Hong Kong Fire Brigade

The image "Spritzenleute" shows two hierarchically different groups of firefighters in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong. Source: Archive of the Basel Mission / QQ-30.021.0145

The picture we present today is titled "Spritzenleute". It is unmistakably a posed image. In the foreground, several rows of obviously Chinese men kneel, clean-shaven and wearing helmets reminiscent of Asian conical or pointed hats. Mustachioed men stand in the background. They wear partly hats and partly also helmets, but in a different form than that of the Chinese. Finally, on the right, two men stand proudly on ladders. It seems as if they would supervise the whole scene.

The picture shows the Hong Kong Fire Department, sometime between 1868 and 1890. It is not known exactly when it was taken or by whom.

Hong Kong became a British crown colony in 1843. Three years later, fire protection was organized by the British authorities and was under the control of the Hong Kong Police Force. An independent professional fire department was established with the founding of the Hong Kong Fire Brigade on May 9, 1868.

The fire department's training and equipment were based on the British system. The first head of the Hong Kong Fire Brigade was Charles May, who had worked as a police officer and treasurer in the colonial administration. He was in charge of 61 professional firefighters - all non-locals - and about 100 Chinese volunteers.

The picture reveals the clear division between the professional firefighters, trained and paid for their work, and the volunteers. The differences are evident in the equipment and uniform, but also in the whole habitus. This is not a portrait of a unified team working together as equals on a mission, but of two groups, one issuing orders and the other carrying them out. Thus, the Chinese do not seem like people who have volunteered to serve the public, but rather like prisoners of war who are guarded by their guards and presented as prey.

Unfortunately, we know nothing about how the Hong Kong Fire Brigade operated on a day-to-day basis. The first commander, Charles May, however, is remembered. The headquarters of the Hong Kong Police, a skyscraper of over 200 meters with 47 floors, opened in 2004, is named after him.

Text: Patrick Moser, historian and research assistant in the archives of

Mission 21.

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