IN 1926 Sir Shouson Chow became the first Chinese invited to join that very select Governor's club - the Executive Council. It should have been a celebration of the dawning of a new egalitarian era, in which the 450,000 majority of Chinese living in Hong Kong would have at least some tiny whisper of a voice among the loud opinions of the European minority. But like so many constitutional reforms of any era, the moment was steeped in negotiations and compromises. The nomination had been a surprise move by Governor Sir Cecil Clementi - a man who enjoyed taking risks rather more than he enjoyed kow-towing to anyone. Clementi, whose job it was to sort out the civil unrest caused by strikes (which followed the slaughter of nine innocent people in Shanghai by British-led troops in 1925), said he wished to make the spontaneous gesture of elevating a Chinese to the Executive Council (fondly known as Exco) before the move was forced. London officials were horrified, and expressed gloomy doubts that a Chinese person could observe the sacred confidentiality of Exco. There were plenty of coded telegrams whizzing backwards and forwards across Central Asia to the effect that if they let a local into the top power structures in Hong Kong then others - in more delicate and 'less appropriate' places like the Straits Settlement - would want representation. The Executive Council was - and remained until 1997 - the governor's main advisory panel. He was required to consult with Exco members 'on all questions, except where he judged the matter was urgent, trivial, or highly confidential'. In the 1920s the nine appointed men, plus governor, met once a week to discuss a range of matters including approving (or not) all draft bills before they went to the Legislative Council and after they came back. On one side their role was to help the governor, on the other their role was to control him. 'In a Crown Colony the Governor is next to the Almighty,' observed Alexander Grantham, who had the right to the feathered topi from 1947 to 1957. And indeed the governor did have the power to go against his Executive Council 'provided that he immediately reported the facts to London'. But ultimately he was the King's - or Queen's - appointee, and London could have fired him at the pleasure, or displeasure, of the Crown if he stepped too far out of gubernatorial line. Anyone chosen to serve in that select, and governor-elect, group would have to fit some fairly rigorous criteria - for the Legislative Council, and later Exco, rules were strict - according to political historian Norman Miners. 'Governors did not find it easy to find suitable Chinese to fill the seats customarily reserved for them. It was desirable that any Chinese member should be fluent in English, so as to be able to take a full part in the business of the Council, be recognised as a man of standing and influence within the Chinese community, be a British subject [normally by birth within the colony] and be loyal to the British Crown,' Miners lists in his book, Hong Kong Under Imperial Rule. 'Chinese possessing all these qualifications were rare, since most . . . had come to the colony from [Guangdong] and intended to return there.' If anyone had the credentials then Sir Shouson Chow did. Twelve years later his Order of the Rising Sun (4th class) might have raised a few eyebrows. But in the mid-1920s the Japanese medal (from 1907) was lined up honourably enough on his mantelpiece (in his new Pine Villa home built on wasteland on the newly named Shouson Hill) along with three prestigious Chia Ho decorations from the Republic of China National Government. He had already been on the Legislative Council (one of two Chinese) since 1921, that political concession first having been granted to the local population in 1880 with the appointment of Singapore-born barrister Ng Choy. By a young age he had lived in Hong Kong, China and America; by his early 60s he was on every important board a Chinese man could be on, and had shown leadership skills that would give him credibility with both Chinese and European communities. He was the first person to be knighted in Hong Kong by a representative of the British royal family and only the third Chinese to be knighted - in a colonial history of nearly 80 years. He was also the first person in Hong Kong to be able to keep the title 'The Honourable' after his retirement. Chow's family had long connections to the area, having settled in Kowloon at the end of the 18th century. When the British took Hong Kong in 1841 his grandfather was living in Little Hong Kong village - which the British later dubbed Aberdeen - and to the family's pride he had helped Captain Elliot to post up his early official proclamations. The young Chow Cheong-lin had his early education in China, but when he was 12, in 1873, he was the beneficiary of an extraordinary decision by the Chinese Educational mission in Shanghai. With 30 other boys, all dressed in long gowns, ceremonial jacket, and the Manchu queue, he assembled at the wharf - and set sail for America, not thinking he would return to his family for at least 15 years. As he recalled in a speech many years later to the boys of Wah Yan College, the long pigtails made them the victim of much leg-pulling, 'or queue-pulling', and their retaliations won for them the name of 'the fighting Chinese'. The officials in Peking later regretted the scheme, and brought the exiles back to China just nine years later, for fear they might become revolutionaries - or worse, foreigners. The commissioner in charge was horrified when Chow and his friends got back with strange habits, like that of taking a bath a day. 'One bath a year is enough for any man, and let it be taken on his birthday,' the official pronounced. Keeping any excessive bathing habits to himself, Chow moved to Korea, then returned to China to serve as an adviser and officer under three emperors and the Chinese Republic, before coming back to Hong Kong in 1911, serving in Legco and on numerous public boards (including, curiously, the Boy Scouts), before getting the Exco appointment. But this was a time that British soldiers would beat Chinese people in the streets for no apparent reason. It was also just seven years after a 1919 act had been passed (with gentle opposition only from the two Chinese unofficial members of the Legislative Council) restricting Chinese from living in certain areas of Cheung Chau - the Peak having been out of bounds to everyone Chinese except Madame Chiang Kai-shek between 1904 and 1941. The Foreign Office - which had not been informed of the Chow appointment until it was made - was unashamedly racist, like most of the British policy-makers of the time, and kicked up a fuss. Clementi ignored it, but later in the year, on the insistence of the diplomats, he was told that secret telegrams should no longer be read to council members. Chow (who died in 1959 at the age of 98) remained on the council for 10 years, ignoring any potential slights to his integrity, and retiring only in 1936. He was replaced by Robert Kotewall - an official with Parsee ancestry and a Chinese mother, who was nevertheless accepted by the Chinese community as one of their own. It was the beginning, although an excruciatingly slow one, of the road to a Legco, an Exco and an entire Civil Service, that are now almost exclusively Chinese.