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.