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Middlemen, Colonial Officials, and Corruption: The rise and fall of government compradors in Hong Kong, 1840s–1850s

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 June 2018

Making Asia Project, Department of History, University of Bristol, UK Email:


Exploring the rise and fall of government compradors, this article highlights Sino-British collusion in the corruption and extortion cases of the Hong Kong colonial government in the 1840s and the 1850s. A number of compradors worked for the Hong Kong colonial government throughout the nineteenth century, acting as a key communication channel between Chinese residents and colonial officials in the formative years of the colony. Various institutions of the colonial government, for instance the Colonial Treasury, Post Office, and British military, employed compradors. Colonial officials also personally employed compradors, who supported their principals’ work in the government. However, a symbiotic relationship between corrupt colonial officials and compradors had become a public problem by the mid-1850s. The colonial government responded to this by diversifying its Chinese staff rather than depending on monopolistic compradors, and also launched a scheme to nurture and employ British personnel who could act as intermediaries between the British and Chinese communities. At the same time, different kinds of Chinese intermediary elites emerged in Hong Kong from the 1860s onwards, and government compradors’ monopolistic authority in mediating between colonial officials and the Chinese public gradually declined. The volatile government comprador system highlights a key phase in the history of the evolution of the comprador system in Hong Kong.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

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1 A comprador is an occupational title for a Chinese intermediary, employed by a foreign firm in nineteenth- and twentieth-century China. ‘Comprador’ does not refer to indigenous collaborators with foreign imperial powers. This article focuses on the Chinese middlemen who held the occupational title of ‘comprador’ at least once in their careers. It does not focus on other types of Chinese middlemen working with foreigners in modern China. I have avoided using ideological concepts of the ‘comprador class’ or ‘comprador bourgeoisie’, in order to understand the compradors from a more neutral perspective.

2 For instance, see Po-Keung, Hui, ‘Comprador Politics and Middleman Capitalism’ in Tak-Wing, Ngo, Hong Kong's History: State and Society Under Colonial Rule (London; New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 3045Google Scholar; Hongtai, Zheng 鄭宏泰 and Siu-lun, Wong 黃紹倫, Xianggang dalao: He Dong 香港大老: 何東 (The Grand Old Man of Hong Kong: Robert Hotung), (Hong Kong: Sanlian shudian, 2007)Google Scholar.

3 Regarding earlier research on the compradors working for foreign companies, see Yen-p'ing, Hao, The Comprador in Nineteenth Century China: Bridge Between East and West (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1970)Google Scholar; Eiichi, Motono, ‘A Study of the Legal Status of the Compradors During the 1880s: With Special Reference to the Three Civil Cases Between David Sassoon Sons & Co. and their Compradors, 1884–1887’, Acta Asiatica, No. 62 (1992), pp. 4470Google Scholar; Kai Yiu, Chan, ‘A Turning Point in China's Comprador System: KMA's Changing Marketing Structure in the Lower Yangzi Region, 1912–25’, Business History, Vol. 43, No. 2 (2001), pp. 5172Google Scholar; Bo, Hu 胡波, Xiangshan maiban yu jindai zhongguo 香山買辦近代中国 (Xiangshan's Compradores 1A and Modern China), (Guangzhou: Guangdong renmin chubanshe, 2007)Google Scholar; Xianggang zhongwen daxue zhongwen wenhua yanjiusuo wewuguan, xiangang zhongwen daxue lishixi hebian 香港中文大學中國文化研究所文物館, 香港中文大學歷史系合編 Chinese University of Hong Kong Art Gallery; Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History (ed.), Maiban yu jindai Zhongguo 買辦與近代中國 (Comprador and Modern China), (Hong Kong: San lian shu dian (Xianggang) youxian gongsi, 2009); Zhang Ping 張萍, ‘Jindai maiban yanjiu zongshu 近代買辦研究綜述 (Summary of the Researches on the Compradors)’, Qingshi yanjiu 清史研究, (1) 1996, pp. 111–118.

4 Wright, Arnold, Twentieth Century Impressions of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Other Treaty Ports of China (London: Lloyd's Greater Britain Publishing Company, 1908), p. 568Google Scholar.

5 UK Parliamentary Papers (hereafter UKPP), Accounts and Papers of the House of Commons, Vol. 32 (8 February–10 August 1870), p. 14; Gongbuju dongshihui huiyilu 工部局董事會會議錄 (The Minutes of Shanghai Municipal Council), vol. 8, 20 and 27 September 1886, pp. 441–442, 445–446.

6 North China Herald (NCH), 12 February 1936, p. 268; Also see NCH, 17 June 1930, p. 458 regarding the retirement of the municipal comprador.

7 UKPP, China. No. 5. Correspondence Respecting Diplomatic and Consular Expenditure in China, Japan, and Siam (1870), p. 28.

8 Yen-p'ing Hao points out that British and other European officials also employed compradors in treaty ports, but he does not explore this in more detail. Hao, Comprador, pp. 44–45. Aside from Hao, most studies generally regard compradors as economic intermediaries between foreign and Chinese companies in modern China.

9 Munn, Christopher, Anglo-China: Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong, 1841–1880 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009), pp. 325328Google Scholar.

10 Hongkong Government Gazette, nos 1 and 2, 1 and 15 May 1841, pp. 286–287, containing official notices of the government and population of the island. In September 1841, the Chinese Repository gave notice of the appointment of T. G. Fitz Gibbon as clerk in charge of the Post Office. Chinese Repository, Vol. 10, From January to December 1841, p. 528. (The Chinese Repository is available online at:

11 Beer Endacott, George, A Biographical Sketch-book of Early Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005), p. 60Google Scholar.

12 Chinese Repository, Vol. 10 (1841), p. 479.

13 Chinese Repository, Vol. 11 (1842), ‘List of British Authorities in China’ (Feb. 1842), pp. 114–115.

14 Pui-yin, Ho, The Administrative History of the Hong Kong Government Agencies, 1841–2002 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press; London: Eurospan, 2004), pp. 4849Google Scholar, 222.

15 UKPP, Accounts and Papers, Estimates, &c. Miscellaneous Services: for the Year Ending 31 March 1846, ‘Hong Kong and Ports in China’, pp. 405–406.

16 Hong Kong Annual Administration Report, 1841–1941, Vol. 1, 1841–1886, ‘Colonial Estimates, Hong kong, 1876’, p. 472. (The Hong Kong Annual Administration Report is available online at:

17 For the licensed compradors in Canton, see Arthur Van Dyke, Paul, The Canton Trade: Life and Enterprise on the China Coast, 1700–1845 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005), pp. 5176Google Scholar.

18 The National Archives, Kew (hereafter TNA): CO129/5, Colonial Accounts, 14 June 1844, pp. 404–516.

19 Canton Press, 24 July 1841; Smith, Carl T., A Sense of History: Studies in the Social and Urban History of Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Educational Pub. Co., 1995), p. 47Google Scholar; Ward Fay, Peter, The Opium War, 1840–1842: Barbarians in the Celestial Empire in the Early Part of the Nineteenth Century and the War by which they Forced her Gates Ajar (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), pp. 226227Google Scholar.

20 TNA: CO 133, Hong Kong Colonial Blue Books of Statistics and Trade and Shipping Returns.

21 China Mail, 19 July 1849, p. 115.

22 UKPP, House of Commons and Command, Vol. 15 (1866), p. 124.

23 In the early 1840s, the colonial government decided to devolve responsibility for administering the Chinese population to village elders. For the detail of the Tepo system in Hong Kong, see Ting, Joseph S. P., ‘Native Chinese Peace Officers in British Hong Kong, 1841–1861’ in Sinn, Elizabeth (ed.), Between East and West: Aspects of Social and Political Development in Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Centre of Asian Studies, 1990), pp. 147158Google Scholar.

24 China Mail, 19 July 1849, p. 115.

25 Aaon and other Chinese clerks’ names appear on the list of ‘receipt for wages paid to persons serving on the establishment at Macao’ in TNA: FO 17/46, From Captain Charles Eliot, A. R. Johnson and J. Robert Morrison, Contingencies for October 1840. Chow's name can be seen in a similar record of March 1841.

26 TNA: CO129/5, Colonial Accounts, 14 June 1844, pp. 398–403 includes a number of receipts signed by several compradors working for the colonial government, including Aaon.

27 TNA: CO133/4, ‘Blue Book’, 1847, p. 81.

29 Smith, Carl T., Chinese Christians: Elites, Middlemen, and the Church in Hong Kong (Hong Kong; New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 127128Google Scholar.

30 UKPP, China, Vol. 24, May to Bridges, 29 July 1856, p. 509; Government Gazette, 29 January 1876, p. 49.

31 TNA: CO129/5, Wages for persons working for the police establishment, July 1843, pp. 427–428; Mok's receipt, 1 August 1843, p. 429, and September 1843, pp. 497–499. Another person whose surname was Mok was working in the police establishment as a clerk.

32 TNA: CO129/5, Special service under the order of Major General Lord Saltoun Commanding Ordnance, 1 August 1843, pp. 468–469.

33 TNA: CO129/5, Her Britannic Majesty's Government of Hong Kong to Achun (Comprador), Hong Kong, 6 September 1843 (Macau), p. 492.

34 Ibid., p. 491.

35 For more on the Chinese builders and contractors, see Carroll, John M., Edge of Empires: Chinese Elites and British Colonials in Hong Kong (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), pp. 2328CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Smith, Chinese Christians, pp. 114–116.

36 Chinese Repository, Vol. 10, From January to December 1841, p. 528.

37 Royal Mail Archive, London: POST 4/15, Colonial and Foreign Allowance Book, Salaries and Allowances to Postmasters, Agents and Other Post Office Employees Overseas, 1844–1857 (microfilm). On 14 September 1846, one comprador and four ‘coolies’ were working in the Post Office, and between the 1840s and the 1850s, one comprador worked constantly in the Post Office.

38 Proud, Edward B., The Postal History of Hong Kong, Vol. 1. 1841–1958 (Heathfield: Proud-Bailey, 1989), p. 43Google Scholar.

39 TNA: CO129/389, Pension of Mr. Chun Mau Yung, 20 March 1912, pp. 196–202.

40 TNA: CO133/30, ‘Blue Book’, 1873, pp. 72–73.

41 Hong Kong Public Records Office (hereafter HKPRO): HKRS149-2-628, Security Bond; TNA: CO133/28, ‘Blue Book’, 1871, p. 76.

42 TNA: CO129/244, Despatches, Pension to Mr. Cin Tsun, Compradore in Post Office, 10 January 1890, pp. 32–39.

43 TNA: CO129/389, Pension of Mr. Chun Mau Yung, 20 March 1912, p. 199. For the establishment of the British postal service in nineteenth-century China, see Bishop, G. T., Morton, C. S. and Sayers, W., Hong Kong and the Treaty Ports: Postal History and Postal Markings, 2nd edition (London: The Postal History Society, 1949).Google Scholar

44 George Wingrove Cooke noted his impression of the house compradors in Hong Kong in the late 1850s. For him, most of the residents of the colony had a comprador who dealt with accounts and the Chinese staff. Wingrove Cooke, G., China and Lower Bengal: Being ‘The Times’ Correspondence from China in the Years 1857–58 (London: Routledge, Warne, & Routledge, 1861), p. 57Google Scholar.

45 Ibid., p. 67.

46 Caine employed compradors as early as June 1841. At this time, John Robert Morrison instructed the newly appointed magistrate to hire two compradors for the service to magistracy at a wage of $15 to $20 per month. TNA: FO17/46, From Morrison to Captain Caine Chief Magistrate Hong Kong Inclosure no. 19 despatch no. 10, Macao 21 June 1841.

47 Emrys Evans, Dafydd, ‘The Origins of Hong Kong's Central Market and the Tarrant Affair’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Hong Kong Branch, Vol. 12 (1972), p. 150Google Scholar. Lower Bazaar was located around present-day Bonham Strand and Jervois Street. Upper Bazaar was in the area of today's Aberdeen Street and the east side of Hollywood Road, close to Kau U Fong and Gough Street. Ho Pui Yin (translator, C.S. Johnson), Challenges for an Evolving City: 160 years of Port and Land Development in Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Commercial Press, 2004), p. 44.

48 Evans, ‘The Origins of Hong Kong's Central Market’, pp. 150–151.

49 Chi-hung Luk, Gary, ‘Monopoly, Transaction and Extortion: Public Market Franchise and Colonial Relations in British Hong Kong, 1844–58’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Hong Kong Branch, vol. 52 (2012), p. 158.Google Scholar

50 The Central Market was located on the same site as the present Central Market on Des Voeux Road; Luk, ‘Monopoly, Transaction, and Extortion’, p. 143; TNA: FO233/186, Will of Wei Aqui, p. 32; CO129/5, Receipt for wages paid for persons employed in the government market places at Victoria, Hong Kong, July 1843, p. 413.

51 TNA: CO129/20, Inquest by Campbell, 6 July 1847, pp. 247–248.

52 Ibid., pp. 237, 249.

53 Chow Aaon's connection with Tam Achoy and Colonel Caine's comprador, TNA: CO129/20, Lo Een-teen. Tarrant to Cleverly (Acting Colonial Treasurer), 3 July 1847, pp. 233–234.

54 TNA: CO129/20, Inquest by Campbell, 6 July 1847, pp. 244, 260–261.

55 Ibid., pp. 260–261. In the inquiry, Tam also stated that when he visited Major Aldrich's office to make a contract, Aldrich's comprador Lum Choong (alias A-how) attempted to obtain a five per cent commission from the total amount of money Tam should receive, since ‘all others paid the same’ (p. 261). Luk, ‘Monopoly, Transaction and Extortion’, pp. 156–157.

56 Hongkong Register, 24 December 1844, p. 215, cited in Munn, Anglo-China, p. 187.

57 Ibid, pp. 187–188.

58 William Norton-Kyshe, James, The History of the Laws and Courts of Hong-kong: Tracing Consular Jurisdiction in China and Japan and Including Parliamentary Debates, and the Rise, Progress, and Successive Change in the various Public Institutions of the Colony from the Earliest Period to the Present Time (T. F. Unwin, 1898)Google Scholar, Vol. 1, p. 56.

59 Chisholm Anstey, Thomas, Crime and Government at Hong Kong (London: Eggingham Wilson, Loyal Exchange, 1859), pp. 4046.Google Scholar

60 Luk, ‘Monopoly, Transactions and Extortion’, p. 166.

61 Anstey, Crime and Government, pp. 40–46.

62 Report of the Commission, with Minutes of Evidences, etc. (Caldwell Commission Minutes), (Hong Kong, 1858), p. 15; Endacott, Biographical Sketch-book, p. 97.

63 UKPP, House of Commons Paper, Vol. 48 (1860), Hong Kong, Minutes of Meeting of a Commission, held at the Council Chamber, 27 May 1858, pp. 92–195, List of charges, p. 88; Caldwell Commission Minutes, 1858, pp. 15–16.

64 UKPP, House of Commons and Command, Vol. 48, p. 171.

65 Caldwell Commission Minutes, p. 15.

66 Ibid., pp. 15–16, 23, 25–26.

67 For a detailed explanation of the Caldwell affair, see Munn, Christopher, ‘Colonialism “in a Chinese Atmosphere”: The Caldwell Affair and the Perils of Collaboration in Early Colonial Hong Kong’ in Bickers, Robert and Henriot, Christian (eds), New Frontiers: Imperialism's New Communities in East Asia, 1842–1953 (Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 2000), pp. 1237Google Scholar.

68 Friend of China, 27 October 1858, p. 342; Norton-Kyshe, History, Vol. 1, p. 551 and Vol. 2, p. 13.

69 Caldwell Commission Minutes, p. 66.

70 TNA: CO129/67, Bowring to Labouchere, 23 March 1858, pp. 303–306.

71 Endacott, Biographical Sketch-Book, p. 127.

72 UKPP, Accounts and Papers of the House of Commons, Vol. 38 (1860), Hong Kong, p. 11.

73 Hong Kong Register, 30 March, 20 April, 4 May and 11 May 1858, pp. 55, 70, 78 and 84.

74 UKPP, Accounts and Papers of the House of Commons, Vol. 35 (1860), Hong Kong, pp. 16–17.

75 Ibid., p. 23.

76 UKPP, House of Commons Papers, Vol. 29, Accounts and Papers, Estimates, &c. Miscellaneous services: for the year ending 31 March 1846, ‘Hong Kong and Ports in China’, p. 20.

77 UKPP, House of Commons Papers, Vol. 28, Accounts and Papers, Estimates, &c. Miscellaneous services: for the year ending 31 March 1846, ‘Hong Kong and Ports in China’, pp. 19–20.

78 Munn, Christopher, ‘Hong Kong, 1841–1870: All the Servants in Prison and Nobody to Take Care of the House’ in Hay, Douglas and Craven, Paul (eds), Masters, Servants, and Magistrates in Britain and the Empire, 1562–1955 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), p. 391Google Scholar.

79 Endacott, Biographical Sketch-book, p. 66.

80 China Mail, 11 December 1851, p. 198.

81 Ibid., p. 26.

82 Smith, Chinese Christians, p. 41.

83 TNA: CO129/23, From John Davis to the Earl Grey, 25 January 1847, pp. 82–86.

84 TNA: CO129/23, John Davis to the Earl Grey, 25 January 1848, pp. 82–83; Sinn, Elizabeth, Pacific Crossing: California Gold, Chinese Migration, and the Making of Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013), pp. 34CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 331.

85 For careers of Tong Mow-chee and Tong King-sing, see Abe, Kaori, ‘Intermediary Elites in the Treaty Port World: Tong Mow-chee and His Collaborators in Shanghai, 1873–1897’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Third Series), 25 (2015), pp. 461480CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

86 TNA: FO17/46, From Morrison to Captain Caine Chief Magistrate Hong Kong Inclosure no. 19, Dispatch no. 10, Macao, 21 June 1841.

87 TNA: CO129/20, Tarrant to Cleverly (Acting Colonial Treasurer), 3 July 1847, pp. 233–234. The details of these enquires are elaborated by Christopher Munn, ‘“A Reign of Terror”: Corruption, Scandal, and the Caldwell Affair, 1857–1861’ in Munn, Anglo-China, pp. 290–328.

88 The ‘Blue Books’ issued between the 1840s and the 1880s suggest a general increase in the number of Chinese staff in the colonial government; however, no comprador was recorded as being employed from 1860 onwards, except for the comprador in the Post Office.

89 Munn, ‘Hong Kong, 1841–1870’, p. 390.

90 It should be noted that analysis of the decline of government compradors was methodologically challenging, as many colonial organizations did not formally record the employment of compradors, or they recorded them in a different category such as ‘Chinese clerk’.

91 TNA: CO129/21, 23 September 1847, Resignation of Mr. Fittock, pp. 47–50.

92 HKPRO: HKRS77-1-4, Provisions Bond, May 1848–May 1849.

93 TNA: CO129/278, William Robinson to Joseph Chamberlain, 18 December 1897, Comprador in Public Works Department, pp. 458–461.

94 TNA: CO133/1–CO133/31, ‘Blue Books’, 1844–1874.

95 Endacott, Biographical Sketchbook-book, pp. 98–99. Minutes of Inquiry into Civil Service Abuses before the Executive Council. 1860–61. Hong Kong. Executive Council (Hongkong, 1861), British Library.

96 Endacott, Biographical Sketch-book, pp. 45–46, 128.

97 Ding Xinbao, ‘Lishi de zhuanzhe: Zhimin tixx de jianli he yanjin 歷史的轉折: 殖民體系的建和演進 (Turning Point of History: Establishment of the colonial system and its evolution)’ in Wang Gungwu 王賡武 (ed.), Xianggangshi xinbian 港史新編 (Hong Kong History: New Perspectives), Vol. 1. (Hong Kong: Sanlianshu dian (Xianggang) youxian gongsi, 1997), pp. 59–130.

98 Tsang, Steve Yui-Sang, Governing Hong Kong: Administrative Officers from the Nineteenth Century to the Handover to China, 1862–1997 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007), pp. 2122Google Scholar. NCH, 12 February 1916, Obituary of Cecil Clementi Smith, p. 407.

99 Stonequist, Everett V., The Marginal Man: A Study in Personality and Culture Conflict (New York: Russell & Russell, 1961)Google Scholar; Zheng and Wong, Xianggang dalao, pp. 87–89.

100 JMA: L14/9, The Golden Wedding of Sir Robert and Lady Ho Tung (1932–1933).

101 Carroll, Edge of Empires, p. 74; Wright, Twentieth Century Impressions, pp. 174–176; Wu Xinglian 吳醒濂, Xianggang huaren mingren shilue 香港華人名人史略 (Prominent Chinese in Hong Kong), (Hong Kong: Wuzhou shuju, 1937), pp. 1–3.

102 Regarding the merchant elites, including the company compradors’ public activities in Hong Kong, see Sinn, Elizabeth, Power and Charity: A Chinese Merchant Elite in Colonial Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2003)Google Scholar.

103 Chan Wai Kwan, The Making of Hong Kong Society: Three Studies of Class Formation in Early Hong Kong (Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 73. TNA: CO129/23, The Memorial of British and Other Inhabitants of Hong Kong, pp. 222–227.

104 Carroll, Edge of Empires, pp. 49–50.

105 Steve Yui-Sang Tsang, A Modern History of Hong Kong (London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2003), pp. 65–66. UKPP, No.77, Hong Kong, Stewart to Knutsford, 2 September 1889, pp. 3–5.

106 Tsang, Modern History of Hong Kong, p. 66; Norman Miners, Hong Kong Under Imperial Rule, 1912–1941 (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1987) p. 61.

107 HKPRO: HKRS149-2-248 Bond from the comprador to P. office—cancelled, 18 August 1860.

108 HKPRO: HKRS149-2-589, Bond: Mang Fook Liu, 30 November 1870.

109 China Mail, 5 June 1879, p. 3; The China Directory, published in 1873 and 1874, recorded that Pang Fong Poo was a comprador to the commissariat in Hong Kong.

110 Jardine Matheson Archive (JMA), University of Cambridge Library, Manuscripts Department: B7/15, Business letters: Hong Kong, Pang A Yim to the General Agent, Saigon & Straits S.S. Co. Ltd, 8 February 1870.

111 The Straits Times, 25 March 1876, p. 4.

112 Government Gazette, 4 March 1882, p. 241. Po-Keung, Hui, ‘Comprador Politics and Middlemen Capitalism’ in Tak-Wing, Ngo, Hong Kong's History: State and Society Under Colonial Rule (London, New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 3738Google Scholar; Bangjian, Yuan 元邦建 (ed.), Xianggang Shilue 香港史略 (Hong Kong: Zhongliu chuban she, 1988), p. 130Google Scholar.