Hong Kong’s very first newspaper was called The Friend of China – but it was no friend of the Hong Kong government. Launched in 1842, its nearly two-decade run ended with its muckraking publisher in prison, convicted of libel, rendered persona non grata in Hong Kong.
That man was William Tarrant, an Englishman who first arrived in China as a 17-year-old ship steward. But the newspaper’s story doesn’t start with him. The Friend of China was funded by and written mainly for European merchants who had been trading in Guangzhou and who eagerly flocked to Hong Kong after it was occupied by Britain in 1841.
As Frank H.H. King and Prescott Clarke note in their 1965 book A Research Guide to China-coast Newspapers, The Friend was a strong supporter of the colonial project, and after its inaugural issue it merged with the Hong Kong government’s official newspaper of record to become The Friend of China and Hongkong Gazette. That arrangement lasted for two years, before the government switched its partnership to an upstart rival, The China Mail.
The Friend remained popular for its lively writing and sometimes surprising editorial positions, which were prone to critique the actions of some trading companies, despite the merchant community being the newspaper’s bastion of support. “There is the suspicion that customers were primarily interested in a lively newspaper even at their own expense, and The Friend of China certainly met those qualifications,” write King and Clarke.
It only grew livelier when Tarrant bought The Friend in 1850. After settling in Hong Kong in 1842, he found a job as an inspector in the government’s surveying department, and he helped lead the construction of Wong Nai Chung Gap Road. But Tarrant was disposed to poor health, and working outdoors in the summer heat did not agree with him, so he was transferred to a new job managing government land leases. He married a woman named Eliza Whitlock in 1845 and began amassing a portfolio of properties around the young colony.
Then things turned sour for the young civil servant. Towards the end of 1846, the man in charge of running the Central Market, Wei Afoon, told Tarrant that the comprador of colonial secretary William Caine was running a protection racket and extorting money from the market’s hawkers. Tarrant reported the allegations to his boss, who informed the governor, Sir John Davis, who then ordered an investigation by the attorney general. But the investigation—whose final report was kept secret—concluded that Wei and Tarrant’s claims were baseless. And to make things worse, both men were accused of conspiracy to injure Caine’s reputation.
Davis suspended Tarrant from his position without pay. But he and Wei were never prosecuted, because the chief justice at the time had been suspended for drunkenness, and his replacement had been involved in the investigation into their claims, posing a conflict of interest. Although the Colonial Office in London ordered Tarrant to be reinstated, Davis simply abolished his position so that he had no job to go back to.
That’s when Tarrant decided to get even. He began what historian Christopher Munn describes as “an obsessive campaign for redress.” He started by petitioning the British government to restore his position and pay him compensation, but he was ignored. Then he bought a share in the Central Market to gain access to its account books, and when he cracked them open, he found what he considered hard evidence that Caine himself—and not just his comprador—had been involved in the extortion scheme. That’s when he decided to buy The Friend of China.
“For the whole of the 1850s he used the newspaper to press his case against Caine and expose abuses by the government,” writes Munn. He became a noisy crusader against everything he considered unjust, whether it was Hong Kong’s high crime rates or the failure of the government to convict a merchant who had sold poisoned bread in a failed attempt to kill off members of the European community.
Though he was strident in his convictions, Tarrant was by no means a wholesome character. Among the properties he had acquired were squalid tenements that housed migrant labourers from mainland China. They lived in atrocious conditions, which came to light in during an 1857 incident in which a group of migrants en route to Havana were found to have been falsely imprisoned by what would now be known as human traffickers. As with many Europeans at the time, Tarrant held a dim view of most Chinese people, and he railed against the Hong Kong government for allowing “the scum of the Chinese cauldron, the vilest outcasts of empire” to settle in the colony.
He also hated William Caine, which would prove to be his downfall. In 1857, a high-ranking civil servant named Daniel Caldwell was accused of being in cahoots with Wong Ma-chow, a notorious pirate, pimp, gangster, arms dealer and slave trader. The case became known as the Caldwell Affair and it resonated as far away as London, earning Hong Kong the reputation of a vice-ridden city where Chinese and Europeans were at loggerheads with one another.
Caldwell may have been targeted because, unlike most Europeans in Hong Kong at the time, he was multilingual, speaking Cantonese, Portuguese and Hindi. And most importantly, he had married a Chinese woman, Mary Ayow. When he was accused of corruption, Britain was once again at war with China, and anyone close to the Chinese community was viewed suspiciously.
That was certainly the case for Tarrant, who seized the scandal as an opportunity to ramp up his attacks on William Caine, whom he claimed was at the heart of Hong Kong’s corruption. This time, however, Caine—who was on the verge of retirement—decided to fight back. The government charged Tarrant with criminal libel and won in court. Tarrant was fined £50 (about HK$54,000 in today’s money), sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and ordered to pay the government’s legal costs, which bankrupted him. He lost his properties and The Friend of China folded when he was unable to continue running it from prison.
Though Tarrant was arguably as scurrilous as the men he accused of corruption, his journalistic activism was by no means unusual for the time. From the very beginning, Hong Kong’s media were robust and lively—if prone to libellous outbursts—which stemmed from British’s long-engrained tradition of having a free press. And while most of the English-language newspapers of the time would be considered racist and xenophobic by today’s standards, they served as a model for an equally boisterous Chinese press that emerged in the middle of the 19th century.
In mainland China, the Qing Dynasty government had banned public discussion of politics, but in Hong Kong, newspapers were free to print what they liked. “Taking their cue from English newspapers that took upon themselves the function of watchdog of the government, Chinese newspapers provided a vehicle for Chinese eager to speak out on public affairs, giving a voice to commoners who had hitherto been denied access to the authorities,” writes historian Elizabeth Sinn in her paper “Emerging Media: Hong Kong and the Early Evolution of the Chinese Press.”
After he was released from prison, Tarrant tried to relaunch The Friend of China in Guangzhou, then in Shanghai, but he failed both times. He finally gave up in 1869 and returned to England, where he died three years later. But the Hong Kong media continued to grow and evolve into the biggest centre for both English and Chinese media in Asia, with several newspapers (including the South China Morning Post, founded in 1903) that have existed for more than a century.
It’s hard to say how much longer that era will last. Hong Kong’s controversial national security law was implemented this week after being drafted in secret by officials in Beijing. The law targets secession, subversion, terrorism and “collusion with foreign forces,” but its extremely broad definition of such crimes has left many legal experts confounded. According to Article 29 (5) of the new law, which was gazetted only in Chinese, any “behaviour” that provokes “hatred” towards the government may be considered a violation of national security.
The law also opens up the media to unprecedented levels of government control. Article 9 grants the government supervisory powers over local publications. Article 43 gives police the power to search physical premises and electronic devices without a warrant, which raises questions about whether journalists will be able to protect their sources.
Hong Kong’s first newspaper ended with its outspoken publisher in prison. Two centuries later, will things come full circle?