Hong Kong’s colonial history under the British has given rise to a blend of traditional Chinese culture and Western values unique to the SAR. Along with the city’s rapid economic and social development over the past three decades, women in Hong Kong have become ever more financially independent, assertive, and career-focused, especially when compared to women in other Southeast Asian countries.
In light of International Women’s Day, we highlight and pay tribute to eight exceptional Hong Kong women who have each played an important role in shaping the city’s history, both past and present.
The history of colonial Hong Kong’s “protected women” is a page in our books that seems to just get skimmed past instead of pored over. Their impact on the city’s development has largely been forgotten, and yet they’ve played a valuable part in bringing East and West together to create Hong Kong’s singular character.
“Protected women” refer almost always to Tanka women who are financially supported by Western men working in the city in exchange for long-term sexual relationships and company. Instead of being shunned as prostitutes or courtesans, they were protected by their respective taipans, naval captains, or colonial administrators, and achieved elevated (albeit unofficial) social status and financial independence. It is astounding to think that Asian women could attain such social heights within the patriarchal and racist society of colonial Hong Kong.
Ng Akew (sometimes referred to as Ong Akew or Ong Mo Kew) was one such Tanka woman, protected by an American sea captain, James Bridges Endicott, who was a wealthy opium trader with properties in the city and Macau. Despite never officially marrying Endicott, Ng bore five of his children, and he, in turn, set up a trust fund for her sole benefit.
She was, however, an intelligent and gutsy woman who refused to rest on her laurels and instead dabbled in business as well. Ng bought opium from Endicott and shipped the illicit goods to Macau—but not before having the cargo stolen by pirates, upon which she visited their lair to stubbornly demand the opium to be returned!
One of the properties that Endicott gifted to Ng was on Gutzlaff Street near the junction of Cochrane and Wellington. This was where she resided, supported by income from other properties under her name as well as her own opium trading. It seems like Ng became a leading figure of sorts for the protected women community; she later bought property on Graham Street for “single women,” presumably functioning as a community centre or gathering place for others like her.
These women would go on to have Eurasian children—the first true bridges between Western and Chinese cultures in Hong Kong. Ng’s story, and that of her compatriots, echoes the city’s itself: a brave blend of cultures.
An accomplished film director, producer, screenwriter, and actress, Ann Hui On-wah is the only person to have won five Hong Kong Film Awards for the Best Director category—a feat to be applauded within such a male-dominated industry. She has also served as the president of the Hong Kong Film Director’s Guild from 2004 to 2006.
After first working on drama series and documentaries for local television station TVB, Hui turned to the silver screen, directing her first film in 1979—mystery thriller The Secret. She bucked the trend of rehashing Hollywood formulas in making movies and quickly became associated with the Hong Kong New Wave or Second Wave film movement, along with the likes of Wong Kar-wai.
Hui was also well-known for using her art to make commentaries and allegories on the social, political, and gender issues that exist in Hong Kong society. She broadened the themes present in Hong Kong cinema by introducing strong female representation onto the silver screens.
Her 2011 film A Simple Life (sometimes also referred to as Sister Peach), starring Andy Lau and Deanie Ip, premiered at the Venice International Film Festival and bagged numerous awards from various international film festivals and awards. In 2012, Hui was honoured with lifetime achievement awards at both the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the Asian Film Awards. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences then extended a membership invitation to Hui in 2017.
Popularly referred to as “San San,” Lee Lai-shan won the gold medal for windsurfing at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996. This was British Hong Kong’s first and last gold win, and Lee was only 25 years old at the time.
Before her big Olympic achievement, Lee was already an accomplished windsurfer, having won silver in the 1990 Beijing Asian Games, clinched the gold medal in the 1993 World Championships in Kashiwazaki, then silver again in the 1994 Hiroshima Asian Games. Two years after the Atlanta Olympics, Lee became Hong Kong’s first champion at the Bangkok Asian Games.
Lee has been immortalised in a waxwork figure at Madame Tussauds since 2002, and a monument shaped like a windsurfing board has also been erected on the waterfront of Cheung Chau, the island she grew up on. As a nod to her Olympic victory, Lee was the first person to carry the Olympic torch in the Hong Kong leg of the torch relay in 2008, and also acted as the final torchbearer in the opening ceremony for that year’s Olympic sailing event.
Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun is best known for her role as director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) from 2006 to 2017. In fact, Forbes even named her as the thirty-eighth most powerful woman in the world in 2016.
Prior to working at the WHO, Chan had already broken records by becoming the first female director of health in Hong Kong from 1994 to 2003. She was also credited with having had firm control over the H5N1 avian flu outbreak in 1997. She had faced much criticism for too arrogantly embodying the mindset of carrying on business as usual but ended up doing right by the public with the slaughter of 1.5 million chickens despite stiff political opposition. She was awarded an OBE that year. Chan also led the health department in battling the infamous SARS outbreak in 2003.
Jackie Pullinger was a Christian missionary who arrived in Hong Kong from Britain in 1966. She is well-known for having worked as a primary school teacher and also taking on the role of a social worker within the Kowloon Walled City, an old lawless enclave of Hong Kong that lay outside of both Chinese and British control, and teemed with triad action, drug trade, prostitution, and poverty.
In 1981, Pullinger founded St Stephen’s Society, a charity that operates rehabilitation homes for recovering drug addicts as well as prostitutes, gang members, and fringe members of society who are on the wrong side of the law. St Stephen’s provided their services free-of-charge and ran solely on donations and volunteer efforts. Through this work, Pullinger helped thousands of disadvantaged Hongkongers get back on their feet, without ever financially benefiting from it personally. She was rightly awarded an MBE in 1988.
Hong Kong socialite and daughter of property tycoon Cecil Chao, Gigi Chao became famous city-wide in 2012 when her father publicly offered $500 million as a reward to any man who would marry his daughter. The catch was that Gigi is a lesbian and had already married her long-term partner, Sean Eav, in a civil ceremony held in France that year.
Refusing to accept his daughter’s sexuality, Cecil Chao increased the dowry bribe to $1 billion two years later, making international headlines. More than 20,000 men responded to this request in a bid to get their hands on the money. Chao then retaliated by coming out publicly and revealing her sexual identity in an open letter published in the Post, in which she begged for her father’s acceptance.
Overnight, Chao became the face of Hong Kong’s LGBTQI+ community, having highlighted the social stigma still very much attached to gender issues in most of Chinese society. Though thrust unwillingly into the spotlight under harsh circumstances, and in a city where civil partnerships still go unrecognised, she was defiant in standing up for her rights and happiness and is seen as a symbol of bravery by the queer community.
Branded as an unofficial spokesperson for the LGBTQI+ folk at large, Chao is now a board member of Big Love Alliance, a gay rights charity which lobbies the government to pass anti-discrimination legislation for sexual minorities. Last year, she took the issues closest to her heart and launched Hong Kong Marriage Equality, a non-partisan social campaign that aims to achieve marriage equality for same-sex couples in Hong Kong.
British-born Elsie Tu moved to Hong Kong in 1951 with her first husband on missionary work. Unhappy with the poverty and injustice rampant in the city, she moved on to co-found the Mu Kuang English School in Kwun Tong. Its initial incarnation was simply an old army tent in which 30 underprivileged children would gather for lessons; today the school still operates to educate children from low-income families.
In 1988, Tu became a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and used her political power to combat injustice. She fought to decriminalise homosexuality, against triad-related corruption which the city used to be rife with, and even travelled back to Britain to protest against increases in public transport fares on the Star Ferry in 1966.
Tu took on social issues, both big and small, including gay rights, housing improvements, welfare services, transportation routes, public amenities for children, hawker licenses, and many more. It is said that her work laid the path for the founding of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in the 1970s, a body focused on halting corruption in the government. Tu died in Hong Kong in 2015, aged 102.
Anson Chan Fang On-sang is one of Hong Kong’s most influential figures and the first woman to be appointed as the director of a civil service department. She served as director for social welfare in 1984, and later as the first female and first Chinese chief secretary of the Hong Kong administration from 1993 to 2001—the government position in the SAR second only to the governor or chief executive.
Chan is also known for defending the city’s freedom of the press without external pressure, arguing that the press should continue reporting as they had done before 1997, even after Hong Kong’s political return to China. Though she served directly under former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, she would at times even make public announcements that were at odds with the more conservative Tung’s statements. This earned her the nickname “Hong Kong’s Conscience.” For her efforts regarding human rights and justice, Chan was awarded the 2017 O’Connor Justice Prize in the United States.