Heroes and scandals in 'The Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography'
A new book annotates the history of Hong Kong in the most illustrative way -- through the lives of people who have made an impact here.
Hong Kong's first tome on the who's who of history, "The Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography" contains more than 500 entries authored by 90 contributors, including the editors May Holdsworth and Christopher Munn.
Other than the stipulation of including only the deceased, the editors worked with open-ended criteria.
In addition to around 100 major figures such as governors, the individuals portrayed in the Dictionary run the gamut of identities and professions, including entrepreneurs, colonial administrators, philanthropists, journalists, artists, photographers, athletes, corrupt cops, revolutionaries, clan leaders, pirates, gangsters, merchants, missionaries, military figures, scientists and film stars.
The Dictionary entries paint a comprehensive portrait of Hong Kong’s history, from the earliest about a fifth-century Buddhist monk, to those depicting the lawless days following the First Opium War when the colony was a “fever-ridden strip of matsheds and mudpaths, subject to almost nightly raids by seaborne gangs of robbers.”
The most recent entry commemorates Szeto Wah, the political activist who died at the beginning of 2011.
Other biographical capsules trace the rise and fall of once powerful hongs, the role of opium in Hong Kong’s development, the lives of revolutionaries -- Ho Chin Minh, Sun Yat Sen, José Rizal -- who sought refuge in the colony, the years of Japanese occupation and the lineages of New Territories family clans.
Place names that have withstood history’s assault -- Po Shan, Shouson, Hebe, Plover, Bisney, Tonnochy, Gutzlaff, D’Aguilar, Braga -- are contextualized. Gangsters and pirates are humanized, and the lives and moments of minor and major players alike all intersect to provide a multi-dimensional history of Hong Kong.
Here are some of the more notable and emblematic people from "The Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography."
In 1857, as the Second Opium War was beginning in earnest, tension began to build between the local and the foreign populations.
One January morning, terrorists laced the bread at Cheong Alum -- the main foreigners' bakery -- with arsenic. Around 400 people were poisoned, and Cheong was immediately arrested.
Many, including Hong Kong’s Attorney General at the time, called for Cheong to be executed without a fair trial, but the governor insisted that Cheong and the co-defendants be tried before a jury.
Prosecutors lacked evidence and a motive, and Cheong was acquitted in what can now be perceived as an early victory for the rule of law in Hong Kong.
The man of a thousand faces
Harry Odell was emblematic of the peripatetic souls that continually landed in Hong Kong and made their mark here.
Born Harry Obadofsky in Cairo in 1896 to Russian Jewish parents and educated in Shanghai, he worked as a tap dancer in Nagasaki before emigrating to the United States and fighting for the U.S. military in France during World War I.
Following the war, he moved to Hong Kong, changed his surname to Odell, and married into a wealthy family of jewelers.
Odell cut his teeth in the import-export business and as a stockbroker, and was also a volunteer with the naval reserve in Hong Kong. He was wounded during the defense of Hong Kong in 1941 and became a Japanese POW.
Following the war, Odell started a film distribution business and was a major force behind the construction of the City Hall theater complex, putting his stamp on the cultural life of his adopted home.
HSBC lost a million -- and it mattered
In colonial Hong Kong, compradors were Chinese or Eurasian agents of foreign trading houses.
Lo Hok-pang was the son of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation’s first comprador. He inherited his father’s post in 1877 and proceeded to leverage the bank’s assets to finance his own under-the-table endeavors.
His speculation eventually backfired and the bank was left with over a million dollars in losses. Lo fled in shame to Guangdong, where he later died in a monastery.
The one-legged escape from Hong Kong
Chan Chak, a Chinese naval officer, lost his leg during the Sino-Japanese War. During a period of recovery in Hong Kong, he worked as an undercover representative of the Nationalist government and served as a go-between with British authorities.
In the wake of the Japanese attack on Hong Kong, he helped keep order in the suddenly chaotic colony, and following the British surrender on Christmas Day 1941, Chan was evacuated to Ap Lei Chau where he led a daring, one-legged escape (he had lost his wooden leg) to a Nationalist base in central Guangdong.
Feted for his bravery and his loyalty, he later became the mayor of Guangzhou before his death in 1949.
Nina Wang, Asia’s richest woman at the time of her death, was an enigmatic figure whose death practically upstaged her strange life.
Known as “Little Sweetie” for her predisposition toward pigtails and miniskirts, she was the wife of Teddy Wang, the founder of Chinachem, one of the largest privately held property companies in Hong Kong. Teddy was kidnapped in 1983 and was only returned after a HK$33 million ransom was paid.
In 1990, he was kidnapped again, this time never to return.
In his stead, Nina assumed the role of “chairlady” and continued to build the company. Teddy was finally declared dead in 1999 (although his body was never found), thus beginning the battle over the Chinachem fortune between Nina and Teddy’s elderly father. The legal battle included multiple wills and claims of forgery and adultery, and when the dust finally settled, Nina retained her fortune.
Two years later, Nina died and a new series of court battles took place over new allegations of a forged will, this time between her married and dubious “feng shui master” lover and the Chinachem Charitable Foundation.
The trial was a bizarre and sordid affair, with Nina’s pigtails even making a posthumous appearance. In the end, her fortune went to the Foundation, but poor Nina was subjected to derision and Schadenfreude even in death.
In 2003, Leslie Cheung, the talented and revered actor and singer, committed suicide at the age of 46. His premature death is part of a tragic pattern among popular Hong Kong stars.
Bruce Lee, perhaps Hong Kong’s most iconic star, died mysteriously at the age of 32; Lin Dai, a film actress during the 1950s and 1960s, committed suicide at the age of 29.
Lam Fung, a film actress during the 1960s, died of a drug overdose at the age of 36; Danny Chan, a singer and actor during the 1980s, died of a drug overdose at the age of 35.
Roman Tam, the “godfather of Cantopop” died of cancer at the age of 52; and Anita Mui, the “Madonna of Asia,” died of cancer at the age of 40.
“Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography” edited by May Holdsworth and Christopher Munn, Hong Kong University Press. Available at English language bookstores in Hong Kong and directly from the HKU Press, HK$495.