Andrew Hillier on Family and Memory in Old Hong Kong

We are pleased to have Dr. Andrew Hillier writing for us this week. After completing his PhD at the University of Bristol, Andrew is now an Honorary Research Associate at Bristol and regularly contributes to the University’s Historical Photographs of China project. Andrew has recently published his book Mediating Empire: An English Family in China 1817-1927 (huge congratulations Andrew!). He has kindly accepted our invite to write a blog post, in which he reflects on the impact of Hong Kong on three generations of his family.

 Family and Memory in Old Hong Kong

 ‘Why didn’t I ask more about the family and the time it spent in Hong Kong and China?’ How often have I asked myself this question? However, in this post, I want to consider, not what I should have asked, but what earlier generations may and may not have asked about their forbears and their lives in Hong Kong.  What they knew and what they were told will have informed the family’s collective memory, a memory that can be found embodied in their letters, photographs and surroundings and which, in turn, shaped their mind-set on both a public and private level.

In 1895, Harry Hillier (my great- grandfather) was appointed Acting Commissioner of Imperial Maritime Customs (IMC) for Kowloon, and this was officially confirmed the following year. Although the Customs Stations were positioned on the China coast, the Commissioner was provided with a fine new residence on the Peak and there, for four years, Harry lived in exclusive luxury with his wife, Maggie, and four children – Eddie, his daughter by his first marriage, a second daughter, Dorothy, and two sons, Harold, my grand-father (born in 1892) and his younger brother, Geoff.[i]

The family in Hong Kong, c. 1898. Formally posed, the image emphasises the imperial presence in an exotic setting. Hi–s061 *


This was not the first time Harry had lived in the colony. He was born there in February 1851 but the following year, his father, Charles Batten Hillier, the Colony’s Chief Magistrate, and his mother, Eliza, came to England, bringing with them Harry and his two elder brothers, Willie and Walter. When they returned to Hong Kong, the three boys were left to be cared for by a relative in Cambridge. But, if Harry had no actual memories of Hong Kong, he will have learned much about his parents’ life from the letters they wrote to him and his brothers, some of which still survive, and, later, from talking to his mother when she returned to England, following his father’s death in 1856.[ii]

We can get a good idea of the picture Eliza will have painted from the cache of letters, which she wrote to her sister, Martha, during her time in Hong Kong and which also still survive. Found in her papers when she died, they describe the colony’s early days when English families were beginning to settle and carve out a life, insulated from the teeming Chinese world on their doorstep, a genteel setting in which notions of imperial superiority and racial difference were already being forged.[iii]

If these helped shape Harry’s mind-set, there were also two memorials which embodied his parents’ life in Hong Kong, one, very public, the other, intensely private, and both of which can still be found today. Hillier Street had been named as a parting gift by Governor Davis when he left in 1848, loathed by almost everyone, but not, it seems by Charles and the street remained an important family memorial.

Photograph, courtesy of Robert Bickers, 2019

Although his appointment as the colony’s Chief Magistrate in 1847 had come as ‘a bolt from the clouds’, and, over the next nine years,  he would be subject to much criticism, when the time came to leave, he received fulsome plaudits for the way he had performed his duties. How much of this Harry will have learned by the time he arrived, we cannot know. Certainly, his mother will have focussed on the positive side and the colony will have been keen to forget this unhappy time in its history, which had culminated in the zealous but unbalanced Thomas Chisholm Anstey accusing almost all its officials, including Charles, of corruption.

Charles and Eliza Hillier, 1852 and 1853. The children will have been given copies of these photographs when their parents returned to Hong Kong. Hi-s002 and Hi-s006.

However, Harry will certainly have learned about his father’s work shortly before he left, because it was then that James Norton-Kyshe published his monumental History of the Laws and Courts of Hong, with the first volume containing over one hundred references to Charles Hillier. If many were unflattering of this ‘noted flogger’, the final verdict, as delivered by the China Mail, was that, because of Charles’ ‘intimate knowledge of the Chinese language and Chinese customs, the Chinese would be unlikely to have again a Magistrate from whom they will receive as much justice’.[iv]

The second and intimate memorial is the single headstone of two of Charles’ and Eliza’s infant children, which can still be found in Happy Valley Cemetery. Whilst the death of Ann in 1847 will have meant nothing to Harry, that of little Hughie, who died in February 1856, must have done so at the time. Writing to the children in England, Eliza had proudly told them of his arrival, but the news was followed immediately afterwards by another letter from Charles, telling them ‘the sad tale’ of the death of ‘their little brother’. Again, both letters have survived and must have been kept as a memorial of these sad events. Even if Harry remembered little of the detail and did not visit the grave, there was enough here to conjure up his parents’ presence and memories of the separation that had so marked his early life.[v]

The Customs Commissioner’s house, Hong Kong. Captioned by Harry Hillier, ‘our new house on Mount Kellet, looking S.W., 1200 feet above the sea’ Hi-065

After three years enjoying Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan world, Harry’s life changed abruptly when, in 1898, Britain acquired and then the following year, forcibly took possession of the New Territories. His efforts to prevent the removal of the Customs stations were unsuccessful and, as Commissioner, he was strongly associated with the aggressive approach which culminated in large-scale slaughter of the protesters. Heavily criticised by the Chinese, in the view of Sir Robert Hart,  the long-serving Inspector-General of the IMC, Harry had to be replaced.  Whilst this was made easier by the fact he was due to go on furlough, these events left a bitter taste for him and Maggie, which was only partially mitigated by the eighteen months they spent on leave in Lausanne and England.

For Harry, Hong Kong was ‘a marvellously happy time’. Hi-s070

For his son, Harold, who was seven years old at the time, there was no bitterness – the time in Hong Kong had been, he later wrote, ‘marvellously happy’, one in which they had been able to indulge in all the privileges afforded to middle-class western children in this colonial setting.  What was ‘harrowing’ was the parting with their father when his furlough ended and he returned to China alone. Harold well remembered, ‘making a resolve that never would I be in a position where I must periodically leave my family and go away alone’. [vi]

Separated for much of the next seven years until she returned to China, Harry and Maggie shared their anguish in their letters – some eighty during Harry’s two years in Shanghai – which can be found summarised in his Letters Book. These also reflected the difficulties Maggie was experiencing in bringing up two boys of spirit, who hardly saw their father over these years. By the time he returned in 1911, the children had left school, and nursing a bitterness about his final years in the Customs, he had little desire to talk about China. For Harold, therefore, Hong Kong evoked memories of pleasure but also of pain: the happiness of those years contrasting with the pangs of separation, in a way that would later colour his relations with his own children.

The family at Burnt Oak, Waldron, 1913: Harold on left and Dorothy’s son, Bertie, in pram. (Hillier Collection)

These memories are, therefore, captured in letters and photographs and embodied in lieux de memoire that can still be visited. It is still possible to walk down Hillier Street, to see the children’s grave-stone in Happy Valley Cemetery and to take the Peak tram to view the Commissioner’s house on Mount Kellet. And when I do so, I can reflect on what I should have asked my grandfather about his memories and about what his parents told him of their life in Hong Kong.

Mediating Empire was published in April 2020. My Dearest Martha: the Life and Letters of Eliza Hillier will be published in the autumn by Hong Kong City University Press. For details, see


*Images used in this post with reference starting with ‘Hi-s’ are from the collections of the Historical Photographs of China Project at the University of Bristol.

[i] Detailed references for this post can be found in my book, Mediating Empire, An English Family in China. 1817-1927 (Folkestone: Renaissance Books, 2020).

[ii] Hillier Collection

[iii] The originals, together with typed transcripts are held at the School of Oriental and African Studies Archives, London (SOAS), CWM/LMS, MS 381124/01, Correspondence of Eliza Hillier.

[iv] James William Norton-Kyshe, The History of the Laws and Court of Hong Kong from the earliest period to 1898 (Hong Kong: Vetch and Lee Limited, 1898), Vol. 1, p. 384.

[v] For the gravestone, see the illustration in Patricia Lim, Forgotten Souls: A Social History of the Hong Kong Cemetery (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011), p. 118. It is also referred to on, Inscriptions for Cemetery, Sections 01-09,  Plot 09/08/18.

[vi] Harold Hillier, ‘Vita Mea’ (Hillier Collection), p. 9.

Vivian Kong on the Kowloon Residents Association and interwar Hong Kong’s civil society

Writing for our blog this week is our own Dr. Vivian Kong. Some of our readers may remember Vivian from when she was a PhD student with our Project. She finished her PhD thesis ‘Multiracial Britons: Britishness, Diasporas, and Cosmopolitanism in interwar Hong Kong’ in 2019, and is now a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow in Hong Kong history at the University of Bristol. Vivian is now preparing a book manuscript on Britishness in 1910-45 Hong Kong, exploring how British colonialism, rising nationalism, and Asian cosmopolitanism affected the development of national, civic, urban, and diasporic identities in the city.


On 24 January 1920 the South China Morning Post published a contributed article, ‘The New Kowloon: A Dream’. Set twenty years in the future, the piece depicted a Kowloon that was no longer ‘the foot-stool of the Peak’. Kowloon, in this ‘Dream’, was now a ‘large and prosperous city’ that had ‘large and luxurious hotels, a well-equipped European hospital, an up-to-date fire station, [and] houses to suit all pockets’. No longer did residents have to ‘bail surplus soda water in an endeavor to imitate a bath’: now the water supply ‘is never at fault’![1]

The anonymous author admitted this sounded ‘unreal’. And unreal it was for the many attendants at the inaugural meeting of the Kowloon Residents’ Association only four days prior. To these white-collar middle-class residents, the Kowloon of 1920 lacked the urban development it deserved. ‘Old Kowloon’, the section of Kowloon Peninsular south of Boundary Street, was ceded to Britain in 1860, and in 1898 Britain leased ‘New Kowloon’ as part of the New Territories for 99 years. Since the 1900s, Kowloon’s affordable rent made it a popular residential option for middle-class families in the colony. But urban development there, especially medical facilities and public transportation, did not grow accordingly to support its rapidly expanding population, an issue that began to receive increasing attention in the 1910s.

Tsim Sha Tsui 尖沙咀 c. 1925. University of Bristol Historical Photographs of China Project, Ref Bk09-05.

In December 1919, 122 residents in Kowloon came together to form a Kowloon’s Resident Association (KRA) to ‘periodically meet and discuss improvements in these districts with special regards to Housing, Lighting, Police, Communications, Sanitation, Water, etc.’.[2] The Association would grow steadily in the following years, and its membership would triple by 1931.

It was a multi-ethnic association. It was first known as 九龍西人居民協會 (meaning ‘Kowloon Westerner Residents’ Association’) because of its predominantly white leadership: between 1920 and 1925 most of its committee members were white, with the exception of a few Portuguese.[3] Some of KRA’s earlier activities also demonstrated racial prejudice against the Chinese population in the colony. They had, for instance, suggested the formation of another European residential reservation in Kowloon to enforce racial segregation.[4] But things changed in 1926 when three prominent Chinese residents, S. W. Tso, B. Wong Tape, and Wong Kwong-tin joined the executive Committee. The Association had its first Chinese vice-president in 1928, and three years later, F. C. Mow Fung, a returned Australian Chinese became its first Chinese president. The 379 members of its 1931 membership had at least 85 Chinese, 6 Eurasians, 58 Macanese, 1 Filipino, 3 Parsi, and 5 Jews. Of these 379 members, 13 were women.

The 1931 and 1936 annual reports of the Kowloon Residents Association at the National Library of Australia.


These members worked together to pressure the government for more public works in Kowloon. They met regularly to discuss issues of concern to the neighborhood. They criticized government policies. They drafted proposals for public works needed and approached relevant government departments. They acted as an advisory body for the colonial government and helped officials solicit public opinion – in 1938, for example, they asked all Kowloon residents to send them answers to a questionnaire for the Rents Commission.[5] Results of KRA activities were evident: after its lobbying, the government introduced a motor bus service in Kowloon in 1921, enlarged the area’s postal service, and opened the Kowloon Hospital in 1925.[6]

But facilitating urban development was not their only objective: they also wanted political reform for Hong Kong. They formed the Association not only because they wanted to pressure the government to develop Kowloon, but to have a say on how precisely it would do so. The KRA’s founding president, B. L. Frost, made this clear in his inaugural speech: ‘We want more representation and better representation on the Legislature’.

Frost was a Bristolian: he was born and raised there, and he was in fact, like myself, a Bristol University graduate.[7] But Frost was also a Hong Kong-Briton: he had lived in Hong Kong since 1905. This was unusual, as it was estimated that the non-Chinese population would renew almost completely every five years.[8] As a long-term resident, Frost thought the government did not act in the interest of middle-class residents like himself. He criticized the fact that the authorities had only ‘three quite inadequate sources of information’: its own staff, unofficial members in the Legislative Council – many taipans of big hongs – and ‘wealthy landowners’. He hoped that the KRA, with the weight of more than a hundred members joining even before its official formation, would make their voices heard by the government.[9]


The Peak. (Source: University of Bristol – Historical Photographs of China Project. Ref: He02-001.)
Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. (Source: University of Bristol – Historical Photographs of China Project. Ref: FH01-281.)








This was why the author of the ‘New Kowloon: A Dream’ article aspired that the KRA would have, ‘like the worms, turned and made Kowloon’s voice heard above the levels of the Peak’.

But were their voices heard?

Yes, and no. As stated earlier, the KRA did manage to get the government to speed up its development of Kowloon. With regards to its political demands, they had asked repeatedly for a Kowloon representative in the Legislative Council, which they eventually did get. In 1929, Governor Sir Cecil Clementi added two unofficial seats to the Legislative Council, one representing the Chinese community and the other Kowloon residents. The two appointees for these seats, S. W. Tso and J. P. Braga, were both KRA members.[10]

But the KRA also wanted a municipal government. As early as October 1920, only ten months after its formation, the KRA urged the government to form a Kowloon Municipal Council to celebrate the jubilee of Kowloon as a British territory.[11] This proposal was not successful, but they were persistent. In 1930, even after Tso and Braga were appointed to the Legislative Council, they did not forget and asked the government again for a municipal council.[12]

Such a hope, however, remained unanswered for years. Even when in 1936, the government replaced the Sanitary Board with the Urban Council and enlarged its powers, only two of the eight unofficial members were elected, with the governor appointing all other seats. It was not until 1994 that Hong Kong had its first municipal council election, where all seats were elected based on universal suffrage. But even that didn’t last long: the Urban Council was disbanded after the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997.

As a historian of interwar urban Asia, researching the KRA has been enlightening: it offers a case study of how a middle-class identity drove multi-ethnic urbanites together to fight for not only the betterment of their neighbourhood, but also their political rights. That much of its membership overlapped with other civic associations in Hong Kong was also interesting, for it suggests that interwar Hong Kong had a nexus of middle-class individuals who, despite colonial Hong Kong’s constitutional limits, used voluntary societies with different purposes to shape their society.

As a Hong Konger, I find it important to think about the KRA too. We had often assumed that Hong Kong was somewhere that had ‘no politics but only administration’, but the KRA shows that even as those in Hong Kong did not push harder for electoral politics, they were not politically apathetic. I reflected in my latest journal article how claims KRA members made in the 1920s about widening political representation and constitutional reforms still sit at the heart of the ongoing protests. I pondered why most demands the KRA members made about political reforms failed. I also find it refreshing to see the value that multi-culturalism brought to the city’s development. Hong Kong is a multi-ethnic city; it always has been.

Vivian has recently published findings from her research on the KRA and other voluntary associations in interwar Hong Kong (the Rotary Club, Freemasonry, and the League of Fellowship) in an article ‘Exclusivity and Cosmopolitanism: Multi-Ethnic Civil Society in Interwar Hong Kong’ in the Historical Journal.


[1] ‘The New Kowloon: A Dream’, South China Morning Post (SCMP), 24 January 1920.

[2] ‘Kowloon Residents’ Association: To be formed for discussing improvements’, Hongkong Daily Press, 2 December 1919; ‘Kowloon Residents Association: Formed Last Night’, SCMP, 2 December 1919.

[3] ‘九龍居民協會敘會 [Kowloon Residents’ Association Meeting]’, 香港華字日報 [The Chinese Mail], 24 March 1922.

[4] See ‘Kowloon Residents Association: Yesterday’s Inaugural Meeting’, SCMP, 21 January 1920, p. 8; ‘Kowloon Residents Association: Plea for a European Reservation’, Hongkong Daily Press, 13 February 1923, p. 5.

[5] ‘Kowloon Residents’ Association’, SCMP, 10 March 1938, p. 2.

[6] ‘Kowloon Residents’ Association: Plea for a European Reservation’, Hongkong Daily Press, 13 February 1923; ‘Kowloon Residents Association: The Housing Question, Kowloon Hospital, and Post Office Facilities’, SCMP, 13 February 1923, p. 9.

[7] ‘Old Time Resident Leaving: Mr. Frost retires after 21 years here, K.R.A. Tribute’, SCMP, 26 June 1926.

[8] J. D. Lloyd, ‘Report on the Census of the Colony of Hong Kong 1921’, Sessional Papers laid before the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, 15 December 1921 p. 159.

[9] ‘Kowloon Residents Association: Yesterday’s inaugural meeting’, SCMP, 21 January 1920; ‘Kowloon Residents: To form an association’, Hongkong Telegraph, 2 December 1919.

[10] ‘No. 226 Appointments’, Hongkong Government Gazette, 3 May 1929, p. 166.

[11] ‘Kowloon Residents’ Association: Year’s work reviewed, recommendation for municipal council’, China Mail, 5 October 1920.

[12] ‘Kowloon Residents’ Association: President’s able summary of a successful year’s work’, Hongkong Daily Press, 1 March 1930.