The British Empire Library

A Magistrate's Court In 19th Century Hong Kong: Court In Time

by Gillian Bickley

Courtesy of OSPA

Derek Roebuck (City University of Hong Kong 1987-97)
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 Governor Pope-Hennessy.

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 seriously...."

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.

British Empire Book
Gillian Bickley
Proverse Press
962 85570 4 1


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