Sir David Akers-Jones, local honorary secretary of the RSAA in Hong Kong, died on 30 September. Martin Purbrick, a regular contributor to Asian Affairs, remembers his life.
Sir David Akers-Jones, who has died aged 92, lived in interesting times on the south coast of China and was part of some of the key moments in the modern history of Hong Kong as a colonial civil servant from 1957 to 1987.
Born in Surrey, England, in 1927, Akers-Jones left home in 1945 to join the British India Steam Navigation Company, paying 50 Guineas to be indentured as an apprentice for four years during which time he sailed around the coast of India, to Australia, Burma, Thailand, Singapore, the Seychelles, and the east coast ports of Africa. After sailing the Indian Ocean for four years, he returned to England to study at Oxford where two fortuitous events occurred. Firstly, he met and married Jane, the love of his life. Secondly, he joined the Royal Central Asian Society (now the Royal Society for Asian Affairs) after a conversation about Asia one evening at the gate of his college with a man walking his dog. He stayed with his true love Jane for 45 years until she passed away in 2002, and was an active member of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs almost until his own death.
Akers-Jones joined the Malayan Civil Service as a Cadet in 1952 and first attended the School of Oriental and African Studies to learn Malay before starting to learn the Chinese Hokkien dialect when he arrived in the colony. He was first posted as District Officer in Alor Gajah, Malacca, for only a year before Malayan independence and then decided to accept a transfer to Hong Kong in 1957. After a brief spell in the Commerce and Industry Department, Akers-Jones was appointed in 1959 as District Officer for Tsuen Wan, a rural area fast developing with new industry and urban housing. He recalled that his work involved setting out terms for the removal of villages, finding land for a community centre, persuading the meat merchants to take their pigs to the slaughterhouse, building a temporary market for the butchers, fixing the boundaries of a Taoist institute, convening the first meetings of a hospital board”, and a long list of even more diverse tasks that no one person could ever be trained for. He also served in Islands District in 1961 and then Yuen Long District from 1962 to 1967.
From 1967, during the communist inspired unrest fomented by the Cultural Revolution, Akers-Jones was Deputy District Commissioner in the New Territories and was a key part of government response to the communist bombing campaign, liaison with the British military, and negotiations with Chinese officials that started with listening to readings from Chairman Mao’s red book of writings. Such was life in the New Territories that the sensitive border work often involved such delicate tasks as in October 1966 negotiating with a fleet of mainland fishermen who claimed that they in fact owned the oyster beds off the coast of Yuen Long.
After the turbulence of communist disturbances ended in 1968, Akers-Jones became Principal Assistant Colonial Secretary (Lands), a very grand title that according to him involved a never ending stream of paper and files. This was in fact a critical role and he navigated the renewal of Kowloon land leases that expired in 1973, sensitive as the Chinese always considered the land to be a part of China and only under British administration. He was part of the momentous period of development of Hong Kong led by the Governor Sir Murray MacLehose, which involved building housing for 1.5 million people in urban areas and another 300,000 in rural areas, leading to the construction of “New Towns” that dominate the landscape of modern Hong Kong.
He continued his long association with rural communities and in 1973 was appointed Secretary for the New Territories where he led the building of the Sha Tin New Town, which is now home to a population of over 650,000 people. In his 12 years in this role he led an administration that built new homes for 1.5 million people, mostly new immigrants from mainland China. What an extraordinary achievement. His civil service career continued as he was appointed as a member of the Executive Council (advisors to the Governor) in 1978, as Chief Secretary (the most senior civil servant) in 1985, and was acting Governor for six weeks whilst Sir Edward Youde was on leave.
Akers-Jones not only contributed to the Districts to which he was posted, but also worked with several friends to form ‘Outward Bound Hong Kong’ in 1970, which he recognised could be of immense benefit to young people who grew up in crowded urban environments with limited physical exercise and activities. He was a lifelong supporter of Outward Bound, having formed the branch in Malaysia whilst a District Officer, and later become Honorary President of Outward Bound Hong Kong.
Akers-Jones was a “friend of China” and in the early 1970s was one of the few British colonial officials to visit mainland China on multiple occasions and be welcomed by the authorities. He saw first-hand the changes taking place in China in the 1980s and revelled in the stunning scenery, travelled the Silk Road, and revered the ancient culture paying his respects at the grave of Confucius at Chufu.
During the early 1980s, Akers-Jones was at the heart of discussions between the British and Chinese governments regarding the issue of sovereignty of Hong Kong after 1997, resulting in the signing of the Joint Declaration in 1984 between the two countries. He was critical of efforts by the British government after 1984 to expand the electorate, first increasing elected representatives on District Boards and later under Governor Chris Patten adding voters to “functional constituencies”. In this regard Akers-Jones was an administrator and not a politician, a product of colonial rule rather than democracy.
The career of Akers-Jones was best summed up by former Governor Sir David Wilson, who wrote that “He must rank as one of the last of that great breed of District Officers who knew intimately the people and the area for which he was responsible.” He was a capable colonial administrator who became close to the people he worked with, learning first Hokkien and later Cantonese, but he was not a bureaucrat and the words of Akers-Jones himself from his memoire are a telling reminder for the current government of Hong Kong:
“Papers on policies and projects did not gather dust: government was a living, bubbling thing and needed these spontaneous injections of both ideas and energy to keep pace with the challenge of the need, without any significant natural resources, to provide a livelihood for the swelling population, and to keep stoking the fires of burgeoning prosperity.”
We could benefit from his experience and wisdom now during these troubled times in Hong Kong. Sir David Akers-Jones will be missed as an exemplary civil servant who was dedicated to the people in the communities he administered, as a member of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs for over 50 years, and as a decent man who lived in the most interesting times.