Perhaps we’re anxious for 1.3 billion Chinese to hear the gospel. Whatever our reasons, the fervor among Church members regarding this topic has spawned a vast network of Mormon folklore, including rumors about how many missionaries will someday be called to China and the unorthodox methods that will be used to call them.
In truth, missionary work has been going strong among the Chinese people for some time now. And while membership within mainland China is, by Chinese law, limited to mostly expatriates and a few Chinese who have been baptized in other countries, in August the Church celebrated fifty years among the Chinese people in Hong Kong and Taiwan .
The Early Beginnings
There is a quiet spot on a trail at the top of Victoria Peak where Ted H. Ong, current president of the China Hong Kong Mission, likes to take new missionaries. There they can see almost the whole of Hong Kong in grand vista below, but it is not just the view that makes this place special. On the rock cliff next to the trail is etched a date, barely visible, but very important to those who are aware of its significance.
The date is July 14, 1949, the day Elder Matthew Cowley and others stood on that spot and in solemn ceremony officially set up the Chinese Mission.
Elder Cowley was not the first Church authority to visit China , however. Elder David O. McKay offered a dedicatory prayer over the land of China while in Beijing during his worldwide tour of Church schools and missions in 1920–1921. And the first official LDS representatives in the area were three missionaries who arrived in 1852, but left after only four months because language barriers and political unrest made missionary work futile.
Political concerns also forced the Church to abandon missionary work in China in Elder Cowley’s day, when the Korean War precipitated the moving of the China Mission office to San Francisco in 1951. The retreat was short-lived this time, however, and in August 1955, just fifty years ago, Joseph Fielding Smith arrived in Hong Kong to organize the Southern Far East Mission. At that time, the mission included Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines, and all of Southeast Asia.
The work among the Chinese people has moved steadily forward ever since.
Hong Kong remains the focal point of the Church in China and much of Asia. Today there are 22,000 members in Hong Kong, including five stakes, one district, one mission, 37 congregations, and 150 missionaries. Most missionaries speak Cantonese, the Chinese dialect spoken in Hong Kong. Only a few are trained in Mandarin, the dialect used by most of Mainland China . There are also Indonesian, Filipino, and Thai members, and missionaries are even beginning to teach investigators from places like Nepal and Vietnam.
The Hong Kong Temple draws members from a vast array of Asian countries and cities, including Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, India, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Guam, Malaysia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Micronesia, and Cambodia. In this atmosphere, headsets for translation are more the norm than the exception.
Among such diverse groups, the Church is a magnet for the humble and devout. One Hong Kong resident originally from Thailand regularly gets her Thai sisters together to feed groups of missionaries in the small common room she shares with several other families. The members and missionaries “give” each other hymns and share testimonies following the meals, and then take photos of each other. The walls are plastered with these pictures of friends. “The space is small,” this sister says, “but the love is big.”
Another recently baptized sister finds joy in the Church’s teachings about work for the dead. Many Buddhists regularly light incense and leave food for dead ancestors. Some even purchase and burn “hell money” for their family members to use on the other side. A devout Buddhist for most of her life, this sister rejoices in knowing how she will now be able to help her ancestors through temple work.
The Church in Taiwan has also seen great growth since the first missionaries arrived in 1956. Although it was originally part of the Southern Far East Mission headquartered in Hong Kong , Taiwan became its own mission in 1971, and is now home to three missions as well as the Taipei temple. In this country of 22.7 million people, there are about 39,000 members in 90 congregations. Like Mainland China, the primary language spoken here is Mandarin.
Growth throughout Asia has been significant enough that President Hinckley recently dedicated a new building on Hong Kong Island . The beautiful red brick structure is located in Wan Chai, and houses, among other things, the new Asian area headquarters.
Hong Kong and China
The history that allows the Church to be in China , albeit Hong Kong , is a miracle. In 1842 Britain won control of Hong Kong as part of the treaty that ended the Opium War between the British and Chinese. By 1898 the colony of Hong Kong included a peninsula attached to mainland China (divided into the New Territories on the north and Kowloon on the south,) and more than 235 islands (including Hong Kong Island).
For years China disputed Britain ’s right to Hong Kong , and eventually a settlement was reached in which the British handed over control to the Chinese in 1997. Under the agreement, Hong Kong is a special administrative region of communist China, and will be allowed to keep its capitalistic system for fifty years.
This chain of events allowed the Church to become firmly established in Hong Kong before the area was returned to China in 1997. It also made it possible for the Hong Kong Temple to be located geographically (but not politically) on the mainland. Under the current system, missionaries in Hong Kong remain busy, and the Church continues to gain Saints.
Surprisingly, there is little concern expressed among the people of Hong Kong about what will happen as 2047 approaches. The reason may have more to do with China ’s role in the world economy than it does with any real political reform. The Communist Party of China began in 1979 to promote policies aimed at restructuring the struggling Chinese economy. With an eye toward foreign investors and increasing its exports, China has made impressive progress, and the economy has grown at around 9 percent a year for more than 25 years. To put that in perspective, China’s exports to the U.S. have grown by 1,600 percent over the past 15 years, and US exports to China have grown by 415 percent.
One of China’s exports not counted in that statistic is students. A surprising number attend colleges in England , Australia , the U.S. , and elsewhere. As these students finish school and take their places in Chinese companies, they are bound to bring with them a Western look at the world. Combine that with an increasing number of foreigners working and living in China , and the influence grows. Many Hong Kong residents express optimism that that influence will ultimately expand to include the areas of culture and religion. “The closed door has opened a crack,” remarked one Chinese tour guide. “It would be difficult to close it again.”
Until that front door opens wider, some groups may be tempted to sneak into the mainland through the back door. The Church, however, characteristically remains obedient to the laws of the land, and LDS officials wait patiently on the front porch, faithfully praying for an invitation to come in and share the blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ with the people of mainland China.
Faith and Hope
One Chinese sister who moved to Hong Kong from the mainland as a teenager tells her story. When she first was converted to the gospel, she faced serious opposition from her parents, who refused to allow her to be baptized until her eighteenth birthday. At the time, there was much contention in their home, and the gospel was an unwelcome complication and very upsetting to her family. As soon as she reached the appointed age, however, she was baptized, and her sister soon followed suit. Then a remarkable thing happened. Things calmed in their home, and the gospel in the lives of two daughters brought a new spirit of peace and love. That sister is now serving as a missionary in her home city of Hong Kong , and while her parents have not joined the church, the former animosity has faded.
One can hope that this family’s story foreshadows the story of the Church in mainland China . Perhaps someday soon this country’s leaders will allow, and then welcome the Church into their homes and know the change for good that comes from Saints who live and love the gospel.