Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Pirates of Hong Kong

Hong Kong has had a long history of piracy. Before it was accidentally christened "Hong Kong" by British visitors interrogating Aberdeen (Heung Kong Tsai) villagers about the name of their island (the villagers thought the British were asking for the name of their village), it was called the Ladrones Islands. Named so by the Portuguese, it means "thieves" or "pirates" in the Lusitanian language. Piracy had been an endemic problem on the South coast of China, the edge of the Chinese empire. Read more about pirates during the Ming dynasty here.

At the beginning of the Manchu reign, great efforts were made to suppress the problem, given that many were actually Ming dynasty rebels. No measure being too strong, the Qing dynasty actually forcibly moved thousands of villages away from China's coastline in the late 17th century. The pirate problem was solved, because the pirates found no succor amongst coastal villages, but hundreds of thousands of Chinese starved or were reduced to penury.

The piracy problem never really went away, though. And by the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was back with a vengeance. Queen of the Pirates, Cheng Yi Sao, commanded as many as 1,500 pirate junks and 80,000 fighting men along with her second husband Cheung Po-Tsai (posterity seems only to remember him though - he will be portrayed by Chow Yuen-Fatt soon in a sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean). They defeated the Qing navy in open battle on a few occasions and were only beaten by advanced British Royal Navy gunships. Still, piracy continued to be a problem well into the 20th century in the seas around Hong Kong and Macau (including another famous pirate queen Lai Choi-San, who held Macau's government to ransom). You'll find more stories about pirates in both our Central and Tsim Sha Tsui walks! Tsim Sha Tsui, today a tourist Mecca, was too once a haven for pirates

And still is today, judging from the legions of copy watch sellers and other equally dubious vendors on Nathan and Peking Roads. It must be welcome news for the long-suffering defenders of intellectual property in Hong Kong that local boy scout troops now may earn an Intellectual Property badge. Even if they're eagle scouts though, I can't imagine them taking on the triad gangs behind these businesses!

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