The pirates of Cheung Chau – what really happened in 1912 raid on Hong Kong outlying island?
Old Hong Kong
  • In August 1912, a gang carried out an audacious assault on Cheung Chau police station
  • They killed three Indian constables, stole Crown rents, and left the colonial administration in turmoil

At 10pm on August 19, 1912, night had fallen across Cheung Chau, bringing an inky darkness to an island community that was as yet without electric lights. Oil lanterns glowed dimly from a few houses and moored sampans, but most of the hard-working fisherfolk were asleep.

In his room above the Wo Sang Pawn Shop, near the police station, 14-year-old Wong Pak-hoi was finishing his homework. Constable Jhanda Singh stood guard at his post on the police jetty, but could hear little beyond the lapping of the waves and the occasional dog barking. The other policeman on duty, lance sergeant Baggat Singh, paced the deserted streets on evening patrol. Suddenly, out of the darkness, came shouting and volleys of gunshots, and 40 pirates emerged from the night to surround the police station.

Within minutes, both policemen and off-duty colleague, constable Inder Singh – who, on hearing the firing, had raced out of his house in the village half-dressed, revolver in hand – lay dead, riddled with bullets. Jhanda Singh did not have time to fetch his rifle from the station.

Piecing events together from newspaper reports, evidence given to magistrates in January 1913, government records and a 1964 police magazine interview with eye­witness Wong (see sidebar), it appears that money from government rents in the station safe had attracted the attention of the pirates.

The island of Cheung Chau, in 1898. Photo: Hong Kong Public Records

They had beached their junk on a sandbank off the island’s east coast and scrambled ashore, unchallenged, to approach the village from the rear. There, in the darkness, the pirates had become confused and opened fire on their own men, incurring several casualties.

Despite this, with only one policeman on guard and no locks on the station doors, their first objective – to steal the Crown rents – proved far easier than expected. They looted the guardroom of its guns and ammunition and smashed open the safe, carrying off about HK$1,000 (only about half of Cheung Chau’s rents had been collected for that quarter). Then leaving the building they spread out along the main road and the surrounding alleys and passageways.

When the British leased the New Territories from China, in 1898, Cheung Chau was one of many islands that fell under their jurisdiction. Buildings had to be hurriedly found to serve as police stations in the newly acquired villages. On Cheung Chau, a single-storey merchant’s house turned Chinese Maritime Customs House, located on the shore on the western edge of the village, had been requisitioned in April 1899 by order of the then captain superintendent of the Hong Kong Police, Sir Henry May. It cannot have been in a good state of repair even then. By 1912, it was in a sorry condition.

None of the doors had locks: the guardroom had a sliding door with no bolt and the only window in the building. The back rooms had neither natural light nor ventilation. The walls – including that between the guard­room and the room next door, which was occupied by a Chinese family – were flimsy. After years of neglect, the tiled floors had broken and the place was infested with fleas, rats and cockroaches. In the cooler months it was tolerable, by the standards of the day; in summer it was unbearable and unhealthy.

Yet it was from here that a British sergeant, four Indian policemen and a Chinese clerk/interpreter policed the island. The Indians lived with their wives year-round in rented rooms in the village. The Western sergeant and his wife lived at the station, but left each May, when the temperature started to rise, for a matshed on a hill about 250 metres away.

The villagers were generally peaceable, continuing their traditional sea-based livelihoods undisturbed by the policemen, except for being required to pay the quar­terly Crown rent. They gave the officers little trouble aside from the occasional fracas between boat- and shore-based dwellers, petty larceny or the avoidance of harbour dues. There were few visitors, despite a government ferry that provided a daily crossing to Hong Kong Island. During the summer, a few missionaries came for respite from the heat of China, occupying bungalows in the hills at either end of the island, and weekend camping was growing in popularity.

The charge room had been ransacked of guns and ammunition, but there were no pirates nearby – or no pirates alive
Patrick Boulger, Cheung Chau’s police sergeant

Police sergeant Patrick Boulger left his matshed when he heard the first shots, meeting a police servant hurrying up the hill with the news. The sergeant sent his wife and the servant up to the mission­aries’ house and set out to investigate. The raiders’ disorganisation was Boulger’s one stroke of luck.

“There was a lot of firing going on to the west of the station,” he would tell the magistrate, when three suspected raiders were brought to court in January 1913. “The charge room had been ransacked of guns and ammunition, but there were no pirates nearby – or no pirates alive – and I was able to get my own, private, revolver from my kit [in the back of the station].”

Catching sight of three bodies sprawled on the jetty – two pirates who had been shot by their own accomplices and Jhanda Singha – he recognised one as his man on duty, but a glance confirmed Singh was dead. Boulger climbed onto the roof of a nearby house to survey the scene. He was spotted – and the pirates opened fire. Moving across the rooftops, taking cover from the bullets, Boulger saw a group of pirates heading towards the waterfront to disable the smaller steamboats. Evading the gang, he slipped back to ground level unseen.

“I saw a launch moving from her moorings going toward the Police Pier,” he recounted at the January hearing, “so I went along the shore and opened fire when I was about 50 yards away from them. After about my fifth shot they saw me and started shooting at me.”

While being shot at Boulger continued to fire but the hijacked steamer was pulling away from the pier.

Weapons and spent ammunition were all that remained on the jetty. Illustration: Mario Riviera

In his room above the Wo Sang Pawn Shop, teenager Wong had abandoned his homework and was peering out. From his vantage point, he watched the pirates steal a small safe from the Shing Cheong grocery shop and about HK$3,000 worth of jewellery and valuables from Cheung Yuen Pawn Shop, the largest on the island. As Wong told the police magazine in 1964, this was “really big money” at the time (the equivalent of about US$30,600 today).

The only other eyewitness account came from the Chinese police clerk, Chan Tak, who had been sleeping, unarmed, in a hammock on the police jetty. After seeing Jhanda Singh shot, he said he had slipped quietly off the pier and into the water, where he hid among the pier posts. When all was quiet, he climbed out of the water and joined Boulger. The bodies of the pirates were gone, but lying around were axes, hammers and spent ammunition.

The pirates had also made off with the government ferry, the largest steamer in the harbour. The two sailors on board were taken prisoner and forced at gunpoint to start the engine, then beaten and locked in the hold as the boat steamed round to the other side of the island. There, the pirates used it to tow their junk off the sandbank and out to sea.

As stillness returned to the island, the sergeant had the bodies of the three officers carried into the station. Inder Singh and Baggat Singh had both been shot in the village, and the guns of all the policemen had been stolen.

With no telephone to alert headquarters on Hong Kong Island, two messengers were dispatched before dawn by sailing boat. They were able to hail a passing steamer to quicken their journey, reporting the events to the Central Police Station at 7am on August 20. One team of senior police officers was dispatched to Cheung Chau and another to the isolated Tai O station, on the route the pirates were assumed to have taken. But the raiders appeared to have returned to their lair without further incident that night.

Hong Kong governor Sir Henry May.

With the Cheung Chau ferry service disrupted by the pirates, the newspapers had to rely on police press confer­ences until they could send reporters to the island a few days later. On August 21, the funerals of the murdered policemen were held on Hong Kong Island. Nearly 300 policemen joined the procession to the Sikh Temple in Happy Valley.

In the days following the attack, detectives based themselves on Cheung Chau interviewing villagers and boat people, but gleaned little. Macau police were consulted, it being thought the pirates’ hideout was on Coloane. More police were posted to the island, but there were no further disturbances.

The attack was the first significant raid under the new governor, Sir Henry May, who had previously held multiple positions in Hong Kong’s colonial administration, inclu­ding police captain-superintendent and colonial secretary. He swiftly consulted the heads of the British Army and Navy in the colony with the intention of responding in a robust manner. If attacking Hong Kong’s government buildings and personnel was a new tactic, then the anni­hilation of this large gang would send a strong message to other pirates in the region.

We know the details of these plans from a series of lengthy telegrams – all sent in code – between May and his overlords at the Colonial Office and War Office in London. These are preserved in the CO129 files (“War and Colonial Department and Colonial Office: Hong Kong, Original Correspondence”) in Britain’s National Archives, in Kew, and are available in Hong Kong on microfilm at the Central Library and at the Public Records Office in Kwun Tong. The telegrams offer invaluable insight into the aftermath of the attack, newspapers of the time not being privy to the inner workings of the administration.

How a corrupt Hong Kong police force became ‘Asia’s finest’

They reveal that May initially proposed sending troops in a flotilla of frigates to attack the pirate gang, once located. This altered, however, following intelligence from both Hong Kong and Macanese detectives indicating that the pirates’ hideout was likely on Wong Kam, a disputed island claimed by both Macau (Portugal) and China. May reasoned that if the elimination of the bandits could be achieved by a tripartite campaign, with British troops in a supporting rather than active role, so much the better.

May, who had experience of the delicate diplomacy required in such situations, gained ready agreement in principle to his proposals and received Chinese assurances that the collaboration could occur without prejudice to Macau’s claim on the island.

Police were closing in on the pirates. Acting on a tip off, Macanese police discovered the stolen police revolvers hidden in sand in Macau harbour, and then the pirates’ junk. On-board, they found some of the jewellery stolen from the pawnbrokers and three individuals, who were handed over to the Hong Kong police. However, with no evidence they had taken part in the raid, they were released after appearing in court in January 1913.

May’s plan swung into motion. A man-of-war filled with British Indian troops quietly steamed to the edge of Hong Kong waters, ready to strike the pirates’ hideout. The Macau government, on instructions from the Portuguese ambassador in London, and the head of the Canton police prepared for the campaign.

But it was not to be. A day or so before “zero hour”, a Chinese paper in Canton published details of the plan. It had been leaked.

A report in The Hong Kong Telegraph, dated August 20, 1912.

Even before all the facts of the Cheung Chau attack were known, May had hauled in for questioning the captain superintendent of police, Francis Joseph Badeley, whose command he distrusted. Why, he wanted to know, were the men allowed to live away from the station?Why was it guarded at night by only one man? And why was the European officer in charge sleeping 250 metres away?

May appointed a committee, comprising the colonial secretary, colonial treasurer and attorney general, to visit the island and interview the relevant people.

Although this committee ultimately held Badeley responsible for the indefensible, inadequate and unhealthy state of the station, its report also reveals how the situation had developed. Married men had been stationed on the island for a decade because there was insuffi­cient accom­mo­dation elsewhere. Cheung Chau offered afford­able rents for Indian officers whose wives, for reasons of decorum, would not live in close proximity with other couples.

The report also notes that the first married officer on the island, sergeant Angus, and his wife had arrived late in 1903 and described their first summer in the vermin-ridden, noxious station as “very unpleasant”. Angus was given permission to erect a matshed close to the station for his family to reside in during the summer, and the practice had continued.

Badeley’s response to May’s criticism about the defence of the station – that he had anticipated no such attack – was not well received by the governor, even thoughpolice man­power on the island had been deemed sufficient during the previous 13 years. But it was Badeley’s main line of defence, in his written reply to the accusations, that really raised May’s ire: “[...] the place has been repeatedly inspect­ed by several Governors, all of whom were accustomed to enquire into all matters with the utmost minuteness”.

My considered opinion is that Mr Badeley is unfit to conti­nue to be Captain Superintendent of Police by reason of a) his want of interest in work which he himself says he finds ‘thankless and dreary’; b) his want of energy, initiative, fore­thought and resourcefulness and c) his lack of appreciation of the necessity for strict discipline
Sir Henry May, then Hong Kong governor

It seems probable that Badeley’s comments were directed at May himself, who had likely visited the island in his role as colonial secretary, and given his interest in policing and lack of faith in Badeley, would have made just such an inspection.

The situation on Cheung Chau was well known within the force. Badeley and his assistants visited every station on a quarterly basis. Yet it was because of their absence from the station that one Indian constable, all the wives and Boulger had lived. Furthermore, although this wasn’t raised at the time, May had personally authorised the requisitioning of the Customs House in 1899.

There is no record of the build­ing being flagged as inadequate and impossible to defend at any time between then and the attack. Afterwards, how­ever, planswere swiftly drawn up for a replacement station – still in use today – to be built on high ground immediately above the village and an enlarged force deployed on Cheung Chau.

May was determined to remove Badeley from office. Writing to the minister in charge of the Colonial Office, Lewis Harcourt, on September 27, 1912, May concluded: “My considered opinion is that Mr Badeley is unfit to conti­nue to be Captain Superintendent of Police by reason of a) his want of interest in work which he himself says he finds ‘thankless and dreary’; b) his want of energy, initiative, fore­thought and resourcefulness and c) his lack of appreciation of the necessity for strict discipline.”

Even with such a damning indictment, the Colonial Office was not prepared to sanction Badeley’s dismissal, in part because it recognised that, with May breathing down his neck, he had never really had full command of the force. Nor was the Legislative Council ready to do May’s bidding, although it did censure Badeley.

US big-game hunter and his part in South China tiger’s demise

Boulger, who had been seconded to the Hong Kong Police from the Royal Marines in 1900, was promoted to inspector in 1917, and spent much of his career in the New Territories. Retiring aged 51, in 1924, he and his wife returned not to his native Ireland, but to Liverpool.

The wives of the murdered policemen were granted pensions for life from the Hong Kong government: Mrs Baggat Singh and Mrs Jhanda Singh each received three rupees a month, while Mrs Inder Singh, whose husband had been in the force for only five years, received two rupees a month. A margin note in a Colonial Office docu­ment suggests even London thought this paltry.

The strain took its toll on the captain superintendent and his health, not robust at the best of times, broke down. On February 19, 1913, Badeley left Hong Kong for reasons of ill health and tendered his resignation on reaching England. Aged 45, he had been in the colony’s civil service for 22 years and was granted a pension of HK$3,500 a year, slightly less than half his salary. With his wife and two daughters, he retired to Norfolk, England, where he died in August 1920.

Witness to the attack

Junks moored off Cheung Chau, in 1898. Photo: Hong Kong Public Records

In 1964, 52 years after the pirate attack, a Hong Kong police magazine interviewed eyewitness Wong Pak-hoi, a retired civil servant living on Cheung Chau, in a piece written by a Mr Anderson of the marine police. At the time of the raid, on August 19, 1912, Wong was 14 years old and living above the Wo Sang Pawn Shop, near the police station. At 10pm, he was doing his homework in his room when he heard disturbances in the street. Two groups of strangers seemed to be calling to each other using prearranged passwords, one shouting “Tak”and the other “Shing”.

Suddenly, he said, “There seemed to be a great deal of confusion, then volleys of shots.”

Despite the passwords, one party had opened fire on the other, shooting at least two of their own men. Later, he saw the pirates pulling bed boards from beneath street sleepers to use as stretchers: they would not leave casualties behind to identify the raiders, but loaded them onto a boat they had commandeered.

I ran along the rooftops of neighbouring houses until finally I hid [a few feet] down a well. Eventually I heard that the gang had gone and I was able to come out
Wong Pak-hoi, witness

“The gang ordered a couple of local men, including an unfortunate farmer, to carry the wounded down to the waterfront,” Wong recalled. As the stretchers passed, he heard groaning – at least one was wounded, not dead. “The gang also grabbed baskets of fresh vegetables from the farmer.”

Wong saw his own share of the action. “The owner of the pawn shop where I stayed called me down and asked me to take some packets of valuables and hide with them,” he said. “I ran along the rooftops of neighbouring houses until finally I hid [a few feet] down a well. Eventually I heard that the gang had gone and I was able to come out.”

Some of Wong’s recollections are at variance with official reports. For example, he claimed police clerk/interpreter Chan Tak had been made to open the safe, yet the reports suggest it had been smashed open with a chopper. Furthermore, when Boulger found the unarmed Chan Tak, he said he had taken refuge under the police jetty when he heard the first shots.

Such discrepancies are to be expected. As Wong noted, the raid – which lasted less than 30 minutes – was discussed on Cheung Chau for years afterwards, perhaps being distorted in the retelling.