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An Orthodox Church, a Microcosm of History

An Orthodox Church, a Microcosm of History

The Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Hong Kong The Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Hong Kong(Hongyu Wang)
ByHongyu Wang January 20, 2021
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In the densely populated Shueng Wan neighbourhood, where the air smells of dried seafood and boxes of cargo are piled up by the streets, there exists a Christian church of Russian orthodox tradition. The Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Hong Kong, which belongs to the Moscow Patriarchate, is located on the twelfth floor of the Kingdom Power Commercial Building – in the rear of Queen Street Cooked Food Market. But this is not the first time or the first location in which the church has existed. The church’s current rector Fr Dionisy Pozdnyaev. University of Macao history professor Michael Share’s book, Where Empires Collided: Russian and Soviet Relations with Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macao, which was published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Forgotten Souls: A Social History of the Hong Kong Cemetery, written by Patracia Lim and published by the University of Hong Kong, all shed light on this long veiled history.

In 1934 Fr Dmitry Uspensky, who was previously serving in the Beijing diocese under the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in China, was sent to Hong Kong to open the parish of Saints Peter and Paul. By this time many Russian emigres were living in China, mostly in Northeast China and Xinjang, having fled Russia following the Bolshevik revolution and having no plans to go back. In Hong Kong there were orthodox emigres from Russia who mostly worked for British companies and were British nationals. Although Pozdnyaev is certain that the Orthodox church in Hong Kong never had official contact with Soviet officials, the dynamics of the Soviet Union’s relations with Hong Kong was a parallel development.

In the immediate post- World War II period, the Soviet Union viewed Hong Kong rather negatively as a poverty-stricken land infested with prostitutes, thieves and ex-warlords. By 1948 there were only two Soviet organisations and twenty-seven registered Soviet nationals in Hong Kong. One was Exporthkleb, a trading firm which had Russian personnel and was shut down by the British in 1948. Another was the Soviet publicity unit, All-Union Society for Cultural Relations Abroad (VOKS), which was staffed entirely by Chinese and faced severe constraints in promoting Soviet culture.

In 1949 the Soviet Union urged the victorious Chinese Communist Party to liberate Hong Kong, which for pragmatic reasons China refused. Throughout the cold war period the Soviet Union never deviated from China’s position that Hong Kong was an integral part of China, even though it was under British occupation, and must therefore be returned to China. This was true even after the split of the China-Soviet Union alliance from the late 1950s onward. Soviet Union never recognised Hong Kong’s colonial status, hence never had formal relations with the then British Hong Kong or consular presence there. As the cold war intensified, both the Soviet Union and the US viewed Hong Kong as a useful location to gather intelligence on the other side. The Soviet Union feared Hong Kong would be used as a base for subversion against mainland China under the direction of Americans and Taiwanese. Before the late 1950s the Soviet Union subordinated its activities in Hong Kong to those of China and depended completely on Chinese sources for information on developments in Hong Kong, mostly reports sent to the Soviet consulate in Guangzhou.

The US embargo on China in 1951 in the midst of the Korean War pushed China and the Soviet Union’s closer still. The Soviet Union observed that the embargo caused problems in relations between the US and UK as it hurt Hong Kong’s economy and caused tensions between the UK and China.

The Soviet Union, however, did maintain a minimum trade with Hong Kong in this period and in 1956 requested the British government to open a trade office in Hong Kong, which was denied the following year. This reflected the Soviet Union’s triangular tensions amongst ideology, geopolitics and economics on its Hong Kong policy.

In 1948 there were 224 stateless people in Hong Kong, mostly ethnic Russians. The intensification of the civil war in China caused considerable exodus and by 1951 an estimated half a million people had fled to Hong Kong. Whilst the great majority were ethnic Chinese, thousands of Europeans also fled to Hong Kong in this period, on average about 300 individuals per month. Most of them were stateless people from Northeast China and many were ethnic Russians. The Soviet consulate in Harbin only assisted a handful of them with exit visas to the Soviet Union. Hong Kong, on the other hand, only allowed those with a definite onward final destination to enter. Most ethnic Russians transited via Hong Kong to Australia, the US, South America and other places. Still, a small number of ethnic Russians lived on in Hong Kong and formed a close-knit community with Fr. Uspensky. In 1955 Uspensky reported to the Beijing diocese that his parishioners had been reduced from 300,350 people to a mere 85 people. Soon afterwards the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in China was closed. About 108 Russians graves are preserved at the Hong Kong Cemetery, with the great majority dating from the years 1950 to 1970.

The split of the China-Soviet Union alliance in the late 1950s made Chinese sources on Hong Kong developments unavailable to the Soviets, who closed its consulate in Guangzhou in 1960. In the same year Soviet advisors and technologists working on various development projects in China were recalled by Khrushchev. Most subsequent Soviet reports relating to Hong Kong came from its embassy in London. In this period Hong Kong’s economic development and intelligence gathering potential on mainland China played major roles in Soviet involvement in Hong Kong. But the Soviet Union’s anti-western colonialism ideology and the UK’s discouragement on activities China might see as undesirable significantly limited the room for the Soviets to manoeuvre. Ideological solidarity with China – its deviant communist rival – still took priority over any attempt of the Soviet Union to improve economic relations, let alone political relations with Hong Kong.

In 1962 the Soviet Union explained at the United Nations General Assembly that the issue of Chinese mainland refugees in Hong Kong could not be discussed as Hong Kong was an integral part of China and as the PRC was not yet a member state, the question could not be discussed without the PRC’s participation. However, in the same year Khrushchev twice denounced China’s policy on not evicting British and Portuguese imperialists from Hong Kong and Macao, in response to China’s criticism of the Soviet Union’s weakness in facing the US in the Cuban missile crisis and its inaction on occupying West Berlin. In this period Hong Kong was a valuable rhetorical weapon in Soviet Union’s propaganda battle against China.

The Soviet Union closely scrutinised the 1967 Hong Kong riot mainly from its embassy in London with descriptions far more objective than in the period of the China-Soviet Union alliance. The reports attributed the cause to both the ongoing Cultural Revolution and the poor living conditions of Hong Kong workers. It also analysed the deterioration of China-UK relations as a result. It concluded that neither mainland China nor Hong Kong nor the UK emerged from the riot victorious. The official Soviet press also covered the riot, blaming China for the betrayal of the Hong Kong proletariat. The Soviet Union offered to the British, though it was rejected, to exchange military intelligence on China, hoping the riot might impel the UK to move closer it and upgrade the information available to it on China.

As the China-Soviet Union split intensified, Soviet views on Hong Kong became more positive and bilateral trade increased during the late 1960s, at a time when the China-Soviet Union border clash along the Ussuri River in 1969 almost triggered a full-scale armed conflict. In processing the Soviet airline Aeroflot’s request on appointing an air ticket sales agent in Hong Kong and in negotiating with the Hong Kong airline Cathy Pacific on arrangements for transit passengers, the Soviet foreign ministry in 1967 laid out ground rules that all contracts concluded remain only commercial documents. These were not to be interpreted as recognising Hong Kong’s colonial status. In 1966 the Soviet charge d’affaires in Beijing, M. Kutyrev, visited Hong Kong where he reached an agreement with the Hong Kong and Whampoa Docks Company to have Soviet ships repaired. On average fifteen Soviet ships docked annually in Hong Kong for repairs in this period. In 1972, however, two Soviet crewmen were arrested by the Hong Kong police special branch and deported for alleged spying activities.

During the 1960s the British Colonial Office declared that whilst no permanent Soviet office should be allowed in Hong Kong, occasional visits could be allowed if genuine commercial reasons existed. However, these should be few and far between for both its own and China’s concerns. In 1964 the Soviet Tass news agency’s office in London informally requested a news office be opened in Hong Kong. In 1967 Soviet diplomats in Beijing made a similar request to British diplomats there. Both requests went nowhere. In 1970 the Soviet deputy foreign minister Nikolai Kozyrev raised the question with the British on opening a consulate or at least a shipping office in Hong Kong, which was denied.

As more and more ethnic Russians emigrated, Hong Kong’s Orthodox Christianity believers significantly dwindled, as did the Orthodox church’s finances. In 1970 Uspensky passed away and was buried at the Hong Kong Cemetery alongside his wife and daughter, where their graves are preserved. The same year the Saints Peter and Paul parish, located at 12 Essex Crescent, Kowloon Tong, was formally closed and the church deeds were sent to Australia.

In 1977 the Moscow Narodny Bank sued its liquidated debtor Hong Kong Resort, which was constructing a land development project at Discovery Bay, Lantau Island. Fearing that the Soviets might gain land ownership and turn it into a spying post, the Hong Kong government gave the development project to a pro-Beijing tycoon, demonstrating British sensitivity over its relations with China. When China-UK negotiations opened in 1982 on the question of Hong Kong, the Soviet Union was concerned about how China regarded its nineteenth century treaties with the UK, which were viewed by the Qing dynasty as unequal, and its implications on similar treaties concluded by Tsarist Russia with the Qing dynasty. Although no official Chinese statement drew these parallels, the Soviet Union, except for a brief period between 1918-1921, also never renounced its past territorial gains over China. As the two communist rivals moved to normalise their relations in this period, in 1983 the Soviet Union reduced its criticism of China’s procrastination in regaining Hong Kong. Whilst supporting the return of Hong Kong to China, the Soviet Union reasoned never to suggest the basis was that the UK forced China to sign unequal treaties. The Soviet Union secretly hoped that British Prime Minister Thatcher would never agree that under international law the nineteenth century China-UK treaties were not legitmate.

In the final years of its existence, the Soviet Union normalised its relations with China. In 1989 Gorbachev visited China, followed by a return visit by Jiang Zemin in 1991, months before the country’s dissolution. Since then, the Russian Federation’s relations with China warmed fast, and is currently at all-time high, characterised by the two neighbour’s special relations of comprehensive strategic partnership. Relations between Russia and Hong Kong warmed significantly as well. In 1994 a Russian consulate opened in Hong Kong, albeit small in scale with less than ten full-time personnel. Russian foreign minister Evgenii Primyakov attended events marking the reunification of Hong Kong with China in 1997. Boris Yeltsin sent a congratulatory message to the Chinese government. Since then, Russian diplomats in Hong Kong prioritised the expansion of commercial and business opportunities. In 2002 Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov visited Hong Kong. In 2004, Hong Kong chief secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who later became chief executive, visited Russia. By 2005 the Russian Trade Association in Hong Kong had over 100 members. Bilateral trade grew steadily, so did cultural and educational exchanges. Parallel to this development was the growth of a small Russian community in Hong Kong consisting of about 2,000 people nowadays.

In 2003 Pozdnyaev, a graduate of a Moscow seminary and a priest in the Moscow Patriarchate, was sent to Hong Kong to re-establish the Saints Peter and Paul parish. Pozdnyaev celebrated services in the Saint Luke Orthodox Cathedral during his first year in Hong Kong with the blessing of Metropolitan Nikitas of the Constantinople Patriarchate. In 2008 the Moscow Patriarchate formally re-established the Hong Kong Saints Peter and Paul parish. After relocating twice, the Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox church moved to its current location in 2016 where it owns the church premises.

To supplement their budget and promote Russian culture, a Russian Language Centre was set up by the Orthodox church in 2007. Nowadays it teaches Russian to both native speakers and those who learn Russian as a foreign language. Whilst most native speaker students are children of Russian parents, most adult students tend to be foreign language learners. There are roughly 120 students taught by four teachers recruited from Russia.

Today, roughly half of Saints Peter and Paul parishioners are Russians. Services at the Orthodox church are celebrated in Church Slavonic, English, and Chinese. There are two Russian priests and one Chinese priest.

(Hongyu Wang is a student studying master of journalism at the University of Hong Kong.)
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