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A look into the historical taipans who shaped Hong Kong

By Annette Chan 28 March 2021 | Last Updated 25 August 2023

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons / The Last Kings of Shanghai 

Like it or not, Hong Kong as we know it today would not exist without foreign businessmen. We don’t mean the expat bankers milling in and out of ICC and Exchange Square—we’re talking about the people who paved the way for modern-day Hong Kong during (and prior to) the city’s days as a crown colony. Taipans (大班), magnates, tycoons—whatever you want to call them, these titans of industry were instrumental in shaping the city. 

From establishing the financial, real estate, and educational institutions that give Hong Kong its world city status to influencing the very legislature by which the city was governed, it is impossible to downplay the impact that taipans have had on Hong Kong.

Three taipans in particular—William Jardine, Sir Paul Chater, and Sir Elly Kadoorie—have made an outsized impact on the territory. Read on for an overview of their lives and careers, and how their actions affect life in Hong Kong today.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Sir Paul Chater

Despite Chater Road, Chater Garden, and Catchick Street all bearing his name, Sir Paul Chater’s accomplishments are not known to many Hongkongers—but they should be. The “father of Hong Kong,” as he was later known, touched almost every sphere of modern life—land, transport, power, produce, governance—and did it all in the nineteenth century, when there wasn’t much of the city to speak of.

Born Khachik Pogose Aswachatoor in 1846 in Calcutta, Chater was the tenth of 13 children in a middle-class Armenian family. He proved intelligent from a young age, attending an elite private school on a scholarship after his parents passed away.

Upon his graduation in 1864, the 18-year-old moved to Hong Kong to live with one of his sisters, whose husband helped him find a job at the Bank of Hindustan, China, and Japan. After two years at the bank, Chater quit to become a money broker with the support of the Sassoons, a dynastic Baghdadi Jewish family known as “the Rothschilds of the East,” who patronised the bank. The brokerage proved to be a success for the young entrepreneur, who accrued enough wealth to buy his first plot of land at the age of 24 and become a millionaire by 30.

In his middle age, Chater had a finger in innumerable pies—he founded Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company (now Wharf Holdings, the owner of Harbour City and Times Square), which put Kowloon on the map as a port; Hongkong Land; and Hong Kong Electric (after surreptitiously building the first power station in Hong Kong in an old graveyard on Star Street). We also have Chater to thank for his help in establishing Dairy Farm, Hong Kong Telephone, and the Star Ferry, which he later acquired.

In 1896, Chater joined the civil service as a member of the Executive Council of Hong Kong, where he helped form government policy until his death in 1926. Though he did not have any children—and all that remains of his stately home in Mid-Levels is the gatekeeper’s lodge—Chater’s legacy lives on in the electricity that powers our city, the transport we take, and the malls we shop at.

However, the most tangible reminder of Chater’s influence is perhaps the Hong Kong Island coastline. Through Hongkong Land’s “Praya Reclamation Scheme,” Chater added between 59 to 65 new acres of land to the modern-day Central & Western District—on which you’ll find many of Hong Kong Land’s commercial buildings (including Chater House!).

Photo: The Last Kings of Shanghai

Sir Elly Kadoorie

If you live around Mong Kok or consider yourself a wildlife buff, you’ll be familiar with the Kadoorie name, which graces the exclusive residential estate by Prince Edward and the sprawling farm and botanic garden in Tai Po’s Lam Tsuen. This wealthy and entrepreneurial Baghdadi Jewish family is akin to Hong Kong royalty, with a thriving portfolio comprising CLP (which provides electricity for 80 percent of Hong Kong), The Peninsula, the Peak Tram, and the all-important Kadoorie Estates.

It all started with Eleazer Silas Kadoorie, a.k.a. Elly, who came to Hong Kong in the late nineteenth century as a teenager to work for the Sassoon family. Like Chater, Elly and his brother Ellis broke out after a few years and started their own brokerage, which enabled them to invest in hospitality, real estate, power, rubber plantations, and banking. In turn, the brothers donated handsomely to charitable organisations all across Asia and founded schools, hospitals, and social clubs.

After Ellis passed away in 1922, Elly was left to chart the family path alone—which he did with aplomb, purchasing a large plot of land near Mong Kok to develop into what is now the Kadoorie Estates.

For a while, it seemed that Kadoorie was on an unstoppable meteoric rise: he was knighted by King George V in 1926, and the grand hotel he founded in the late 1920s was living up to his hope of becoming “the finest hotel east of the Suez.” But it wasn’t to last. While Elly shrewdly moved the bulk of his investments from Shanghai to Hong Kong prior to the Japanese invasion—a decision that secured his family’s wealth and standing, unlike the Sassoons’—Japanese soldiers took him from his Shanghai home in 1942 and imprisoned him in a camp for foreigners. Sir Elly was held in captivity until his death in 1944.

However, Elly’s intuition continues to pay dividends for his descendants, with his son Lawrence—who was a great taipan in his own right—retaining control of the assets he acquired, nurturing that once-barren hillside in Kowloon into a lush and extremely lucrative multibillion-dollar estate.

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Portrait of William Jardine by George Chinnery. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

William Jardine

If you’re talking about powerful taipans, you can’t skip over doctor-turned-drug-lord William Jardine. The future taipan was born in Scotland in 1784, and qualified as a surgeon at the University of Edinburgh Medical School in 1802. After joining the East India Company’s maritime service in 1803, Jardine spent his 14-year tenure as a seafaring surgeon trading commodities stored in the cargo space allotted to EIC employees.

He resigned in 1817 to become an independent trader, exploiting the EIC’s policy of outsourcing the transport of opium—which had been outlawed in China since 1800—to free traders. In 1820s, Jardine joined the merchant house Magniac and Co. in Canton and teamed up with fellow Scottish trader James Matheson to form Jardine, Matheson, and Co. The pairing proved to be as potent as the drug they trafficked, with the British trading firm swiftly becoming the largest in East Asia.

Unsatisfied with the amount of opium they were able to smuggle, both Matheson and Jardine spent years lobbying the British government to open trade with China further. In January 1839, after coming under increasing scrutiny by the Qing dynasty government—which sought to stymie opium’s detrimental effect on its population—Jardine feigned his retirement and returned to Britain to drum up support for a war against China.

By March, under pressure from Qing imperial officials (and believing that the British government would compensate them for the confiscated goods), British traders gave up 1,000 tons of the drug valued at £2 million to be destroyed by China. However, the promise of payment turned out to be an empty one, and a consortium of British merchants, led by Jardine, then pressured the British government to wage war against China, presenting it as the only means of obtaining compensation. As we now know, Britain waged—and won—the war, and China relinquished Hong Kong Island to the British in August of 1842 as part of the peace treaty of Nanking.

As for William Jardine, he stayed in Britain and died in February 1843, scant months after the treaty was signed. By then, what was done was done—Hong Kong was a British colony, while opium flowed into China—and would set the stage for the second opium war, after which China ceded Kowloon, too.

Today, Jardine Matheson is one of the biggest conglomerates on the continent—with ownership of Hongkong Land, the Mandarin Oriental Group, and Dairy Farm—and has remained in the control of Jardine’s relatives, the Keswicks, for five generations.

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Annette Chan

Senior editor

Annette is an editor and copywriter with a lifetime of experience in hunting out the most interesting, odd, and delightful things about her beloved home city. Having written extensively about everything from food and culture to fashion, music, and hospitality, she considers her speciality to be Hong Kong itself. In her free time, you can find Annette trying out new dumpling recipes or playing Big Two at her favourite local bars with a cocktail in hand.