Just what was Paul Chater doing?
Night after night in the late 1860s, he hired a sampan and sailed it along the shores of Victoria Harbour, taking soundings in order to chart with precision every curve and crevice of the seabed. It was peculiar enough that Hong Kong’s leading newspaper at the time, The China Mail, ran an item about the mysterious behaviour of the young entrepreneur.
The answer came decades later: Chater was hatching a plan to change the very face of Hong Kong. But a new mystery has taken its place. Sir Catchick Paul Chater is a titan of Hong Kong history; he had a hand in many of the city’s biggest and most influential businesses and institutions, and there is a host of places named after him, from Catchick Street in Kennedy Town to Chater Road and Chater Garden in Central. So why do so few Hongkongers know much about him?
“I am constantly surprised by how little people in Hong Kong know or care about the people who made the city what it is,” says journalist and historian Vaudine England, who is working on an upcoming book about Hong Kong’s first, cosmopolitan century.
Years ago, when England began digging into Chater’s story, she came across a 1937 study of Armenians in India and China written by Mesrovb Jacob Seth. “The future historian of Hong Kong will find his task as regards the past sixty years a sinecure,” he wrote, “for the record of Hong Kong will be a replica of the career of Sir Paul Chater.”
But, as England notes, no biography of Chater has yet been published. He is not featured in Hong Kong school curriculums. There is still much of his life that remains unknown. All this despite his crucial role in making Hong Kong the city it is today.
“His life was of fundamental importance to the making of Hong Kong as a cosmopolitan port and financial city,” says England. “He had charm and brains and ideas; most importantly, he knew how to cross boundaries of race and class, using the broad umbrella of British empire as a tool for upward mobility.”
Chater was born in Calcutta in 1846 to a couple named Chater Paul Chater and Miriam Zorer; he was the third youngest of a large brood that eventually numbered 13. Chater’s birth name was Khachik Pogose Astwachatoor, reflecting his family’s roots in Armenia, the landlocked Caucasian country that has for more than a thousand years served as an anchor to a global diaspora. At the time he was born, Calcutta was home to a thriving Armenian community founded by people fleeing Ottoman rule in the early 17th century.
“They acquired gems, spices and silks, and brought them back to Armenian enclaves in Persia such as Isfahan,” wrote journalist Leonard Apcar. By the time the British had arrived and established colonial rule, transforming Calcutta into the second most important city in the British Empire, the Armenian community was firmly planted in Bengali soil. “Armenians never amounted to more than a few thousand people in Calcutta, but in the 18th and 19th centuries they ran trading companies, shipping lines, coal mines, real estate developments and hotels,” writes Apcar.
Chater’s family was less high-flying; his father was a mid-level civil servant who worked as an accounting clerk for the Calcutta government. And their fortune took a turn for the worse in 1853, when father Chater drowned in the in Hoogley River; mother died of disease just two years later. That left Paul Chater an orphan at the age of seven. But he was a gifted student, which earned him a scholarship to one of Calcutta’s most prestigious schools. When he graduated in 1864, he moved to Hong Kong to live with his older sister, Anna.
That’s where his charming personality came into play. Hong Kong was a backwater compared to Calcutta, but it was rife with opportunity. Chater—who had anglicised his name before leaving India—quickly made some fateful connections. After his brother-in-law helped get him a job as a clerk for the Bank of Hindustan, China and Japan, Chater came into contact with the enormously wealthy Sassoon family, a Bombay-rooted Baghdadi Jewish clan that had built up a network of businesses from England to India to China. He asked them for support to start his own brokerage. They agreed and he got to work trading, clearing HK$600—a significant amount at the time—in his first month of business.
In 1868, Chater began a partnership with another Indian-born entrepreneur, Hormusjee Naorojee Mody, who would eventually help finance the University of Hong Kong. He eventually helped launch Dairy Farm with Scottish doctor Patrick Manson, and he also established Kowloon Wharf and Godown, the company that would eventually become The Wharf, owners of Harbour City and the Star Ferry. In 1890, he built Hong Kong’s first power station on Star Street in Wan Chai and founded Hong Kong Electric, which he ran for the rest of his life.
Somewhere along the way, Chater married Maria Christine Pearson, the Swedish-born daughter of a merchant. She was significantly younger than Chater—still a teenager when they married, while Chater was in his mid-40s—but very little else is known about her or her relationship with Chater.
In fact, more is known about Chater’s house than his own personal life. In 1901, he began building a mansion on Conduit Road, in the upper reaches of the Mid-Levels, which he named Marble Hall as a reflection of the high-priced Italian material used to make its walls, pillars and stairs. Chater used the house to display his collection of art, which included plenty of oil paintings and engravings depicting the bustling commercial landscapes of Hong Kong and Guangzhou – scenes no doubt dear to this entrepreneur’s heart. It also had two acres of lushly planted gardens, as Chater was fascinated by botany.
Chater had a wide range of interests – “from church and masonry to horticulture and hospitality,” says England. He played for the Hong Kong Cricket Club and he never missed attending the horse races at the Happy Valley Racecourse, where he owned a stable of horses that were often victorious. As his career and influence blossomed, he found himself in increasingly powerful positions. He was named to the Legislative Council in 1886, and in 1896, he was invited to join the Executive Council, where he helped guide Hong Kong government policy for 30 years. He was also named chairman of the Hong Kong Club, epicentre of the colony’s British elite.
In 1902, the newly crowned King Edward VII knighted Chater at Buckingham Palace. A few decades earlier, Chater had met Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, when they both took part in a cricket match. Chater ended up becoming close friends with the royal family, and he and his wife made a number of visits to royal residences and spent holidays with the Duke and Duchess of Connaught in the South of France.
All of this is to say that, by the turn of the 20th century, Chater had made himself so indispensable that nothing much happened in Hong Kong without his involvement. His success was no doubt helped by his charisma and his canny ability to ingratiate himself into the upper echelons of colonial society, despite his humble background. In 1922, the Daily Mail called him a “romantic figure” and described him as a “grey-haired, brown-faced man, whose side whiskers and genial manner summon up thoughts of Dickens rather than of Eastern splendour.”
But a beguiling nature will only take you so far. Chater’s main asset was that he was a visionary. Not long after he arrived in Hong Kong, when he set out in a sampan to study the topography of Victoria Harbour, he was developing a plan to build new land along the shore of Central. It finally came to fruition in 1889, when Chater founded Hong Kong Land with Scottish businessman James Johnstone Keswick. They unveiled the Praya Reclamation Scheme the following year.
The project used 3.5 million tons of material to create 65 acres of new land – nearly twice the size of Victoria Park. It made room for Statue Square, the Supreme Court (which later became home to the Legislative Council and is now the Court of Final Appeals) and landmarks like the Prince’s Building and the Hongkong Hotel. Chater Road runs through the heart of the reclamation area and it was named in honour of the man who conceived it. (There was already a Chater Road in Kennedy Town, but it was renamed to Catchick Street to avoid confusion, as was Chater Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, which was renamed Peking Street.) Several decades later, when the old Cricket Club was transformed into a public park, it too was named Chater Garden in honour of Sir Paul.
Chater remained busy until he died in 1926 – so busy, in fact, that he rarely stayed at Marble Hall, choosing instead to reside in more conveniently located accommodations around Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. In 1923, he bailed out the financially struggling University of Hong Kong with a HK$250,000 donation that allowed it to survive. The next year, he bailed out his alma mater in Calcutta.
When Chater finally passed away, “it was as if Hong Kong had lost its heart,” wrote a distant relative, Liz Chater, who has spent years digging up the details of his life. “The months that followed [his death] saw the Hong Kong markets falter – business stability in all areas was lost; financial markets wobbled. The man that had brought structure, stability, employment and social prospects to the island was no longer around to give advice or direction.”
Chater and his wife had had no children. In his will, he bequeathed Marble Hall and all its contents—including its art collection—to the Hong Kong government, on the condition that Lady Chater be allowed to live there for the remainder of her life. When she died in 1935, the mansion was converted into an official residence for Hong Kong’s naval commander, but it was demolished after being damaged in World War II. A residence for civil servants named Chater Hall now sits in its place.
Other signs of Chater have survived as well. There are the place names, of course. A bust of him was installed outside his old school in Calcutta. And his art collection now resides at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, although a large portion of it went missing during the Japanese occupation.
But the most important elements of his legacy remain invisible to most people: the electricity that feeds Hong Kong Island, businesses with a global reach, the land that now sits at the heart of Central. And his extraordinary story—that of an orphan from Calcutta who became arguably the most important man in colonial Hong Kong—remains woefully ignored.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated the Marble Hall was built in 1869. Although this has been reported in many sources, a reader alerted us to the fact that it is likely an error, and records indicate that Marble Hall’s construction began in 1901. We apologise for the error.