Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 January, 2009, 12:00am

Still colloquially known - at least among older people - as the Nam Pak Hong, Bonham Strand and surrounding back-lanes, in the heart of Hong Kong Island's bustling Sheung Wan district, were the epicentre of one of Hong Kong's most important early entrepot (duty-free import/re-export) commercial areas. Along with Bonham Road, further up the hill, the strand was named after Sir George Bonham (below; 1803-1863), who served as governor of Hong Kong between 1848 and 1854.

Literally translated as 'the south-north companies', the Nam Pak Hong was one of the early colony's most important trading guilds. Influential well beyond the boundaries of Hong Kong's entrepot trade, many 19th century Nam Pak Hong merchants became leading community figures and in this capacity were closely involved with the Man Mo Temple Committee, the Tung Wah Hospital, the Po Leung Kuk, the District Watch and other community organisations. The grandsons of many such men remain prominent in business and public life.

Nam Pak Hong merchants imported (mostly) Southeast Asian produce into Hong Kong, which was then re-exported into mainland China. The products most people associate with such trade are dried seafood, traditional medicine items and other exotica but the two main 19th century imports were - and remain - rice and timber.

As well as wholesalers dealing in shark fins and bird nests, long-established rice firms continue to dominate the Nam Pak Hong scene, especially along Connaught Road West. Branches of Southeast Asian banks were established in this area to finance the rice trade and other enterprises; for decades the Hong Kong head office of Bangkok Bank was in Sheung Wan. The bank was long under the control of prominent Sino-Thai tycoon Chin Sophonpanich, who moved to Hong Kong in the late 1950s after one of Thailand's innumerable coups; a grandson of his, Bernard Chan, is a Legislative Council member.

Hong Kong has long been an importer of food, fuel and building materials, and much of this also came from Southeast Asia. Rice was mostly imported from Siam (Thailand), where the trade was controlled by ethnic Chinese (mostly Chiu Chow) businessmen and it remains so today. Hong Kong's timber requirements mostly came from North Borneo (modern Sabah, in east Malaysia) and - in the Sandakan area at least - this commerce was largely controlled by Hakka Christian migrants, who had moved from Hong Kong from the 1890s onwards.

The Nam Pak Hong's historic entrepot role between China and the rest of the world continues to thrive. Many buyers here are from the mainland and they come - well aware of their own society's deserved reputation for fake and adulterated goods - to purchase imported items such as dried seafood and traditional medicines with a reasonable degree of consumer confidence.