This film is held by the BFI (ID: 13773).


How the Govt. of Singapore has set about the gigantic problem of housing Hong ko ng's swelling population.



Achievement in Hong Kong was made in 1958 by the production company Leander Films for the British government’s Central Office of Information. This latter organisation was founded in 1946 as a peacetime successor to the Ministry of Information, its purpose being to provide information campaigns for government departments, both at home and overseas. The footage was selected from library material shot by Julius Evans for his films ‘Hong Kong’ and ‘Miracle in Hong Kong’, which the COI purchased for £250 (‘Achievement in Hong Kong’). Joan Duff of Leander Films provided the script, and Jack Holmes spoke the commentary. However, these names are absent from the credits, which the COI advised ‘be kept to the minimum length’ (‘Achievement in Hong Kong’). The National Archives files on this film provide no indication of where the film was shown, other than to state that the US has a copy.

Hong Kong, located on the southern coast of China, became a dependent territory of the United Kingdom in 1842. Frank Welsh has described its position in the mid-1950s as being that of a ‘precariously stable boat’ (Welsh, 1993, 458). Following initial alarm and refortification of the territory in response to the coming to power of Mao Zedong’s Communist Party in China in 1949, the British had resumed their laissez-faireattitude towards Hong Kong of ‘benign neglect’ (Welsh, 1993, 453; see also Ngo, 1999, 119-40). Although the Communist Party considered Hong Kong to be a rightful part of China, it had transpired that they had no immediate plans to invade. Moreover, by the mid-1950s the British had few strategic interests in the Far East. Military presence in Hong Kong was therefore reduced.

There were further consequences of the Communist triumph in China, however. After Mao’s party assumed power there was a large influx of refugees into Hong Kong. In 1950 alone nearly three quarters of a million crossed the border. Many of the incomers lived in makeshift accommodation; Alan Smart estimates that by 1953 this sector of the population numbered 300,000 (Smart, 2006, 171). According to Frank Welsh the colonial authorities regarded these incomers as ‘squatters’ who ‘were there on sufferance’. He states that ‘little obligation to provide anything more than the essential minimum for them was accepted by the Hong Kong authorities’ (Welsh, 1993, 444).

There has been debate over when and why policy began to change. The ‘achievement’ referred to in this film’s title is the development of a public housing programme, centred on a series of high-rise buildings, soon to become characteristic of Hong Kong. The main prompt for this initiative is commonly regarded as being the fire in the refugee area of Shek Kep Mei on Christmas Day 1953, which left 53,000 people homeless. However, Alan Smart has argued that it was a series of fires, both before and after this event, that shaped the authorities’ housing policy (Smart, 2006). It has also been suggested that this rethink was a response to the potential for Chinese agitation and civil disturbance sparked by colonial neglect of the homeless (Welsh, 1993, 3).

By the end of 1956 some 23,300 tenement rooms had been built, largely financed by the colony’s own resources, but with some support from America and China. It was only when the United States provided a grant that the Colonial Office was ‘shamed into matching it’ (Welsh, 1993, 454). Previously, Governor Alexander Grantham’s pleas had fallen on deaf ears: ‘I requested financial assistance from H.M.G. I begged, I pleaded, I wrote despatches, I wrote letters, I spoke to officials, I spoke to ministers. But all in vain, we got nothing’ (Welsh, 1993, 455).



Achievement in Hong Kong is a carefully measured film. The narrative balances those elements of the territory that the colonisers have altered against those they have left alone. We are informed that ‘when the British first came to Hong Kong the island was a barren place, the waters around it pirate-infested; today it is one of the greatest commercial centres in the Far East’, but we also learn that the population is ‘largely Chinese’ and that these people have ‘brought to the city their own ways, customs and manner of living which the British have not tried to change’. We thus learn of both the beneficence and lenience of British rule. This structure enables the British to take credit for certain aspects of colonial rule while absolving themselves of some of the problems that have arisen in the territory.

The dual character of Hong Kong is outlined in the opening sequences of the film. It begins with panoramic scenes of the harbour, followed by views of the modern financial institutions in the city of Victoria, then by scenes of Chinese locals in this city, and then by shots of Chinese boats of ancient design in the village of Aberdeen. The number of people depicted in these scenes gradually increases. This device serves several purposes. It intimates that any overcrowding in Hong Kong is Chinese in origin. It also illustrates the burgeoning industry of the territory and the attraction of that industry to newcomers. We are informed that ‘British institutions, British justice and efficient methods of administration’ have facilitated Hong Kong’s prosperity and that ‘This success, and the way in which the island managed its affairs, attracted the Chinese’.

At this point there is a decisive switch to densely populated street scenes. The narrative informs us of the massive increase in numbers occasioned by the civil war in China. The resultant ‘crazy ramshackle villages’ in the harbours and on the hillsides are shown. The film exposes certain tensions in the colonial response. The narrative is at pains to point out that ‘the administration and church welfare organisation raised funds to build settlements and model villages’, but it also reveals that the colonial authorities looked upon these incomers as squatters: ‘living rent-free on Crown land […] they fiercely resisted any attempt to move them, they could not be persuaded to go home’. At the same time there is an urge to offer a balanced portrayal: the Chinese are praised for being industrious, and we are shown refugee homes that are as ‘neat and clean as their owners could make them’.

The film climaxes with the Shek Kep Mei fire and the subsequent rehousing programme. The fire is dramatically staged. There is a cut to a close-up of a petrol lamp and then another quick cut to the fire breaking out. Music increases in both volume and stridency. In contrast, the film of the rehousing programme is edited and narrated at a steady tempo, mirroring what is portrayed as being an organised response to the crisis on behalf of the authorities. Although the housing plans are outlined in detail there is no mention of the help provided by the Chinese and the United States. There is also a surprising admission of the political climate that prompted the authorities’ response: ‘The majority of these people had come uninvited into the already overcrowded colony but in the eyes of the world the government was responsible for their wellbeing’. Accordingly: ‘Hong Kong could not afford the reputation of the fire of Shek Kep Mei’.

Richard Osborne (April 2009)


Works Cited

= ‘Achievement in Hong Kong’, National Archives, INF 6/438.

Ngo, Tak-Wing, ‘Industrial History and the Article of Laissez-faire Colonialism’, in Hong Kong’s History: State and Society Under Colonial Rule, ed. by Tak-Wing Ngo (London: Routledge, 1999), 119-40.

Smart, Alan, The Shek Kip Mei Myth: Squatters, Fires and Colonial Rule in Hong Kong, 1950-1963 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2006).

Welsh, Frank, A History of Hong Kong (London: HarperCollins, 1993).




Technical Data

Running Time:
15 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
16mm Film

Production Credits

Central Office of Information
Foreign Office
EVANS, Julius
Production Company
Leander Films





Production Organisations