RESEARCHING MY HONG KONG FAMILY’S PAST:
A FOURTEEN-YEAR QUEST
by an anonymous contributor
One of my first stops in Hong Kong was St Michael’s Catholic Cemetery in Happy Valley, where my English grandfather had been buried in 1923. The grave records were not on line, but I had the number of his grave and a photograph of the original. I understand that the cemetery register can now be found through www.familysearch.org although I have not tried this out myself. Even if you do not have a grave number, the cemetery office has a complete plan of all the graves and a record of names. They are happy to guide bona fide relatives. When we first arrived the cemetery warden was on his siesta and I tried unsuccessfully to find my grandfather’s grave by myself. By the time we met up with the cemetery warden it was nearly dusk. The front of my grandfather’s grave was hidden by an overhanging tree. The following year I took out a new lease on the grave and was able to get it straightened and cleaned. St Michael’s is so crowded that some of the older graves are being removed to make room for new ones. There is a list of fixed charges for grave renovation displayed outside the cemetery office. I had to sign a form declaring that I was entitled to arrange the renovation and take an oath to that effect in a notary’s office in town. The cemetery warden introduced me to their trusted contractors and I paid half their fee in cash up front. When they had finished, they sent me a photo of the final grave and I sent them a banker’s draft for the remainder.
For the Protestant Cemetery next door to St. Michael’s, the office has a map to guide you to the various sections. Patricia Lim’s database of the cemetery’s inscriptions on Gwulo.com will supply the appropriate Section, row and number, if you search by name. Instructions as to how to search are given at https://gwulo.com/node/8746 The cemetery office will supply a map of the cemetery and, in the past, a cemetery worker has helped me to find an elusive grave.
The specialist ex-Hong Kong researcher and lecturer, Christine M. Thomas, has taken meticulous photographs of every single grave in the Protestant Cemetery and compiled many stories about their occupants. For a small charge she will provide a photograph and directions to a grave. The transferred grave of my great-grandparents’ first baby is not recorded on Lim’s database, and I would not have been able to find it without Christine Thomas’s guidance. Some of the gravestones are blackened or have fallen face down, making things even more difficult. Pollution is fast causing erosion of lettering on the stones and some of the inscriptions have become illegible even in the fourteen years since I first visited the cemeteries. Christine Thomas’s details can be found at http://www.agra.org.uk/christine-thomas-specialist-researcher-in-somerset and this is the link to her interesting blog http://hongkongcemetery.blogspot.com
I have been lucky enough to accompany my husband on business trips to Hong Kong, but never for more than three or four days at a time per year. It is not a methodology I would recommend, but the most practical available to me. I have spent most of my time at the Public Records Office in Kwun Tong https://www.grs.gov.hk/en/online_holdings.html
The PRO can be contacted directly and have just upgraded their online catalogue. The old Rate Books, which are not on line, are held there. These are invaluable for verifying property ownership and addresses for the years up till 1934. They are very large and not more than six may be ordered at any one time. Each volume covers one year, or in some cases, half a year. There is a printed index which can be ordered on site.
Up till December 2018, the invaluable Carl Smith index cards could only be consulted on the Public Records Office’s premises, but digital images of the cards have now been put online, which is a huge new benefit to researchers. The 139,922 double-sided data cards were compiled from newspapers, wills and church records by the late Reverend Carl Smith. The link is https://search.grs.gov.hk/en/searchcarladv.xhtml?rpp=10.
The original cards were donated by the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong to the Central Library where they can be consulted with special prior permission from the RASHK librarian. Arranged in alphabetical order, the cards are too fragile to be photocopied but can be copied by hand on the spot. Each row of drawers has to be separately unlocked by a member of staff on request.
The journals of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong branch provide fascinating background material on a variety of subjects. The SOAS library holds a run of the journals up to 2008.
The link to search the old Hong Kong Newspapers is https://mmis.hkpl.gov.hk/web/guest/old-hk-collection?from_menu=Y&dummy. Although rewarding, it is a time consuming process unless you know the precise dates to search. To search for precise dates the format is with inverted commas e.g. “1900-01-01”.
Gwulo.com gives an oral tutorial about how to search the old newspapers for a word or a phrase https://gwulo.com/node/36666 Gwulo also publishes a useful list of “Quick Links” on “How to find Hong Kong’s History”.
The so-called “Blue Books” contain information on anyone whose salary was paid by the government. The National Archive at Kew in London holds original copies from 1844 to 1940, grouped under the reference CO 133. You can also search historical passenger lists through ancestry.com at the National Archive without paying their subscription. The Blue Books from 1871 to 1940 are now on line at the HKGRO website.
I have had mixed results from the Land Registry, Queensway Government Offices, 19/F, 66 Queensway. I have visited them twice together with a Chinese friend to find out the purchase and sale dates of various properties owned by my great-grandfather and grandfather at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth. Armed with the original Inland Lot numbers on my first visit, I got copies of all the purchase and sale dates of the properties I wanted, at the end of an hour. But it was hard going for the person helping us and I felt I would not have got anywhere without the persuasiveness of my friend and his fluent Cantonese. On my more recent visit the less experienced and less cooperative counter person was unwilling to undertake a historical search to match up the old Inland Lot numbers with present day addresses. I ended up paying the fee she demanded for printouts and received records that did match the I.L. numbers that I wanted, but were now attached to different addresses. From her eagerness to get rid of me, I am convinced my “helper” knew the addresses were not the original ones.
The Lands Department has upgraded its website to enable online ordering, which means that you no longer have to go to its office at North Point. I went there a couple of years ago with a companion who knew the ropes. I was able to access aerial photographs of different dates of the area where my grandfather had lived and of his house, now long since demolished. I had the option of ordering a copy of these, which could be collected within 24 hours, or an enhanced version, which would not be ready for four days. I also bought a very detailed 1920s map of the area. I do not know whether it is now possible to order from abroad with a credit card or whether a bankers draft is necessary. There is a tutorial on how to access their maps service at https://gwulo.com/node/41760.
Some old Hong Kong maps are also held by the British Library in London and can be photographed without charge for personal use.
World War 2 scattered many Hong Kong families, including mine, and my quest has taken me both to Canada and Australia. My grandmother must have been evacuated from Hong Kong, but there was a “Whites Only” policy in Australia in 1940-41 and she may have been turned back at Manila. There is no record of her name on the lists researched by Tony Banham for his book on the Hong Kong evacuation, Reduced to a Symbolical Scale, which means she may have sailed privately. I have found no record of her between 1926 and 1941 in Hong Kong, nor in Australia until the 1954 census. The Sydney telephone book turned out to be an invaluable resource for tracing the descendants of the niece who signed her death certificate. There were only five entries for the niece’s married name, but I had a 100% return to my five answerphone messages. These led me from one person to the next and finally, via New Zealand, to a surviving cousin, who sadly died during an operation very soon after I spoke to her. I learnt valuable information from two long telephone conversations with her and later with her sister. Do not be afraid of cold calling. The telephone has been my friend.
As well as tracking the upward path of my English grandfather’s Hong Kong company in the first two decades of the twentieth century, my narrative will record what I have learnt about my “hidden” Eurasian grandmother, who outlived all but one of her five children. Despite the efforts of her close family to erase her very existence, the story of my quest will pick out the small pieces of evidence that bear witness to her life. I hope it will serve as a slight memorial to her.
I also hope that some of the above information will be useful to others researching their Hong Kong past, whether amateurs or academics. Websites are improving all the time and there will be more and more available online. Good luck to all!
Some resources: a shortlist
Hong Kong Genealogical Forum
British Library, London, UK
The National Archive, Kew, UK
Public Records Office, Hong Kong
Carl Smith’s Index Cards (now online)
Patricia Lim’s database of graves in the Protestant Cemetery, Happy Valley
Christine M. Thomas, Private researcher and specialist in Hong Kong genealogy
St Michael’s Catholic Cemetery and the Catholic Church
Births, Deaths & Marriages Dept., Low Block, 66 Queensway, Hong Kong
Land Registry, 66 Queensway, High Block, Hong Kong.
Lands Department, 333 Java Road, North Point, Hong Kong