On July 12, 1,500 Latter-day Saints gathered in several chapels in the Church’s 12-story Wan Chai, Hong Kong, building to commemorate a quiet beginning involving seven people.
It was a typical humid Hong Kong summer day on July 14, 1949, when Elder Matthew Cowley of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, Sister Elva Cowley, President and Sister Hilton Robertson and their daughter, Carolyn, and President and Sister Henry Wong Aki found a secluded place on Victoria Peak to pray.
Said Elder Cowley, “We went upon what is known as The Peak, the highest eminence overlooking the beautiful city of Hong Kong, and on to the mainland of China, and there we officially opened the mission by a brief service, each of us praying in turn.”
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve, who took part in the recent celebration through a recorded video message, noted, “Elder Cowley’s reference to President McKay already having dedicated the Chinese realm is a reason some believe Elder Cowley did not dedicate Hong Kong, but simply opened the mission there.”
In the years since the mission in Hong Kong was opened, the Church has expanded to include over 850,000 members meeting in 1,500 congregations in 18 countries in this region. Although initially interrupted by a lack of regional stability, missionary work began to rapidly expand when H. Grant Heaton was assigned as the first mission president of the Southern Far East Mission in 1955. At that time, the mission was based in Hong Kong and included Guam, Mongolia, Taiwan, the Philippine islands, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, India and “everything in between.”
In a seminar at BYU in the fall of 1971, Brother Heaton spoke of the gathering that took place in those early years. “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. On that baptismal record, it would list the place of birth. We had members of the Church from ... Tibet, from up in the Russian Steppes and from Mongolia. We had them from the northern parts of India, from Burma and from Indonesia and Laos. We had people joining the Church in Hong Kong and Formosa (Taiwan), covering the entire area of Asia.”
Not only did the Lord gather His elect, He also taught them through the Spirit. Brother Heaton explained, “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 the elders try to give the lessons I wrote in Chinese, and I still couldn’t understand them, and yet people started coming into the Church.”
He went on to explain, “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.”
By 1957, the Southern Far East Mission led all missions in the Church in convert baptisms per missionary, and the work continued to expand. The first four missionaries were sent to Taiwan in 1956. Four others were sent from Hong Kong to the Philippines in 1961, which became a separate mission in 1967. In late 1967, six elders left Hong Kong, bound for Thailand, to open missionary work in “the land of smiles.”
In 1968, two missionaries were sent to Singapore, which became the seat of the South East Asia Mission a year later. In 1973, four missionaries were sent to Vietnam, and the mission in Hong Kong was renamed the Hong Kong-Saigon Mission for a short period in history. Thus, the restored gospel of Jesus Christ began to roll forward in this region of Asia.
By 1993, when the India Bangalore Mission was opened, there were already 1,150 members and 13 branches in that country. That same year, Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dedicated Mongolia for missionary work.
The pace is accelerating. Thailand, which just added a second stake and a district in June of this year, experienced fifty percent more convert baptisms in the first half of 2014 than they did in all of 2013. The first two stakes of the Church in Cambodia were created in May of this year, just 20 years after missionary work began. Recently, the Church received formal recognition in Vietnam.
The Lord is bringing forth His work as Isaiah prophesied and Nephi felt to again record for our day: “And then, O house of Israel, behold, these shall come from far; and lo, these from the north and from the west; and these from the land of Sinim.
“Sing, O heavens; and be joyful O earth; for the feet of those who are in the east shall be established” (I Nephi 21: 12-13).
During a recent visit to the Asia Area, Elder Holland noted, “The Spirit of the Lord is moving over this vast area. It would be undeniable, it would be impossible not to grasp, not to feel that there is a great work unfolding here.”