“Crime, Justice and Punishment in Colonial Hong Kong: Central Police Station, Central Magistracy and Victoria Gaol” by May Holdsworth and Christopher Munn

HK Police

In Crime, Justice and Punishment in Colonial Hong Kong, authors May Holdsworth and Christopher Munn use the intersection of the city’s former main police station, magistracy and jail—now the photogenic and commercial Tai Kwun—to tell a unique history of the city under British rule.

The site occupying an entire block on Hollywood Road was first chosen in 1841 when it was still considered remote enough from the unruly and prosperous colonial city. Occupants of the Central Police Station finally moved out in 2006, and the complex, situated amid what became one of the world’s most vibrant economies, was turned into an extensive conservation project.

The resulting tourist redoubt, with heritage and exhibition centers, restaurants and bars, was named with a nod to its colonial past. Chinese residents often called it Tai Kwun, meaning the Big House or the Big Station. To different people at different times, the authors write, the name evoked different things: “A place of retribution, redemption and death—now opened up to public gaze—became a space for edification and entertainment.”

The authors’ promise of a “seamy vision” is kept.

Crime, Justice and Punishment in Colonial Hong Kong: Central Police Station, Central Magistracy and Victoria Gaol, May Holdsworth, Christopher Munn (HKU Press, June 2020)
Crime, Justice and Punishment in Colonial Hong Kong: Central Police Station, Central Magistracy and Victoria Gaol, May Holdsworth, Christopher Munn (HKU Press, June 2020)

This sturdy hardcover of more than 300 pages is part scholarly text and, for a certain kind of reader, part coffee-table book. It teems with photos and illustrations offering, according to the authors, a “seamy vision of Hong Kong society”:

 

We try to look behind this backdrop of brick and stone in order to bring to light a painful urban drama… Put another way, the Central Police Station complex was a critical point of engagement between colonisers and the colonised, between British and Chinese and other nationalities.

 

They’re on familiar ground. Holdsworth’s books include Foreign Devils: Expatriates in Hong Kong, while Munn wrote Anglo-China: Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong, 1841–1880.  They also co-edited Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography, a volume of more than 500 entries on men and women from the city’s vivid past.

Their latest text comprises separate sections devoted to the former Central Police Station, Central Magistracy and Victoria Gaol. The book concerns itself with forms and functions of the buildings, illustrating how, for example, Victorian Britain’s changing views on crime and punishment literally shaped the jail from the ground up. The authors also touch on the serious questions of race in the colonial police force, the thinking behind the various financial and corporal punishments administrators meted out, as well as the woeful conditions in the jail (from which neighbors said they could hear screams).

The authors’ promise of a “seamy vision” is kept, but there’s more to it. A fixation on the lurid is not necessary. It’s worth reading for the pages of colorful prints and accounts of those who worked, resided and even perished in and around the complex.

The authors’ attention to detail suggests a labor of love.

For anyone who has spent any time along the full stretch of Hollywood Road, reading Crime, Justice and Punishment in Colonial Hong Kong will be a reminder that so much of the past has been preserved in this modern city. Gone today, of course, is the awful squalor of Tai Ping Shan, the 19th-century “Chinese Town” that succumbed to fire and plague. Very obvious signs of crime and poverty have also largely relocated in doors or across the harbor as the island’s inhabitants have become richer.

But, then as now, a walk along Hollywood Road from Man Mo Temple to the junction with Wyndham Street is a train of contrasts:

 

Besides the people passing through the police station, courthouse and gaol, its foot traffic ranged from the wealthiest merchants through respectable tradesmen and artisans to prostitutes, labourers, hawkers and beggars—and murders, thieves and pickpockets as well.

 

The chapters don’t need to be read in sequence. The book is written so those who’d prefer not to bother with architecture and design, for example, can instead go straight to read about the many interesting personalities on either side of the law.

Holdsworth and Munn pepper the book with potted biographies and apt vignettes. Certain early colonial administrators have a penchant for public corporal punishment, decadent policemen blame drunkenness on Hong Kong’s climate, and a couple of inmates try to excuse a prison-break on the grounds that it was the Queen’s birthday (you see, they planned to return after a “bit of fun”).

For readers who know Hong Kong well, the book might even help make the familiar strange again. That’s good.

The authors’ attention to detail suggests a labor of love. Anyone curious about a possible punishment for public gambling in 1887 will find it here ($5 or 14 days in jail), likewise how to play the game called Pak Kop Piu, or “white pigeon ticket”. Readers will learn the utter tedium of the hard labor endured by Victoria Gaol prisoners, from “the crank,” “the shot-drill” to “oakum-picking”, as well as just how much gruel well-behaved European prisoners would be served each day in 1928 (up to 2 pints).

The short stories in a chapter on the magistracy are as sensational as the headlines the authors give them: “Larceny – The Case of the Absconding Cook”, “Assault on a Policeman – Protest and Repression in Troubled Times”, and “Indecent Exposure – Nudity, Noise and Other Nuisances.”

It’s perhaps not hard to write a gripping history of the Central Police complex. All the ingredients are there: It began as a locus of British colonial power in Asia, succumbed to the bombs of the Japanese, who used the area to imprison civilians suspected of subversion, and through the years housed some of the most notorious figures in recent history, including Ho Chi Minh and Indonesian nationalist Tan Malaka.

Yet Holdsworth and Munn’s history of Tai Kwun moves well beyond that expensive piece of real estate that today, for better or for worse, is devoted to leisure. Anyone with a passing interest in the city and its colonial past will find something to enjoy in this book. For readers who know Hong Kong well, it might even help make the familiar strange again. That’s good.


Timothy Sifert is a Hong Kong-based journalist.