On another day

IN the early days of Hong Kong, Official Members of the Legislative Council were allowed to vote according to their conscience even when it was against Government policy. If they wanted to abstain, they simply stayed at home on the day a motion they disliked was put to the vote.

This gentlemanly form of abstention was used by the Lieutenant-Governor and the Chief Justice when the Praya Bill was laid before the Legislative Council in February 1859.

The Praya Bill was the pet scheme of the Governor, Sir John Bowring. His plan was to reclaim the waterfront between Navy Bay, at Sai Ying Pun, and Causeway Bay. This he intended to call Bowring Praya. The scheme gave the public access to almost the complete northern shoreline.

However, Mr Dent, an Unofficial Member of the Legislative Council, was diametrically opposed to the bill. This was because he owned a piece of waterfront property, and Bowring's scheme would cut off its direct access to the harbour.

Mr Dent took advantage of the Governor's absence in Manila, where he had fled in order to avoid appearing as a witness in an unsavoury libel case, to lobby the Official Members of the Legislative Council.

As a result the bill was defeated because the Colonial Secretary, the Chief Magistrate and the Surveyor-General all voted against the Governor.

The Governor was stunned. He complained that ''one of the peculiar difficulties against which this Government has to struggle is the enormous influence wielded by the great and opulent commercial Houses against whose power and in opposition to whose personal views it is hard to contend.'' The next Governor, Sir Hercules Robinson, was not as liberal as Bowring. He introduced measures which deprived the Official Members of the right to vote against the Governor.

In spite of the bill's defeat, Bowring actually managed to build a couple of hundred yards of praya which he modestly called Bowrington (Bowringtown) after himself.