The Hong Kong elite
Christopher Munn and May Holdsworth tell Matt Fleming their dictionary of who’s who in the city took years to complete
Hundreds of thousands of people have helped build Hong Kong over the years. The governors, the lawyers, the tycoons, the architects, the film stars. They have all contributed to the success of this great city. However, only a handful of people have made epic, long-lasting impacts – and they have all earned their place in The Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography, a Hong Kong University Press offering which has just been published.
Editors Christopher Munn and May Holdsworth have worked with 90 contributors to create the dictionary, which charts more than 500 profiles of all those who have made a significant impact on the fragrant harbour. It’s the city’s first such book which reads as a who’s who of HK history from about the fifth century AD. Munn and Holdsworth, both historians and writers, include all the big names (the only stipulation being that they’re all dead) – and they believe it will be useful to historians, researchers and ‘the general reader’ who can ‘dip into it for enjoyment and interest’.
“It’s a dictionary of short biographies of men and women who have been important or representative in Hong Kong’s history,” says Munn. “The HKU Press commissioned us to take on this project some years ago. We knew it would be a book that people would want to have. Hong Kong has an interesting history full of colourful characters from all parts of the world. There have been many good general and specific histories of the city – but a handy book containing a cross-section of leading and representative personalities seemed to be lacking.”
Munn and Holdsworth say the book took several years to complete. “We commissioned entries from 90 contributors,” says Holdsworth, “some of them working in their spare time. Our role was to finalise the list of entries, find contributors willing to write them and then edit the entries to a consistent standard. Between us we wrote over a hundred of the entries.”
Holdsworth says Bruce Lee is her favourite entry. “I also have a soft spot for a stunningly reckless speculator who would put many of today’s stock-market gamblers in the shade,” she adds. “Lo Hok-pang, the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation’s comprador in the late 19th century, provided unsecured credit to native banks in which he had shares and then used the borrowed funds himself to invest in what turned out to be highly risky ventures. He lost more than a million dollars of the bank’s money and had to decamp to Guangdong, where he died.”
Munn says Ng Akew, a woman from humble origins who became a mistress of an American in Guangzhou in the 19th century, is one of his favourites. After the American abandoned Ng, she moved to Hong Kong, went into business with other women and made a successful life for herself.
And the dictionary doesn’t just end with this grand publication. “We hope that there will be a second, expanded edition in a few years time,” says Munn, “and we welcome suggestions about who should go in it. It won’t just be about the people who have died since the first edition but also about those we may have missed in the first edition.” They missed some key people in the book? Open the pages and start the witch-hunt now…
The Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography is published by HKU Press, priced at $495.