Book Excerpt: Hong Kong’s In-Between History

The conventional view of Hong Kong history sees it as a territory caught between two competing forces: China, the country it has been part of for millennia, and Britain, the imperial power that colonised it for 156 years. But what makes Hong Kong a truly interesting and distinctive place is everything that happened in the space between those two forces.

That in-between space and the people who inhabited it is what interests Vaudine England. The longtime Hong Kong journalist and historian’s latest book is Fortune’s Bazaar: The Making of Hong Kongwhich looks at the fascinating and overlooked history of Hong Kong’s diversity. It is the first comprehensive account of the swirl of people from different parts of the world who made the city what it is today.

Fortune’s Bazaar’s cover, written by Vaudine England, published by Simon & Schuster (U.K.)

“There are swathes of Hong Kong history that nobody knows about, that are not properly researched or overlooked,” says England. This is especially true for Hong Kong’s first century under British rule, from the 1840s to World War II. It very quickly became a cosmopolitan hub, but records are relatively scarce and thorough historical accounts few and far between. Fortune’s Bazaar makes up for that with lively investigations into Hong Kong’s ethnically mixed and culturally fluid early days, from overlooked Eurasian elites to the so-called Portuguese community with roots in Goa and Macau, by way of Parsis, Jews and Armenians, not to mention the various Chinese ethnic groups, such as Hakkas, who were influential in building Hong Kong.

“It’s an exceptional combination of exceptional people. Who were they and what were they doing?” asks England. By answering that question, she hopes to make it clear that the world has always been more interconnected than it may seem, and the lines between different people and places are never as neatly drawn as they may seem. “Hong Kong never was just another Chinese city,” she says. “It was made from a lot of different peoples from different parts of the world. That’s what makes it special.”

Below is an excerpt from Fortune’s Bazaar, published by Simon & Schuster, that has been edited for length.

One man illustrates all the contradictions of mid-19th-century Hong Kong. His roots go back to the glittering port city of Venice although he arrived in Hong Kong from Calcutta and went on to huge financial success and philanthropic achievements, notably in girls’ education. He sat at the peak of respectability as an early board member at the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank (1868–88) and on the Legislative Council. Yet he ran a known double life with two families, one Jewish and one Chinese, the latter rising to prominence. His name was Emanuel Raphael Belilios.

From Venice, his father had managed close ties to Baghdadi traders in Syria, operating a lucrative trade among Europe, the Middle East, and India. His mother, Salha Lanyardo, was from a prominent Aleppo family. Once in Calcutta they quickly became wealthy there, too. Based around Howrah, north of Calcutta, they owned half the district where rail was inaugurated in 1854 carrying jute, cotton, and wood – and opium. Young Belilios (born in 1837) married Semah Ezra from the top Baghdadi family in Calcutta (related to the famed Sassoons) in 1854, the same year he joined his father’s firm as a clerk.

He arrived in Hong Kong in 1862 on his own; his first godowns (or warehouses) were on Lyndhurst Terrace, that so-called marginal zone that was in fact the centre of bare-knuckle commerce… This is also where the Protected Woman Ng Akew held her properties, in Soho, or more properly, Sheung Wan, a zone “populated by a mixed and polyglot group composed of middle-class or wealthy Chinese, Chinese prostitutes serving non-Chinese, European prostitutes, Indian, Parsee and Muslim merchants and shopkeepers, a few scattered Portuguese and Macanese and Protected Women.”

In fact, there were settled communities of Portuguese here, not mere scatterings, holding their Catholic masses at a church on the junction of Pottinger and Wellington Streets in the heart of this zone. The buildings were a mixture of Chinese and European style, with rows of connected houses facing the streets, their ground floors mostly taken up by Chinese carpenters, washermen, provision stores, and bookbinders.

It was a convenient spot for all in-between people, with warehouses, shops, homes, places of worship, and brothels packed closely together. No wonder Belilios started here.

He came from a world in which knowledge of Judeo-Arabic and Hebrew as well as English had long facilitated global trade. Grabbing an early foothold in the opium trade from Calcutta to Canton and Hong Kong, he diversified into property and public companies. Key to his success — and that of so many others — were his multiple, fluid identities. The British saw Belilios as Indian or Portuguese Jewish, whereas, he said, “the native Chinese make no difference between a Jew and a Christian. Both are foreigners in their eyes, but, if anything, they are better affected towards the Jew, whom they regard as an Asiatic like themselves.” He was both successful man of public affairs and domestic man of parallel homes.

He took up with his Chinese lover (who is known only as Ms. Li) sometime between 1869 and 1872. It’s unclear when Belilios’s Jewish wife appeared in Hong Kong from Calcutta but it’s thought to be around this same time. With his wife, Belilios had a stillborn son in 1871 at Seymour Terrace. In 1872, he built the impressive mansion he called Kingsclere on Kennedy Road (after his first Kingsclere at 13 Caine Road), all these roads being destinations for the up-and-coming bourgeoisie His summer residence, the Eyrie, where he kept a pet camel and other animals, was next door to the governor’s on the Peak, home to the elite. Straddling the ridge it offered sea views both ways; a small open-air pavilion on the top had a 360-degree view.

In 1880, with his wife, Semah, he had a son, Raphael Emanuel. Two years later he was appointed to the Legislative Council and made a justice of the peace. His mistress gave birth to his first daughter in 1885, named Marie Felice “Paw Paw” Lee Wai Yin, on March 3. Two more daughters with his Chinese partner followed, “Yee-paw” Mabel and “Saam Yee-paw.” 

[Intermarriage would tie the Belilios name to those of Lam, Tyson, Heard, Lobo, Overbeck, Kotewall, Ho Tung, and Botelho – a roll call of the names that would form the core of Hong Kong’s prewar elite and the nexus of old money. Just this one strand of multicultural relationships linked the worlds of overseas Chinese from Malacca in Malaya via Jew from Venice and Calcutta, to German, Spanish, British, Portuguese, Dutch, American, and Parsi worlds.]

It’s clear the exotic behaviour of Belilios in Hong Kong was no bar to worldly honours and success. He rented three of the 62 telephone lines available in 1889, sat on the highest councils in the colony, gave large bequests to charity, and expressed his obsessive admiration for the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli (Earl of Beaconsfield) in his construction of Beaconsfield Arcade behind the bank on Queen’s Road. “Every Friday I commission my butler to distribute fowls and bread among the necessitous families …” As for his camel, the Hongkong Telegraph reported on July 24, 1897: “We are informed that the animal belonging to the Hon E.R. Belilios strayed away from his stable at the Peak yesterday afternoon. A long search during the afternoon proved fruitless but this morning, the poor animal was found dead about 100 feet below Mountain Lodge, having apparently jumped or fallen from the wall there”…

Belilios seemed to be more liberal than his fellow leading Jews of the colony, the Sassoons. Just as his father had donated land for a synagogue in Calcutta, so did Belilios offer part of his Kennedy Road site. But the offer soon morphed into a legal fight with the Sassoons, who claimed in court in 1897–98 that Belilios had promised the whole site and was now reneging. The judge ruled in Belilios’s favour but behind this ran a deeper schism. The Sassoons were Baghdadi Jews, tracing their lineage back to Sephardic (and thus Iberian) roots; they would marry into the Spanish and British aristocracies. Belilios was a Sephardic Venetian but open to Ashkenazi as well as Sephardic Jews. Ashkenazi generally hailed from Eastern Europe and were poorer migrants, fleeing the pogroms of the Pale of Settlement and other horrors. Behind the schism was thus a hint of class warfare.

Though Jewish, Belilios’s idea of himself did not rest on that identity alone. The Carl T. Smith Collection, an indispensable archive on Hong Kong personalities, shows that Belilios was in frequent business dealings with other leading in-between men who were neither wholly British nor Chinese, such as the Armenian Catchick Paul Chater, Jews back in Calcutta, Lee Chin, “gentleman of Canton,” Portuguese Hong Kongers, and members of the Parsi community. The Jardine Matheson archives show he was on close, collegial terms with all the leading hongs of the day, confident enough to tell them how to go about his business. He was trading in opium but in cotton, too, and frequently fought over insurance and interest rates.

Double life notwithstanding, by 1893, Belilios earned his Companion of St. Michael and St. George honour from the British queen. David, his second son with his wife, died of bubonic plague in 1898. Two years later, Belilios left both his wife, Semah, and his Eurasian family in Hong Kong, and “retired” to England with his son Raphael Emanuel. He secured a coat of arms for his family in 1901; these heraldic designs once graced the shields that knights wore in battle but now granted a royal seal of approval to a family’s identity and achievements.

He died on November 11, 1905, at Green Park House, 134 Piccadilly, aged sixty-seven. An obituary in The Times described Belilios as merchant, legislator, and landed proprietor, one “largely interested in many public companies,” with a special interest in education. His marriage to Semah is recorded but no mention is made of his parallel Chinese lover and family.

The whitewashing of Belilios’s double life was just as normal as the existence of the second family in the first place. This pattern has had the effect of simply writing out of history up to half of what was actually going on. Many are the histories and sweeping claims made about racial segregation in empire, asserting that the British and the Chinese had no intimate connection – yet they were sleeping together most nights.

Slider: Photo of Catchick Paul Chater – Courtesy of the University Archives, ASC, The University of Hong Kong Libraries

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