Finding Hong Kong History

Today’s blog post is a brief overview of where and how to find Hong Kong history online. I’ll save the list of archives for another day!

First of all, the Old Hong Kong Newspapers web page on the Hong Kong Public Libraries website is an excellent resource for anyone looking for primary source material on Old Hong Kong. You can search within a wide selection of Chinese and English language newspapers, including the China Mail and the Hong Kong Daily Press, by entering key words in the search engine.

Speaking of newspapers, you can also purchase access to the South China Morning Post Historical Archive, with the first issue stretching back to the newspaper’s founding in 1903. Although there is a paywall (which doesn’t come cheap), the search engine is powerful and the newspapers easier to download than on the Public Libraries website.

Now let’s turn to government records. Of course, the Public Records Office, with its excellent Carl T Smith Collection (and recently updated website), should be the very first port of call for any Hong Kong historian. But for those working outside of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Government Reports Online, a Hong Kong University Library digital initiative, is the next best thing. It provides digital access to four major government publications, namely: the Administrative Report, Hong Kong Hansard, Hong Kong Sessional Papers and Hong Kong Government Gazette. Simply type in a key word, set the date parameters, and off you go.

You can also download council meetings of the Legislative Council from 1858 until 1997 here.

Blogs and websites administered by historians and enthusiasts are another excellent resource. Over at the crowd-sourced and award winning Gwulo website, you can find obscure links to all corners of the internet, anecdotal evidence, memoir, photographs, GPS tagging and more. Its strength lies in the site’s comments section, where relatives and old Hong Kongers regularly post messages and recollections of people, places and events, allowing users to trace the lives of the most marginal figures in the darkest corners of Hong Kong’s history. Similarly, check out Tony Banham’s Hong Kong War Diary for everything on the 1941 defence of Hong Kong and the ensuing occupation. Brian Edgar’s thoughtful blog traces his family’s history and along the way examines race, war and colonialism in Hong Kong through an academic lens. The Hong Kong History Project blog, a relatively recent newcomer to the Hong Kong blogging scene, has all kinds of useful information including a must-read annotated bibliography by historian Vaudine England and a directory of academics working at universities around the world. The project is based at the University of Bristol and aims to encourage new research into Hong Kong’s politics, society, culture and economy.



The Jewish Recreation Club (Hong Kong)

Architectural drawing for the new Jewish Recreation Club, 1950

The Jewish Recreation Club (JRC) of Hong Kong was founded in 1905 as a modest one-roomed building. Sir Elly Kadoorie later offered to pay for the expansion of the building, which was enlarged in 1909. The JRC opened its doors to Jews of every nationality and helped foster friendships among people of diverse backgrounds and cultures. In the early years of the club, members enjoyed tennis, croquet and bowls played in grounds adjacent to the Ohel Leah Synagogue. Although at first the club was closed for games on Saturday (the Sabbath – the day of rest), leisure activities became so popular that the rule was relaxed.

During the 1930s, when war in Europe and China loomed, leisure and social pursuits gave way to community service. Iraqi Jewish refugees fleeing the Japanese bombardment of Shanghai in 1937 and European Jewish refugees escaping Nazism in 1938 were temporarily housed in the club. In December 1941, the Japanese invaded Hong Kong. The JRC survived the Japanese Occupation until two weeks prior to the termination of hostilities, when Japanese forces pulled the club down.

Record 7
Programme for the Purim Ball, held at the Jewish Recreation Club, 1950

The club was eventually rebuilt in 1949. The Purim Ball, held on 11 March 1950, was one of the first social events held in the new club building. Purim is a Jewish holiday that celebrates the salvation of the Jewish people from Haman in ancient Persia, a story recounted in the biblical book of Esther.

Portuguese-Macanese Settlers

In a previous blog posting I explored the history of Hong Kong’s Indian communities. This week I turn my attention to the Portuguese, a community whose presence in Asia since the 16th century helped shape both Macau and Hong Kong as we know them today. 

For a comprehensive reading list on Macau’s history, check out this bibliography.

In 1557 the Ming government allowed the Portuguese to establish a settlement and trading post in Macau. Although overseas trade was banned, Macau soon became the centre of a ‘hemispheric exchange of commodities’ and a base for the introduction of Christianity and Western learning to China due to the efforts of European missionaries. The Portuguese began to arrive in Hong Kong following its cession to the British and an economic downturn in Macau. More would follow in light of the murder of the Governor of Macau, Joao Maria Ferreira do Amaral in 1849 and the destruction wrought by the devastating typhoon of 1874. Portuguese migration was such that eventually they numbered second only to the British among Westerners in the territory.

Argyle Street_5
Jose Pedro (J.P.) Braga, the first Portuguese on the Legislative Council, speaks at the inauguration of ‘Kadoorie Hill’

With education in the English language provided mainly by Catholic mission schools, many Portuguese in Hong Kong worked as clerks, accountants and interpreters for large trading firms such as Jardine, Matheson & Co. or merchant banks such as the The Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corporation. Others set up on their own account, starting businesses in printing, the mercantile goods trade or as stock brokers. Catholicism played a major role in the everyday lives of many Portuguese families and for a time the Catholic population of Hong Kong exceeded the number of Protestants. Macanese children almost always went to Portuguese schools in Kowloon or Hong Kong, mainly organised by Catholic missionary orders such as the French Lasallian Brothers and the Italian Canossian Sisters. Later, the Jesuits were to make their mark. By the 1860s, the Portuguese were numerous and wealthy enough to open the Club Lusitano (December 1866) with a grand ball. The club boasted the best theatre in the territory and was used by drama groups and touring opera companies for many years to come. Other Portuguese clubs were to follow including the Club de Recreio, established as a recreation and sports centre, and the Little Flower Club which focused on charitable initiatives. The Kowloon location of many of these early clubs reflects the early Portuguese settlement of Kowloon following the launch of the Star Ferry service, with many living in the peninsula’s picturesque villas and garden cities developed in the 1920s and 1930s. Especially popular was Soares Avenue in Ho Man Tin, developed by a Portuguese businessman named Francisco Paulo Vasconcelos Soares.

The Braga Family were amongst the earliest and most prominent of the old Portuguese families to settle in Hong Kong. Perhaps most renowned amongst them was Jose Pedro Braga (J.P. Braga), born in Hong Kong in 1871. His forefathers included Manuel Vicente Rosa who came to Macau from Portugal as a judge in 1708, later establishing himself as a merchant known in local mythology as the richest and most hated man in Macau, and Delfino Noronha, the Government Printer for Hong Kong. Working within the context of a deeply stratified colonial society, J.P. Braga was an early advocate of Portuguese rights and championed the development of the Kowloon peninsula and New Territories via his business interests, notably CLP and the Hongkong Engineering and Construction Company (HKECC), on which he worked closely with the Kadoorie family. Seen by his family as a promising young man, Braga was sent to Calcutta for his education. He then worked for some years in his grandfather’s printing firm and later as a teacher and manager of the Hongkong Telegraph, steadily gaining prominence in the Hong Kong Portuguese community. Arguably his greatest achievement for himself and the wider community came later, with his appointment as the first Portuguese member of the Legislative Council in 1929. He took an active interest in the problems of New Territories farmers and spoke out on behalf of junior civil servants and rickshaw drivers. During his time on the Legislative Council Braga also established the British Empire Trade Fair in a bid to boost local commerce following the Great Depression. These fairs were held in the early 1930s on Empire Day (24 May) and were hosted in the lobby of the newly opened Peninsula Hotel, the only venue large enough to house them. Although commerce in Hong Kong remained depressed in the years to come, the fairs were successful in boosting morale in Hong Kong during an economically bleak period.

As a close associate and friend of Robert Shewan, the Scottish founder of CLP, Braga was invited onto the Board of CLP in 1928 (the same year as Elly Kadoorie) and appointed Chairman in 1934 and again in 1938. It was Braga who helped persuade Kadoorie of the limitless possibilities of the New Territories. In the year following their appointment to the Board and despite fierce opposition, Kadoorie and Braga worked together to win the contract for the supply of electricity to the New Territories. They submitted CLP’s plan to Governor Sir Cecil Clementi and the historic agreement was signed on 30 November 1929 with the Director of Public Works. Braga was also a keen supporter of agriculture in the New Territories, an area of land that had been newly leased to the British in 1898. Working alongside Sir Robert Ho Tung, the Eurasian businessman, Braga supported the establishment of a New Territories Agricultural Association. He opened the inaugural show in 1934 and remarked: ‘the day will come when the inhabitants of Hong Kong will look upon the farmers of the New Territories as a very important asset of the Colony’.

In the early 1930s Braga was instrumental in turning around the fortunes of HKECC, a once struggling construction company that went on to acquire one of the last remaining plots for development within Boundary Street (the dependency of old Kowloon as distinct from new Kowloon). Acting as the company’s new Chairman in 1930, Braga persuaded Elly Kadoorie to step in to provide financial backing for a proposed HKECC housing project in Kowloon Tsai. In due course the housing project was successfully completed and recognised as one of the largest property undertakings in the history of Hong Kong. The two principal movers behind the scheme were rewarded with the commemorative street names ‘Kadoorie Avenue’ and ‘Braga Circuit’ in the prestigious development today known as The Kadoorie Estate.


Hong Kong Refuge


The Hong Kong Refuge project, on which this blog is based, is featured on the Hong Kong Heritage Project website, where you’ll also find a catalogue of our oral histories, archival collection and latest events.


Hong Kong’s Indian Communities

Readers of this blog will know that ‘A Borrowed Place’ is dedicated to the history of Jewish refugees in Hong Kong. My posts have so far examined Hong Kong’s refugee history and historiography, its historic Jewish community and the lives of refugees. Today’s post casts an eye on another so-called ‘foreign’ community in Hong Kong; Indians and their arrival in the former British colony.

Since Hong Kong’s earliest days, Parsee and Bohra Muslim traders from India were engaged in the region, opening offices and taking advantage of the economic opportunities and political stability afforded in the territory. In the mid-1840s approximately one-quarter of the foreign businesses in Hong Kong were Indian, and many Indian Muslim firms had been active in Canton since the late 1700s. The Parsee community originally came from Persia but after being expelled in the seventh century built up businesses in the booming ports of Bombay and Calcutta. They were engaged as middlemen with foreign traders and became successful bankers and financiers. Parsees arrived in Hong Kong in the second half of the nineteenth century. Mithaiwala Dorabjee Naorojee was a Parsee entrepreneur and hotelier who arrived in Hong Kong from Bombay in 1852 as a stowaway on a ship bound for China. He began the first regular cross-harbour ferry services between Hong Kong and Kowloon, a business which was sold in 1898 to the Hongkong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Co. marking the beginning of the Star Ferry Company (later a Kadoorie business interest during the twentieth century).

Sir Mody
Sir Hormusjee Naorojee Mody

The Star Ferry played a significant role in helping Naorojee’s Parsee compatriot, Sir Hormusjee Naorojee Mody, develop Kowloon. Mody came to Hong Kong from Bombay in the early 1860s as an experienced printing press manager. He formed a brokerage firm with close friend Sir Paul Chater (an Armenian Christian born in Calcutta) and together they invested in underdeveloped Kowloon. He was commemorated for his efforts with the street name ‘Mody Road’; one of the major thoroughfares in Kowloon. The Ruttonjees were another important Parsee family who made their mark on Hong Kong’s early history. In 1886 Hormusjee Ruttonjee arrived in Hong Kong from India to start business as a wine merchant, and later established the Hong Kong Brewery with the help of his son. As a noted philanthropist, one of his major donations to the Hong Kong community was the Ruttonjee Tuberculosis Sanitorium. The Ruttonjee family were honoured guests along with the Kadoories at the opening ceremony of the newly renovated Sir Ellis Kadoorie School for Indians in 1955.

The Ellis Kadoorie School for Indians group photograph, 1920s

By the mid-twentieth century, Hong Kong’s Indian population rose dramatically with the arrival of migrants from the Sindh and Gujarat provinces. Hindus soon became the largest group of Indians in Hong Kong and they specialised in importing and exporting a wide variety of goods. Amongst them were the Sindhis, who traded through their widespread diasporic links. One of the most distinguished Sindhi families in Hong Kong today is the Harilela family. Hari Harilela (1922 – 2014) was born in Hyderabad, Sindh (now part of Pakistan). He came to Hong Kong with his father Naroomal Mirchandani in the early 1930s and helped provide for his family by hawking goods to the British armed forces. Eventually, the Harilelas established their own tailoring firm which became one of the best clothing houses in the city. The family diversified with the establishment of the Harilela Group in 1959 and soon acquired the Imperial Hotel in 1961, which marked their entry into the hospitality industry. Today the Harilelas are leading members of the wider Indian community in Hong Kong, with many of the family members living together under one roof.