Republic of China wrote:
> After buying live poultry like chickens or ducks at the market, the people in Hong Kong have to bring the live poultry back home in the same manner as they hold a baby ... Holding them upside down by their legs is forbidden and would be intervened or penalized by the police. The reason is that holding the live poultry upside down makes them suffer and thus is regarded as an act of cruelty [to animals] ... the colonized people who live under imperialism suffer more than the poultry
As enlightened as these Hong Kong-based colonial Europeans were though, they did not make any moves towards the banning of eating dogs and cats - grouping them along with pigs and chickens as livestock. In fact, you can find examples of the acceptance of cats and dogs as food throughout the 1900s.
The Rabies Scare
It was not until 1949 when animal rights activists managed to figure a way to rouse the government towards banning of dog and cat consumption. It had to do with a rabies scare.
Rabies in Hong Kong has long been a fear of the populace, motivating the government to take drastic measures. In 1893 and 1926, new laws were passed requiring pet dogs to be tagged and collared. Any untagged dogs found by the police in between 10 PM and 6 AM were shot on sight. The police took to this job with apparent vigor - once two Chinese women cutting grass on the hillside were accidentally shot by police trying to do this exact thing. Separately, citizens complained that the police should be catching thieves rather than chasing and shooting unmuzzled dogs on the street.
1949 thus saw a new rabies outbreak in the New Territories and Kowloon. 11 people died, 20 dogs were infected, and over 500 people flooded the hospitals seeking treatment after suspected bites.
3000 dog lovers - most of them upper-class Hong Kongers of Chinese or Eurasian descent - then took advantage of the situation to create and sign a petition banning the consumption of dogs. The petition proposed that "control should be exercised in matters of the killing of pets", and that dogs were pets. It laid out how dogs were being slaughtered, that "they are stretched by the extremities whilst alive and then slowly beaten to death" so that it would preserve the taste of their meat. Then it closed with an assertion that the eating of dog was contributing to the rabies outbreak - with dog meat vendors searching out dogs from the mainland and New Territories, further spreading the virus.
Lower class Chinese hated this ordinance naturally, grumbling that the upper class Hong Kongers had too much time on their hands and argued that if they were to ban eating dogs then they should also ban the eating of pork and chicken.
But the British colonial government agreed with the petition. They already disagreed with the eating of dog of course, but they were encouraged by the fact that the petitioners were Chinese as well. Knowing that they had the backing of the upper class Hong Kong elites, they felt comfortable moving forward with the ban. They also kind of had other things on their plate - what with the recent fall of the Republic of China and the founding of the Communist People's Republic of China and the marching of a massive Communist army to the Hong Kong border.
Thus on October 25th, 1949, the Hong Kong government issued a statement that "the killing of dogs for food should be prohibited as part of the campaign against rabies". You can read it [here](https://www.legco.gov.hk/1949/h491221.pdf). The ban would continue even after the rabies outbreak was gotten under the control.
The Socialization of the Dog Eating Taboo in Hong Kong
The Hong Kong elite class of the 1920s and 30s easily went along with the ban because by then they saw dogs as friends, not food. This class had experienced the west and saw broad western cultural influences.
The tough part was imposing the ban on the lower classes, especially those out in the New Territories, where villages were governed indirectly through village chieftains rather than directly by government influence. You can regularly find dog meat markets throughout the 60s and into the 70s. The HKSPCA would continually prod the government towards stricter enforcement of the dog eating ordinance, but the colonial government would dodge the task. The way they saw it, the HKSPCA was trying to get the government to do their own dirty work. The government offered to bridge the HKSPCA leadership directly with the New Territories chieftains but the organization declined. It would take decades before the cultural practice died out on its own within the Hong Kong colony. It continues to be practiced in certain areas within mainland China.
The dog eating episode is a rather minor but telling example of the Hong Kong colonial government's approach towards reform of traditional Chinese practices amongst the natives. Namely, reluctantly and slowly. They hated the eating of dogs personally but let it happen until the Chinese elites took the lead and brought forwards a petition. Then even after the ban took effect, the colonial government looked away from violations in the hinterlands - favoring social stability over social reform.
This behavior can be identified when reforming other, much more harrowing Chinese cultural traditions like mui-tsai, the Chinese system of selling daughters into domestic servitude or sexual slavery. More on that later.