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A forgotten knight: Why Sun Yat-sen mentor Sir Kai Ho Kai died penniless and powerless 100 years ago

A Legco stalwart and mentor to Sun Yat-sen, Sir Kai Ho Kai wielded enormous influence in Hong Kong at the turn of the 20th century. So how did the man who put the 'Kai' into Kai Tak end up dying penniless and powerless, asks Stuart Heaver

 

Tomorrow marks the centenary of the death of one of this city's most distinguished statesmen - the man who lent his name to the old international airport and the new Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, located at the same site.

Sir Kai Ho Kai was a surgeon, barrister and statesman, and a colossal public figure at the turn of the 20th century. He founded the Alice Memorial Hospital in 1887, protected Chinese interests in colonial Hong Kong as a member of the Legislative Council for 24 years, and is believed to have been the first Chinese man to marry an Englishwoman. He founded Hong Kong's first medical college and was instrumental in the formation of the University of Hong Kong.

In 1902, he was awarded the CMG (Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George) and a decade later was the first Chinese Hong Kong resident to be knighted. He was a teacher and mentor to Sun Yat-sen, a leading figure in the reform movement and a noted political essayist during the establishment of the first Chinese republic.

Tragically, at the height of his influence, this knight of the realm and loyal servant of Hong Kong was ruthlessly dumped by his colonial masters. He died suddenly a few months later, penniless, aged 55, long before the idea of an airport or cruise terminal bearing his name had been contemplated.

While the names of many hugely impressive Chinese establishment figures from Hong Kong's formative years adorn roads, public buildings and ships, it is a struggle to find much that commemorates Ho, apart from his tombstone in the Colonial Cemetery in Happy Valley. If he is remembered for anything, it is most commonly as the man who put the "Kai" in Kai Tak, though, on closer examination, even this association is more a case of accident than it is tribute.

If it were not for the fact that the old airport was built on a government site known as the Kai Tak Bund, which was a failed property development founded by Ho and his son-in-law, Au Tak, on newly reclaimed land, his name would have disappeared from the streets of Hong Kong altogether.

ON THE ROOF OF THE NEW CRUISE terminal is an expansive public park and, on one sunny day, visitors stroll around the ornate gardens, enjoying the views south across Kowloon Bay.

One of them is Lau Hak-mo, who lives in Diamond Hill and is out enjoying a walk with his wife. He has lived in Hong Kong for more than 60 years but admits he is not sure why the new terminal is called Kai Tak. He has never heard of Ho.

"Sorry, but I have no idea of the history," he says, shaking his head. "I am just interested in looking at this new building."

And who can blame him - this impressive structure feels like a giant spaceship from the set of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Two elderly men enjoying the view from a park bench show a flicker of recognition at the mention of the name of one of Hong Kong's most influential sons. "Ho yan," they say, nodding vigorously with a thumbs-up gesture - indeed, Ho was one of the city's great men.

Born Ho Shan-kai in Hong Kong on March 21, 1859, he was educated at the Government Central School. At 13, he was sent to England to complete his schooling at Palmer House School, in Margate. It is hard to imagine what a 13-year-old Chinese boy would have made of a Victorian seaside town in Kent but Kai (he dropped the "Shan" because it was common to all his brothers) was comfortable with Westerners and Western ways. His father, the Reverend Ho Fuk-tong, was a well-known Anglican preacher for the London Missionary Society and, like many of his religious colleagues, a successful property speculator. His contemporaries called him "a capital English scholar", so it is likely Kai grew up in a Westernised family.

As a Christian, fluent in English, he would have dealt deftly with any potential culture clash in England and while qualifying in medicine at Aberdeen University, in Scotland, and then in law at Lincoln's Inn, in London, before being called to the bar in 1881.

Nevertheless, he must have raised eyebrows when he married Alice Walkden, seven years his senior, in London, in 1881.

As his biographer, the late G.H. Choa, delicately put it: "This was probably the first Anglo-Chinese marriage ever and even more unusual in that it took place in racist Victorian society; the Walkden family must have been very liberal-minded."

Ho returned to Hong Kong the following year and settled with his new wife in a house called Craigengower, on Bonham Road, ready to embark on a glittering career in public life, sanctioned by the colonial establishment. At first he went into medical practice, but found that few Chinese were willing to pay for Western services so, having been admitted as a barrister to the Supreme Court in March 1882, he practised law instead.

While Choa claims Ho was "very much a Chinese at heart", with parents from Guangdong province, he wore Western clothes and sported a wing collar and a well-waxed handlebar moustache. He was even a member of the Freemasons.

Alice died of typhoid fever shortly after the birth of their first daughter, in 1884. Ho later remarried, but his first wife's death must have been an immense loss for him. He founded the Alice Memorial Hospital, in Central, in her memory (the facility has since been relocated to Tai Po and renamed the Alice Ho Miu Ling Nethersole Hospital).

Ho may have enjoyed the finest of British education, adopted Western ways and married an Englishwoman, but the snooty and racist colonial elite still would not allow him to join their exclusive clubs.

After Ho and Legco colleague Wei Yuk had been denied membership of the Hong Kong Club and the Hong Kong Cricket Club, they petitioned the government, in 1912, for a piece of land in Tai Hang village on which to start their own club. And thus was born the Chinese Recreational Club, where the Chinese bourgeois elite could play cricket and tennis in immaculate starched white flannels. The club still prospers.

"They were not trying to be British, they were trying to be Hong Kong Chinese," says Professor John Carroll, whose book Edge of Empires focuses on the relationships between the British colonial elite and the leaders of the Chinese bourgeoisie. "You could find martial-arts classes and games of mahjong at the Chinese Recreational Club and some of the architecture was distinctly Chinese."

It all helped to prove, in Carroll's words, that "Chinese, too, could be respectable modern gentlemen", and men such as Ho employed great agility in keeping a foot in both camps for the sake of their careers.

During his four terms in Legco, Ho did much to protect the interests of the Chinese. During the anti-French riots in 1884, when strikers refused to work on the French warships that had sunk the Chinese fleet at Fuzhou, Ho provided legal advice to the strikers. In December 1886, he opposed a new public health ordinance aimed at improving sanitation because he deemed it a case of Western methods and standards being imposed inappropriately on the Chinese population.

His stance was often to remind Legco and his colonial masters, albeit in highly deferential terms, that the Chinese, be they the business elite or humble rickshaw coolies, were all part of the Hong Kong story, and legislation should seek to accommodate their interests and sensitivities.

"He could be a champion of the Chinese lower classes but [he] was also careful to distance himself from them," says Carroll, who believes Ho struggled to reconcile his loyalties and his personal priorities. "He was often torn by what was good for the stability and prosperity of the colony, what was good for the Chinese population and what was good for his own wallet."

These conflicting priorities came to a head after the China's 1911 revolution, when two developments began to unravel the reputation of this widely respected public figure.

First, Hong Kong was destabilised by the impact of the revolution. With mass migration to the city and a spontaneous outpouring of patriotic fervour, it was widely assumed by Hongkongers that, once the Manchus had been evicted from China, the British would be next.

Second, the paternal and pragmatic governor Sir Frederick Lugard, who had great confidence in Ho and Wei, was replaced by professional career administrator Sir Francis Henry May, who had spent most of his working life in Hong Kong and was far less trusting of the Chinese.

His suspicious attitude was exacerbated by an assassination attempt against him in 1912. The would-be killer, a loner with a personal grudge against May, missed his target and the bullet was later found lodged in the seat of Lady May's sedan chair.

By this time, Ho - who was knighted in 1912, and chose for himself the title Sir Kai Ho Kai - had withdrawn from his legal practice and devoted himself entirely to public duties and to being a political essayist. He longed for China to reinvent itself as a constitutional monarchy broadly along Western lines and was an ardent supporter of the new Canton administration being held together by Sun, who Ho had taught physiology and medical jurisprudence at the Hong Kong College of Medicine.

The situation deteriorated further for Ho when the government banned the use of Chinese currency on public transport in 1912. It was a pragmatic policy in response to economic turbulence on the mainland but it provoked a boycott by the Chinese, who were incensed by an apparent insult to the new revolutionary government.

"The tram boycott of 1912-13 pit his Chinese nationalism against his loyalty to the colonial Hong Kong government and finally ended his political career," says Carroll.

Though Ho was instrumental in breaking the boycott, by riding on the tram himself, later that year, May thought this "too little too late" and suspected that he had been behind the boycott's inception.

Within a toxic atmosphere of revolutionary fervour, rumour and distrust, Ho, the most prominent and respected Chinese citizen of his generation, who had bent over backwards his entire life to uphold British values, was denounced privately by May as a conspirator whose primary loyalty was to revolutionary China.

"Formerly Sir Kai Ho Kai could be relied on for information and advice when the government wanted it. Now this is not so …" wrote May, in a confidential report to the secretary of state.

"He might become troublesome to this government if he remained in Hong Kong or obtained office in Canton," reported May, ominously.

"Kai Ho Kai remained loyal to the British Empire throughout. There is no evidence of him betraying the institutions of the British government," says Dr Fung Chi-ming, who undertook extensive research into Ho during his post-doctorate work at HKU.

Even so, May ensured that Ho's term in Legco was not extended and the public were advised that he was standing down voluntarily, due to "health concerns".

"The health reason was not the real reason he resigned," says Fung. "There was a deliberate attempt to mislead the public as to the real reasons for Ho Kai's retirement, at one time the best-kept secret in town."

Fung believes May perceived the well connected and politically sophisticated Ho as a threat.

"He was unfairly treated. That is my opinion," says Fung, who is sceptical about the reported circumstances of Ho's death. "It's very speculative, of course, but I am a little suspicious that he died a natural death."

Fung notes that Ho, a barrister with countless friends and contacts in the legal sector, died intestate.

"A lawyer who dies without a will in place must have died a very sudden death. If he resigned from Legco due to ill health, why did he not make a will?" asks Fung.

Conspiracy theories are impossible to validate - or quash - 100 years after the event, but his obituary in the South China Morning Post, dated July 22, 1914, makes for an interesting read, in light of Fung's remarks.

The report states his death "occurred at noon yesterday, at his residence in Robinson Road, under painfully sudden circumstances". It continues, "Only the previous evening he accompanied a party of bathers to Junk Bay and seemed in no way distressed at the conclusion of the trip."

It reports that the next day "heart trouble set in".

The funeral, widely reported in the local press, was attended by a full A-list cast of the great and the good of Hong Kong, including May, who had orchestrated the end of Ho's political career. Glowing tributes came thick and fast, and with seamless hypocrisy.

"With respect, we treasure with admiration the example he has set us all of devotion to public duty," said the chairman of Legco.

Whatever the exact circumstances of his demise, Ho left his widow, Lily Lai Yuk-hing, and their 17 children in such a perilous financial state (for reasons that are not fully understood) that an appeal was made to the governor to help fund the education of the 10 boys. All the sons would move to Shanghai within four years of Ho's death, to be cared for by an influential uncle.

Carroll has little time for speculation or conspiracy theories, but he does agree that "double allegiance" had some part to play in Ho's political downfall.

"Not following orders and not being a 'loyal Chinaman' led to his downfall," says Carroll, who sees Ho as the "original Hongkonger", split in his allegiance to Hong Kong and the mainland. "He is a good example of the Hong Kong identity and probably not so different to those people you hear today talking about how bad everything is post-1997."

And what would the original Hongkonger have to say about the Basic Law and the uncertain progression to universal suffrage in his birthplace?

"Today, Ho Kai would be talking about the importance of Hong Kong values," says Carroll.

It seems this Hongkonger, who adopted Western ideals of liberal democracy, free speech and free trade but never turned his back on his homeland or his core ethnicity, was harshly treated by the British. Ultimately, he was simply not considered "one of us".

Apparently, his only sin was to retain a fierce loyalty to Hong Kong and to the mainland, so perhaps now, more than ever, this citizen should be honoured a little more prominently.

A modest tribute in the pleasant park on the roof of the HK$8.2 billion Kai Tak Cruise Terminal might be a good start.

 

 

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This article is now closed to comments

aksc
Good lessons for the PAn Democrats esp those who tried to seek outsider influence to HKSAR democratisation process under the Basic Laws, which might be torn into pieces if the sovereign owner, PRC, got too **** off.
sundayatscmp
Fascinating! Someone should make a movie out of this!
hollingsbee
A very interesting piece on an important but surprisingly little known Hong Kong figure. I wonder if he really was the first Chinese man to marry an English woman. There was probably a Chinese presence in London from the 17th century, certainly by the mid 19th century it was significant in the docks areas. Very few Chinese women went abroad until much later, so Chinese men in London generally married English women. Certainly the few remaining living links with the old Chinese settlements in London are of Eurasian descent.
onedistrict
The lives and times at crossed currents of modern history.

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