Sir Robert Ho Tung: Public Figure, Private Man by May Holdsworth, pub. Hong Kong University Press Decades after his death, Sir Robert Ho Tung remains a perennially recalled Hong Kong figure. Anyone with even rudimentary local-history knowledge will have heard something about him, even if only that he was “the first Chinese to be allowed to live on The Peak”. But what else is definitively known about this legendarily wealthy, twice-knighted local grandee, one-time comprador [commercial middleman] of Jardine, Matheson and Co, and chairman of the Tung Wah Hospital Committee? Sir Robert Ho Tung: Public Figure, Private Man , by May Holdsworth, provides the first serious biographical study of this enigmatic individual, who was not Chinese at all, but an illegitimate, first-generation Eurasian who, for much of his life, chose to be emphatically, traditionally Chinese – despite his bright blue eyes and reddish hair. As might be expected from an authorised biography (commissioned in 1997 by Eric Hotung, Sir Robert’s grandson) the narrative that unfolds is polite, yet surprisingly objective, compared to other “family history” books that have appeared in Hong Kong in recent years. Fair and measured, this tone lends authority, and further validates the detailed scholarship the author has brought to bear throughout. In this regard, Holdsworth openly acknowledges the debt she (and others like her) owe to the pioneering social history research into early urban Hong Kong undertaken by Reverend Carl T. Smith (1918-2008), which enabled the depiction of an accurate reconstruction of Ho Tung’s early life, as well as valuable contextual frameworks. Debut novels set amid the anti-colonial struggles of French Indochina These external reference materials, extensively used throughout, allow important additions – and correctives – to the carefully revised, camouflaged version of him that gained currency in Ho Tung’s own lifetime. Discussed and refuted where necessary, these accounts would otherwise have to be taken at face value. His mother Sze’s gravestone at Pok Fu Lam’s Chiu Yuen Cemetery epitomises these periodic attempts at ancestral reinvention. The serial “protected woman” of (mostly European) men, Sze bore several children to different fathers, but none of that personal history appears on her memorial. Ho Tung’s “father” is described therein as being from “the Noble House of Ho” – by implication, therefore, he was ethnically Chinese. Reality was completely different – his biological father was C.H.M. Bosman, a British merchant of Dutch-Jewish extraction. Throughout his life, Ho Tung was a loyal British subject and a patriotic Chinese; as a man of Hong Kong from that time, this periodically fluid personal identity posed no inherent contradictions. Cultural and racial duality remained until middle age; during travels abroad, he often dressed in European clothes, and signed hotel registers as Robert Bosman. This chameleon-like identity transformation made everyday life easier than it might have been for a Chinese traveller at that time and place – an inborn advantage he did not reject. That Holdsworth was able to extract as much detailed information as she did, to illustrate the private man behind the public figure, is a testament to her considerable skills as a biographer. Paradoxically, the level of detail explored reflects the limited, fragmentary and at times contradictory, primary resource materials available. Surviving personal diaries, business papers and other miscellaneous documents indicate how little of Ho Tung’s thoughts and feelings about himself had been recorded or survived the passage of time. Chapters documenting his later years most closely reveal the private man behind the public figure, partly through reference to extensive autobiographical writings by three of his daughters, the published or unpublished memoirs of other contemporary Hong Kong figures, and greater mention of his activities in newspapers and official documents. Nevertheless, certain phrases scattered throughout – “he must have known”, “he would have felt” – suggest a biographer’s educated best guesses, when records are otherwise silent. During his lifetime, Ho Tung became the single wealthiest individual in Hong Kong – an extraordinary achievement by any standards, especially from someone whose life started modestly. As Holdsworth makes clear, this fortune came from a variety of business enterprises, in particular a sizeable investment property portfolio in Hong Kong and overseas. Farsighted business acumen, combined with a measure of “right time – right place” luck, enabled this success. As a comprador, commission was charged on any deal transacted on behalf of their employers. Vast scope for rapid accumulation of wealth thus existed, as everything that came through the door – from raw sugar to typewriter ribbons – earned him a cut. On the debit side, as guarantor for others, the comprador was responsible for any losses they incurred; these sudden liabilities almost brought down Ho Tung’s fortunes on several occasions. Constant attention to his business activities is reflected in the sources; making money, along with painstaking care for his fragile health, were clearly the man’s main preoccupations. Holdsworth explains – with pleasing candour – a key element behind Ho Tung’s considerable legacy of public benefactions, charitable donations and institutional endowments in Hong Kong, mainland China and elsewhere. Put bluntly, Ho Tung gave away vast sums because “he enjoyed being honoured for it”. Pleasure derived from these markers of success and recognition continued till the end of his days. “After the Second World War, when his portrait was commissioned for Jardine’s boardroom, and the artist and notable portraitist of British royalty, Sir Oswald Birley, did not fall in with his wish to be painted wearing his decorations, he had the satisfaction of having them depicted anyway, separately on a smaller canvas, which still hangs beneath his likeness, showing all twenty-two medals in a row.” “Sir Robert was always tremendously proud of his decorations […]” Holdsworth writes, “[and] he did not believe in hiding his light under a bushel, either; much of the satisfaction from these honours lay in the wearing of his gleaming stars and ribbons.” And why not! “The Grand Old Man of Hong Kong”, as Ho Tung was widely described by the end of his life, had certainly worked hard enough to get them. One minor correction: back jacket information mistakenly states that Sir Robert Ho Tung died in 1954. He died in 1956.