Sir Robert Ho Tung

Public Figure, Private Man


May Holdsworth

ISBN : 978-988-8754-24-3


April 2022

220 pages, 6″ x 9″, 48 b&w illus.

  • HK$380.00

Sir Robert Ho Tung (1862–1954) is a compelling figure in Hong Kong history. He is regularly portrayed as the colony’s greatest philanthropist and wealthiest man of his day, the first Chinese to live on the Peak, and, at the end of his life, the ‘Grand Old Man of Hongkong’. The illegitimate son of a Chinese mother and European father, he was highly sensitive about his mixed heritage though he consistently made the most of his fate. He was a man perfectly in tune with his place and time, his success driven as much by his entrepreneurial talents as by his being Eurasian. This book shows him in all his immense variety—clerk with the Imperial Maritime Customs, chief compradore of Jardine Matheson, financial wizard, husband and lover, patriarch of a large family of five sons and eight daughters, loyal British subject but also, paradoxically, Chinese patriot. China’s president Yuan Shikai awarded him the Order of the Excellent Crop, and King George V knighted him.

May Holdsworth’s thoughtful and deftly written account of the life is the first full-length biography in English. Given unique and unprecedented access to family and personal papers, including letters, diaries, notes, and photographs, she offers a nuanced perspective on a public but also private man. Her book will be a rich resource for historians and general readers interested in the men and women who played a key part in the shaping of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Hong Kong.

May Holdsworth is a writer based in Hong Kong. Her previous books include Foreign Devils: Expatriates in Hong Kong, and The Palace of Established Happiness: Restoring a Garden in the Forbidden City. She is co-editor, with Christopher Munn, of the Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography (HKUP, 2012), and co-author with him of Crime, Justice and Punishment in Colonial Hong Kong: Central Police Station, Central Magistracy and Victoria Gaol (HKUP, 2020).

‘With painstaking research using an invaluable cache of private letters, family photographs, and other rarely seen archival materials, May Holdsworth has produced a definitive English-language biography of Hong Kong’s Grand Old Man, Sir Robert Ho Tung, as both public figure and private man. A must-read for anyone interested in Hong Kong history.’ —Emma J. Teng, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

‘This biography of Sir Robert Ho Tung is well written, well organized, and based on original unpublished documentary sources that have not been previously utilized. Though of a scholarly nature, it is eminently readable and should appeal to a broad readership, including lovers of Hong Kong history.’ —Edward J. M. Rhoads, University of Texas at Austin