On the afternoon of Sunday, November 19, 1922, British coastal steamer the Sui An departed Macau on its regular 50-mile journey to Hong Kong. The ship was at capacity, carrying 400 Chinese and a further 60 European passengers, most of the former in second class and the latter, with a few seemingly wealthier Chinese dressed in Western suits, in first. The Sui An was operated by the Hong Kong, Canton & Macao Steamboat Company and was a familiar sight in Victoria Harbour. An hour or so out of Macau, and just beyond the reach of the Portuguese Navy’s anti-piracy patrols, perhaps as many as 65 Chinese passengers, both men and women, revealed themselves to be heavily armed pirates. Their leader, wearing a tailored suit and accompanied by a smartly dressed woman, strolled out of first class, pulled out a revolver, fired it into the air and took command. Badly outnumbered, the Sui An ’s crew put up a fight, but the pirates were ruthless. Two armed Indian guards were targeted, quickly killed and their bodies thrown overboard. In the resulting melee a European passenger who resisted was shot three times. A French Jesuit priest who stepped forward and attempted to mediate with the pirates was clubbed unconscious for his trouble. A Chinese sergeant of the Sui An ’s guard and another watchman were both badly wounded attempting to protect the commanding officer, Captain Birss, who was shot in the back and then knocked unconscious with a revolver butt. Three of the pirate raiders were shot and wounded. Old coins shine new light on a pirate’s ‘nearly perfect crime’ Having gained the upper hand, the pirates locked up the passengers and remaining crew in secure rooms, and took control of the bridge. About 40 Europeans in first class were crammed into a small washroom and the door barricaded shut. The pirates then changed course away from Hong Kong and headed up the Chinese coast where, at some point, they intended to rendezvous with their own junks and escape with their swag. But one man aboard had patiently bided his time. The pirates had looted the stores, broken into the safes aboard and now came to raid the passengers, aiming to steal any wallets, watches and jewellery. Then the patient man removed his concealed pistol, fired, and seriously wounded the pirate leader. As the pirate boss was carried away, bleeding badly, his wife stepped up to take command and ordered the gang to abandon ship. They escaped in a number of sampans kept aboard the Sui An as emergency lifeboats. It was estimated they got away with about £7,000 (about £425,000 or HK$4.15 million in 2022 money) in cash, jewellery and personal effects. Not a bad haul, though the Sui An ’s insurer, Lloyd’s of Hong Kong, later claimed the ship had £80,000 (nearly £5 million today) aboard, so by departing early after their leader was injured the pirates missed plenty, too. They disappeared into one of the many remote bays of the coast, or up the Pearl River, and scattered into the Guangdong hinterland. The wounded Captain Birss managed to sail for Hong Kong and safety. When the Sui An arrived there was consternation: pirate gangs were back. After a period of relative calm before World War I, the old scourge of marauding pirates was returning in force. And these criminals weren’t dumb. They had moved with the times. They knew the Royal Navy and the Hong Kong Marine Police had significantly more and faster boats than the pirates’ outdated junks. So, as always when organised crime is faced with advances in crime-fighting techniques, they switched tactics. Raiding, catching up with or waylaying steamers and boarding them became passé. In late 1922, the latest pirate tactic was the “passenger ploy”. The term “hijack” was to come slightly later in the 1920s, invented during America’s Prohibition days. Supposedly a member of a gang would approach the driver of a rival mob’s bootlegging truck with a wave and a casual, “Hi, Jack!” before sticking a gun in the man’s face and then relieving him of both the truck and its cargo. To be fair, the passenger ploy wasn’t wholly new. It had first been seen back in 1913, when the river steamer Tai On was hijacked and its passengers robbed by a band of a dozen pirates masquerading as passengers. Once out of port the brigands seized the crew and the ship. Either the pirates got lucky or had good intelligence – the Sun Ning was carrying 300 passengers, many recently returned from working in America and heading home to their ancestral villages, their years of savings with them This outrage had led to new laws in Hong Kong allowing the marine police to search passengers boarding steamers. Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn’t. And not always thoroughly enough, because in 1914 the unlucky Tai On was three hours out of Hong Kong, sailing for the small treaty port of Kongmoon (Jiangmen) in Guangdong, when she was taken again by the passenger ploy. But this time the Portuguese crew were ready for the pirates and fought back. Angered by a couple of their number being killed, the pirates went below deck and killed three of the ship’s 395 passengers. Then they set the Tai On on fire, causing a mass abandonment of the blazing vessel. In the chaos and panic, 200 of the mostly Chinese passengers either burned to death or drowned. In a subsequent joint operation between police forces in Hong Kong, Macau and China, 23 of the pirates were eventually captured and 17 of them executed. There was no public sympathy for them in Hong Kong or China. Instead, more action was demanded, and the 1914 Hong Kong piracy ordinances were drawn up, requiring passenger ships operating in Hong Kong waters to carry armed guards to protect against pirate attacks and the passenger ploy. The plan was to send a message that anyone trying to take charge of a ship at sea would meet resistance. In 1922, the Sui An had employed a sergeant of the guard, and a number of armed men, including the two Indians killed by the raiders. But nobody had expected so many pirates to be secreted among the passengers. The guards were easily overwhelmed and only a lucky shot from a courageous civilian wounding the pirate leader had stopped the attack from becoming as tragic as the one on the Tai On eight years earlier. The pirate gang didn’t wait long to try to hijack another vessel. It seems the 60 or so buccaneers, a mixture of men and women, broke into small groups, headed from Guangdong across the border to Hong Kong and boarded the Ying Chow , a Butterfield and Swire-operated passenger steamer. The Ying Chow regularly sailed between Hong Kong and Qingdao with stops in several coastal ports, including Shanghai. A representative of Butterfield and Swire said they had received a tip-off that, knowing police were looking for them in Guangdong, the group was planning to disembark in Shanghai, lay low for a while, recruit more members, and then hijack the Ying Chow on its return trip south in December using the passenger ploy. So when the Ying Chow reached the Quai de France, in Shanghai’s French Concession, the ship was boarded by members of the Frenchtown Sûreté police force, who arrested them all. Interestingly, the Sûreté reported to the Hong Kong authorities that, with the pirate leader still out of action, the boss of the operation was his wife. History’s greatest woman pirate becomes a Hong Kong children’s story In Hong Kong, the government quickly convened an inquiry to see how best to nip this new scourge of piracy and the passenger ploy in the bud. Given the numbers involved in the hijack of the Sui An , and then the arrest of 60 pirates in Shanghai planning to take over the Ying Chow , it was clear the tables had turned. From pirates on the run, outclassed and outgunned by the Royal Navy and marine police, now ships’ captains were expected to resist veritable armies of pirates who had already boarded their vessels. George Waard, a Dutch ship captain for Jardine, Matheson & Co, with long experience up and down the Guangdong coastline and back and forth between Hong Kong and Macau, maintained that, “on the China coast you sleep with your gun on your pillow ready to spring up if pirates try to board the ship”. The Sui An Piracy Commission was convened by the governor of Hong Kong, Reginald Stubbs, to examine whether existing precautions against piracy were adequate. The answer to that question was obvious. No, they were no longer adequate given the large mobs of raiders involved in the recent passenger ploy hijackings. Stubbs’ tenure as governor was dominated by chaos. The resurgence in piracy came soon after the 1922 seamen’s strike, when Chinese sailors from Hong Kong and Guangzhou demanded higher pay. When 30,000 seamen went on strike, Stubbs declared their action illegal, and the colony saw severe shortages of food and sharp price rises. The mood soon turned against Stubbs’ obduracy. Negotiations took place, the shipping companies capitulated, and the striking sailors got a fairly substantial raise. To some, both in the Hong Kong colonial elite and back in London, Stubbs appeared weak. And then came the Sui An mess. Stubbs demanded that vessels be made “pirate proof”, supposedly rendering the passenger ploy impossible. A raft of measures was enacted effectively turning passenger ships into fortresses, including: Every ship’s officer to carry a revolver and 25 rounds of ammunition Each vessel to have two loaded Winchester rifles and at least 100 rounds of ammunition, along with one loaded 12-bore gun with at least 50 rounds of ammunition Each vessel to have four to six “guards” each armed with a .38 revolver and 50 rounds of ammunition Police whistles for all guards and officers Every ship was to go immediately to the help of any other ship under pirate attack Bulletproof screens to be placed around the bridge and wheelhouse The bridge and all vulnerable areas to be protected by barbed wire All engine and boiler rooms to be secured by metal doors/grilles Similarly passageways between passenger compartments and decks to be sealed to prevent raiders free movement around the vessel The number of warning flares carried by vessels to be increased substantially. Finally, pretty much everywhere along the south China coast beyond the harbours of Hong Kong and Macau was declared a “danger zone”. The history (and debauchery) of Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club In the end, a year after the Sui An drama, the commission inspired by the ship’s hijacking gathered to announce the new ordinances ramping up security. The ships plying the routes from Hong Kong to Macau, and to Guangzhou, Shantou, Xiamen, Shanghai and beyond, were now hopefully in “pirate proof” armed lockdown after they left port. Passengers, certainly those in the overwhelmingly Chinese-filled lower classes, were locked into effective cages once out of port, the captains were secure in their supposedly impenetrable bridges, the engine rooms off-limits and with bolted doors. Where possible ships were recommended to stick close to each other for mutual protection. But just as Stubbs and his commission announced their new regulations they were upstaged by the pirate gangs again. On Saturday, November 24, 1923 – almost a year to the day after the Sui An ’s hijacking, Stubbs’ Piracy Commission was about to announce new regulations. Captains and crews were cautious but hopeful that the swift action of the French police in Shanghai had finished the passenger ploy gang’s reign of terror. But apparently not. British-owned steamer the Sun Ning was sailing its usual route from Hong Kong to Kongmoon. Not far out of Hong Kong, just beyond the entry channels where the Royal Navy anti-piracy vessels clustered, once again a pirate band, posing as passengers and apparently led by the same woman as a year before, revealed themselves. They attacked the Indian men employed as guards, disarming them and taking control of the vital engine room. Sun Ning officers Captain McKechnie and Chief Officer Robb were wounded while resisting what they described as a “fusillade of bullets”. Either the pirates got lucky or had good intelligence – the Sun Ning was carrying 300 passengers, many recently returned from working in America and heading home to their ancestral villages, their years of savings with them. It took the pirates most of the night to relieve the passengers of their cash and valuables. In the early hours of the morning they disappeared once again into one of the numerous bays of the Guangdong coast. The Hong Kong press was furious. The attack on the Sun Ning , almost a year to the day after the hijacking of the Sui An , was a carbon-copy crime. The Piracy Commission’s recommendations needed to be enacted immediately to prevent further hijackings, robberies and deaths. Stubbs rushed through the commission’s recommendations. The Royal Navy was ordered to step up piracy-suppression patrols; the coastal and river steamers installed metal doors, grilles, and barbed wire; the crews were armed. And for a time it seemed to work. The pirate gangs along the Guangdong coast held up primarily Chinese-owned steamers without so much protection. Stubbs’ ‘pirate proofing’ strategy hadn’t worked. Steamer crews had been lax and often ignored the rules. The pirates had outsmarted, and continued to outsmart, the authorities The Hong Kong authorities had long argued that the weakest link in their anti-piracy chain was lack of enforcement in China. The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce had criticised Stubbs for not forcing the Chinese authorities in Guangdong to do more. They claimed in their end-of-year report for 1922 that, “The place where the [ Sui An ] pirates went ashore is well known and it is credibly reported that loot was freely offered for sale, for many days afterwards in the villages in that vicinity, yet no arrests have been made.” Though it was true Chinese enforcement had been weak, the thefts from, and deaths of, ordinary Chinese had led to disquiet and demands for action in Guangdong. Local patience with the pirates was at a low ebb. The pirates needed to mend their community relations. They concentrated on Chinese cargo ships. Smash and grabs at sea. The heist of the Chinese steamer Sai Chow made the papers when it was raided near the-then island of Whampoa, on the Pearl River. The pirates loaded the Sai Chow ’s cargo of 2,500 bags of rice onto their junks and sailed for two villages that had often been pirate hideouts near Guangzhou. There they held the local police at gunpoint, sold the rice at bargain prices, and hung up a sign that read: “Rob the rich to relieve the poor”. How ‘father of the fishermen’ made Hong Kong dragon boat racing famous Naturally this salvaged their tattered reputation somewhat. But eventually it seems that, despite the ordinances of the Piracy Commission, the shipowners and crews got lazy. Nobody used the passenger ploy for a while, and many fell into the old trap of thinking piracy on the China coast was a thing of the past. The pirates obviously noticed things had become slack and saw their advantage. The coastal passenger steamers got a very rude awakening. At 4pm on Monday, November 15, 1926, the Sun Ning , sailing from Shanghai to Hong Kong three years after first being raided, was hijacked again. Soon after passing Xiamen about 30 pirates posing as passengers revealed themselves. They had boarded in Shanghai without being searched. The guards were on duty, but the starboard metal grille that protected the engine room was open and the ship’s officers were not carrying their guns at the time of the attack. The pirates were in control of the ship until about 1am the next morning, when the officers and some passengers managed to overpower the raiders. Eight pirates jumped overboard and tried to escape in a lifeboat. The remaining pirates set fire to the ship, aiming to burn alive everyone aboard. The Sun Ning was lucky: HMS Bluebell was nearby on anti-piracy patrol and saw the smoke. A gunfight broke out, four pirates were shot dead, and the rest surrendered. HMS Vindictive, also on patrol nearby, picked up the fleeing eight pirates. Even so, the Sun Ning ’s British chief engineer was shot and wounded, and a male passenger was thrown overboard by an angry pirate and never seen again. The second taking of the Sun Ning was a major embarrassment. Questions were asked in parliament in London as to how pirates could have taken control of a ship that should have had passengers thoroughly searched, guards armed and ready, and metal grilles locking down the ship from raiders. Stubbs’ “pirate proofing” strategy hadn’t worked. Steamer crews had been lax and often ignored the rules. The pirates had outsmarted, and continued to outsmart, the authorities. Stunts such as the Sai Chow rice heist assured their Robin Hood image among many in the poor farming villages and fishing communities of Guangdong. The south China coast pirates could still raid Chinese-operated steamers largely free from interference. And they did so for the next decade. Then war came to southern China, offering lucrative smuggling routes and opportunities through collaboration with the Japanese. The pirates’ tried-and-trusted passenger ploy continued to be used occasionally, but as the situation changed so did the pirates’ tactics – smuggling contraband kerosene, rice and people became the newest, most lucrative enterprises.