Use of convict labour to construct roads in Hong Kong

Tymon Mellor: In the early days of the Colony, convicted criminals were subjected to a harsh regime of beatings and manual labour. In particular, convict teams were used to construct the new roads required for the expanding economy.

The first Chief Magistrate for the territory, Captain William Caine, an army officer familiar with military discipline, was appointed on the 30 April 1841. He took the view that the English law was unintelligible to the Chinese and so he needed to adopt a punitive approach to assert his authority. This approach was endorsed in 1844 with Ordinances giving the Supreme Court and Magistrates the power to punish Chinese subjects in accordance with the laws of China[i].

Prison sentences varied in length from two days to four years. Chinese prisoners were supplied with rice and were occasionally given salt fish or vegetables, while stream water from the hills was also provided. Clothing and bedding was not made available by the prison authorities, except for a quantity of jackets, which were furnished to protect them from the cold during the winter. Many prisoners were sentenced to hard labour and employed mainly on the roads, starting at 6:00am in the morning to return at 5:00pm in the afternoon with the exception of Sundays. The labouring convicts were kept in leg irons and had a one-hour break for breakfast and lunch[ii].

Little information remains of the convicts’ works. However, there are drawings for a proposal in 1846 for the construction of the roads forming Ice House Street, Duddell Street, Zetland Street and Wyndham Street[iii]. The drawings are noted as Report and Estimate No. 10, suggesting the same approach had been used on nine earlier projects. The works involved the levelling of the site, installation of drainage culverts and the construction of the roads.

Road Constructed Convict Labour Plan

In 1846, Victoria Prison had a population of 588 inmates, 129 “Whites” and 459 “Blacks or Coloured Persons”, seven being women and the remainder men[iv] out of a total population of 21,067 in Victoria and surrounding villages. The Chinese prisoners were required to work as chained-gangs, and the records identify 327 of them as “At Hard Labour out of the Prison”. Conditions were harsh and many suffered from ulcers of the feet and legs, as reported by the Colonial Surgeon in 1867:

“Extensive ulcers of the feet and legs terminating not unfrequently in death formed almost an epidemic at one time. 281 prisoners were admitted into Hospital of whom 16 died. This disease became so alarming in its extent that His Excellency the Governor ordered an enquiry to be made by the Police Magistrates and myself, and the result of our enquiry proved these sores to be in the great majority of cases self inflicted, for the purpose of escaping from the, to them objectionable, system of chain gang work which had lately been adopted. It was however found that by punishing every case of well proved self inflicted injury and compelling those who had thus hurt themselves to march down and break stones in some public locality, with boards specifying their crimes placed in front of them, what threatened to be an epidemic soon diminished and has now nearly disappeared. Of those who died the great majority refused to submit to amputation and perished from mortification or the extreme prostration of the system consequent on the great drain produced by the extensive ulceration.”[v]

Road Constructed Convict Labour

Within the modern prison environment, all convicted prisoners are required to engage in work, but hopefully without the leg chains.


[i] ‘A paradise for rascals’: Colonialism, punishment and the prison in Hong Kong (1841-1898), Frank Dikötter (2004)

[ii] The history of the laws and courts of Hongkong, tracing consular jurisdiction in China and Japan and including parliamentary debates, and the rise, progress, and successive changes in the various public institutions of the colony from the earliest period to the present time, By James William Norton-Kyshe (1898)

[iii] Roads to be formed by Convict Labour, Report and Estimate No. 10 of 1846, 12 November,1846, Government Record Services

[iv] Blue Book 1846 Gaols and Prisoners

[v] The Hong Kong Government Gazette, Colonial Surgeon’s Report, 23rd March 1867

This article was first posted on 27th May 2022.

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