"What barrister would leave a decent practice, to endure, even as a Judge, the climate and society of Hong Kong?" – London Weekly Dispatch 15 June 1851
While the Law Society of Hong Kong will celebrate the 110th anniversary of its incorporation this year, the history of Hong Kong’s legal profession dates back-half century before 1907. Sketches of information about the pre-1907 legal profession can be found in The Law Society of Hong Kong 1907–2007: Celebrating A Centenary (2007) (The Law Society of Hong Kong publication). This article recounts some of the more interesting forensic vignettes of the often forgotten past.
The First Chief Justice
The Colonial Office had great difficulty in finding a judge willing to come to this far-off and barren Oriental island. In fact, Hong Kong’s first Chief Justice, John Walter Hulme (1795–1861) of the Middle Temple, came to Hong Kong on 7 May 1844, having secured for himself a high salary of £3,000 p.a., in spite of only having very “little if any judicial experience in England and reportedly [being] at least the eighth choice for the position”. On retirement, he also secured a handsome pension of £1,500 p.a. (See Christopher Munn: ‘Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography’ ed. by May Holdsworth and Christopher Munn, 2010).
The Case of Governor Davis vs CJ Hulme
When the first Chief Justice Hulme and the second Governor, Sir John Davis (1795–1890) departed England for Hong Kong to take up the most senior colonial positions, they were on board the same liner, H.M.S. Spitfire. However, at Bombay, Governor Davis had instructed Hulme and his family to make their separate way to Hong Kong because of a shortage of room aboard. This had not only cost Hulme £250, but also underlain their protracted rivalry in the new British colony. The trigger point for the rivalry to surface was the ruling of Hulme to allow the first appeal against the decision of the British Consul at Canton by a British merchant, Charles Spencer Compton, who was fined for exciting a riot after beating Chinese officers, thus reversing Governor Davis’ confirmation of the fine. “As will be seen hereafter, this case formed the subject of recriminations between the Chief Justice, who had properly refused to be dictated to, and the Governor, ending in the latter formulating a charge of drunkenness against Mr. Hulme.”
An enquiry by the Executive Council in November, 1847, presided by the Governor, was held to hear the charges of habitual drunkenness and eventually found against Hulme. The political wind in the Colony at the time was blowing in favor of the Chief Justice as he was supported by the English community, the legal profession and the Chinese merchants Davis despised, while the Governor, unpopular with his introduction of the new registration ordinance imposing a toll tax on all inhabitants, Europeans and Chinese alike, had the support of only a few. Hulme was suspended from his position by the Governor and returned to England. Rather unexpectedly, Earl Grey, the Secretary of State, refused to uphold the verdict and reinstated Hulme who soon returned to Hong Kong in triumph in 1848. Davis had already tendered his resignation in November 1847 and left in disgrace, ending the Colony’s first judicial scandal. (See J.W. Norton-Kyshe, History of the Laws and Courts of Hong Kong from the Earliest Period to 1898 (1898) (reissued 1971)).
The Misfortune of a Young Chinese Yale Graduate
Yung Wing (1828–1912), a young Chinese man, who had recently graduated from Yale College (1854) and was the first Chinese who had ever been known to go through a first-class American college, came to Hong Kong to find a position in 1855. His first job was as an interpreter in the Supreme Court, earning HK$75 a month. It was when he made up his mind to become a solicitor that he realised that he had ‘stepped on the toes of the British legal fraternity’. He had made two formidable enemies, though none of his own doing, without which he would probably have become the first Chinese solicitor in Hong Kong.
The first enemy happened to be the incumbent Attorney General, Thomas Chisholm Anstey, who was angered by his wasted effort on Yung (unknown to Yung), as Yung chose to be apprenticed to an attorney instead of him. Yung lamented in his memoir: “[Anstey] wanted me to apprentice myself to him, for he did all he could in his capacity as attorney-general of the Colony to use his influence to open the way for me to become an attorney, by draughting a special colonial ordinance to admit Chinese to practice in the Hong Kong Colony as soon as I could pass my examinations.”
The second enemy was a man-made wall against which Yung felt so powerless as in his memoir, he recalled: “all the attorneys banded themselves together against me, because, as they openly stated in all the local papers except the China Mail, if I were allowed to practice my profession, they might as well pack up and go back to England, for as I had a complete knowledge of both English and Chinese I would eventually monopolise all the Chinese legal business. So they made it too hot for me to continue in my studies … I was between two fires… .”
Eventually the disgruntled Yung Wing abandoned his legal studies and in August 1856, departed for the tumultuous Shanghai where he began a successful political pursuit in China. He was renowned for his creation of the study programme known as the Chinese Educational Mission, a pioneer in sending some 120 children to study in America. (See Yung Wing, My Life in China and America (1909).
Further insight into the British community’s attitude towards Chinese becoming lawyers in early Colonial years can be gleaned from the letter of a Hong Kong legislative councillor, J.F. Edger to his friend, W. T. Mercer dated 24 June 1856 which reads: “Above all I object to the admission of Chinese as Attorneys in our Courts of Law. They are a peculiar race of people, and in my opinion are generally crafty, corrupt, mendacious and deficient in those qualifications which are needful in a trustworthy legal adviser… .” (See Peter Wesley-Smith, Precarious Balance: Hong Kong Between China and Britain 1842–1992 (ed. by Ming K. Chan) (1994)).
The First Chinese Family of Lawyers
Rev. Ho Fuk Tong (1817–1871), the son of a press block-cutter, was the first pastor ordained in Hong Kong in 1846 and the father of five sons and six daughters. When the London Missionary Society moved to Hong Kong, Rev. James Legge gave the printing business of books of the Bible to Rev. Ho, which made him wealthy. With astute investment in real estate,
Rev. Ho was able to accumulate his wealth to such an extent that at his death in 1871, his estate was worth some HK$150,000, being one of the largest estates up to that date, leaving a trail of probate suits (see Carl T. Smith, Chinese Christians: Elites, Middlemen, and the Church in Hong Kong (1985)). What makes Rev. Ho’s family notable in Hong Kong legal history is keeping the record of having three local lawyers of the earliest ranking.
Rev. Ho’s eldest daughter, Ho Mui Ling, married Ng Choy (1842–1922) (or better known in China as Wu Ting-fang), an interpreter of the Supreme Court of Hong Kong since 1862. With his wife’s financial support, Ng then went to study for the Bar in England where he was called at Lincoln’s Inn in 1877. Ng returned to Hong Kong and became the first Chinese to qualify as a barrister (he was number 28 on the Roll of Barristers). He was admitted to practise in Hong Kong on 18 May 1877. He was also appointed the first Chinese unofficial member of the Legislative Council in 1880 and was the first Chinese to hold the post of magistrate. Ng, as a go-between for the Chinese community, was believed to have more influence than the Governor. His later participation in the China’s Self-Strengthening Movement and the Chinese Revolution of 1911 earned him the post of the Chinese Minister to the US, Peru and Spain in 1896 and the Minister of Justice in Sun Yat-sen’s first cabinet. He was famous in China’s modern history for drafting the Qing commercial code of 1904 and procedural code of 1906 (see Carroll, Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography).
Ho Kai, Sir Kai (1859–1914), the fourth son of Rev. Ho, qualified as a physician (trained at Aberdeen University) and a barrister (of Lincoln’s Inn in 1882) and was the second Chinese barrister (number 33 on the Roll of Barristers). He was admitted to practice in Hong Kong on 29 March 1882 (see Norton-Kyshe, History of the Laws and Courts of Hong Kong from the Earliest Period to 1898). With his reformist personality and revolutionary spirit, he was described as “the archetype of a new generation of Chinese in Hong Kong” (see Elizabeth Sinn, Power and Charity: A Chinese Merchant Elite in Colonial Hong Kong (2003)).
Like his brother-in-law, Ng Choi, Ho Kai was also interested in the political reforms evolving with China’s rapid change. But unlike Ng, he stayed in Hong Kong to pursue his ideals and became a prominent Chinese community leader. He was said to have influenced Sun Yat-sen when Sun was a student at the College of Medicine for Chinese in Hong Kong. His great contributions to Hong Kong lie in establishing hospitals and providing medical care and medical education. The Colonial Office awarded him with a knighthood, the first Chinese resident in Hong Kong to be so honoured. Unfortunately, due to his failure in various business projects (such as the Kai Tak Bund later reclaimed as the Kai Tak Airport), he died penniless in 1914 (see G.H. Choa, The Life and Times of Sir Kai Ho Kai (2d ed. 2000)).
Rev. Ho’s third son, Ho Wyson also studied law in England and was a solicitor admitted there in 1887. He returned to Hong Kong and on 23 August 1887 and became the first Chinese solicitor admitted in the Supreme Court (number 46 on the Roll of Proctors, Attorneys and Solicitors) (see Norton-Kyshe, History of the Laws and Courts of Hong Kong from the Earliest Period to 1898). It would seem that Ho Wyson was more inclined to enjoying life than attending to his law practice. He was said “to be handicapped in court practice by a bashful modesty and a deficiency in what is known as the gift of gab … and also handicapped in general business by his phenomenally limited office hours. It is a joke in legal circles that Wyson’s hours are from twelve to three, with an interval of one hour for tiffin” (see Smith, Chinese Christians: Elites, Middlemen, and the Church in Hong Kong).
Ho Yow, the youngest son of Rev. Ho, was articled to his brother, Wyson, but instead of becoming a solicitor, he chose to follow his brother-in-law, Ng Choi, to the US, where he was appointed Consul-General in San Francisco. He went on to prosper as a businessman in promoting a large corporation, the Chinese American Commercial Company (see Smith, Chinese Christians: Elites, Middlemen, and the Church in Hong Kong).
Horse Racing Overriding Court Hearing
Horse racing is a common hobby among judges and lawyers in Hong Kong, now and then. As for its impact upon the City, the Hong Kong Telegraph’s editorial team on 2 March 1882 had this to say: “The excitement of the race week has passed away, leaving the Colony to lapse into its customary comatose condition which will know no change until the birth of a next racing season!” (see Voices from the Past Hong Kong 1842–1918 (selected and annotated by Solomon Bard (2002)).
Yet for racing to usurp the judicial duty imposed upon colonial judges would seem incredible to non-punters present in the court room of Chief Justice John Jackson Smale (1805–1882) who, on 18 February 1867, found himself reluctantly but readily adjourning court hearings during Race week. In support of such adjournment, the Attorney General cited as authority the Derby Day case, when all business was suspended by common consent of the Crown and the people. The CJ quipped: “Yes, but here we encroach upon the English habit by taking unlawful possession of three days.” (See Norton-Kyshe, History of the Laws and Courts of Hong Kong from the Earliest Period to 1898).