You would think that the only bad thing that could ever happen on Christmas and New Year’s Day would be not getting the gift you want, but all sorts of city-changing events have happened in Hong Kong history. As the year slowly draws to a close, we set aside the mulled wine and gingerbread cookies for a moment and take a look back at some shocking events that have happened over the Yuletide season in Hong Kong history.
In his book, The Great Fire of Hong Kong, Adam Nebbs pieces together local and foreign newspaper reports, documents, and travel journals to paint a picture of one of the greatest fires in Hong Kong history, its aftermath, and the subsequent trial of Edward Fisher—the shopkeeper accused of starting the fire. An eyewitness account was also recorded in Constance Gordon-Cumming’s book, Wanderings in China.
On Christmas Day in 1878, a fire broke out and destroyed a large area of the slums along Queen’s Road. The fire raged on for 17 hours, burning down 400 houses and leaving thousands of people homeless. Edward Fisher, a working-class Englishman with a small business in Hong Kong, was accused of starting the fire as insurance fraud. However, flimsy evidence led to him being later acquitted.
On the morning of December 10, 1941, the battle-hardened Japanese launched an assault on Hong Kong. Soldiers from the UK, British India, Canada, as well as locally recruited Hongkongers, attempted to defend the crown colony, but were greatly outnumbered. Bombing raids continued for weeks as the Japanese seized control of more and more Hong Kong territories.
By Christmas Day, the Japanese forces had reached St. Stephen’s College in Stanley, which was being used as a makeshift hospital on the front line. What followed was a brutal massacre of doctors, nurses, and wounded soldiers. Finally defeated, Britain quickly surrendered at the Japanese headquarters on Christmas afternoon. This day, which came to be known as “Black Christmas,” ushered in a Japanese occupation era that lasted almost four years.
The day before Christmas Eve in 1952, the body of a young local woman—later identified as 33-year-old Ho Sze-mui—was found in a ditch at the side of a remote military road. She had five cuts on her forehead and three deep head wounds that reached the bone. A postmortem also revealed evidence of a possible sexual assault.
On Christmas Day, taxi cyclist Liu To-leung confirmed that a few days before the victim was found dead, he had transported her from Dodwell’s Ridge camp to Shek Kong camp, where she was employed in the canteen. Liu later testified at the trial that their journey had been interrupted by two soldiers in uniform coming from the opposite direction. They kicked his bicycle, and as he pedalled away in the darkness, Liu saw one of the soldiers try to drag Ho to her feet as she resisted.
Police investigations led to the prosecution of lance corporal George Robert Douthwaite (aged 24) and trooper Douglas Derrick Dalton (aged 19). Although it is unclear what motivated the two young men to drag Ho from her bicycle taxi then attack her, there was enough evidence at the time to convince the jury that the pair were guilty of murder. The two soldiers were sentenced to death, but their death sentences were later commuted to 20 years of hard labour for Douthwaite, and 12 years for Dalton, who protested his innocence the entire time he was in prison.
As the events happened in the midst of the Korean war, the Cold War, and while communist China was growing in confidence, the British government feared that the murder of a local woman by British military personnel might stir resentment in colonial Hong Kong. Not only did the governor of Hong Kong take a direct interest in the case, but public records also revealed that the secretary of state in London was requesting information as well. As such, some suspect political expediency could have rushed the proceedings of the case. To this day, many still have doubts about whether or not the two, or both, soldiers were actually guilty. Read the entire story here and decide for yourself.
In the late 1940s, a flood of Mainland Chinese refugees arrived in Hong Kong, fleeing the Chinese Civil War. Many chose to settle on the slopes of Shek Kip Mei, building dilapidated shacks made of scrap wood and sheet metal. On Christmas night in 1953, one of the shacks caught fire. The flames spread quickly and eventually engulfed the entire shantytown. A whopping 53,000 survivors were left homeless.
The disaster catalysed a growing awareness of Hong Kong’s housing situation. On the smoky ruins of the shanties came the beginnings of Hong Kong’s public housing estate programme. After the fire, governor Alexander Grantham launched a public housing programme that would provide accommodation for the immigrant population and built the Shek Kip Mei Estate. The blocks were constructed in the iconic “H” configuration, consisting of two residential wings along with a communal cooking space and sanitary facilities. Block 41 of the estate, Mei Ho House, has been listed as a Grade I historic building and is now used by the Hong Kong Youth Hostels Association as a museum and city hostel.
Crowds gathering in Lan Kwai Fong for festive celebrations is an age-old tradition in our city, but the celebrations in the wee hours of New Year’s Day of 1993 took a tragic turn as 21 people were crushed to death and 71 were injured. An estimated 20,000 partygoers were crammed into the narrow streets of Lan Kwai Fong, pushing and shoving at each other, spraying foam, beer, and Champagne everywhere, making for dangerously slippery streets. As crowds pushed down D’Aguilar Street after midnight, people started falling on the steps and on top of each other, and some were killed immediately as people were trampled underfoot in the chaos.