Sir Robert Hormus Kotewall, founder of R.H.Kotewall & Co. and connected to many other Hong Kong companies
HF: The following article about Robert Kotewall was written by John M. Carroll 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. I am including this biography on our website because of Kotewall’s extensive business interests though he had an “interesting” life.
Thanks to SCT for proof reading the retyped article.
Kotewall, Sir Robert Hormus, also Lo Yuk-wo 羅旭龢, JP (1913), hon. LLD (University of Hong Kong, 1926) CMG (1927), Knight (1938) b. 14 February 1880, Hong Kong; d. 23 May 1949, Hong Kong. Businessman and community leader.
The son of Cheung A-cheung (Ching Yung Kan) and Homaje Kotwaj, a Parsee merchant who came to Hong Kong in the mid-19th century, Robert Hormus Kotewall was educated at the Diocesan Boys’ School and Queen’s College. Forced to leave school in order to support his family after his father died, Kotewall began work at the age of 16 as a junior clerk in the Police Department after obtaining first place in a competitive examination. He rose quickly in the government, often filling positions previously held only by Europeans, including first clerk in the Colonial Secretariat, first clerk of the Magistracy, and acting chief clerk of the Government Service.
Kotewall left government service in 1916 to set up a firm trading in imported textiles and paper. This firm, R.H. Kotewall & Co., flourished, and he became the director of several other companies, including Wo Shing, Chinese Estates, Hong Kong Telephone, Nanyang Brothers Tobacco, China Provident Loan and Mortgage, Hongkong and Yaumati Ferry, Shui On Wing & Co., China Motor Bus, and Kowloon Motor Bus. He was a director of the Chinese Club, Chinese Recreation Club, Chinese Merchants Club, and the South China Athletic Association. In community affairs, he played active roles in the Society for the Protection of Children, the St John’s Ambulance Society, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, and the Aberdeen Industrial School, which he co-founded. Kotewall strived to improve relations between Europeans and Chinese. He was a co-founder of the Hong Kong branches of the Rotary Club and the League of Nations Society, the League of Fellowship (1921), which sought to ‘promote good fellowship within the Colony, irrespective of race, class and creed’, and, with Bella Southorn, the Women’s International Club. He also served on the Tung Wah Hospital Advisory Board, Po Leung Kuk Committee, District Watch Committee, Housing Commission, and the Chinese Public Dispensaries Committee.
Kotewall had a long political career, beginning with his appointment in 1923 as acting unofficial member of the Legislative Council. Although colonial officials often insisted that Eurasians and other mixed-race persons were despised by the ‘pure’ Chinese and thus not suitable for positions in the two colonial councils, Kotewall appears to have been widely respected by Hong Kong’s different communities. He served three consecutive terms as unofficial member of the Legislative Council (1923-36) and two terms on the Executive Council (1936-41). In 1923 he served on a committee to investigate the opium monopoly in Hong Kong, an important source of government revenue. Faced with criticism from the United States in 1923 for not abolishing colonial opium monopolies, in compliance with the provisions of the 1912 Hague Convention, the Colonial Office had asked governors of Britain’s South-East Asian colonies to form investigative committees. The committee concluded that abolishing the monopoly was not feasible.
Kotewall especially distinguished himself during the 1925-26 strike-boycott, when he and Chow Shousan helped the government prevent the strike from crippling Hong Kong’s economy. A gifted orator, Kotewall presented a plan for a trade loan of $30,000,000 from the British government. As the loan helped keep the colony from going under, Kotewall’s speech calling for the loan became known in the Hong Kong press as the ‘$30,000,000 speech’. He and Chow led an intensive propaganda campaign against what they considered the ‘Bolshevik threat’. They formed the Counter-Propaganda Bureau, which put up posters and distributed leaflets encouraging the population to resist the strikers, and the Kung Sheung Yat Po (Industrial and Commercial Daily Press), a counter-propaganda newspaper circulated in Hong Kong and among overseas Chinese. Despite some concerns in the Colonial Office, they also persuaded the Hong Kong government to establish the Labour Protection Bureau, a secret organisation formed to protect labourers from intimidation, and to launch a counter-attack against intimidators. The two convinced the Tung Wah Hospital Committee to raise $50,000 for the warlord, Wei Bangping, to lead a coup against the Canton regime. Kotewall’s life was threatened during the strike, as was his son’s. For his assistance to the government during the strike-boycott, he was appointed CMG; he was knighted in 1938.
Although Kotewall took great pride in having accomplished so much without having a college diploma, he was deeply committed to scholarship and learning. He maintained a large library of Chinese and English-language works in his home, and was a member of the Court of the University of Hong Kong, from which he received an honorary LLD in 1926. Over a number of years he worked with Norman L. Smith on translations of Chinese poetry, selecting what they liked from 600 BC to the early 20th century; the selection was published by Penguin in 1962. Fully bicultural and bilingual, he believed in the value of the Chinese classics in maintaining social harmony. During the strike-boycott of 1925-26, for example, he recommended that more emphasis in schools be placed Confucianism as an antidote to the revolutionary nationalism engulfing China. The prominent intellectual Hu Shi, who visited Hong Kong shortly after the strike-boycott, was impressed by how Kotewall and other local community leaders were eager to help the colonial government improve the teaching of Chinese studies, but was disappointed by their conservative approach to Chinese studies.
During the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, Kotewall served first on the interim Rehabilitation Advisory Committee and then on the Chinese Representative Council and Chinese Cooperative Council, the two councils established by the Japanese for managing the Chinese population. In January 1942, as chair of the Rehabilitation Advisory Committee, he urged the Japanese not to raise tram fares and rates on water and electricity. Some of the Europeans interned in Hong Kong during the war later criticised Kotewall and other local leaders for being too compliant with the Japanese, while some Nationalist Chinese wanted them tried and executed for treason. Particular attention was drawn to a luncheon held by Lieutenant General Sakai Takashi in January 1942 at the Peninsula Hotel, where Kotewall praised the Japanese forces and wished their emperor ‘banzai‘. In February 1942 he and Chow presided at a ceremony to welcome Isogai Rensuke, whose distribution of rice Kotewall compared to the ‘gesture of a father towards his children’. On Christmas Day 1943 Kotewall gave a radio broadcast in honour of the second anniversary of the Japanese occupation. However, by 1944, as it became clear that the Japanese were losing the war, Kotewall and other local leaders began to avoid their duties on the two Chinese councils, and Kotewall withdrew from public life, citing poor health. Shortly after Japan surrended in August 1945, he and Chow began to work with the Japanese towards a smooth return to British rule.
Kotewall always maintained that he was innocent of any wrongdoing. He insisted that he had helped to stop four ‘dangerous and troublesome’ proposals made by local Chinese sympathetic to the Japanese: a goodwill mission to Japan sponsored by the two Chinese councils, a gift of two warplanes to Japan by the Chinese community of Hong Kong, a mass demonstration against Allied bombings, and a campaign to advocate peace between China and Japan. He also claimed to have helped prevent a ‘wholesale massacre’ of the local British population during the Japanese invasion in December 1941. In late 1945 three colonial officials (R.A.C. North, Secretary for Chinese Affairs and former Acting Governor; J.A. Fraser, Secretary for Defence; and Sir Chaloner Grenville Alabaster, Attorney General) testified that they had met secretly with Kotewall and Chow shortly before the fall of Hong Kong, requesting the two to cooperate with the Japanese to protect the interests of the Chinese community. Still, in October 1945 Kotewall was asked by Rear Admiral Cecil Harcourt to withdraw from public life until his wartime record could be fully cleared. He was barred from attending meetings of the interim military government’s new Chinese Advisory Council.
The Colonial Office eventually decided that Kotewall had been acting in the colony’s best interests. He was exonerated in spring 1946 of any pro-Japanese activities, and later received letters of appreciation from North, Harcourt and Governor Sir Mark Young. As Harcourt wrote in a confidential letter, ‘your directions were to stand by the Chinese community, even though this might involve the appearance of co-operation with the Japanese’. Nevertheless, when the colonial civil government was restored in May 1946, Kotewall resigned from the Executive Council, ostensibly for health reasons. He never returned to public life, and died in May 1949 of heart failure. He and his wife, Edith, née Lowcock (1889-1936), had eight daughters and one son.
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.gwulo
This article was first posted on 14th May 2020.
A selection of biographies published in the Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography which have been posted on our website:
- Ann Tse-kai Hong Kong industrialist, established Winsor Industrial Ltd textile manufacturing
- Sir John Douglas Clague – connected to a wide array of Hong Kong businesses and lobbyist for the first Cross Harbour tunnel
- John Bell-Irving, Jardines’ Hong Kong taipan 1886 and business partner of Sir Paul Chater
- Douglas Lapraik – watchmaker, shipowner and co-founder of the Hongkong & Whampoa Dock Company
- Augustine Heard & Company, major American 19th century China trading house with its headquarters in Hong Kong from 1856
- Sir Shouson Chow – director of many Hong Kong firms and corporations
- Noel Croucher – philanthropist and director of Green Island Cement and Hong Kong and China Gas