About the Book by Vaudine England Titled “Fortune’s Bazaar: The Making of Hong Kong”

From a Wall Street Journal bookshelf column by Melanie Kirkptrick headlined “A Cosmopolitan Success Story”:

Not long after I arrived in Hong Kong in 1980 to work for this newspaper, a colleague invited me to the China Fleet Club on the waterfront in the raunchy Wanchai district of the island. The evening was memorable—not only because it provided a glimpse into the world of Suzie Wong (memorably depicted in the 1960 movie) but also because it introduced me to an essential fact about Hong Kong: It’s not just a Chinese city.

My dance partner that evening was a Hong Konger—a term not widely used back then—whose ancestry was a mix of British, Chinese and Portuguese. He was one of the melting pot of people who have been drawn to the dynamic port city ever since China ceded Hong Kong Island to Britain in 1842. In “Fortune’s Bazaar,” Vaudine England examines these “in-between people,” as she calls them, and their often overlooked role in the development of Hong Kong into a cosmopolitan, world-class city. Ms. England is a veteran journalist who has worked in Southeast Asia for years and the author of several works of Hong Kong history.

In 1848 a diarist described the throng of exotic people he encountered in Hong Kong: “the English, American and Chinese, the Spanish, French, Portuguese, Persians, Bengalese, Javanese, and Manilla Indians, the German, Italian, Russian, Danish, Swiss, Dutch, Belgian, Pole, and the Arab, Turk, Armenian, Tartar, Siamese, African and South American.” All the world, it seemed, sought fortunes in the open, free society that British colonial rule allowed. There they met, procreated and produced a distinct community of mixed-race, multicultural Hong Kongers who had an impact on the economy and culture of the city.

Ms. England poses a question that remains pertinent in 2023, in the wake of Beijing’s rejection of the one-country, two-systems promise it made upon taking control in 1997: “How and why is Hong Kong so different from China?” Her answer: “It has lived a different history.” Because its people came from all over the world, she notes, Hong Kong created new racial mixes and new mind-sets that “go some way toward explaining why Hong Kong is different to this day.”

Most of the early arrivals were men, but it didn’t take long for women to follow. The book’s most colorful chapter is titled “Honey,” after a euphemism local brothels used to advertise their wares. In Chinese culture, women were “saleable commodities,” Ms. England writes, often sold into prostitution by families that couldn’t afford to care for them. Many of the prostitutes were Tanka, an ethnic group whose members lived on boats in coastal parts of southern China.

A big step up the social ladder for a Chinese woman was to become the mistress of an elite Westerner and ascend to the semi-formal status of “Protected Woman.” A Protected Woman was the exclusive partner of a white man, who was expected to care for her and their children. Ms. England’s impressive research into genealogy, church records, land registries and wills shows that Protected Women usually lived well and sometimes became wealthy in their own right.

One such woman was Ng Akew, whose protector was James Bridges Endicott, an American sea captain. When Endicott died in 1870, leaving her an inheritance, Ng Akew took up trading opium, buying and selling property, and pursuing other entrepreneurial ventures. Such women, Ms. England writes, “literally gave birth to multicultural Hong Kong” by learning “to manipulate a system that could hardly have been more brutally stacked against them.”

As Hong Kong grew—and interracial marriages began to take place—Eurasians established themselves in every layer of society, including the upper reaches of the professions, business and philanthropy. Sir Paul Chater, an Armenian, and Sir Hormusjee Mody, a Parsi, were successful businessmen who now have roads named after them. These men, who met in the 1860s, helped found many leading Hong Kong companies as well as numerous signature institutions, including Hong Kong University, the Jockey Club and the famous Star Ferry, which still plies the harbor.

British trading companies employed compradors, Eurasian managers whose language skills and local contacts enabled them to operate as go-betweens with Chinese clients. Hong Kong’s most famous comprador was Ho Tung—aka Sir Robert Ho Tung, son of a Dutch Jew and his Chinese ProtectedWoman. Ho Tung worked for Jardine Matheson & Co.,the model for the firm at the heart of James Clavell’s novel “Tai-Pan,” accumulated a fortune and was knighted twice by the British crown. He was the progenitor of a vast family that includes the late casino billionaire Stanley Ho.

A century after Hong Kong’s founding, Eurasians’ devotion to Hong Kong was on display during World War II. Ms. England gives a riveting account of how Eurasians fared during the Japanese occupation. Thirty volunteers died in defense of Hong Kong Island when the Japanese attacked in mid-December 1941 and others didn’t survive the privations of Japanese prison camps. Among the civilian population, Japanese efforts to recruit Eurasians “met with negligible success,” Ms. England writes, and some Eurasians provided intelligence to the Allies or sabotaged Japanese activities. After the war, the British government failed to repay this loyalty, compensating only “pure” Europeans who had fought for Hong Kong or been interned in prison camps.

“Fortune’s Bazaar,” for all its wealth of detail, is less a straightforward narrative than a quirky history told through the stories of Eurasians and other mixed-culture residents. The jumble of names and places can be confusing, but the persistent reader will be rewarded with an enhanced understanding of what it means to be a Hong Konger.

It wasn’t until 2014 that the term made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. But as Ms. England’s account shows, “Hong Konger” is a concept that has existed since the early days of this remarkable place. The in-between people of “Fortune’s Bazaar” played vital roles in building Hong Kong. Sadly, many are leaving now that their beloved city is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chinese Communist Party.

Melanie Kirkpatrick, a former deputy editor of the Journal’s editorial page, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.


  1. Alan Lui says

    I was born and raised in Hong Kong and I know a few things about the city. It might be true that there were Chinese Protected Women in old Hong Kong but I am 100% certain that the pairing had nothing to with Hong Kong’s success. Hong Kongs has been an economic success because of its excellent banking systems and strong legal systems, among many other factors. Were Ms Melanie Kirkpatrick and Ms England writing a novel or was she reporting facts? I have never heard this before. No, Chinese Protected Women and all the racial mixes were not responsibly for Hong Kong’s economic success. And the statement “A big step up the social ladder for a Chinese woman was to become the mistress of an elite Westerner and ascend to the semi-formal status of “Protected Woman.” is a very touchy subject for many Chinese men–white men who date Asian women were, and still are, rooted in imperialism. I don’t understand why this was mentioned in the article. But again, any article with Asian women in the mix always generate much interest from readers.

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