China Hong Kong Mission

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History of the Church in Hong Kong 1949-59

(Note: The following was a talk I gave at a Seminar at the BYU. I have taken the liberty of adding information to the text, and changing a few errors that were made in transcribing my talk. This Seminar was attended by former Mission Presidents who had served in any of the Asian Missions before 1973.)

Missionary Work in Asia, BYU Studies, Vol. 12, No.1,


I'm delighted to have the opportunity to represent the China area today. I was just thinking of what transpires in a twenty-two year period of time. Spencer Palmer and I were recruits at Fort Ord together trying to make it in the army twenty-two years ago, and a great deal has happened since then. I might mention, President Rose, that you've made a serious omission. There is also a Taiwan Mission, which was just organized in January.

The Southern Far East Mission, over which I presided between 1955 and 1959, had a population of 1.3 billion people. Missionary work to the Chinese first opened in 1854. Hosea Stout and two companions were stoned out of Bangkok, couldn't find any place to live in either Singapore or Hong Kong, went to Japan, and were so discouraged that they came back and reported to Brigham Young that there was no future for the Church in Asia.

The next effort to open the missions in Asia was a trip made by President McKay and Brother Cannon in 1921 as part of a worldwide trip. President McKay dedicated China for the preaching of the gospel and returned and reported to the First Presidency that the conditions of that country were so chaotic that he didn't recommend that any work be done until they had handled their own internal civil struggles.

In 1949 Matthew Cowley, Pres & Sister Hilton Robertson, and their daughter Carolyn, and Brother and Sister Henry Aki were sent there to open the first mission. Their destination was Canton, which is in the southern province of China. Before they could make it there, the Communists had bombed the Pearl River bridge. They made a rapid decision that the prospects for missionary work in Canton were not much different than when Pres. McKay dedicated the country. They immediately returned to Hong Kong. Elder Cowley dedicated the Colony of Hong Kong on July 14, 1949 at a site on Victoria Peak that faced Mainland China. The mission headquarters was established at 345 Prince Edward Road, in the Kowloon section of the Colony. Hong Kong.

In February, 1950, Elders William K Paalani and H. Grant Heaton arrived as the first two missionaries assigned to the mission.

In May, Elder James Kam Hoon Yuen from Hawaii, was assigned to Hong Kong.

In July, 1950, Sister Robertson and Carolyn returned to the United States for medical treatment.

When the Korean War broke out all American citizens living in Hong Kong were advised to consider leaving Hong Kong because fear that the Communist forces were preparing to attack Hong Kong. The local newspapers reported that "One Million Red Soldiers Massing on Hong Kong Border." There was much concern for the safety of the people in Hong Kong.

When the Government of Hong Kong and the American Consulate requested that "all non- essential" civilians evacuate Hong Kong, President Robertson contacted President McKay in Salt Lake City. He informed President McKay that we considered ourselves to be essential, and that all the missionaries had agreed that they wanted to stay in Hong Kong. President McKay agreed and informed us that Sister Robertson would return to Hong Kong with two additional missionaries. He also said the Church had approved funds for the purchase of property for a combined Mission Home and Chapel. We were very excited about this news, and the confidence President McKay had in the situation there.

Sister Robertson, and Elders Harold Charles Smith, and Robert A Parry arrived in Hong Kong in December.

On January 9th, 1951, President Robertson was notified by the American Consular officials that the U.S. Government were going to require that we leave Hong Kong.

An appeal was made to President McKay but he said the Church was required to abide by the decision of the local consular authorities.

This was a great disappointment, especially after the assurances we had received from President McKay that we would be able to stay.

The people who had been learning about the gospel were very much distressed about this news. Several of them requested to be baptized before we left. It was finally decided that 15 of the Chinese people could be baptized, and also one American Serviceman, (Navy) who came to the mission home. His name was Carl Hagberg.

President McKay assured us that the mission was not being closed, but was being transferred temporarily to Hawaii until the situation improved in Hong Kong.

We departed Hong Kong on February 5,1951, and arrived in Hawaii February 18th. A Mission Home for the Chinese Mission had been rented. It was located at 2128 Armstrong Street, in the beautiful Manoa valley in Honolulu, Hawaii. The missionaries were assigned to begin tracting in what was known as the Bingham Tract, by the Hawaii Missionaries. This was also known as Chinese Hollywood.

After we were in Hawaii for two months, Elder Matthew Cowley visited the Chinese Mission, and informed us that the Church had decided to move the Mission to San Francisco.

Brother and Sister Aki, and Elder Paalani were released from their assignment, and the remaining missionaries, with Pres. And Sis. Robertson moved the Mission headquarters to San Francisco. They were met there by Elder Keith Warner, who had been assigned to the Chinese Mission before we had left Hong Kong, and had waited at home until our final place of work was determined.

The Cathay American Legion Hall, on Clay street in the center of Chinatown, was rented to hold meetings, and a Chinese Mission Sunday School was organized. This later became a dependent Branch, associated with the San Francisco Ward.

In late 1951, Elders Ueda, and Crump, were assigned to the Chinese Mission. In March, Elder Heaton was released from the mission, and over the next several months Elders Raiser, Benson, and Waldrun were assigned to the Chinese Mission. Also, Sisters Stephenson and Neville were assigned to work in Chinatown. Elders were sent to Sacramento, Oakland, and Stockton. An attempt to open a Chinese missionary effort in Los Angeles was made, but in early 1953, the mission was closed, and those who had served more than 18 months were released and others were transferred to other missions.

President and Sister Robertson were not released, but returned to Provo for a short period of time. In mid-1953 they were assigned to preside over the Japanese Mission, which included the Hong Kong area. President Vinal Mauss , of the Japanese Mission visited Hong Kong in early 1953 before he was released.. While there he baptized Wang Chee, who had been too ill to receive baptism when the missionaries left in 1951.

In February 1954, H. Grant Heaton, who was serving with the US Armed Forces in Korea visited Hong Kong, and held a Sacrament Meeting with all the members of the Church there.

Also, in May, 1954, Elder Harold B. Lee visited the members of the Church in Hong Kong and presided over a Sacrament service with the members.

President Robertson had been assured that the Chinese Mission had not been closed. His assignment to Japan was designed to maintain contact with the saints in Hong Kong.

In July of 1955, President Joseph Fielding Smith was assigned to restructure the Missions in Asia. The Missions were divided into the Northern Far East and the Southern Far East Missions. The Southern Far East Mission at that time included Guam, all of China, Formosa, the Philippine Islands, Singapore, India, and everything in between. President H. Grant Heaton was assigned to preside over the new Mission. With his wife Luana and their three month old son, they arrived in Hong Kong , August 8thth 1955. They established a mission headquarters at a rented home, located at 149 Argyle Street, in Kowloon city. President and Sister Joseph Fielding Smith, having the assignment to tour the Northern Far East Mission, did not arrive in Hong Kong until August 15th. Missionaries who had been called to the Southern Far East Mission, and had traveled with President Smith’s group, arrived by ship in Hong Kong on August 20th. They were met by Sister Robertson, who had remained in Hong Kong to meet them. President & Sister Heaton and President Robertson had accompanied President Smith to the Philippine Islands and Guam. They returned to Hong Kong on August 27th to find eight hungry and confused missionaries, who had arrived in Hong Kong on August 20th. They were Elders Keith Madsen, Duaine Degn, Malan Jackson, Garnet Birch, Gary Bradshaw, Ronald Ollis, Jerry Dean Wheat and Kenneth Fong. Six of the Elders were assigned to learn the Cantonese language. Elders Madsen and Degn were assigned to learn Mandarin, in anticipation of assignment in Taiwan.

In the process of the next five years, we were effectively in control of communications with people in all these areas. We had a map on the wall in the office in Hong Kong onto which we would put a pin whenever we got a new baptismal record in. On that baptismal record it would list the place of birth. We had members of the Church from every major city in China, from Tibet, from up in the Russian Steppes, and from Mongolia. We had them from northern parts of India, from Burma, and from Indonesia and Laos. We had people joining the Church in Hong Kong and Formosa, covering the entire area of Asia.

An unique feature of the Southern Far East Mission is that the success of the mission had practically nothing to do with the people involved, that is, the missionaries going there. There is a scripture in the Book of Isaiah that says in the last days Israel will be gathered. "One of a city and two of a family" and will be brought to Zion. We saw that scripture literally fulfilled. Our missionaries saw the fulfillment of this promise.

When the missionaries went over there in 1955. We didn't have anything printed in Chinese, no Articles of Faith, no song books, no Book of Mormon, no tracts, nothing! I listened to Elders try to give the lessons; I wrote the lessons in Chinese, and I still couldn't understand them; and yet people started coming into the Church. By 1957, the Southern Far East Mission led all missions in the Church in convert baptisms per missionary. People literally came into the Church, having already been selected for that role. A refiner's fire had already taken place. These people had been in turmoil for the last twenty years. They had lived in chaos; they had lived under threats of their lives; they had a chance to live under Communism and refused that chance. These were people who first of all refused to abide a Communist existence. In my mind that choice can be considered a partial explanation for their coming into the Church. They moved into Hong Kong when the conditions were favorable for teaching the gospel to them. We didn't have to worry about people being away from home at work so they couldn't listen to the missionaries. They didn't have any jobs. They had nothing to do. The missionaries would often spend all day with them. We established a missionary program that required that they complete eighteen weeks (lessons) of missionary studies. A test was given after each lesson. When they were interviewed for baptism, questions from the lesson tests were asked. This was not intended to disqualify them, but to try to determine how effective our lessons were. Almost every applicant for baptism could answer correctly all the questions they were asked during their baptism interview.. We had set programs and our people were very energetic in listening to the gospel and learning it. Most of those who continued more than four or five weeks of study, joined the Church.

I had the chance to teach one class, and I didn't intend to baptize any of them. It was a mistake, I thought, getting into that class. Among that group were eleven former generals of the Chinese army, two governors of Provinces, and four university professors. As far as I was concerned, they were not receptive to the gospel, but I had an obligation to complete the eighteen week program. When the eighteen weeks were up, I gave my little farewell speech, and I could immediately tell that there was some hostility in the group. I couldn't imagine what that hostility was. I'd been polite. I couldn't remember saying anything wrong in Chinese, but you never can tell. And I worried about this, so I said, "There appears to be some kind of problem here. Could you explain to me what the problem is?" A spokesman stood up and said, "You haven't asked us to be baptized."

Out of the forty-three people in that class, forty-two joined the Church. Three of them later filled full-time missions and eight of them served as Branch and District presidencies over there. One was assigned as Mission President in 1980, after gaining an education in the United States.

These people had already made up their minds to do something different from what they were doing. They didn't know anything about Mormonism to begin with, but Mormonism answered many of their problems. As a basic example: One time, we held a testimony meeting and took our little hike up into the mountains as is customary over there, and everyone all got up and expressed their delight in the gospel and that they liked this way of life. One man in that group exemplified, I think, what they all felt and what I heard a hundred or more times. He said, "Years ago I was impressed that Christianity was the answer to my particular needs and the needs of China; so I joined a Christian church. And I made the sincere effort in my youth to learn about that church and to adhere to its doctrine. I would attend church and try to assimilate and put into practice everything they told me. Suddenly it dawned on me that the first time I went into that church they told me, 'You're a sinner. You must repent.' And after I had gone to that church for eighteen months, the message continued the same–I was still a sinner. They hadn't accomplished a thing in my life. I went to another church and to another and to another, and I found the same thing happening. No matter how much effort I put forth I was always declared a sinner. The Mormon Church is the first one that's been able to convince me that I'm a sinner and then tell me how to overcome it." The man who said this had been a high ranking General in the Nationalist Army, and he also became a very effective Branch President.

We had hundreds of people who came into the Church because they found in the gospel, not an intellectual answer to a question, but an answer to a deep-seated question that they had been bothered with for many years. Because of the lack of language, the lack of translated materials, and our inadequacy in teaching, we couldn't implant a sophisticated knowledge of the gospel in those people. But they didn't stop with what we had to teach them. I listened to sermons in testimony meetings and conversations by members of the Church that far exceeded our ability to teach. They taught back to us principles of the gospel that were instilled in them spiritually.

I would like to conclude basically by saying that we have a unique situation, maybe not unique in Hong Kong, or in Taiwan--it might occur in all of Asia--but we do have a situation where the Lord has carried the burden. Young missionaries who neither knew the gospel nor could explain it in Chinese would go into houses and homes to teach the gospel, and the product was a deep-seated conversion on the part of educated, sophisticated people. That program is still going on. Because of it and because the Lord is actually engaged in the lives of individual people there as well as here, the future of missionary work in Asia is unlimited.

Missionary Work in Asia, BYU Studies, Vol. 12, No.1,

Question? What is the nature of the appeal of Mormonism to the male population in Asia.

Answer: Grant Heaton

I think this problem had some particular evidence in Hong Kong, and it depended on how culturally stable the individuals were. You mentioned in Korea that you had largely men joining the Church. At our first district conference in 1956, we had 342 people. Only a few of them were women. All the rest of them were men and these men were adults. They were culturally stable, culturally secure, and they didn't want to become Americans. They made it very clear that they weren't buying our Americanism, but somehow or another we had to separate the gospel as a way of life, and Americanism as a way of life. It became evident in 1957 when the news that Federal troops went into Arkansas and the first civil rights demonstration reached us. We had to move missionaries out of eight or nine of the villages. They said come back Sunday, but don't be here during the week. The Chinese empathized with the problem of the black people in Little Rock, and a strong anti-American wave ensued. This is something that happened periodically all the time we were there. There would be a crisis in the United States that hit the headlines and the older people would tend to ally themselves in an anti-American position; and yet it didn't jeopardize their testimonies or effect their Church participation, except that they really felt uncomfortable having Americans coming into their homes and villages while there was an anti-American sentiment there. But they said, "Don't leave us alone." Later on, as younger people came into the Church and as the number of people coming in were relatively unstable culturally, that is, they didn't identify as much with their own native culture, then there tended to be a kind of attempt to Americanize themselves. I think a lot of the appeal of the gospel to the younger generation is its American flavor, but not so with the older people.

Missionary Work in Asia, BYU Studies, Vol. 12, No.1,


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