The Private Life of Old Hong Kong

While doing research for The Admiral’s Wife, I wondered if I might find a diary or two that would illuminate the early 1900s of Hong Kong. Lo and behold, I stumbled upon The Private Life of Old Hong Kong by Susanna Hoe which did just that.

Hoe’s subtitle is Western Women in The British Colony 1841 – 1941.

As she writes in the preface, “women lived a private, not a public life” for much of that time and that their “most outstanding value was that of mutual support.”

As you might imagine, I concentrated my reading on the time period most relevant to The Admiral’s Wife’s historical time period of 1912-1914. Isabella Bird (photo source South China Morning Post), a fascinating woman who travelled the world and arrived in Hong Kong in 1878 (well before my time period) offered this rather critical observation:

Victoria [the British name for the city at the time] is, or should be, well known, so I will not describe its cliques, its boundless hospitalities, its extravagances in living, its quarrels, its gaieties, its picnics, balls, regattas, races, dinner parties, lawn tennis parties, amateur theatricals, afternoon

teas, and all its other modes of creating a whirl which passes for pleasure or occupation.”

Some of the women wrote of the unbearable heat of Hong Kong, confessing to wearing Chinese short dress and trousers at home during the day along with Chinese-style slippers, exclaiming that “crinoline and stays are unbearable.”

Many of the women were involved in good works – the Hong Kong Ladies Benevolent Society, supporting army wives, raising money for the needy, donating to missionaries, finding proper work for women who’d become ensnared by prostitution, visiting women in prison. However, none of them had any contact with their Chinese counterparts.

Apparently, in 1912 the YWCA had to close and Helena May, wife of the Governor of Hong Kong, was the force behind building a new facility to provide “affordable, comfortable accommodation for single, European women.” I incorporated this effort into The Admiral’s Wife as part of Isabel Taylor’s introduction to and involvement with British female society in Hong Kong. Similarly, a chapter titled ‘Big Ladies’ which described the pecking order amongst British women, a pecking order that aligned with their husband’s roles, was the inspiration for some of Isabel’s activities and responsibilities.

Another insight helped me understand the life and expectations of the admiral and his wife:

Hong Kong was very protocol-minded and the heads of firms and senior government officials were extremely conscious of their positions and demanded proper respect from their juniors which we dutifully gave.”

As always, inspiration comes from many places and often unexpectedly!


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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