Hong Kong Reads: Women, Crime and a Window Into Hong Kong History

For those who are patient enough to comb through them, court cases and old newspapers are among the most revealing sources of what society and its values were once like. There’s a lot to learn from the ways in which those who fell off the accepted tracks — through ill fortune or bad decisions — were dealt with. And it is certainly lucky for us that history writer Patricia O’Sullivan seems to be very well endowed with such patience: her 2021 volume Women, Crime and the Courts: Hong Kong 1841–1941 opens countless windows onto old Hong Kong, from its first years as a small British colony all the way to the major turning point of the Japanese invasion in 1941.

The book takes us through a number of cases in which the perpetrators were women, allowing us to peel back some of the many thick layers that have been conjured up to make women’s history invisible, in Hong Kong as much as everywhere else. The light that the court cases shed is not strong enough to completely allow us to imagine what women’s personalities and concerns were: in many instances the paperwork left behind by a criminal hearing doesn’t even register the name of those involved. But the glimpse of these anonymous women of different ethnic backgrounds, sitting in jail while being talked about in the local newspapers, gives us new ways of imagining the tangled roots of the city that exists today. 

O’Sullivan explains that court cases involving women were covered by Hong Kong media with delight, as if the gender of the criminal made it all exponentially more salacious and interesting – maybe because these cases broke with the expectations of what the so-called “fairer sex” was to engage with. 

The book spans 10 chapters that explore Hong Kong’s growth and the crime that accompanied it. It’s a Hong Kong that is both familiar and new, with a sparse population of people from all over the place, already asserting Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan roots. Then as now, crime was a daily occurrence, from small scuffles in the street to much more complicated plots to steal, murder, smuggle drugs or weapons. And that’s not to mention the legal issues that swirled around attempts at getting Hong Kong involved in the revolutionary times that engulfed China from the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) onwards.

What makes the book especially vivid is that many of the streets where the  incidents it describes took place are the ones most of us walk upon regularly. Miss Nellie Moore was fined HK$10 for beating her coolie in her home on Wyndham Street. Tam Tai-yow, a woman working in a brothel in Central, and mother to a little girl, sued her sister for selling off her daughter to a lady living in D’Aguilar Street. 

Even as we see that women outlaws were just as callous as their male counterparts, one of the most common types of crime in which women found themselves involved, both as victims and as perpetrators, was that of children being taken from their mothers and sold to others. O’Sullivan reminds us that, in older Chinese custom, this practice was at least somewhat accepted as a way to escape dire poverty. This was particularly true in the case of the southern Chinese practices of mui tsai (mui6 zai2 妹仔, “little sister”), in which a young girl was enlisted to work as a servant for another family in exchange for financial support for her parents and siblings. Young girls were also adopted as prospective daughters-in-law in an old form of arranged marriage. Both of these practices were frowned upon by the colonial authorities, and gradually outlawed.

Hong Kong was a place where different judicial customs met – and at times clashed. It was quite common for cases that involved only Chinese plaintiffs and defendants to be adjudicated informally at the Man Mo Temple by local community leaders. Of these we have no clear record, so, the cases brought to light by this highly readable and stimulating book are only a section of a section of society, like a suddenly clear, well-contoured detail in an otherwise blurry picture.

Many of the women we encounter in this book are sex workers, a profession they ended up in after falling into debt, or being tricked out of their money in very many ways, or — worse still — being sold as sex slaves by uncaring relatives, adopted relatives or kidnappers. Interestingly, even in these sordid affairs we see how globally connected Hong Kong was even in early days: “Women charged with kidnapping girls and young women, intending to sell them into prostitution, still appeared frequently before the magistrate,” writes O’Sullivan. “With ready markets in Hong Kong, Singapore, the Straits Settlements, the Philippines and the USA, women thought the risks worth the potential gain.”

Of course this is as slanted a picture as we can get – one that only shows us what happened when things went terribly wrong, leaving the larger picture in the background. But even just that background is priceless. The women who ended up in front of a magistrate were a minority, and while we do learn of what was happening among the least fortunate, or the truly wicked, how they were treated by the courts and the newspapers allows us a glimpse  of what was happening in Hong Kong throughout its first century as a British colony. 

Another strange aspect is that, through court cases, we know of the crime, we know of the perpetrators and their victims, and we know what punishment those deemed guilty will be met with. But of the victims, we hear no more: are they satisfied that justice has been served? Can they go back to their previous lives, do they have to leave Hong Kong to forget what they have been put through? These cases are recorded in some details in police files and then popularised in newspapers hungry for entertainment and easy moralising stories, but once the tale has been told, there is little reason for these sources to continue reporting about what happens next, which is left to our imagination. 

External events also shaped what was taking place in Hong Kong, affecting everything from commerce to crime. The 1930s were just as painful in Hong Kong as anywhere else, as the Great Depression took hold and refugees from mainland China arrived in Hong Kong, fleeing crushing poverty and Japanese invaders. Newspapers were carrying nearly daily reports of theft of jewellery or cash committed by women. On top of this, brawls, scuffles and squabbles erupted nearly every day, and could become violent, particularly in the long winding queues that formed by water pumps, during the times when water on Hong Kong Island had to be rationed – something that occasionally happened all the way to 1982. 

Over time, the types of crimes women were involved with became broader, running the gamut from smuggling (such as in weapons, when 1920s political unrest in southern China spilled over into Hong Kong) to theft, assault and murder. As we can still see today, where so many of the main heritage buildings are somehow justice related (such as Tai Kwun or the PMQ), policing, jailing and punishment of criminals was one of the main governing activities that the British undertook in Hong Kong. 

This leaves behind details of prison matrons (who were most often of Portuguese origin), and their prisoners (from all over China, Europe, and many more places in Asia and further afield), and all the little snapshots of their complicated lives. It may not tell us all, but as a recent exhibition in Tai Kwun showed, it does tell us a lot about how complicated women’s lives could be, and how deeply mixed Hong Kong society was.

Women, Crime and the Courts: Hong Kong 1841-1941 is published by Blacksmith Books.


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