“Terrible Race Day Calamity: Disastrous Collapse of Stands – Many Burnt to Death, Golf Club Gutted”, ran the headline in the South China Morning Post 100 years ago, on February 27, 1918. “The second day’s racing of the Hongkong Jockey Club [annual Derby Day races] was marred by one of the most terrible calamities in the history of Hongkong,” the report said.

“The ponies were just out for The China Stakes, the first race after tiffin interval, when the catastrophe occurred. Suddenly a shout arose from the matsheds [bamboo-and-matting temporary race­stands] running from the Royal Hongkong Golf Club along Wong Nei Cheong Road. People were seen rushing out of the stands on to the course and then came a noise like the explosion of a huge string of crackers. The matched nearest the Golf Club was seen to lean towards the road and collapse. 

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“The rest of the line of matsheds followed like a pack of cards burying hundreds of their inmates in their ruins. […] To make the situation more serious a fire started at one of the matsheds situated in the centre of the line. This was undoubtedly caused by the matting falling on some cooking stands situated immediately behind them. Within half an hour of the first warning of the disaster the whole of the matsheds were a blazing heap.”

More than 600 people died in the collapse and conflagration. “There were many cases of people being burnt to death in front of the eyes of their would-be rescuers, men working on with desperation until the flames were literally on top of them,” the Post reported.

“The records of Hongkong contain no parallel to yesterday’s disaster, nor anything to equal it in the indelible impression of frightful­ness which it created in the minds of those who witnessed it,” the story continued. “Men and women and […] children too, have met with a most agonising death in the presence of their relatives and friends and about a fourth of the population of the city.”

In the days that followed the disaster, tales of tragedy and heroism emerged. On February 28, the Post reported: “Perhaps the most distressing of the tragedies was that in which Mr J. L. M. do Rozario, with his wife and small son, and his wife’s two sisters Misses Carlotta and Maria (daughters of the late Mr F. X. Ribeiro) with the whole of his office staff with the exception of one coolie and all his servants, excepting an amah, were killed. They had a stand, the ground portion of the three storeyed Daja stand, and when the collapse came escape for them was hopeless. There are reports that Mr Rozario was seen to emerge but went back to save his people.”

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Criticisms surrounding the disaster included complaints of police stopping people from returning to the stands in a bid to save relatives, the absence of fire safety precautions – “In more than one case, the cutting down of a beam would have saved a life, as there were boys seen hanging at the end of poles above flames when they could have been saved by cutting the woodwork” – and the fact the matsheds hadn’t been properly secured: “This year, it is stated, as opposed to other years, the powers that be would not allow the ground to be dug up in order to put in secure foundations and as a result the supporting poles were not sunk in the ground.”

In an interview also published on February 28, A. G. da Rocha, of Messrs Caldbeck and McGregor, said: “Just before the Chinese Stakes I was sitting with my wife, Mrs Lopez, and Mr C. A. M. Pereira, all of us in a row, selling cash sweep tickets in No. 8 booth, the Deja. I saw No. 9, the Colonial booth next door, moving and I called out a warning. It was a question of seconds and the people stampeded. No. 9 swayed towards us and when the crash came we were thrown on our backs in the corner. I found that there was only a roof over us. I cut a hole and it was easy to get out. I assisted as many as I could out of the hole. Nearly all in our stand were saved. I have only heard of two deaths, Mrs Razack and Mrs Rahman. 

“Mr Rozario and his family were below us, and very few in the booth escaped. As a Police Reservist (No. 873) I blew my whistle for help. Mr R. J. Remedios, of the Mercantile Bank, with others, has held the booth for 40 years, and every precaution has always been taken. It was here that Mr Jorge Remedios cut a hole in the matting and saved many people […] I went to the Colonial booth (Richie and Co’s.) and tried to save some there. There were many Chinese ladies pinned down there. We got a few out, but many were burned.”

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Reports relayed from the Chinese press included news of “over 40 men saved by a Chinese named Sheung Kim” and that “over twenty whole families were burned alive”. According to the Post, “A great many people firmly believe that robbers who wished to cause a panic and take advantage of it, cut some essential support. The robbery theory is supported by stories of thefts.”

On March 2, the Post reported: “Of the many acts of heroism performed at the fire that of the late Mr A. K. Fatydad, second son of Mr M. Fatydad, stands out prominently. He with six other Indian boys, succeeded in extricating themselves from the ruins of No. 8 stand and were nursing their injuries just outside, when two women began shrieking frantically to ‘save life’ near the spot from which they themselves had emerged. Mr Fatydad, senr., recognising the danger, tearfully entreated his son not to go. ‘Don’t go, sonny, don’t go’ he said, but in spite of this ‘Sonny’ waved his hand and shouting to his comrades ‘come on, boys,’ in they went among the smoke and flames. 

“A momentary glimpse was seen of them, grasping the unfortunate women by the arms and pulling with all their strength. Then, they were blotted out from view by a portion of the burning material which crashed down upon them. The most careful search has been made and no trace of their bodies can be found. The hero of this gallant episode was but 20 years of age, was employed at the P. W. D. [Public Works Department] and was a member of the police reserve. The other members of the little band of Indian boys are unknown to our informant by name, but it should be mentioned that two or three were also members of the Police Reserve, two being employed at Cosmopolitan Dock.”

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An inquiry into the calamity opened on March 4 and lasted for 22 days. Among its findings, the jury criticised the Director of Public Works for not laying down safety standards for construction of the temporary stands and the Captain Superintendent of Police for not taking necessary precautions for public safety. Recommendations included that “temporary racestands constructed of such inflammable materials as matting and bamboo be discontinued”. On October 1, the Post reported that “New stands will be erected, and, it is hoped, in time for the next annual races.

No doubt many witnesses to the events of that deadly day did not return. As the Post reported soon after the tragedy: “That the mention of Happy Valley will recall the fearful memories of the charnel house for many months to come is natural. ‘No more races for me’ said an elderly Portuguese gentleman. ‘I will tear up my books and tickets. I don’t want to see the place again.’”

The Race Course Fire Memorial was erected in 1922 at So Kon Po, Wan Chai, and was declared a monument in 2015.