This is the story of the Hon. Frederick Stewart's work in the Hong Kong Magistrate's
Court during eight months in 1881-82 drawn from 200 pages of reports of his cases
from The China Mail. The editor and her husband, Gillian and Verner Bickley, have
already published much about his work as an educator and she writes the general
introduction, a biographical hrst chapter and short introductions to each of the sections
into which the cases are distributed, predictably on topics such as pirates, police and
prostitutes. This is a useful collection for those who do not have easy access to the
newspaper and is full of what expatriates no doubt found diverting then.
Those reports follow a collection of essays which, after Verner Bickley's on
Perceptions of Social Reality, and with the exception of the editor's chapter on the
Light and Pass Law, are mostly reminiscences comparing what it was like as the colony
came to an end with what it may have been like in Stewart's time. Christopher Coghlan
writes as a lawyer, Geoffrey Roper as a policeman, Garry Tallentire as a magistrate and
Tim Hamlett as a court reporter.
There is an ample bibliography, though it omits such a necessary work as Christopher
Munn's Anglo-China: Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong (2001). There is a
full index. Yet this apparatus of scholarship and the 1159 endnotes should deter no one
from the pleasures to be found. Some are unintentional. The caption to the first
illustration, a rough cartoon showing the magistrate's court at work, would have us
believe that the faces at the side are 'smiling members of the jury'. Unlikely participants
in that court. There is a pleasing reference to Salmon Rushdie (p.80) and Scottish readers
will no doubt relish the Cameronions (p.55). 'Oyer and terminer' does not mean 'open
and shut' (p.97) but 'hear and decide'. Some will not share the editor's opinions of
There is nothing to offend even the most confident champion of the benefits of
colonial rule. As that most urbane of Hong Kong's men of law. Sir TL Yang, puts it in
his preface, describing Hong Kong's success (p.9):
"Perhaps one might put this transformation down firstly to our legal system...
secondly to our civil service, thirdly to the government's policy of allowing
sufficient freedom to the people to trade, fourthly to an environment of security and
safety, and fifthly to the determination, persistence and hard work of the people.
Perhaps - just perhaps - too, another reason for our success is the sense of humour
of both the British and the Chinese. Also, each group is so convinced of their own
superiority over the other that one is able to pooh-pooh the perceived stupidity,
backwardness and outlandish ways of the other. Neither side takes the other
Despite the levity of the newspaper reporter, these glimpses of one facet of the work
of an intelligent and hard-working colonial civil servant reveal what we are privileged to
know were qualities shared by many like him.