Monday, August 22, 2005

Hong Kong Police Blotter: For 1905

Many of you may be unaware of a wonderful resource in finding old documents about the former Colony of Hong Kong: the archives of the University of Hong Kong. One element of the archives is entitled: The Hong Kong Government Reports Online, which has many different reports from various arms of the government stretching back into the 19th century. Although almost all of the local archives were destroyed (largely for fuel) during the Japanese Occupation, some of it was preserved in London.

My findings from the archives are from the Report of the Captain Superintendent of Police, and of the Superintendent of the Fire Brigade, for the Year 1905. The goings on and crimes of one century ago give us a great insight into the lives and milieu in which Hong Kongers lived one hundred years ago. Let me quote you some of the highlights:

"On the 6th January, a Philippino, named PAGUIN, passenger on board the S.S. Tremont in the Harbour, murdered a Philippino passenger and injured another. He afterwards swam ashore and attacked a rickshaw coolie named CHEUNG FUNG, aged 44, who was at the time sitting in his vehicle near Queen's Street, causing such injuries that he died in hospital the next day. PAGUIN was arrested, convicted at the Criminal Sessions and sentenced to death. The sentence was subsequently commuted to imprisonment for life."

One must recall that there was a very large Philippino, or as we would say today, Filipino community here. In fact, many of the revolutionaries of the Philippines Revolution, such as Rizal and Aguinaldo, planned the revolution from Hong Kong. It was here that they received funding and help with arms and equipment from the Americans to help defeat the colonial Spaniards in 1898. In fact, Admiral Dewey's flotilla sailed from Hong Kong en route to its one-sided battle in Manila Bay.

"On the night of 11th March, SIU SHU and his son SIU YING residing at 124, Wong Nai Wu in the Yaumati district, heard men carrying pigs past their house. They at the time thought their pigs were being stolen and went out to arrest them. One of the six was armed with a revolver, and fired on SIU SHU and his son, both of whom were badly injured and taken to Hospital. SIU SHU recovered from his injuries but SIU YING, aged 27, died next day. No arrest was made."

This short snippet illustrates several things - first, that many Chinese at the time persisted in keeping domesticated animals in the first floor of their houses, despite the risks to health and sanitation. Secondly, Yaumati, or Yau Ma Tei as we know it today, was much less crowded than the densely packed district of 2005. In fact, it was just in transition at that time from a farming village to urban district, thanks to Governor Nathan's construction of Nathan Road out to Yau Ma Tei, which in those days was considered the back of beyond. The fact that no arrest was made attests to both the difficulty of the British authorities to track Chinese that frequently moved between Guangdong province and Hong Kong.

"On the 20th June, the body of SHEK KAU, aged 20, was picked up in the Harbour off the Quarry Bay shipyard. Deceased was a boat girl and lived in a house boat at Shaukiwan. At 10pm on the night of 20th June she left in her boat to ply for hire. At that time she was wearing jewellry value $35. When she was picked up the jewellry was missing, it is supposed robbery was the motive. One man was arrested, and acquitted at the Criminal Sessions."

There is a great sadness to this factfile. The Tanka boat people, as late as the 1960s still a sizeable population living on the water, were considered the lowest rung of society and had been forbidden by the Qing dynasty to own land. They were also the first to be willing to cast aside loyalty to the Chinese Emperor and aid the British during the first opium war. Many of their young women also became mistresses to Western merchants and administrators, becoming 'pensioners' when these men inevitably returned home. Many also worked as prostitutes for both Westerners and Chinese, and entertained clients on their houseboats. The Captain Superintendent leaves some ambiguity in the phrase 'to ply for hire'. But if she had been simply taxi-ing passengers to and from Kowloon, it is unlikely she would have been wearing jewellry of some value.

"On 17th October, the steam-launch Evening Star collided with and capsized a rowing boat No. 3502 while sailing in the Harbour between the French mail buoy and Blake Pier with the result that two persons lost their lives. The master of the launch was arrested, and later discharged by the Police Magistrate."

What is interesting to note is that the Evening Star was in fact the first steam-launch to be used as part of the Star Ferry service started by the Indian Parsee Dorabjee Nowrojee. He had originally used it as a way to make bread deliveries to ships in the harbour, and also as his own private transport home to Kowloon from Hong Kong every night. He had called it Evening Star because one of his favorite poets was Alfred Lord Tennyson, in particular Crossing the Bar. The first line of the poem is Sunset - and Evening Star, and One Clear Call for Me! He regarded the Evening Star as his personal call to go home for dinner with the family.

That's all for today. Hope you enjoyed this sorrowful walk down memory lane...

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