A Family’s ‘Priceless Legacy’

Times Staff Writer

This city’s history--a tale of surprising power seeded in a questionable past, a story of opium and opportunism, business and bravery and betrayal--can best be seen in the fortunes of the Hotungs. This Hong Kong clan has struggled and prospered along with the territory and has shared its fate in ways historic and metaphoric.

In the 150 years since the first Hotung ancestor, English trader Walter Bosman, arrived on a clipper ship, the family has gone from stark poverty to stunning riches, becoming merchant princes, patriots and power brokers. Considered neither British nor Chinese, the Eurasian clan ended up bridging both cultures and profiting handsomely.

The beginnings, though, for both the Hotungs and Hong Kong were much less auspicious.

Britain’s Royal Navy wrested the tiny outpost from China in the Opium War of 1839-42 and made it a staging ground for an aggressive drug trade. The Western conquest of the island began what the Chinese consider to be “150 years of humiliation.”

As for the British, they believed that they had seized a paltry prize: Lord Palmerston,the foreign secretary who had his eye on larger territories for the Empire’s Asian outpost, dismissed Hong Kong as “a barren rock with hardly a house upon it . . . that will never be a mart of trade.”


Both China’s humiliation and Britain’s doubt were misplaced.

In the century and a half since Hong Kong became the stage for the clash of two great empires, it has become a bastion of commerce that has fueled China’s development and enriched Western traders.

Now, with only days to go before freewheeling, capitalist Hong Kong returns to its now-Communist motherland, Eric Hotung, a fourth-generation descendant of that itinerant trader, lives in a city on the brink of an uncertain future.

“The story of Hong Kong’s resilience is an old one, and its people shouldn’t be underestimated,” said Hotung, 71, a real estate tycoon and philanthropist with a round, genial face and a feathering of white hair. “They are self-dependent and never asked for anything but the chance to work. Hong Kong always surprises.”

Like many traders who left their pasts behind in Britain, Bosman created a new future for himself. He arranged for a girl from China to be his Hong Kong wife and he sired seven children. This humble, pragmatic meeting of East and West launched what would become a dynasty, with a history replete with spectacular love affairs, surprising alliances, bitter betrayals, accommodations and subversions.

The trader’s children lived in dire poverty and endured ostracism as Eurasians, shunned by Europeans and Chinese alike. His first son, Robert Hotung, was born in 1862 with fair skin and cobalt blue eyes. He used a Chinese last name passed on by his mother, and he dressed Chinese-style, with a long braid down his back.

Though Chinese and Westerners distrusted each other, both groups were wedded to commerce in Hong Kong. Indeed, this tiny enclave off China’s southern coast was begotten by self-proclaimed “Princes of the Earth,” European merchants searching for entree to China’s untapped markets and treasures of silks, silver and tea.

From its earliest days, Hong Kong valued enterprise and survival skills above all else. This was a place where a rocky past mattered less than what one made of his chances. It was an ideal spot for the rise of the compradors, mostly Eurasians such as Robert Hotung. They were the go-betweens for the Europeans and their Chinese clients.

Robert Hotung, in this way, won a place at Jardine Matheson, the trading house that was the power behind the West’s push into Chinese markets for opium and other trade.

By century’s end, Hong Kong was beginning to flourish. Robert Hotung, meanwhile, had married the Eurasian daughter of a Jardine director. Soon he had established himself as a business leader and doyen of the Chinese community.

While the partners of Jardine Matheson mingled with top-hatted rivals and friends at the all-white Hong Kong Club, Hotung--a singular figure in his trademark beard, silk Chinese robes and cap--in 1897 established The Chinese Club down the road.

A year later, Britain acquired Hong Kong’s remaining Chinese territories on a 99-year lease. At their respective clubs on Hong Kong’s harbor front, over gin and tonics or tea, the gentlemen began the countdown to 1997, when Hong Kong would return to China.

Hotung ascended with the colony and soon even expanded beyond it, establishing a property empire that spanned China. He became a tycoon “on the level of Rockefeller,” says one book of the day. To produce an heir, he took a second wife “of equal standing” and a concubine as well.

Hotung met with Winston Churchill in London and hosted playwright George Bernard Shaw; he supported Sun Yat-sen’s overthrow of China’s last imperial dynasty in 1911; he harbored the fugitive reformer Kang Yu-wei and received a knighthood from Queen Victoria.

Although Hotung, his two wives and 10 children were the first non-European family to move to prestigious Victoria Peak, he was never fully accepted by colonial Hong Kong. For example, Sir Robert, as he became known, pledged to fund an English school, open to all races. The government gladly took the money but then declared the school for Caucasians only.

Family lore notes that Sir Robert was a remote father, living separately from his wives and children in one of their three houses on the Peak.

Still, his offspring followed in their father’s remarkable footsteps.

A daughter, Eva, was Hong Kong’s first female medical school graduate; she married the great-grandson of Lin Zexu, the Guangzhou (Canton) commissioner held responsible for losing Hong Kong to Britain.

The clan fractured, though, when Sir Robert’s tall, square-jawed son Eddie secretly married an Irish beauty named Mordia O’Shea in 1926.

Eddie Hotung was heir to the empire, O’Shea was from a modest background; he was Buddhist, she was Catholic; most of all, though, the wedding preempted the empire-building marriage plans that Sir Robert had harbored for his eldest son.

The elder Hotung disowned his son, and Eddie Hotung decamped for Shanghai, where he became a stockbroker.

At the start of December 1941, after reconciling with his father, Eddie Hotung and his four children returned to Hong Kong for the 60th wedding anniversary of Sir Robert and his first wife.

The festivities marked the last moments of Hong Kong’s early heyday. War was brewing, and Churchill, then prime minister in London, had written off the crown colony.

Within a week, Japan bombed Hong Kong on Dec. 7, the same day as Pearl Harbor; the colony joined quickly in the global world war. A week later, Eddie Hotung was hit by shrapnel and severely wounded.

Hong Kong, with few troops to fend off invading Japanese soldiers, fell quickly, surrendering on Christmas Day. It was not until four years later that British troops returned, victorious, and Hong Kong again was under British colonial rule.

Eddie Hotung, meanwhile, had recuperated and returned to his wife in Shanghai. Japanese troops had ransacked and occupied his house during the war.

In 1949, Mao Tse-tung’s Red Army took over Shanghai--as well as all Eddie Hotung owned and Sir Robert’s vast Chinese empire outside Hong Kong.

Eddie Hotung and his family, financially wiped out, returned to their ancestral home in the colony, while hundreds of thousands of other refugees from China streamed into squalid squatter camps in the territory.

Those refugees remade Hong Kong from an Asian way station into a manufacturing and financial center that boasts the world’s most expensive real estate and more than its fair share of billionaires.

When Sir Robert died of pneumonia in 1955, he left estates in 28 countries. Eddie Hotung inherited the larger part of the family fortune and became a prominent figure in chaotic postwar Hong Kong.

He helped establish the Hong Kong Gold and Silver Exchange. As a sideline, he brought Hollywood hits and their stars to Hong Kong. He died just 14 months after his father.

“He was a giant, the linchpin of the family,” said Eric Hotung.

But his children disagreed over the division of his estate, and without him, the clan split once again.

For Hong Kong, though, after decades of tumult and discord with Communist-ruled China, a reunification was coming. In 1984, Britain formally agreed to hand Hong Kong back to China on July 1, 1997.

For its part, China agreed to grant Hong Kong autonomy for 50 years after the hand-over, to continue the ways that made the colony an important international trade center and the source of most of the foreign investment that has changed China in profound and startling ways.

“The racehorses will still run,” Deng Xiaoping, China’s late “paramount leader,” reassured. “The dancing will continue.”

But on June 4, 1989, when Chinese troops used tanks and guns to sweep away demonstrators in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, 1 million people marched in protest on Hong Kong’s streets.

And suddenly the prospect of return to the motherland seemed terrifying.

An unlikely combination of business leaders, gangsters and governments came together to help dissidents escape China on an underground railroad.

A businessman and philanthropist with ties to both the U.S. and Chinese governments, Eric Hotung helped negotiate the release of famed physicist Fang Lizhi, who had hidden for months in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Eric Hotung also campaigned for the release of Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who was put under house arrest for his sympathetic mediation with the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.

Driven by the panic and despair after the crackdown of 1989, tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents emigrated overseas--some for good, others just to earn foreign passports before returning home.

Though Eric Hotung recently sold his $100-million house here, the Hotungs will not leave Hong Kong. Eric Hotung, one of the largest owners of private land in Hong Kong, plans to build luxury villas near the Chinese border and live there.

“Why should I deprive my descendants from the priceless legacy of being a Hotung in Hong Kong and China?” he asked. “Things are changing. There will be ups and downs, but the Hotungs will be part of the process of evolution.”