Header image courtesy of Hong Kong Maritime Museum (via Google Arts & Culture)
Numerous blockbusters and children’s stories have planted the farcical image of eye-patched pirates and their rum-reeking sidekicks into our collective consciousness. It seems almost preposterous to think that the Hong Kong we know today was once a regular haunt for pirates back in the eighteenth and nineteenth century—so much so that the port even earned itself the nickname of “Island of the Thieves!”
While this rather unglamorous moniker has not stuck through the generations, the history behind it is well worth remembering, and one figure that played a key role in this part of Hong Kong’s maritime past is Cheung Po Tsai, a nineteenth-century Chinese pirate notorious for his legendary hideout cave in Cheung Chau. Read on to discover how this historical sea bandit plundered the high seas and found refuge in Hong Kong.
Cheung Po Tsai was not always destined to be the venerated pirate he was later known to be, with tens and thousands of loyal followers and 600 fleets under his command. Born in 1783 to a poor Tanka family, Cheung had a humble life of fishing and trading mapped out for him. All was set in stone until one fateful day when 15-year-old Cheung was kidnapped whilst out on a waterborne expedition with his father.
It turns out that his captor was Cheng I of the Red Flag Fleet, a powerful Chinese pirate roving the seas of Guangdong. Against all expectations, the ferocious captain decided to take Cheung Po Tsai under his wing and even made him his stepson. As a young and driven adolescent, Cheung Po Tsai was quick to adapt to his stepfather’s nefarious ways and swiftly climbed his way up the ranks.
In 1807, Cheng I met his death in a storm accident and his wife Ching Shih subsequently took the reins to become the new commander of the Red Flag Fleet. Living in an era when women struggled to be equally valued as men, it was no easy task for Ching Shih to single-handedly lead a cut-throat pirate confederation. To secure authority and power, Ching Shih elected Cheung Po Tsai as her right-hand man to help run day-to-day operations. Initially co-leading the squadron, it was not long before Cheung gradually took over the business.
Now, this is when things get a little murky—somewhere down the road, legend has it that a romance started to blossom between Cheung Po Tsai and Ching Shih and their strategic alliance turned into a full-fledged marriage. Adding to the uneasiness of this quasi-Oedipus complex, there were even speculations that the relationship began before the sudden death of Cheng I. Hmm, scandalous much?
In spite of the questionable means with which he came into leadership ascension, Cheung was deemed as an honourable pirate during his years heading the Red Flag Fleet. Upholding a strict code of conduct, he gave equal shares of the loot and punished offences concerning desertion or private hoarding by execution. There was also a policy implemented by the Red Flag Fleet that forbade the mistreatment of women on-board, which in some cases was attributed to Cheung, but was most likely the doing of his wife Ching Shih.
While strict on his squadron, Cheung was allegedly sympathetic towards civilians. It was rumoured that he never pillaged the poor or attacked innocent commoners, and even looted to feed the hungry—no wonder why they call him the “Robin Hood” of Hong Kong!
As documentation of Cheung’s actual conduct is scant and inconsistent, it’s hard to determine to what degree such benevolent depictions are imagined manifestations of later generations. However, one thing that cannot be doubted is Cheung’s aptitude as a pirate. Between 1805 to 1809, Cheung grew the Red Flag Fleet to double its original size, unified numerous rival Chinese pirate organisations, and seized control over most of the Guangdong coastline. Now that’s some heavy-duty credentials!
Just as fast as Cheung gained power, his piracy career came to an end in a matter of a few years. Having forged an immense reputation for himself, it was inevitable that the formidable pirate would have huge targets on his back. His daring deeds caught the attention of the Qing government and the Portuguese navy, both of whom made repeated attempts to take down the Red Flag Fleet, but whereas the former failed, the latter prevailed.
After suffering successive defeats inflicted by the Portuguese navy in the Battle of Tiger’s Mouth, Cheung’s fleet was severely crippled by the end of 1809. Knowing that they would not be able to hold out for much longer, Cheung finally surrendered by his own admission in April of 1810 in the Battle of Chek Lap Kok.
Following his defeat, Cheung and his wife accepted an amnesty extended by the Qing government and were allowed to keep their plundered treasures. In an ironic turn of events, he was assigned to serve the Qing Imperial Navy, and spent the following years eradicating other sea-roving outlaws on behalf of his former enemy.
As the competent sailor and commander that he was, Cheung won favour with the Qing government after capturing Wu Shi Er (烏石二), an infamous pirate of the Luichow Peninsula. He was then promoted to captain of the Qing government’s Guangdong navy and enjoyed high-ranking military positions for the remainder of his life.
While Cheung’s career of piracy was short-lived, his legacy has endured the test of time. His imprints can be found throughout Guangdong and Hong Kong—the pirate’s main hives of activity—but the most well-known among them all is the Cheung Po Tsai Cave in Cheung Chau.
In the early nineteenth century, Hong Kong was still a low-profile and scarcely populated fishing village, something of a safe haven for pirates on the run. Legend has it that the inconspicuous cave nestled in the southwestern corner of Cheung Chau was where Cheung Po Tsai hid from the Qing government authorities and stashed his loot before he conceded. In truth, no treasures or jewels have been discovered, but the cave has nonetheless emerged as one of Cheung Chau’s must-visit attractions and served to cement his legacy.
These days, the Cheung Po Tsai Cave is not so much a cave as it is a slit amongst a cluster of giant boulders. Through years of rain and weathering, the entrance has become increasingly narrow, now open just wide enough for visitors to pass through in a single file line—carefully and with sure footing.
Any shrewd pirate knows not to stow all your treasures in one place. So naturally, there were numerous caves across Hong Kong and Guangzhou that served as the secret stash spots for Cheung Po Tsai. Though less widely known, the former Lamma Island Cheung Po Tsai Cave was a whopping nine-storeys deep and much larger than the one in Cheung Chau. Unfortunately, it can no longer be visited, as the cave was presumably demolished in 1979 during the construction of the Lamma Power Station.
In addition to caves, his legacy is also preserved through the temples that he built for local villagers along Hong Kong’s coastlines. Mostly dedicated to Tin Hau—also known as the goddess of the sea—these worship structures would have been where Cheung went to pray for good weather, luck, and safety on his seafaring activities. You can still find a handful of them scattered in Hong Kong’s old fishing hubs, including neighbourhoods like Ma Wan, Cheung Chau, Peng Chau, and Stanley.
In recent decades, Cheung Po Tsai’s story has become a major subject of inspiration in popular culture, with a plethora of local TV shows and movies like The Pirate (1973), Project A (1983), and Captain of Destiny (2015) featuring characters based on the fearsome historic figure. Going beyond the local scope, even big-time Hollywood franchise Pirates of the Caribbean modelled one of its characters after Cheung Po Tsai.
Whether you believe the notorious pirate deserves to go down in history as a valiant hero or think that his legacy has been unduly romanticised, there is no denying that Cheung Po Tsai’s influence has left an indelible mark on our culture, serving as one of the rarer pieces of Hong Kong’s pre-colonial past that continues to be re-visited. Heroic outlaw or not, for what it’s worth, we can take comfort in knowing that as the tale of the legendary pirate gets re-told, a small fragment from an oft-forgotten stretch of our history is retrieved and passed on.