Beer in Hong Kong – Part Five – the Hong Kong Brewery and Distillery Ltd 1936-1947

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. This fifth extract begins in 1936 after the demise of the very similarly named Hong Kong Brewers and Distillers Ltd the previous year:-


The following year, Jehangir Ruttonjee incorporated a new firm under almost exactly the same name, the Hong Kong Brewery and Distillery Ltd., and bought the Sham Tseng brewery from the liquidators, again taking up the post of managing director.(75) The revived operation was sufficiently organised to send an entry to the Brewers’ Exhibition in London in November 1936, where Hong Kong beers competed against others from South Africa and Canada, as well as more than 700 entries from British brewers.(76)

The bottles the brewery used were embossed with its name, and on several occasions it summonsed local soy sauce retailers for using its bottles to distribute their sauce in.(77) Ruttonjee told magistrates that the company put regular advertisements in the colony’s English and Chinese papers warning people against refilling the brewery’s bottles with their own products. The bottles could be returned to the brewery’s depots in Duddell Street or Canton Road, Kowloon or its agents, and refunds were three cents per pint bottle, or four cents for a quart bottle.

In August 1939 the brewery celebrated its sixth anniversary, with a lengthy write-up in the Hongkong Telegraph. The Telegraph’s report revealed that the malt for brewing came from Australia, Canada and Europe, and the hops from Great Britain and ‘the Continent’. It described the landscaped garden, with flowers laid out to depict the words ‘H.B. Brewery’; the dormitories for the Chinese staff, ‘built on the plan of semi-European flats’, with messrooms and cooks; and the separate quarters for the ‘female operatives’ who worked in the bottling hall. The women workers ‘live like girl students in a school dormitory’ under a matron who was also the forewoman during working hours. All the female workers in the bottling hall were required to have ‘a complete tub bath’ twice a day, before starting work in the morning and again in the evening when they left for their quarters.(78)

The Irish Jesuit Fathers who had a study house not far from the brewery, held religious services on the brewery premises every Sunday. Many of the Chinese staff were recruited from Sham Tseng and other villages in the neighbourhood, and ‘the ideal living and working conditions at the Brewery have provided an incentive for them to improve the general lot of their relatives at home. Knowledge of hygiene is thus disseminated into remote households’, the Telegraph wrote. The brewery also had a ‘well-equipped dispensary’ which ‘under the direction of the Government Medical Department’, provided free medical treatment and a midwife for the surrounding villages. The brewery had also undertaken anti-malarial work, ‘and the result is already seen in the improved health of the local inhabitants’, the Telegraph said.(79)

The start of the Second World War seems not to have damaged the brewery’s ability to get raw materials too much, since it was still advertising its Blue Label ‘British Brewed’ lager inside the Hong Kong Sunday Herald on 9 June 1940 when the front page of the newspaper was full of the evacuation of the BEF from the beaches of Dunkirk. At the same time Japanese beer was still being advertised in Hong Kong newspapers. But on 8 December 1941 – in the centenary year of British occupation – four hours after the Japanese had struck at the American fleet in Pearl Harbour, Hong Kong found itself in the front line, when the 20,000-strong 23rd Corps of the Japanese Army threw itself at the 10,000 British and Commonwealth troops defending the colony. The Battle of Hong Kong lasted until Christmas
Day, when the British finally accepted the inevitable and surrendered.(80)

Jehangir Ruttonjee avoided being interned in Stanley Camp after the Japanese victory, though he supported the smuggling of food parcels into the camp, where Indians were interned along with Britons, Canadians and other nationalities, and he housed nearly the entire Hong Kong Parsee community in his home, Dina House, in Duddell Street.(81) Ruttonjee and his son Dhun were badly tortured by the Japanese after they refused to encourage members of the Parsee community to collaborate with the occupiers.(82) Meanwhile the Hong Kong brewery was one of a large number of local businesses, including Lane Crawford’s department store and the Hong Kong Ice Factory in Causeway Bay, that were ‘taken over’ by the occupying Japanese under the new governor, General Rensuke Isogai,(83) with the brewery apparently ‘farmed out’ by Isogai himself to a businessman from Osaka called Inouye Yahei.(84)

Japanese authority in Hong Kong lasted until August 1945, when, after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nakasaki, Japan agreed to end the war on the Allies’ terms. A British fleet under Rear Admiral Cecil Harcourt arrived in Victoria Harbour on 30 August 1945, and the Japanese forces in Hong Kong formally surrendered to Admiral Harcourt on 16 September.(85) Four days before that, on 12 September, Jehangir Ruttonjee, ‘accompanied by Royal Navy officers’, had travelled out to the Hong Kong brewery to see what sort of state it was in. Ironically, the worst damage had been caused by the United States Air Force ‘some months’ earlier, when a bombing raid in the near vicinity had scored hits on the brewery site. The China Mail reported that ‘some barrels of recently brewed beer’ were discovered by Ruttonjee and the RN officers, indicating that Yahei or his successors had been busy, ‘but these were found to have soured’.(86)


The brewery seems to have recovered within a few months from the occupation, with Jehangir Ruttonjee back in charge. By September 1946 its HB brand beer was on sale, since it appears in the official government list of price-controlled goods: HK$1.10 a pint in the shops, HK$1.50 a pint in a pub or bar. For comparison, Carlsberg, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Schlitz, ‘Kangaroo’ and Tuborg were all HK$1.70 a pint in a bar.(87)

In March 1947 Ruttonjee – who had been awarded the CBE in the 1947 New Year’s Honours List ‘for courageous and loyal services during the enemy occupation of Hong Kong’ (88) – was visited by the author Compton Mackenzie, who described him as ‘the owner of the Kowloon brewery, a wealthy and respected Parsee’.(89)

That year, however, the brewery was sold to the San Miguel Brewery Inc., the Philippines brewer.(90) It looks to have taken some months to sort out the handover, because the inauguration of the new San Miguel brewery was not marked until the following year, on 21 May 1948, with a reception at the Hongkong Hotel…to be continued


75. Hong Kong Daily Press. 16 March 1938. p.2.
76. The Times. 5 November 1936. p.11.
77. Hong Kong Daily Press. 12 March 1938. p.2 and 16
March 1938. p.2.
78. Hongkong Telegraph. 16 August 1939. p.4.
79. ibid.
80. Tsang, S. (2007) A Modern History of Hong Kong.
London: IB Taurus. pp.121-4.
81. McCabe, I.B. et. al (2005) op. cit. p.253.
82. Wordie, J. (2002) Streets: Exploring Hong Kong Island.
hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. p.128.
83. Snow, P. (2004) The Fall Of Hong Kong: Britain, China
and the Japanese Occupation. New Haven: Yale University
Press. p.156.
84. ibid. p.396.
85. Tsang, S. (2007) op. cit. p.138.
86. China Mail. 13 September 1945. p.1.
87. China Mail. 2 September 1946. p.5.
88. Supplement to the London Gazette. 1 January 1947. p.21.
89. Mackenzie, C. (1948) All Over the Place: fifty thousand
miles by sea, air, road and rail. London: Chatto and Windus.
90. China Mail, Mail. 25 October 1950. p.2.

This article was first posted on 28th November 2016.


  1. 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.
  2. Martyn Cornell’s blog, Zythophile – Beer now and then

Related Indhhk articles:

  1. Beer in Hong Kong – Part One – the early days up to the planned opening of its first brewery
  2. Beer in Hong Kong – Part Two – The Imperial Brewing Company Ltd
  3. Beer in Hong Kong – Part Three – The Oriental Brewery 1908-1912
  4. Beer in Hong Kong – Part Four – The Hong Kong Brewers and Distillers Ltd 1930-1935
  5. Beer in Hong Kong – Part Six – the San Miguel Breweries at Sham Tseng and Yuen Long
  6. Beer in Hong Kong – Part Seven – Carlsberg brewery, Tai Po – opened 1981
  7. Oriental Brewery – “The beer that’s brewed to suit the climate”
  8. Hong Kong Brewers and Distillers -The Opening of the Sham Tseng Brewery
  9. Hong Kong Brewers and Distillers – The Sham Tseng Brewery 1930-1935
  10. Lady Southorn’s hop shovel – Hongkong Brewers & Distillers 1934
  11. The Imperial Brewing Company formed 1905, commenced operations 1907
  12. Wo Fat Hing Distillery, Lung Wo village



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