Friday, July 29, 2005

Governor Hennessy and Wing Lok Street

Many of you who've been to Hong Kong may have spent some time on the corner of Wing Lok Street, a short road sandwiched between Queen's Road and Des Voeux Road as both major arteries head into Western district. Today it is a busy crossroads with mobile phone shops, restaurants, and an entrance to the MTR station that emits thousands of busy pedestrian subway riders every day.

What you may not know though, is that Wing Lok Street in 1878, during the tenure of Governor John Pope-Hennessy, was the site of perhaps Hong Kong's most daring robbery. Now Hennessy, has we have revealed in previous posts, had taken a liberal attitude towards rules for the Chinese, and had removed some of the more strict punishments for Chinese criminals like flogging and branding them before deportation to the mainland. The colonial community was up in arms at these relaxations of the rules, which they felt were the only thing standing between order and anarchy. They felt that a rise in the crime rate was attributable specifically to these moves. They didn't like his appointment of Ng Choy, the first Chinese in Legco, to the chamber either.

So imagine the outcry when the following incidents took place, as described excellently by Crisswell and Watson in their book on the Hong Kong police force, 1841-1946:

"On September 25th 1878 there was a sensational attack on a gold dealer'’s shop in Wing Lok Street by between 80 and 100 armed men. The robbers, reputedly from Sham Shui Po, had planned their attack well, to the extent of extinguishing the gas lights in Wing Lok Street and the surrounding area. They fought a retreat and eventually escaped on a stolen steam launch."

I shall save you the trouble of imagining the reaction of the newspapers by relaying the story run in the Hong Kong Daily Press:

"such an audacious attack on property as that which took place in Wing Lok Street yesterday morning has not been perpetrated in the Colony for many long years. Matters have surely reached a climax when a band of desperadoes armed with guns, swords spears and stinkpots can assemble and hold a street for some time before it is possible to disperse them. The seizure of the steam launch was an appropriate consummation to the daring defiance given to the Authorities by these miscreants. The Police showed plenty of courage and no lack of promptitude when they ascertained the position of affairs, but their arrangements were not equal to the emergency. Some two years ago we were able to congratulate the community on the decrease in crime of a serious character in Hong Kong, to compliment the police on their increased efficiency and everyone fondly hoped that the old days of frequent highway robberies and burglaries were over and done with. Then came Mr. Hennessy with his new-fangled and humanitarian views as to the treatment of criminals."

The effects were immediate. The colonial community not too long after demanded the Governor's resignation and wrote many letters home to the Secretary for the Colonies. It didn't work immediately, but eventually they got their way. Hennessy was a man before his time, which is why even though many Chinese came to see him off on his departure, not one colonial resident of Hong Kong did the same; it was not until the 1920s that 'Hennessy Road' was named after him in his honor. Appropriately, the road running through Wanchai was in the heart of a Chinese district.


Madame Chiang said...

love the history of the streets...particularly like the robbery story on Wing Lok just smacks of such a bygone era...'extinguishing the gas lamps' and 'escaping on a steam boat'....wonderful...


Anonymous said...

You mention "we have revealed in previous posts", could you please link to those old posts so we are read and enjoy them again.

Searching is not easy....

Dave and Stefan said...

Dear Madame Chiang,

Glad to hear you are enjoying the street histories! Sorry it is taking me some time to reply to these comments, as doing double duty on Simon's website is somewhat time-consuming (not to mention our company...).

Good point about the links! I'll remind myself to always do that in future. As for the previous post I referred to, the one on Des Voeux Road actually does talk about Hennessy somewhat.