HKU Bulletin June 2011 (Vol. 12 No. 2)

The University of Hong Kong Bulletin Women in traditional Chinese society were highly dependent on their parents, husbands and sons to look after their welfare, and it was nearly impossible for them to own property. So how was it that many of them became property owners in Hong Kong? That questioned intrigued two researchers at the Hong Kong Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences, Dr Victor Zheng Wan-tai, and Professor Wong Siu-lun, who combed through the records of the Probate Court during Hong Kong's first century. They found 98 women's wills - one-quarter of all Chinese wills - and the property they owned outright was passed down to their children, adopted children and women friends. Dr Zheng said they were likely prostitutes at a time when prostitution in Hong Kong was legal (it was not outlawed until the 1940s) and along the way they had acquired significant assets that they wanted to protect. Some women owned several flats or lots. "Of course not all of them were engaged in prostitution. Some did normal business such as running grocery stores and even a printing business. Some were principal wives, some were concubines. But a large number of them were single women." "This leads us to think that they may not have been able to enter the formal marriage system [and thus have their wealth distributed among relations], and because of that they had to use a will to transmit their wealth." Property holdings Their property was concentrated in areas that are now part of Central, such as D'Aguilar Street, Cochrane Road, Tai Ping Shan near Man Mo Temple, and Stanley Road, as well as former European enclaves near Hollywood Road, Caine Road and Square Street. Only women could own brothels in Hong Kong so they likely bought property to set up shop. In the peak year of 1871, there were 188 registered brothels in the city. The European connection may have helped the women to understand the British legal system, and Eurasians often helped them to draft wills, such as Robert Hotung's brother, Ho Fook. Dr Zheng said the women probably built their wealth by serving mainly Chinese clients, soldiers and seamen, since there were too few wealthy Europeans in Hong Kong at the time to account for their accumulated holdings. Apart from recording their wealth, the wills highlight two important qualities in the women: their bonds with their female friends and their business acumen. "A lot of the wills had women as witnesses or named as caregivers for the children in case of death. I feel this was a women's community - the attachment between women friends was very strong and their relations with their natural families were cut off, presumably because they were prostitutes," Dr Zheng said. Financial independence On the business side, the women not only managed to accumulate property, but also to oversee the construction and management of brothels, which would have included ensuring triad societies did not affect their business. "This is one of the first instances where Chinese women had some financial independence. And although they may have been poor and had bitter feelings, once they got financial independence, they could live quite a decent life. They could have mui tsai [girl servants] and live in a big home and arrange a decent funeral for when they died. Many of them mentioned the funeral in their wills." "From this perspective, you can see legalized prostitution gave them a chance to earn money and have economic independence," he said. The results of Dr Zheng and Professor Wong's research are contained in the book, Women's Wills , Property and the Early Hong Kong Society , published by Joint Publishing (Hong Kong) Limited. Sample of a woman's will dated 1875. The University of Hong Kong Bulletin Published by the University of Hong Kong The Bulletin is the University magazine that features our latest activities, events and plans. It aims to keep the local and international community informed of new breakthroughs in a wide range of disciplines initiated by members of the University. Editorial Team Chief Editor: Katherine Ma, Director of Communications Managing Editor: Shirley Yeung, Publications Manager Writers: Kelvin Au, Kathy Griffin, Allison Jones Design and production: Axent Communications Contribution and Feedback With special thanks to staff and students who kindly contributed their time and their photographs to the Bulletin . We welcome contributions of content for publication. Items should include the author's name and University contact details. Please direct contributions, comments or suggestions to the Communications and Public Affairs Office at for consideration. Care for the Environment While our publication is printed on environmentally friendly paper, we urge you to share your copy with friends and colleagues, and help reduce our carbon footprint. Alternatively, you may choose to unsubscribe at , and read the Bulletin online at www. Books Hong Kong as a Haven for Outcast Women Prostitutes and other female outcasts from China found protection for their wealth in Hong Kong's legal system during the city's early years.