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Freemasonry in the Far East

(A paper delivered in the Bahamas Installed Masters Lodge No 8764 EC on 21st November 1978, by Robert M T Orr, PM)

Worshipful Master, Distinguished Brethren, Brethren all:

Following as I do the papers prepared by Worshipful Brothers Donald Fleming and Ralph Seligman, both outstanding members of the legal profession, it is with a certain amount of trepidation that a humble member of the Scottish Banking profession comes before you tonight to offer his attempt to accept the challenge of Worshipful Brother Seligman to open "The Treasure Chest of Freemasonry" which he so ably described.

I entered our great fraternity in Shanghai, China, and my Mother Lodge is Lodge St Andrew in the Far East No. 493 on the Roll of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. The Lodge has in the meantime been transferred to Hong Kong. I have, in consequence, been interested in Freemasonry in that part of the world where I spent some thirty years of my life, and I thought you might be interested to have some information about how Freemasonry got started, developed, and indeed flourished in that other hemisphere.

My research initially led me to the question of the origin of Freemasonry and I learned that in 1909, the year of my birth, Brother Charles Bernarden reported, after a study of over two hundred volumes dealing with the subject, many and varied claims as to the origin, one even claiming it existed before the Creation. One book traced the origin to the Emperor of China, another to the Emperor of Japan, and I mention these two as they relate to that part of the universe covered by this paper.

While visiting the Grand Lodge of Scotland, earlier this year, I came across what I consider to be a rare gem in the Treasure Chest. It was a lecture given by a Brother Herbert A Giles to the Ionic Lodge of Amoy No 1781 at Amoy, China in the year 1880.

Unfortunately I did not have the time to make a thorough study of all he had to say. The main theme of his talk was the similarity of the practices of the secret societies of China to those of Freemasonry and how the Confucian rituals, performed by the Emperor of China to ensure continuance of the mandate of Heaven, bore a close relationship to the ceremonials of the craft.

A student of the Chinese language, he produced evidence of a number of their characters to show how they resembled the symbols with which we are familiar. Whereas we talk of the "Square and Compasses", Confucius wrote of the "Compasses and Square". He also wrote of "The man of the level" "The level man".

This however, is another subject, but before leaving it, I would just like to say that I have been greatly impressed by the similarity of the tenets of Freemasonry and the thinking of Confucius who lived in the 5th Century BC.

As a background, a very brief history of the Far East might not be out of place.

Da Gama set sail Eastwards at the same time as Columbus sailed for the West both hoping to find the East Indies, and whereas Columbus discovered America, Da Gama discovered the Far East. Following on his discovery the Spanish settled in the Philippines and the Dutch in Java. The Portuguese who had settled in Malaya were probably the first to trade with the Chinese and for their protection of China against the Japanese pirates they were permitted to settle on the island of Macau in the Pearl River Delta.

During this period the British were establishing themselves strongly in India, but it was not long before they ventured further East to join in the search for the rich spoils of the Orient. At first they were turned away by the Chinese as pirates, but by the end of the 17th century they had established themselves in Macau.

Trade with China was restricted to the port of Canton and was rigidly controlled to make as much money out of the foreigners as possible and to keep their polluting influence away from the residents of the Celestial Empire.

Restrictions were imposed on foreign merchants, which lasted for 120 years. These were:

  1. No warship could enter the Pearl River;
  2. Merchants could enter Canton only from September to March, without arms, wives or children;
  3. Pilots, boatmen and agents had to be registered;
  4. The number of servants was limited, and no European could be taught Chinese.
  5. No excursions were permitted, except that each man might visit the public gardens of Honan Island three times a month, during daylight, if sober, and in number less than ten at a time;
  6. All business, complaints, request, petitions and any contact whatsoever had to be conducted through monopolist contractors called the Hong merchants;
  7. Smuggling and credit were forbidden;
  8. Ships had to anchor, load and unload at Whampao, thirteen miles from Canton.

Some of these were obvious and reasonable, but others in particular must have seemed unnecessarily restrictive.

We now come to the question of the establishment of Freemasonry in the Far East. What is claimed to be the first mention of the Craft in the Far East relates to two Irish masons who in 1756 were tried by the Inquisition in Manila, but being under British protection, were released with a reprimand. (I could not resist putting in that little titbit which I thought might amuse Worshipful Brother Seligman.)

The Premier Grand Lodge was founded in London in 1717 and shortly thereafter in Ireland, France and Scotland. Surprisingly however, the first reference to Freemasonry in China comes from Sweden. In the middle 18th century several Freemasons in Sweden who were in the employ of the Swedish East India Company requested permission to hold Lodge meetings during their voyages overseas. Their enthusiasm resulted in their being granted a Charter to hold meetings "wherever they came to shore". The Lodge was called after their ship, The Prince Carl, and was known as "Prince Carl's Lodge". Actual records of any meetings in China do not exist, but the Prince Carl did dock in Canton and minutes of their meetings were found were badly singed which indicates they may have been destroyed by fire.

There are records to show that Lodge of Amity No. 407 existing under the Premier Grand Lodge of England was meeting in a private room in Canton in China about the year 1768 and there are indications that Lodge Amity and the Swedish Masons in China worked very closely together.

It is not until the middle of the 19th century, however, that there are any substantial records of the Craft in the East.

A new start was made in Hong Kong in the year 1844 when Royal Sussex Lodge No. 735 was granted a warrant and their first meeting was held on the 3rd of April 1845, eight years after Royal Victoria Lodge was consecrated in the Bahamas.

Most of the founders of the Lodge were Irish Brethren and it was at one time thought it was named after the Royal Sussex Regiment which was connected with Hollywood, a small town in North Ireland. The name, however, relates to the Duke of Sussex, who was Grand Master from 1813 to 1843. The senior warden was Viscount Suirdale later 4th Earl of Donoughmore and the 7th Earl is the present Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Ireland.

About this time was inaugurated the first direct mail service between London and Hong Kong and the Colony expanded rapidly with the increased volume of trade and it was not long before another Lodge was formed called Zetland Lodge, after the then Grand Master. Both Lodges worked harmoniously together but with the transfer of a large number of members to Canton, the main port of entry into China at the time, permission was granted to establish the Royal Sussex Lodge there. While in Canton, Royal Sussex Lodge founded the first Royal Arch Chapter in China which was named the Celestial Chapter.

Shanghai was beginning to develop as a trading post during this period and with the transfer of certain of the brethren in the south there, they along with Masons from other parts of the world, brought about the formation of the Northern Lodge of China No.832.

It is interesting to note that the great Masonic historian, Brother R F Gould was at one time Master of Northern Lodge and quite naturally, was instrumental in the furtherance of Freemasonry in China.

This enthusiastic revival of Masonry in China did not unfortunately last very long. Royal Sussex Lodge which had moved to Canton, returned to Hong Kong and fell into abeyance. Zetland Lodge in Hong Kong went through certain vicissitudes and Northern Lodge in Shanghai had a declining membership. These three Lodges, however, survived and formed the foundation of all subsequent Lodges in China and Hong Kong. Suffice it to say that the military activity during this period was largely responsible for the decline. I will mention only two incidents which will give you an indication of what was happening.

In January 1857 there was an attempt to kill the entire European population of Hong Kong by poisoned bread; the Celestials, of course, ate rice. In February 1856, a French missionary proselytising illegally in a remote part of Kwangsi, after being shut in a cage, had been killed by officials and his head thrown to the dogs.

However, by the year 1860 a new spirit was developing in China and Hong Kong. Feudalism was giving way to the beginning of a more modern outlook. The Treaty of Nanking in 1842 had given Britain permanent cession of Hong Kong and the population increased rapidly. In Shanghai, Northern Lodge laid the foundation stone for a new Masonic temple and Zion Chapter was consecrated there. Royal Sussex Lodge, which had been in abeyance in Hong Kong, was transferred to Shanghai. Details of the application for the removal to Shanghai are missing, but the famous Brother R F Gould played a large part in the transfer, as he became the first member in Shanghai, and the first honorary member.

The question of the initiation of Chinese nationals into the Craft met with considerable opposition at first and much has been written on this subject. I will only say that the situation was finally resolved and there are many members of my Mother Lodge who are Chinese.

Another subject on which much has been written was the dispute as to whether or not the control of Freemasonry in China should be centred in Hong Kong or Shanghai. Similar controversies took place in England and Scotland between the various centres of Masonry there, and while some of the correspondence relating to the dispute is very interesting, I will again just say that I am happy to report the question was resolved and two separate districts were formed both under the English and Scottish Grand Lodges.

They no longer, of course, exist in Shanghai because of the takeover by the communists and are now only in Hong Kong, where they co-exist in the happiest fraternal spirit along with the Inspectorate District of the Far East of the Grand Lodge of Ireland.

I would ask your forbearance while I give you a short history of my Mother Lodge, which has had a somewhat checkered survival.

It was inaugurated on 28th June 1868, and although a daughter Lodge of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, the majority of Masons present at the meeting were English Masons. Lodge Cosmopolitan, the existing Scottish Lodge had taken exception to Grand Lodge having sanctioned a Charter for a new Lodge, and did, in fact, oppose the petition.

That year, Lodge Cosmopolitan held the Festival of St Andrew on the Saint's Day as usual, and a touch of humorous sarcasm was introduced here and there when toasting "Our sister Lodge in Shanghai". The music following each toast was obviously carefully chosen, such as the 'Blue Bonnets over the Border', a reference to Lodge St Andrew's choice of garter blue regalia. Lodge Cosmopolitan was apparently right to have opposed the new Lodge, for although St Andrew was extremely active, the number of Freemasons in Shanghai dwindled. An attempt was made to amalgamate with Cosmopolitan, but the ill-feeling between the Lodges had not died. And after a short but happy career, the Lodge became dormant in 1874 and returned its warrant to Grand Lodge. Fortunately this was not the end of its life. Just after the turn of the 19th century, Lodge Cosmopolitan decided the time had come for the formation of a second Scottish Lodge and although attempts were made to revive St Andrew and office bearers were, in fact, appointed, it was found impossible to resuscitate it under Grand Lodge Rules, as it had been dormant too long. A new Lodge was therefore formed, Lodge Saltoun, named after a Past Grand Master.

However, late in 1917, consideration was again given to forming yet another Scottish Lodge, and as there was still in Shanghai one surviving member of Lodge St Andrew, who had been a Past Master, and one of the original founders, it was possible, under Grand Lodge Rules, to resuscitate my Mother Lodge. On 18th February 1919, as it happens, my 10th birthday, an informal meeting was held in the Masonic Hall to discuss arrangements. I am glad to report the inauguration and installation meeting was held on the 4th March 1919, and I was delighted to be introduced by Brother Reiach to a friend of his in Toronto, Worshipful Brother Joseph J Evans, with whom I have been in contact, and who was, in fact, present at the consecration. All went well until World War II when those members still in Shanghai were held in Japanese Prison Camps. The Lodge was, however, fortunate, for on release from internment members found their regalia and records intact and were able to immediately recommence holding meetings.

Informal get-togethers had been held while in confinement and the ritual kept alive.

It was just after the war that I arrived in Shanghai and joined the Lodge, and all was again going well until the arrival of the communists in 1949. That is another story and I will just say that the last summons I received before leaving Shanghai in November 1951, bore the Crests of both Cosmopolitan and St Andrew. While our temple still stood, prohibitive taxation had been introduced on the building, which the few of us left could not hope to pay. To hold our meetings we removed the connecting wall of two apartments and set up the Lodge there.

Then came the apparent end for my Mother Lodge for the second time. At a meeting held the month after I left it was decided the Lodge become dormant and return the Charter to Grand Lodge. Fortunately Grand Lodge did not act on the resolution as the Scottish District in Hong Kong had expressed its willingness for the Lodge to be transferred there. How happy I was to arrive in Hong Kong in 1953 and to be able to assist in setting up our Lodge again and to have the honour of being elected Master of the Lodge in 1954.

While I have been concentrating on Hong Kong and China, you might like to know what was happening in Japan, the Philippines and the other parts of Far East.

The first trace of a Masonic ceremony in Japan relates to a Masonic funeral given to two Dutch Captains, who had been murdered in Yokohama in the year 1860. There is a legend, however, that the first Masonic meeting held in Japan was held among American Masons who came to Japan with the American expeditionary forces led by Commodore Perry, as early as 1853, but there is no authentic evidence to prove the event. However, on the 26th June 1866, Yokohama Lodge No. 1092 was consecrated under the Grand Lodge of England. This was after the arrival of a regimental Lodge, The Sphinx, working under the Grand Lodge of Ireland, when it was thought there ought to be a Lodge of local habitation and name. During the next six years, three other Lodges were formed, a second lodge in Yokohama, the Nippon Lodge in Tokyo, and the Rising Sun in Kobe. Shortly thereafter in 1873, a patent was issued which enabled the inaugural meeting of the District Grand Lodge of Japan to be held on the 15th August 1874.

Japanese law at that time prohibited all secret societies and no Japanese subject could be initiated into the Craft and with the end of extraterritorial jurisdiction at the close of the last century, Freemasonry, because of its benevolent efforts was only permitted to carry on its work, provided it was conducted quietly and without ostentation and any public display.

It was not until January 1950, several years after the Second World War, that the headline appeared in the Japanese press "Portals of Freemasonry are opened to Japanese".

I had hoped tonight to cover the Philippines and other Far Eastern Lodges, but I feel I have already put your patience to such a sufficiently severe test that I think it appropriate to postpone it to some future date, particularly as the history of Masonry in the Philippines is most diverse and has been complicated by disputes between differing Grand Lodges and the Roman Catholic Church.

I will just read you extracts from an Edifying Dialogue of the year 1821, published in the Philippines as church propaganda.

"Q - What is the cause of the universal turmoil that we are witnessing?
A - A society or fraternity of wicked men, selected from the worst elements in every class, nation and sect.

Q - What do they intend to do so as to give the world the liberty to live like animals, without religion or rational obedience?
A - Destroy, first, revealed religion, and then monarchical government, which are the obstacles that stand in the way of liberty and animal equality.

Q - Where do they make their plans for this regeneration and happiness?
A - In their Lodges and clubs or nocturnal secret meetings. There they mix poisons, forge deeds and wills and do thousands of other evil and shameful acts.

Q - Have they many of these Lodges?
A - Innumerable

Q - What remedy is there against these scoundrels?
A - Political, civil and ecclesiastical excommunication".

I hope I have been able to interest some of you in Freemasonry in the Far East and if you wish to pursue the subject further I would strongly recommend that you read the very excellent book by Christopher Haffner "The Craft in the East", from which I have gleaned most of the details I have given you tonight. The book was prepared as part of the celebration of the centenary of the District Grand Lodge of Hong Kong and the Far East, and is full of the most interesting information.

In conclusion, I would just like to say that while preparing this address I have realised more than ever how fortunate we are to be members of this wonderful brotherhood, which down through the ages has spread that friendship given to us by the Founder of all faithful Friendship.

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