Friday, May 27, 2005

Paul Chater: The Father of Modern Hong Kong

Sir Paul Chater is a giant of Hong Kong history. When the great man died 79 years ago on this day, his passing was mourned in Hong Kong by bestowing on him the city's greatest honor - the stock exchange was closed for the rest of the day.

His complete achievements are too many to enumerate here, but he can be said, more than any other man, to have created modern Hong Kong.

He was a visionary. As a tireless member of the Legislative Council for four decades, he single-handedly pushed through the reclamation of the northern waterfront that allowed modern Central to develop - without him, the waterfront today would be on Des Voeux Road. He was a founder of the Hong Kong Electric Company and China Light and Power, recognizing the huge demand that would come for electricity. He also bought coal mines in Vietnam to fuel these facilities!

He was a businessman of genius. In combination with Jardine Matheson, he possessed the foresight to buy up much of the property of the modern Central district, giving the company he co-founded, Hong Kong Land, a huge slice of the lucrative Central office rental market, and more importantly a base upon which to grow the seamless retail environment that makes the district unique.

He knew how to take risks - and win. After the great typhoon of 1872, he spent HK$53,000 on buying up the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, against the conventional wisdom of the time that Kowloon would never amount to anything. He also invested in a state-of-the-art docks facility, again with Jardines, that became the Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company - the company later became a tremendous success. As a member of the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, he dominated the local racing scene, with his partner Sir Hormusjee Mody and himself calling themselves Mr. Buxey and Mr. Paul, discreetly winning 27 out of the 44 key races in one particular season.

Finally, he was incredibly generous. He funded a variety of charities, schools and even churches that were not of his Armenian Apostolic faith. Today, on the 79th anniversary of his death, an Armenian Apostolic service was held in St. Andrews church, with the blessing of both the Supreme Patriarch of the Armenian Faith and the Anglican Archbishop of Hong Kong. The choice of venue was an inspired one, since it had been 100 years ago that Sir Paul, originally christened Katchick Boghos Asdvadsaderian, had generously donated the funds that made the Anglican church of St. Andrew's possible. The ceremony was formal and traditional, and a group of Sir Paul's Armenian relatives and descendants, from Calcutta (where he was born) and elsewhere came especially for the event.



Yet this Armenian man has become a forgotten figure amongst most locals, except for those with a penchant for history and an appreciation for his great contributions to this city. The man deserves every accolade for all he has done, and should be remembered for being the most celebrated type of Hong Konger: an immigrant of modest means, who came here and made his fortune with vision, ability and hard work.

16 comments:

TP said...

I wish his mansion on Conduit Road had survived.

Maybe Wharf and Hong Kong Land should do more to commemorate him...

Dave and Stefan said...

Hi TP,

Indeed, Marble Hall would have been a magnificent survival from an earlier age. According to Vaudine England in her book, "The Quest for Noel Croucher", Chater allowed other younger fellows and their companions very liberal use of his house for entertainments, and was a very kind host.

I think Hong Kong until recently has tried to avoid giving too much credit to non-Chinese individuals in their historic contributions. While it is important to point out the previously neglected role of Chinese actors/agents in Hong Kong history, it's equally important to give credit where it is due. Perhaps this will come as Hong Kong grows in confidence in its identity with regard to its colonial past as the Handover recedes into history.

liz chater said...

Hi my name is Liz Chater and I have written a brief biography on Sir Catchick Paul Chater. I was recently in Hong Kong for the pilgrimage organised by the Armenian Church in Kolkata and along with other living relatives of Sir Paul, attended the service at St. Andrews and the blessing of his grave in Happy Valley. Better Late Than Never.....to remember such a remarkable man.

Dave and Stefan said...

Dear Liz,

I really enjoyed your website! The tablets to Chater and the other Armenians were amazing, thank you for the link.

I was really very happy to see a contingent of Chater's former relations and other Armenians honor him in the recent visit to Hong Kong. I hope you had an enjoyable and memorable time while you were here; Hong Kong owes it to you for all the great man did for this city. I would love to read your biography!

liz chater said...

Yes, we all had a good time in Hong Kong, it really was a unique time. Thanks for your comments on my website, I'm always updating it, but it will only be of interest if you happen to be a CHATER wanting to know about your genealogy! With regard to my book, assuming you're in Hong Kong, contact the Royal Asiatic Society, I left a pile of books with them which I believe they were going to distribute/put in their library.

David L. said...

Stefan and Dave, your comments on Sir Paul were very interesting. Ms. Chater's website is fascinating! I'm a HK Chinese but I've been away from home for a long time and I'm just searching all over the the internet for things related to Hong Kong's history.

What a pity that the Marble Hall burned down!! I looked at the pictures at Ms. Chater's website and it was just a nice piece of architecture that we missed.

Does anyone know or have pictures of Buxey Lodge, the house of Sir Paul's friend? It is at 35 Conduit Road, I think. (Marble Hall was at 1 Conduit Road).

Just in general, could you all provide some interesting books (illustrated or not, hopefully illustrated) that detail some of the old, fine architecture of colonial Hong Kong? Books containing information about the current status of the buildings would be nice.

THANK YOU SO MUCH.

David L. said...

sorry, I just wanted to add this question to my last comment/list of questions:

Does anyone know what happened to the "Moutain Lodge," the Governor's summer residence on the Peak? I saw an old photo of it in Nigel Cameron's "An Illustrated History of Hong Kong", p.200. The caption of the photo says: "In 1902, Sir Henry Blake and his family moved into the newly rebuilt Mountain Lodge, the Governor's official summer resisdence on the Peak." But there is no information pertaining to its current status (still standing or destroyed?)

Dave and Stefan said...

Hi David,

With regard to Mountain Lodge, that was eventually declared unsafe for habitation, I believe after the War, and was pulled down. If you go up to the Peak, opposite the new Mount Austin development, you can still see a park that once was the location of Mountain Lodge, and you can still see the foundations of the building. I believe, incidentally, that it was Governor Richard MacDonnell's move up to the Peak, in I believe 1866, that kicked off the move by the upper crust of colonial society up to the Peak.

Unfortunately, David, I do not have a picture of Buxey Lodge. I think if you really are interested, though, you may want to go to the Resource Centre of the Hong Kong Museum of History. I believe they have one of the world's largest collection of old images, and they are mostly very well indexed. I highly recommend it - we'll definitely be delving in there and getting copyright permissions for photos for our upcoming book!

David said...

Hi Stefan and Dave,

Thank you for your response! Would you please tell me what is your forthcoming book about and what is its title? I'll be sure to be on the lookout for it.

I wish I could go to HK right now and do all kinds of research and sight-seeing...

Keep up the good work with your blog.

Dave and Stefan said...

Hi David,

Thanks for your comments! We are glad to hear people are enjoying our blog.

Our upcoming book shall be entitled, "Central: Money, Power and the Taipans of Old Hong Kong". It will be an exploration of Hong Kong's (and Central's) past through a geographic exploration of Central district. We'll relate what you see to the momentous people and events that have come before, and try to invest locations in Hong Kong with a sense of history.

We'll definitely keep you informed on its progress through this blog!

Anonymous said...

Chater Hall stands on No 1 Conduit Road.
Buxey Lodge stands on No 37 Conduit Road. They are both blocks of flats for civil servants, and I was fortunate enough have lived at both buildings during my childhood . It wasn't until the last couple of years that I learned of the illustrious history of these 2 addresses.

Anonymous said...

well its a little late to add a comment to this story but i think the following link would be interesting for you to dig up

http://www.vohuman.org/Article/Hormusjee%20Naorojee%20Mody.htm

then name of the gentle man is H.N. Mody. and i wish to know more about him.

contact me on meher@miura.co.in

Anonymous said...

Hello,

I am the sometime secretary of the Hong Kong and Far East Masonic Benevolence Fund Corporation set up by statute under Sir Paul's guidance in 1893. His vision and perspicacity in this venture, like so many others, bore rich fruit that will continue for generation after generation.

Paul Foster

Siu Mine said...

I have been living in 5 Conduit Road for more than 13 years, This building was built on 1975. I always wonder what sort of architecture stood here before that. Could it be something resemble to the majestic Marble Hall? It is a huge loss for all these beauties to fall to those money greedy developers. Anyone out there to tell me bit and piece history of this address and the vicinity please?

James Siu

Anonymous said...

Hello Dave and Stefan, I have just sent an email (I hope) to Liz Chater too since I'm interested in Sir Paul Chater's connection especially to the HK Derby of 1914, linked to a first-ever film recording of the Derby and of other races at Happy Valley in Feb that year, made by the Variety film Exchange Co. If I could exchange letters with you outside making comments on this website that would be great (can I post my email address other than in the "comment"?). I have a site on another remarkable Westerner in Hong Kong, credited among other things with the launch of HK University - see www.donaldofchina.com Thanks for your kind attention and the enlightening comments on Sir Paul Chater... F

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