Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Across 127 Aprils

Today seems a rather inauspicious date in history by Chinese reckoning, given that the number 4 (which sounds like death) appears twice. Supporters of Chiang Kai-Shek might have found it so, as the man that had dominated headlines in China for half a century expired on this date on April 4th, 1975.

I allude in my title to an excellent work of historical fiction entitled "Across Five Aprils,", about the experience of one family divided by the American Civil War. Perhaps also apropos for the battle of civil liberties left very much unfinished by that conflict, and that had to wait until the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s; today after all, was the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, as all you U2 fans should remember.

But it is Hong Kong I speak of now, and the fascinating Magistrate's Court Summary from April 7th, 1879 that notes the cases for which a cross-section of Hong Kong's population were prosecuted. What is notable about these cases is that many of them are not crimes today, or at least would have been prosecuted for different reasons. The sparing language of the magistrate's court nevertheless betrays a way of life for the Hong Kong Chinese that speaks volumes about the adjustments they had to make in a British Colony with alien rules:
...3. Lo A-hoi, a carpenter, was on the 31st March convicted of attempting to use a certificate of registration belonging to another person, whilst offering himself as security for a prisoner at the Magistracy, and fined $10 or twenty-one days' imprisonment in default.

4. Ho A-wan, a widow, was convicted on the 1st April of exposing the dead body of a female child at a timber shed in Second Street. [my car mechanic's garage is there now! - Ed.] The Magistrate fined her $20 or seven days' imprisonment with hard labour.

5. Fong A-yat, an accountant of the "Fau-On" pawnshop at Wellington Street, was convicted on the 1st instant [April-Ed.] of having in his possession a quantity of prepared opium without a permit from the Opium Farmer. He was fined $200 or three months' imprisonment with hard labour and the whole of the opium and utensils seized, together with a moiety of the fine, if paid, were declared by the Magistrate as forfeited to the Opium Farmer [The person or company that had bought the monopoly license from the government that year to exclusively vend opium to retailers].

6. Lau A-him, a mat-packer, was on the 4th instant convicted of having in his possession a tin of prepared opium without a permit from the Opium Farmer, and was sentenced to pay a fine of $50, and in default of payment to be imprisoned for four weeks with hard labour. The opium found was ordered to be confiscated and delivered to the Opium Farmer.

7. Lau A-him [naughty boy - Ed.], the same person as above, was further convicted of offering a bribe to a Constable, and fined $10, in default of payment to be imprisoned for seven days with hard labour, the same taking effect at expiration of the sentence in the above case.[Obviously the bribed offered was not big enough - Ed.]

8. Tang Wan-hing, master of the "Hang-mau-I-ki" chandlery, was convicted on the 1st instant of giving a receipt for a sum of money exceeding $10 without affixing a receipt stamp to it, and fined $10 or twenty-one days' imprisonment.

9. Fung A-po, an old offender, wo had been several tims in Gaol and finally banished, [he was probably branded - Ed.] was charged with returning to the Colony ebfore the expiry of the term of his banishment. The Magistrate sentenced him to twelve months' imprisonment with hard labour, on the 3rd instant.

10. Sham A-wai, proprietor of the 'Tai-shing' shop was summoned at the instance of the Inspector of Markets for keeping kerosine oil in his shop in contravention of section XI of the Dangerous Goods Ordinance, 1873. He admitted the offence, but pleaded ignorance of the law. The Magistrate inflicted a fine of $50 in this instance, and told the Defendant that he was liable under the Ordinance to a penalty of $100 a day for each day during which the oil was so kept.
A groundbreaking study done by Christopher Munn a few years ago revealed that as much as 8% of the Chinese population in Hong Kong a few decades earlier (in the 1850s) had been subject to the court system. This indicated an unfamiliarity with many of what seemed to the Chinese at the time entirely byzantine and arbitrary rules by which the gwailos wanted to govern the city. Given that most of the growth in Hong Kong was attributable to new immigration, many newcomers to the city learned the hard way how not to cross the local legal system...

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