THE PAST MASTER

The good, the bad and the infamous

Jason Wordie

[Source unknown, but possibly The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 2010]

Hong Kong's Legislative Council is often criticised as being an ineffectual "talk shop". While few would disagree entirely with that, it is a distinct improvement on times past when Hansard issues indicated that many Legco members barely bothered to speak. Perhaps they felt there was no real point as, ultimately, decision-making was in the hands of official members, as seemingly it still is.

Many of these early "unofficial" legislators turned up for council sessions, listened, occasionally made a few remarks, then left. Vested business interests dominated Legco and members who had not made a recorded utterance for months on matters of public concern, suddenly found their voices whenever their private interests were affected.

Whether Legco was really representative was always open to question, as many of those representing the Chinese community were Eurasian or so Anglicised they were almost foreign to their race. For most of the local population the representatives remained distant figures, unapproachable and irrelevant to daily life.

Concurrent membership of such organisations as the Tung Wah Hospital Committee, the Po Leung Kuk or the District Watch brought many of these legislators in contact with a broader stratum of Chinese society and provided connections with temple management committees, kaifong associations (street committees), guilds and native-place associations, all of which were sources of information.

The unofficial Chinese executive council, the District Watch Committee, met every few months informally at Government House to discuss matters of community interest with the governor and secretary for Chinese affairs.

The Eurasian millionaire Sir Robert Hotung never sat on either the Legislative or Executive Council, despite being asked. He served instead on the District Watch Committee, though his son-in-law, Sir Man-kam Lo, was a long-time member of both councils until his death in 1959.

For the first 40 years of colonial Hong Kong there was no Chinese representation on Legco, and none on Exco for the first 80. The first appointment was made in 1878 by governor Sir John Pope-Hennessey, following a precedent set in the Straits Settlements in 1869.

Pope-Hennessey's choice was Ng Choy, a British subject born in Singapore in 1842 into the famous Canton merchant family of Howqua. He was educated from an early age in England and trained as a barrister, becoming the first Chinese to be called to the English Bar. Ng resigned from Legco in 1883 and later, as Wu Ting Fang, became a national figure, serving at various times as Chinese foreign minister and Chinese ambassador to the United States.

The first Chinese member of the Executive Council, Sir Shouson Chow, was appointed by governor Sir Cecil Clementi in 1926. From an Aberdeen village family that had settled in Hong Kong 80 years before the British arrived, Chow studied in the United States from 1874 to 1881 before going into business. When he died, aged 98 in 1959, Chow was eulogised in the press as the "grand old man of Hong Kong", in spite of a rather dubious wartime record. Shouson Hill at Wong Chuk Hang is named after him.

Other early "unofficials" followed a similar pattern. Perhaps the best remembered is Sir Kai Ho Kai, a highly Westernised doctor and barrister who married an English woman. Wei Yuk, much less Anglicised than his successors, was later knighted as Sir Boshan Wei Yuk. Also known as Wei Bo-shan, Po Shan Road in Mid-Levels is named after him. Lau Chu-pak, a wealthy tea merchant, was another well-known appointee; his son later founded the Hong Kong and Yaumatei Ferry Company.

One of the more controversial appointed members was Sir Robert Kotewall. Of mixed Parsee and Chinese descent, he started life with the Hong Kong Government and later branched out into various business enterprises. Appointed to Legco in 1923, Kotewall was knighted in 1938.

Despite being senior member of Exco when the Japanese invaded the colony, Kotewall attended the Japanese victory parade, shouted "banzai", made a florid congratulatory speech welcoming the victors and encouraged others to do likewise.

Pre-war, Kotewall was known by the Chinese as "Silver Tongue" due to his slick oratorical skills, but British Army Aid Group intelligence reports during the war had a different code-name for him – "The Bull" – derived in part from his physical appearance. For the duration of the war Kotewall worked closely with the Japanese, being known by his Chinese name Lo Kuk-wo.

With the return of the British after the war, he re-styled himself as Sir Robert Kotewall; the option had been kept open by never formally rescinding his knighthood.

From 1928 the local Portuguese community – now inconsequential, but then numerically significant – was represented by JP Braga. On Braga's retirement in 1937 the post was filled by barrister Leo d'Almada e Castro who served for more than 20 years, finally retiring as senior member of Exco in 1958.

D'Almada e Castro has the distinction of being the only non-European member of either body not to work with the Japanese in any way during their occupation of Hong Kong; with his wife Tilly (later one of Hong Kong's first female Justices of the Peace) he decamped to Macau in early 1942 and only returned to Hong Kong after the war ended. He was later succeeded by Sir Albert Rodrigues, a prominent obstetrician, and then by Sir Roger Lobo, a wealthy businessman.

The local European community was represented for almost half a century by Sir Henry Pollock, a barrister. Described by one contemporary writer as "singularly silly" – his recorded utterances would seem to bear out the description – Pollock's only local commemoration is Pollock's Path, where he lived on the Peak for many years.

From the early 1960s much broader consultative mechanisms were put in place, a process which accelerated after the riots in 1966-67. Including District Boards and the City District Officer scheme, these all gave the Government more comprehensive access to grassroots views than ever before and weakened the necessity for community representatives. Legco continues to debate matters great and trivial, an improvement on the days when individual views went unexpressed.