Crime, Justice and Punishment in Colonial Hong Kong

Central Police Station, Central Magistracy and Victoria Gaol


May Holdsworth and Christopher Munn

ISBN : 978-988-8528-12-7


June 2020

340 pages, 7.4″ x 9.6″, 210 color illus.

  • HK$380.00

Standing close together in a compound on a hillside above Victoria Harbour, the Central Police Station, Central Magistracy and Victoria Gaol were a bastion of British colonial power, a symbol of security, law and punishment. This walled city in the heart of Hong Kong’s Central District is now restored as a heritage and arts centre known as Tai Kwun.

Maintaining law and order in a turbulent place like Hong Kong — lying ‘within a rifle shot of the mainland of China’ and with a largely unsettled population — was far from straightforward. In the early decades of the colony the police force was a byword for incompetence and corruption. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, political policing became a growing preoccupation as waves of strikes, boycotts and agitations shook the colony. The Magistracy administered a form of cheap summary justice heavily adapted to the needs of colonial Hong Kong: well over a million predominantly Chinese people were sentenced there between 1841 and 1941. Many went to prison for petty offences because they could not pay their fines; others were flogged or exposed in the stocks as a warning to others. In the overcrowded, unsanitary Victoria Gaol, the regime vacillated uneasily between a belief in the need for harsh deterrent punishment and an optimistic faith in reform and rehabilitation.

This richly illustrated book draws on a wealth of sources to offer a vivid account of those three institutions from 1841 to the late 20th century. It is firmly focused on people and their stories, weaving across a social landscape populated by captains superintendent and magistrates, gaolers and constables, thieves and ruffians, hawkers and street boys, down-and-outs, prostitutes, gamblers, debtors and beggars — the guilty as well as the innocent.

May Holdsworth’s previous books include Foreign Devils: Expatriates in Hong Kong, and The Palace of Established Happiness: Restoring a Garden in the Forbidden City. Christopher Munn is the author of Anglo-China: Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong, 1841–1880. May Holdsworth and Christopher Munn are also co-editors of the Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography.