Mui Wo Silver Mine – Part One – The Owner
Tymon Mellor: The former mine at, and which was to give its name to, Mui Wo or Silvermine Bay, was arguably one of the most important mines in Southern China at the end of the nineteenth century. It was developed using private money and was a showcase of modern technology. It was hoped this would be the start of a process to modernise the Chinese mining industry and to bring modern business ventures into imperial China.
The mine was promoted and developed by Mr Ho A Mei, a local Hong Kong entrepreneur and social activist. The mine and associated processing facility operated from 1886 to just before the turn of the century, extracting the mineral Galena from the local hillsides. The first part of this article describes the life of Mr Ho and how he came to develop the mine, and the second part will describe the mine and mineral processing facility.
The mine owner Mr Ho A Mei, was born in 1838 in Nanhai county, Guangdong. His father was a wood block carver for the press of the Anglo-Chinese College at the Congregationalist London Missionary Society. Following the Treaty of Nanking (1842), Hong Kong was opened to foreigners and Mr Ho moved to Hong Kong to complete his schooling at the Anglo-Chinese College by 1845.
Mr Ho and his brother Ho A Low, learned both English and Chinese, and did so well they joined a party travelling to England with the school head in 1846 and enjoyed a private audience with Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. With the support of the church and a good command of English, the Ho boys were treated with a high degree of respect.
By 1850 Mr Ho had joined the Royal Navy as an interpreter on board the naval ships and was part of the British battles with the Chinese fleet in the Pearl River. At the age of 20, he left the Navy for a new life in Melbourne, Australia, as employment opportunities in Hong Kong were suffering as a result of hostilities between China and Britain, but with the development of the Australian gold fields, there were new opportunities for both preachers and managers. He joined his brother, who was a preacher in the gold fields and later became a Government interpreter.
Mr Ho’s brother Ho A Low had been helping the authorities to address the problems of attacks on Chinese miners, and assisted by Ho A Mei they became active in promoting Chinese miners’ rights and fighting against the Government’s discrimination of Chinese nationals. Mr Ho took up work with local merchants and also undertook translating work for the courts. The latter was not a great success as he was sacked when he fell out with the Resident Warden, James Taylor when he “acted more as Counsel for the prisoners”, above his duties as a translator. He returned to working for Chinese merchants and by August, 1863 was sufficiently prosperous to marry Sarah Foster, a nineteen-year-old ‘Yorkshire lass’. Sarah was an independent and strong-minded young woman, and ultimately may be the only woman in 19th century Australia to have divorced two husbands!
In 1865, Victoria Australia, experienced another gold rush and Mr Ho invested large sums of money in a number of mining companies. His investments were more like gambles and he probably lost money, but he gained considerable mining knowledge that he would later put to use in southern China.
During 1865 to 1866 Mr Ho A Mei was invited to New Zealand to assist the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce in recruiting Chinese miners from Australia. The European diggers had left the mine working but the Chamber of Commerce thought there would be financial merit to work over the old alluvial diggings in Otago. Mr Ho had limited success sending miners from Australia, but caused a stir within the Dunedin community, with the local press recording the events with a cartoon.
On returning to Hong Kong in August 1868 he joined the Hong Kong Government in the Register General’s Department, but after two years, he left to join Hoppo, the Administrator of the Canton Customs, 1871. He also became an immigration agent; sending over 400 miners to New Zealand during 1871. In the same year his marriage to Sarah Foster collapsed as he spent his time shuttling between Hong Kong and Canton (‘Guangzhou’). He abandoned his Christianity, took a new Chinese wife in Hong Kong and acquired a concubine in Canton, both of whom bore him children.
After working in Canton, he returned to Hong Kong in 1877 where his enterprising spirit was channelled into a number of new ventures, including mining and being a manager of the On Tai Insurance Company. The latter was the first Chinese operated insurance company and also the first Chinese company to be admitted in to the General Chamber of Commerce. He also assisted in the development of the telegraph line between Hong Kong and Canton for the Wa Hop Telegraph Company in 1882. The line had to be terminated at Boundary Street when the Colonial Government would not let it cross over as they were suspicious of Russian connections with the company.
Mr Ho became more active in local politics and his status was enhanced when he was elected chairman of the Tung Wah Hospital in 1882 and the Po Leung Kuk in 1883. He promoted and maintained close contacts with China, and in 1891 advocated a Chinese consulate in Hong Kong. The Colonial Government was not supportive, being concerned about the influence this would have on the local Chinese population.
During the bubonic plague of 1894, Mr Ho proposed sending the sick to Canton for treatment, but this was rejected by the Hong Kong Government. He also objected to the discriminatory ‘Light and Pass Regulations’, whereby Chinese residents were required to obtain passes and carry lights if they wished to be outside after dark.
In 1896 he became the first chairman of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, using the opening to show his support for China by wearing official Chinese robes and inviting a Chinese imperial mandarin to officiate. He continued to promote Chinese interests, much to the frustration of the authorities. In 1898 he retired from the On Tai Insurance Company and moved back to Canton in 1899 to continue is mining ventures until his death in 1901.
The Mining Empire
During the course of his service in Canton, the presence of pure mineral ores from Wing On district in Wei Chow Prefecture caught his attention. The mine had been worked by the Chinese Government, but lost large sums of money trying to deal with water entering the workings.
From his experience in Australia, Mr Ho was convinced that with the correct approach the mine could be profitably worked. After a visit to see Viceroy Chang, he received permission in the form of a proclamation to work the mine. However, the provincial authorities were not keen and Mr Ho abandoned his plans, but a group of Chinese friends took up the mine and with a capital of $8,000 recommenced mining operations. However, by the time they had pumped the water out, the capital was spent so the mine was abandoned once more.
Mr Ho continued to explore mining opportunities, undertaking prospecting in Ching Yune, Ying Tak, Ling Chow, Chung Fa in Hainan where he collected samples for analysis to confirm the presence of mineral deposits.
In 1881 a silver mine at Tamchow, Canton (Huìzhōu) was brought to his attention. The mine had been worked since the 1850’s and yielded a good return, but the mine was now flooded. It did not seem a good prospect so Mr Ho did not follow up on the proposal. However, in 1883 a stone cutter struck a 25mm wide mineral vein, about 800m from the original mine. Mr Ho visited the site and took samples for assay in London, and the results concluded the ore would yield around 13% of silver.
This convinced Mr Ho that the mineral vein was both extensive and high in silver and that the mineral had not been exhausted. Mr Ho bought the mine site for a cash payment of $10,000 and gained approval from the Board of Revenue and Imperial sanction to work the mine. Shortly after this, the Mui Wo mine was also brought to his attention. Mr Ho and a few friends visited the site and “took a little black powder with him, and blasted away the surface of the rock”. The results indicated that minerals were present and from his experience in Australia he knew the quality of ore would improve with depth.
Mr Ho contacted the owner of Lantau Island to rent the land of $2,000 a year and applied to the provincial Government of Canton for permission to work the mine. Viceroy Chang and Governor Yu gave permission to operate the mine for the standard fee, being a royalty of 10% of the earnings.
By chance, Professor Milne, a seismologist based in Japan, was visiting Hong Kong and Mr Ho took him to look at both the Tamchow and the Mui Wo mines. Professor Milne took samples from both sites back to Japan for analysis and provided a report for Mr Ho on each mine. He confirmed the Tamchow mine ore had about 13% silver and the Mui Wo mine 5%. Professor Milne recommended the Mui Wo mine be developed as “You have the advantage of water there and can work it very economically, and if the load is continuous it will be a very paying thing”.
Based on this advice, Mr Ho started the Tien Wah Mining Company with a capital of $10,000 and with the assistance of the company ‘Haines Batchelor and Co’ based in London, he recruited the services of T E Candler FGS, an experienced geologist and mining engineer. Other European miners were recruited to assist in the development of the mine and processing facility.
Upon Mr Chandler’s arrival in China in early 1884, he was taken to the Tamchow mine and he agreed it should be developed given the high silver content. By May 1884, two out of the five original shafts were operational again, viz. shaft “one” which was 90m deep and shaft “three” which was 56m deep, and a cross adit had been constructed between the two. Water management and lifting within the shaft was achieved using the power from ‘Robey and Co’ steam engines. Within the cross adit several mineral veins between 25mm and 200mm in thickness were encountered, indicating that the mine could produce high grade ore with little further development.
With the prospect of mineral production secured, the matter of processing and smelting the ore needed to be addressed. Mr Chandler’s initial proposal was to send the ore to England for processing, but the Chinese authorities would not allow un-processed ore to leave China. Thus, it was necessary to establish a processing facility in China. The obvious choice was to build the facility at the Tamchow mine, but this was not possible due to objections from villagers and there was also the risk of the site being plundered by pirates.
In January 1886 Mr Candler visited the Mui Wo site to see the prospective galena mine. He immediately realised that the galena from the Mui Wo mine could be jointly exploited with the extraction of silver from the Tamchow ore. The site also provided good sea access necessary for the delivery of coal to power the steam engines, for the delivery of ore from Tamchow, and for the shipping of the finished products.
Thus, on the 28th March 1886 with scores of European and Chinese guests invited to witness the first blast at the site, the Mui Wo mine was inaugurated.
Mr Ho continued his interest in mines, and by 1886 had four mines in his portfolio, as described in this advert in the China Mail, 1 October,1886.
In 1889, Mr Ho was given permission to commence operation of a galena mine in Hainan Island. The mineral resources of Hainan had been well known since medieval times but the richest deposits were located in the central mountains, within the lands controlled by the Li tribesmen. Mines had opened but ran into many problems, ranging from restricted access to foreign steamers to poor mine management resulting in tunnel collapses claiming the lives of a hundred workers. Smaller mines extracting tin, gold and silver were also prone to cave-ins, particularly in the wet season. The situation was not helped by the locals forcibly stopping mining work for fear that the earth would take revenge for the removal of the minerals.
During the opening of the mineral processing plant at Mui Wo on the 19th April, 1888 Mr Ho noted “I have come to the conclusion that the mineral resources in the provinces of Canton, Kwangsi, Kwai-chow, and Yuminan are inexhaustible, and with capital, patience, and good management could be worked easily and mode to pay handsomely”. Mr Ho saw mining as an opportunity for the whole of China, and that this was something that would allow Chinese miners to stay at home rather than adventure abroad to “find a cold welcome”. At the opening of the mineral processing facility in 1888 he hoped that his enterprise would “stimulate my countrymen to promote further undertaking, such as railways, water-works, shipping docks, gun factories etc, which are needed in China”.
During the development of the Mui Wo mine Mr Ho proposed to the Viceroy of Canton to establish an Office of Mines where mining licences could be obtained. The office opened in early 1886 with two Superintendents of Mines, Messrs La and Pang, neither of whom had experience in mining.
The only photo I could find of a silver mine in China was this from “Khitchung” from 1910 (Basel Mission Archives).
This article was first posted on 5th June 2017.
- The Transformative Effect of Australian Experience on the Life of Ho A Mei, 1838–1901, Hong Kong Community Leader and Entrepreneur, Pauline Rule, Journal of Chinese Overseas, Volume 9, Issue 2, 2013
- Chinese Australians: Politics, Engagement and Resistance, Chapter One
The Transformative Effect of Australian Experience on the Life of Ho A Mei, Hong Kong Community Leader and Entrepreneur, Pauline Rule, 2015
- Otago Witness, Volume 24, Issue 1021, 24 June 1871
- Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography, Ho A-mei by Elizabeth Sinn
- Basel Mission Archives
- Hainan Island: A Brief Historical Sketch by D L Michalk
- The China Mail, 1st October 1886
- The Hongkong Telegraph, 29th August, 1889
- Mine Images https://www.eggstudio.com/
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