Ho A-mei – developer and owner of the silver mine, Mui Wo, and HK political activist
The following article has been extracted from the Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography.
The article about Ho A-mei was written by Elizabeth Sinn and first published in the Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography, edited by May Holdsworth and Christopher Munn. The publisher, HK University Press, has kindly granted permission for it to be posted here, but retains copyright over this material from 2012.
Thanks to SCT for proof reading the retyped article, and to Elizabeth Sinn for sending me the Chinese characters for Ho-Amei’s various names.
Ho A-mei 何亞美 （Ho Amei), also Ho Mei-yuk 何美玉， Ho Kwan-shan 何崑山, Ho Hin-chi 何獻墀 b.1838 or 1839, ? Guangdong Province;d.1901. Entrepreneur, community leader.
Orphaned when young, Ho A-mei and his brother A-low attended James Legge’s Anglo-Chinese School in Hong Kong; he was to make use of the English acquired there to earn a comfortable living and social status, and to fight for his many causes. Legge encouraged A-low to emigrate to Melbourne to help convert Chinese emigrants. A-mei went to join his brother in 1858, but, instead of serving the Church, he became an entrepreneur and pioneer, introducing Chinese labourers to New Zealand’s goldfields. He was known for the fierce way he fought against injustice towards fellow Chinese. He married Sarah Foster in 1863 at Sandridge (now called Port Melbourne) and was naturalised in early 1864. They had two daughters, Elizabeth Ann (1864) and Maude May (1865; d. 1866); a petition for divorce by Sarah was granted in 1880.
After ten years’ residence in Melbourne, part of it working in Ballarat, Victoria, he returned to Canton, and worked for six months in the Chinese Maritime Customs.
In 1869 he joined the Hong Kong Registrar General’s office as clerk and interpreter. Constantly on the lookout for business opportunities, he chartered several ships to send Chinese to New Zealand in 1870 and 1871. In 1872 he joined the Provincial Tax Bureau in Canton and established connections with Chinese officials. In 1877 he returned to Hong Kong, where his innovative and modernising spirit was channelled into several enterprises. He became manager of the On Tai Insurance Company, Hong Kong’s first Chinese-operated insurance company and the first Chinese company to be admitted to the General Chamber of Commerce. He maintained a long-standing association with the powerful Li Sing family, who were major shareholders of On Tai and deeply involved with emigration. His enthusiasm for mining led him to float a company to develop two silver mines, one in Huizhou, the other on Lantai Island. He persuaded the Canton authorities that mining would give employment and urged them to establish a bureau of mines. He imported machinery from England and hired a British geologist as general supervisor and a Cornish miner to train and oversea Chinese workers. The Silvermine Bay mine on Lantau was opened in March 1886. He helped to organise the Wa Hop Telegraph Company in 1882: the objective was to build a line from Canton to Kowloon, but when the line reached Sham Shui Po, the colonial government, suspicious of the company’s Russian connections, refused to allow it to cross Boundary Street. Ho also promoted a modern waterworks for Canton that year, but gentry opposition forced its abandonment.
Ho articulated his concerns, and those of the wider Chinese community in Hong Kong, at public meetings and in the press. At his first Chamber of Commerce meeting he proposed asking the Governor to relinquish restrictions on Chinese emigration to Honolulu: he had vested interests in emigration but he also believed that emigration was crucial to Hong Kong’s economic development. His status in Hong Kong rose immensely when he was elected chairman of the Tung Wah Hospital roles as a Hong Kong community leader and as an agent and spokesman of the Chinese authorities became intertwined. During the Sino-French War in 1884, when Chinese workers and shopkeepers in Hong Kong supported China by boycotting the French, Ho A-mei was busy sending telegrams to Chinese officials reporting on French movements and general conditions in Hong Kong. The suspicion held widely among Europeans that the ‘better-class Chinese’ might be keeping close, even subversive, connections with Chinese officials seems to be justified in this case. In 1885 he openly defied the government’s prohibition against direct communications between Hong Kong residents and mainland officials by receiving a tablet scroll bestowed by the Chinese Emperor on the Tung Wah Hospital. He defended his right to do so in a Chinese newspaper, the Huazi ribao. In 1891 he advocated the establishment of a Chinese consul in Hong Kong, a move that the government thought might result in undue Chinese influence and undermine British sovereignty.
During the bubonic plague in 1894, when Governor Robinson forbade Chinese patients to leave Hong Kong, Ho put forward a plan to send them to Canton, and when the plan fell through he denounced the government’s irrational policy in the Hongkong Telegraph. In 1896 he organised a public meeting to push for the abolition of what he considered ‘class legislation’: the discriminatory Light and Pass Regulations, under which Chinese residents of the colony were required to obtain passes and carry lights if they wished to be out of doors after dark. He became chairman of the first Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong and, at its opening in 1896, used the occasion to flaunt his loyalty to China by wearing official Chinese robes and inviting a Chinese imperial mandarin to officiate. In the same year he objected strongly to the government’s attempt to impose a Western doctor on the Tung Wah Hospital, arguing forcefully that it would violate the Hospital’s original purpose to practise only Chinese medicine.
He retired from On Tai in 1989. His last-known public appearance in Hong Kong was on 22 January 1899 at a Chinese Chamber of Commerce meeting. Soon after, he moved to Canton, where he became a leading figure in mining ventures.’
Pauline Rule: The Transformative Effect of Australian Experience on the Life of Ho A Mei, 1838–1901, Hong Kong Community Leader and Entrepreneur,
Abstract: Ho A Mei, one of the earliest young Chinese to receive a thorough English education in the colony of Hong Kong, spent ten difficult years from 1858 to 1868, striving to make a fortune in the gold rush Australian colony of Victoria. Here he learnt much about modern business practices and ventures and also protested against the racial hostility that the Chinese encountered. Eventually after his retreat back to Hong Kong and Guangdong Province, he was successful partly because of his experiences in the advanced capitalist economy of colonial Victoria. This led him to move beyond the mercantile enterprises and property buying, which were key activities of many Hong Kong Chinese businessmen, into the areas of modern financial and telegraph services and mining ventures. He also spoke out frequently in a provocative manner against the colonial government over injustices and discrimination that limited the rights and freedom of the Chinese in Hong Kong. During the 1880s and 1890s, he was a recognized Chinese community leader, one whose assertiveness on behalf of Chinese interests was not always appreciated by the Hong Kong authorities.
Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography, ed M Holdsworth & C Munn, HKU Press, 2012 This wonderful book collects in one volume more than 500 specially commissioned entries on men and women from Hong Kong history.
- Journal of Chinese Overseas (JCO) – Home Page -The Journal of Chinese Overseas (JCO) is an internationally refereed journal published in English twice a year in May and November. It carries academic articles on Chinese overseas worldwide. Topics on places in mainland China , Hong Kong , Macau and Taiwan where the emigrant communities originate, and articles on people of non-Han origins in diaspora who can trace their ancestry to China will also be considered. In addition to well-researched articles, the journal also publishes research reports and book reviews.
This article was first posted on 23rd September 2019.
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