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HONG KONG: One Country, Two Systems, but Will It Be
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A Family's 'Priceless Legacy'

The Hotung clan, a classic marriage of East and West, epitomizes the colony's struggles through a century and a half of change. From its earliest days, Hong Kong valued enterprise and survival skills above all else.

June 15, 1997|MAGGIE FARLEY | Times Staff Writer

HONG KONG — This city's history--a tale of surprising power seeded in a questionable past, a story of opium and opportunism, business and bravery and betrayal--can best be seen in the fortunes of the Hotungs. This Hong Kong clan has struggled and prospered along with the territory and has shared its fate in ways historic and metaphoric.

In the 150 years since the first Hotung ancestor, English trader Walter Bosman, arrived on a clipper ship, the family has gone from stark poverty to stunning riches, becoming merchant princes, patriots and power brokers. Considered neither British nor Chinese, the Eurasian clan ended up bridging both cultures and profiting handsomely.

The beginnings, though, for both the Hotungs and Hong Kong were much less auspicious.

Britain's Royal Navy wrested the tiny outpost from China in the Opium War of 1839-42 and made it a staging ground for an aggressive drug trade. The Western conquest of the island began what the Chinese consider to be "150 years of humiliation."

As for the British, they believed that they had seized a paltry prize: Lord Palmerston,the foreign secretary who had his eye on larger territories for the Empire's Asian outpost, dismissed Hong Kong as "a barren rock with hardly a house upon it . . . that will never be a mart of trade."

Both China's humiliation and Britain's doubt were misplaced.

In the century and a half since Hong Kong became the stage for the clash of two great empires, it has become a bastion of commerce that has fueled China's development and enriched Western traders.

Now, with only days to go before freewheeling, capitalist Hong Kong returns to its now-Communist motherland, Eric Hotung, a fourth-generation descendant of that itinerant trader, lives in a city on the brink of an uncertain future.

"The story of Hong Kong's resilience is an old one, and its people shouldn't be underestimated," said Hotung, 71, a real estate tycoon and philanthropist with a round, genial face and a feathering of white hair. "They are self-dependent and never asked for anything but the chance to work. Hong Kong always surprises."

Like many traders who left their pasts behind in Britain, Bosman created a new future for himself. He arranged for a girl from China to be his Hong Kong wife and he sired seven children. This humble, pragmatic meeting of East and West launched what would become a dynasty, with a history replete with spectacular love affairs, surprising alliances, bitter betrayals, accommodations and subversions.

The trader's children lived in dire poverty and endured ostracism as Eurasians, shunned by Europeans and Chinese alike. His first son, Robert Hotung, was born in 1862 with fair skin and cobalt blue eyes. He used a Chinese last name passed on by his mother, and he dressed Chinese-style, with a long braid down his back.

Though Chinese and Westerners distrusted each other, both groups were wedded to commerce in Hong Kong. Indeed, this tiny enclave off China's southern coast was begotten by self-proclaimed "Princes of the Earth," European merchants searching for entree to China's untapped markets and treasures of silks, silver and tea.

From its earliest days, Hong Kong valued enterprise and survival skills above all else. This was a place where a rocky past mattered less than what one made of his chances. It was an ideal spot for the rise of the compradors, mostly Eurasians such as Robert Hotung. They were the go-betweens for the Europeans and their Chinese clients.

Robert Hotung, in this way, won a place at Jardine Matheson, the trading house that was the power behind the West's push into Chinese markets for opium and other trade.

By century's end, Hong Kong was beginning to flourish. Robert Hotung, meanwhile, had married the Eurasian daughter of a Jardine director. Soon he had established himself as a business leader and doyen of the Chinese community.

While the partners of Jardine Matheson mingled with top-hatted rivals and friends at the all-white Hong Kong Club, Hotung--a singular figure in his trademark beard, silk Chinese robes and cap--in 1897 established The Chinese Club down the road.

A year later, Britain acquired Hong Kong's remaining Chinese territories on a 99-year lease. At their respective clubs on Hong Kong's harbor front, over gin and tonics or tea, the gentlemen began the countdown to 1997, when Hong Kong would return to China.

Hotung ascended with the colony and soon even expanded beyond it, establishing a property empire that spanned China. He became a tycoon "on the level of Rockefeller," says one book of the day. To produce an heir, he took a second wife "of equal standing" and a concubine as well.

Hotung met with Winston Churchill in London and hosted playwright George Bernard Shaw; he supported Sun Yat-sen's overthrow of China's last imperial dynasty in 1911; he harbored the fugitive reformer Kang Yu-wei and received a knighthood from Queen Victoria.

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