Beer in Hong Kong – Part One – the early days up to the planned opening of its first brewery
Martyn Cornell has kindly given permission for extracts from his article, A Short History of Beer in Hong Kong, to be posted on our website.
The article was published in the Journal of the Brewery History Society, Brewery History, Issue 156, 2012
Martyn has his own blog, Zythophile – Beer now and then, linked below.
Despite its title the article is quite lengthy and packed with information. Here’s the beginning…
A SHORT HISTORY OF BEER IN HONG KONG by MARTYN CORNELL
Beer arrived in Hong Kong even before Hong Kong became British. In the months before the opening of the First Opium War in late 1839, a fleet of British merchant ships lay anchored off Hong Kong island, there as part of the manouverings and squabblings between London and Beijing over the continuing import by the British of opium from India into China. The fleet was supplied in September that year with ‘good beer’, along with selzer water, ‘moderately good French claret’, bread, pigs and poultry, all sent from Manila 700 miles away to the south: (1) not the last time Manila, Hong Kong and beer would be linked.
Indeed, it is arguable that if there had been more regular supplies of alcohol available in the Pearl River delta area, Britain might never have seized Hong Kong. One of the crucial events leading up to the start of the First Opium War happened a couple of months earlier, on 12 July 1839, when seamen from two sailing ships owned by the British trading company Jardine Matheson, sheltering in the natural harbour between Hong Kong island and the mainland, were on Sunday shore leave on the mainland, Kowloon side. They were joined by others sailors, British and American, and got stuck into the ‘sam shu’, san shao, distilled rice liqueur, in a Kowloon inn. When that ran out, it appears, they moved on to what was then the neighbouring village of ‘Jianshazui’, today the district of Tsim Sha Tsui, in search of fresh supplies. Several houses were raided by the sailors, a Taoist temple vandalised, a fight broke out with the locals, in which, according to one report ‘many of both sexes, including children and women 70 years of age’ were ‘desperately wounded’, (2) and one villager, Lin Weixi, or Wei-hsi, was struck across the chest with a stick, dying the next day. (3 & 4)
The British Chief Superintendant of Trade in China, Captain Charles Elliot, effectively London’s representa- tive in the region, was with the merchant fleet, trying to negotiate with the Chinese over the opium question. He paid Lin’s family 1,500 silver dollars, put up $200 as a reward for evidence leading to the murderer’s convic- tion, and handed out $500 in general bribes to the locals. Elliot also held a court of inquiry into Lin’s death on board one of the ships off Hong Kong. Five sailors were tried for the affray and found guilty of riot, but on the evidence as presented, no murderer could be identified. The British sailors blamed the Americans, who, they said, had drunk more of the san shao.
The Chinese High Commissioner in Canton (today Guangzhou), Lin Zexu (or Tse-Hsu), had been set in March that year by the Emperor of China, Daoguang, to stop the British bringing opium into the country, and had already destroyed more than a thousand tonnes of British opium. With the weight of a proud and ancient nation behind him, he demanded that the British hand over the murderer of Lin Weixi. Elliot refused to hand anybody over, saying it had not been possible to identi- fy who struck the killer blow. In addition, Elliott knew that anyone who was handed over to the Chinese would quite likely simply have been summarily executed – which would have caused outrage back in Britain. In retaliation for this refusal, an angry Lin Zexu ordered his countrymen not to supply the British ships with food or water, poisoned wells known to be used by the British, and told the Portuguese authorities in Macau, the Portuguese-owned settlement on the other side of the Pearl River delta, not to supply the British either, and to drive all British ships there out of the harbour. The Portuguese, who had been in Macau since 1557, complied with Chinese orders. (It appears that one of Lin Zexu’s worries was that the dead man’s ghost might take revenge unless appeased by a victim.) (5)
Lin Zexu’s orders resulted in several skirmishes between British ships and the Chinese fleet in which a number of junks were sunk. The rumbling argument broke out into an official declaration of war in London early the following year, in large part to secure com- pensation for the opium destroyed by Lin, with 4,000 marines and four steam-powered gunboats sent to the Pearl River delta from Singapore. As part of the subse- quent fighting, Elliot, apparently deciding that the Portuguese in Macau could not be trusted and Britain needed its own territorial base in China, seized Hong Kong island in the name of Queen Victoria. This de facto land-grab became de jure in August 1842 with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking that ended the First Opium War and handed Hong Kong officially to Britain.
It could, perhaps, be argued that if the sailors in Hong Kong harbour had had access to supplies of beer, they would never have gone drinking san shao in Kowloon, Lin Weixi would not have died, the Portuguese would not have been forced by the Chinese to bar the British from Macau, and the British would never have decided they needed Hong Kong as a secure home of their own to conduct trade with China from. On the other hand, the natural harbour between Hong Kong island and the mainland – quickly named Victoria Harbour by the British – was a prize worth seizing by anyone.
Whatever might have happened, on 26 January 1841 the British took physical possession of Hong Kong. By April 1842, even before Hong Kong’s capture had been ratified by the Treaty of Nanjing, Alexander Matheson of Jardine Matheson was reporting that beer, porter and pickles were ‘pouring into this market, ten times as much as a whole army could consume’, with the compa- ny’s newly built godown in Hong Kong ‘full of the stuff’. (6) Two years later, on May 1 1844, when the population of Hong Kong Island had soared from some 7,500 fishermen and their families to 20,000 people, an ordinance for licensing public houses ‘within the Colony of Hongkong’ was issued, with licences cost- ing $50 each (that is, 50 silver Mexican dollars, the trading currency in use at the time), increased to $100 a year later. (7)
Quite likely the beer in Hong Kong was being drunk ice-cold, as it was in India and mainland China: an Austrian traveller, Ida Pfeiffer, talking about Canton in the 1840s, wrote: ‘Portuguese wines and English beer are the usual drinks – ice, broken into small, pieces and covered up with a cloth, is offered with each’. (8)
In 1851 just 1,305 barrels of beer and ale were import- ed into HK from the UK: by 1866 this had increased to 11,977 barrels, worth £38,346. (9) The British forces were particularly keen to ensure supplies of beer for the troops stationed in Hong Kong: a parliamentary select committee on ‘the mortality of troops in China’ in 1866 was told that without beer being available the troops would go into town and drink ‘a deadly liquor called samshoo’ (san shao again) which cost four pence for a ‘reputed quart’, a container the size of a wine bottle. However, the committee was told by Colonel William Sankey, who had commanded the 2nd battalion, 9th (East Norfolk) Regiment of Foot in Hong Kong in 1864/65:
When we were, in the middle of the summer, able to purchase porter or beer from the merchants in the town, we had in the canteen a large ice box, and we kept ginger beer and similar draughts, and the soldiers drank a great deal of iced ginger beer with porter or ale mixed with it, and at that time there was very little drunkenness among the men … As long as good and cheap porter remained at the canteen the men always drank there and not in the town.[Sankey also told the committee that] acting on the advice of some of the old medical practitioners in Hong Kong [the men were given at night] a tumbler of beer and some cheese; and we considered that had a very beneficial effect on their health … because at night, when the miasma and damp arises, if a man’s stomach is full he will not suffer so much as he would do otherwise.
In 1867 one local importer Robert S. Walker was advertising Allsopp’s ale, draught and bottled; stout from both London (Barclay Perkins) and Dublin (Guinness); and porter from the London-based bottler J.W. Bridges & Sons [Fig. 1]. (10) The same year ‘Bass’s Pale Ale, in pints’, ‘ex steamer China’ was on sale in the colony, along with London stout in kilderkins, and ‘J and R Tennent’s ale and porter’ (11) (sic – that should be Tennant’s). In March 1868, Lane, Crawford & Co., a Hong Kong retailer founded in 1850 (and still in existence today), was announcing that its ‘first parcel of Bass’ October Brew has arrived, per Chinaman’, (12) while in 1869 Walker now had a draught ale from Younger’s of Edinburgh as well. (13)
Figure 1. China Mail, 2 March 1868, p.1 – Allsopp/Barclay Guinness.
By 1869 English beer ‘of excellent quality’ was being brewed in Shanghai, 900 miles north along the coast, by ‘Messers Evans and Co., who during the season have sold between Shanghai and the outports over 50,000 gallons of beer’, that is, about 1,400 barrels. (14) However, while it very well might have, there is no evidence that Evans’s beer reached Hong Kong. (This mention of Evans’s brewery, incidentally, knocks on the head the claim by Tsingtao to be the first Western brewery in China.)
The colony was importing 7,609 barrels of beer from Britain in 1875, worth £29,684. (15) Brewers from the United Kingdom continued to dominate Hong Kong’s beer trade through to the end of the 19th century – between October 1896 and September 1897, England and Scotland exported 7,686 barrels of beer to Hong Kong, worth £21,424, more than went to either New Zealand (5,076 barrels) or Canada (3,656 barrels).
The end of the 19th century, however, seems to have witnessed a complete change in Hong Kong’s tastes, with British ales and stouts being replaced by lagers from other lands. As early as May 1876 Lane, Crawford was advertising Danish beer from the Tuborgs Fabrikker’, Tuborg then being just three years old. Right underneath that ad in the China Mail was another declaring that the Tudor Ice Company would be retailing its ‘natural ice’ at one cent per pound: at least the Tuborg could be drunk cold. (16) In 1886, beer from the Brauerei Zur Eiche in Kiel, North Germany was being advertised for sale in the colony. (17) By 1896 the Seattle Brewing and Malting Co. had opened an agency for China and Japan in D’Agulier Street, Hong Kong, and was selling ‘Braun’s “Export” Beer’. (18) Lager beer from the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association (brand unstated), presumably imported all the way from St Louis, was on sale in Hong Kong in 1899. (19) Two years later, in 1901, Hongkongers were being offered Kirin from Japan, ‘a delicate lager’, in quarts and pints, and El Capitan ‘Pilsener beer’ from the Pacific brewery in Tacoma, Washington, (20) as well as two more West Coast beers, Weinhard’s from Portland, Oregon, and Rainier’s brewery in Seattle, Washington. (21) In 1905 the China Mail carried an ad for ‘Prinz Ludwig light Pilsener beer’, and by 1906 Augustiner Brau and Kulmbacher Bier from Germany were available in the colony. (22) Meanwhile, by 1900, advertisements for British beers virtually disappear from Hong Kong’s English-language newspapers.
Gradually entrepreneurs around the region were starting breweries to compete with imports from America and Europe. In 1891 Enrique Barretto, ‘an old and wealthy resident’, opened La Fabrica de Cerveza de San Miguel in the district of the same name in Manila, the first in the Philippines. The new San Miguel brewery was using brewing and refrigeration equipment from London, but making beer ‘after the German system’, specifically ‘Culmbacher’ beer to begin with. (23) The malt for the San Miguel brewery came from San Francisco via Hong Kong every 10 days, ‘which will insure its being fresh’.
Malt passing through Hong Kong seems not to have inspired anyone in the colony to start a brewery locally for another nine years or so. In July 1900, however, it was announced by the Straits Times in Singapore that a brewery has just been started by a company at Hongkong. The whole concern will be under the management of Mr W von Moslowsky, a well-known brewer, who has had many years’ practical experience in brewing beer. The working capital is well over 5,000,000 dollars. The number of employès [sic] will be 120, of whom seven are foreigners. The output is estimated at 1,080,000 quart bottles per week. (24)
Figure 2. China Mail, 2 March 1868, p.1 – Lane, Crawford.
That ‘estimated’ output was equal to 7,500 barrels a week, or 390,000 a year, a wildly unlikely figure for a start-up in Hong Kong when the entire population, Chinese and European, only stood at around 284,000, and no more seems to be known of Mr Von Moslowsky. Indeed, he looks to be a figment of the Straits Times’s imagination.
There was certainly no hint of a previous attempt at making beer in the colony in an item that appeared in the China Mail in August 1903 which reported that:
We hear arrangements have been made to start a Brewing Company in Hongkong. As Breweries have been conducted successfully in Manila, Shanghai and in Japan for some years, there seems no reason why a similar success should not attend a Brewing Company in Hongkong, provided it is under able management. The amount of beer that is consumed in Hongkong in the course of a year must be tremendous, and the consumption is more likely to increase than decrease, in spite of the efforts of the Temperance Party. (25)
The concern the China Mail (26) had heard rumours about appears to have been the Hongkong Brewery Company Ltd., which held its first shareholders’ meeting at 15 Queen’s Road, Central on 15 February 1904. The shareholders were told that the company intended to erect a brewery alongside the Metropole Hotel, on the then Shaukiwan Road (now King’s Road) at North Point, some three miles east of what was then Hong King proper, and by what was then the seashore (land recla- mation means that today’s shoreline is some 250 yards further north). The company’s chairman, Mr E.A. Meurer, said the land for the brewery had been bought from Sir Paul Chater, a leading Hong Kong business- man, for $30,000 (that is, British trade dollars, the currency circulating in Hong Kong at the time, which were worth around two shillings each) along with the Metropole Hotel itself, which cost a further $50,000. The site was ‘practically the bed of a watercourse’, which Sir Paul had agreed to divert at his own cost, building a nullah, the Hong Kong term (from Indian English) for a concrete-lined canal, to carry away the water.
Via that watercourse, an ‘abundance of pure, good water, suitable for beer brewing purposes’ ran through the site, Meurer told the shareholders’ meeting:
samples of this water have been submitted to analyses, and have been pronounced to be suitable for the purposes of brewing good beer. Of this water, the company has an abundance for all its purposes, and beyond the expense of laying down pipes to convey it into our brewing vats and tanks it will cost us nothing.
There was also a reservoir at the side of the property and a little higher up, from which the company could draw as much water as would flow through a two-inch pipe, ‘so that we are absolutely safe from a water point of view, even if our brewery develops in time into a very large concern’.
The company had been ‘in communication with an experienced master brewer in Germany, with who we have arranged satisfactory terms,’ Meurer said, and he was:
ready to come out and attend to the building and fitting up of the brewery as soon as we are ready for him to come out. A few months would be sufficient to get our brewery up and at work turning out beer, and the brewer I have spoken of has the reputation of being an experienced brewer. (27)
The company was leasing the Metropole Hotel to a hotelier who had agreed to sell the Hongkong Brewery Company’s draught and bottled beers, Meurer said, and he expected ‘an ample market locally for all the beer we propose to build at first’. But ‘what we need now is money. We want the rest of our shares taken up before we can put up our brewery and commence brewing’.
It seems the money never arrived in sufficient quantities: there is no evidence that any work on building the Hongkong Brewery began, let alone that it ever brewed any beer. On 12 July 1906 the land on which the Metropole Hotel was built was sold for $26,000 at public auction to Mr Ley Sing-kiu. (28) On 16 August 1906 Mr F. Paget Hett, of Bruton and Hett, appeared before the colony’s chief justice on behalf of the Hongkong Brewery Company Ltd. and asked for a winding-up order for the company and leave for it to go into liquidation. The petition was granted, with Messers Bingham and Lowe appointed liquidators. (29) The Metropole Hotel (not to be confused with later hotels of the same name in Hong Kong) disappeared about the same time, and its site is now marked by the 26-storey Metropole Building at 416 King’s Road…
- Hoe, S and Roebuck, D. (1999) The Taking of Hong Kong: Charles and Clara Elliot in China Waters. Richmond: Curzon Press. p.95.
- The New World. (ed. by Benjamin, P.) 18 December 1841, Vol. 3, p.389.
- Hanes, W.T. and Sanello, F. (2002) The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another. Illinois: Sourcebooks. pp.61-63.
- Hoe, S and Roebuck, D. (1999) op. cit. p.85.
- Waley, A. (1968) The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes. Redwood City: Stanford University Press. footnote p.57.
- Fry, P.W. (1998) The Opium War 1840-43. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. pp.324-5.
- Ordinances of Hongkong 1844-65, Hong Kong. (1866) Hong Kong: Legislative Council. p.19.
- Pfeiffer, I. (1850) Eine Frauenfahrt um die Welt (A Woman’s Voyage round the World).London: Williams and Norgate. p.205.
- Annual Statement of the Trade of the United Kingdom with Foreign Countries. (1856) HM Stationery Office. p.307 and McCulloch, J.R. (1871) A dictionary, practical, theoretical, and historical, of commerce and commercial navigation. London: Longmans Green. p.703.
- China Mail. 2 March 1868. p.1.
- 1 Hongkong Daily Press. 28 November 1867. p.1.
- China Mail. 2 March 1868. p.1.
- China Mail. 10 August 1869. p.1.
- London and China Telegraph. Vol. XI, No. 314, 31 May
- Hunt, R. (ed.) (1878) Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures and Mines. London: Longmans, Green & Co. p.99.
- China Mail. 27 May 1876. p.1.
- Hong Kong Daily Press. 25 November 1886. p.8.
- Hong Kong Telegraph. 10 February 1896. p.1.
- China Mail. 25 November 1899. p.1.
- China Mail. 11 March 1901. p.1.
- China Mail. 1 May 1901. pp.4-5.
- China Mail. 19 July 1906. p.1.
- Reports from the Consuls of the United States, United States Bureau of Foreign Commerce. (1890) US Government Printing Office. p.448.
- Straits Times. 3 July 1900. p.2.
- China Mail. 21 August 1903. p.4.
- Hongkong Telegraph. 17 February 1904. p.4.
- The Brewery History Society website The Society was founded in 1972 to promote research into all aspects of the brewing industry, to encourage the interchange of information about breweries and brewing, and to collect photographic and other archive information about brewery history.
- Martyn Cornell’s blog, Zythophile – Beer now and then
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