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Sugar & Oil: Dutch Hong Kong in the 1920s
This story starts with a photo album I bought a few years ago. It originally belonged to Mr Antony Bosje, a Dutch man living in Hong Kong in the 1920s. Here he is:
What was Hong Kong's Dutch community like in the 1920s?
As the sign on the building says, he worked for the Netherlands Harbour Works Co. It's the first time I'd heard of the company, and it got me wondering about the size of the Dutch community in Hong Kong at that time. The 1921 census shows the largest foreign communities in Hong Kong that year:
|Rank||Country||No. of residents
in Hong Kong
I was surprised to see the Dutch community was so large. The column on the right shows the 1921 populations of several European countries, and based on them, I'd expect to see the Dutch population lower down the table.
Let's see if the other photos in his album show why the Dutch had such a strong presence in Hong Kong.
The Netherlands Harbour Works Co. at work
The photos all show scenes from the project he was working on. Here he is on a beach, with a steam-driven pile-driver on a barge in the background.
It looks as though they're building a pier or sea wall. Other photos show rocks being broken up, and the side-tipping trucks that were commonly used on reclamation projects.
That last photo with the trucks gives us clues to the project's location. Look for a dark patch in the sky, then the ridgeline below it is Lion Rock, suggesting the photographer is somewhere along the north shore of Hong Kong island. For confirmation, we can also see the tram line, shown by the poles that held the suspended power cables.
The caption on the last photo has an important clue.
Kwik Djoen Eng Esq. laying the first
stone of the first block for the
building of a quai-wall at
North Point Hongkong.
Mr Kwik was their customer. One of Asia's wealthiest men at the time, he'd hired the Dutch company to reclaim two large lots of land from the sea at North Point.
The red outlines above show roughly the extent of those two new lots, Marine Lots 430 and 431. Several local street names still preserve the connection with Mr Kwik - I've labelled them with blue numbers:
(1) - This is Chun Yeung Street, the street where the tram line loops off King's Road, and runs through a street market. "Kwik Djoen Eng" is the sound of his name when pronounced in the Hokkien dialect, but when pronounced in Cantonese it sounds like "Kwok Chun Yeung", and that's where the street name comes from.
(2) - Tong Shui Street runs along the eastern edge of ML 431. When the land was originally reclaimed, it was the harbour wall, with the sea on the eastern side. The street name translates literally to "Sugar Water Street". Mr Kwik had made his fortune in the sugar business, and his grand plan was to build a sugar refinery on this new land, to compete with the Taikoo Sugar Refinery over in Quarry Bay. The sugar refinery was never built, but the street name records the plan.
(3) - Java Road. The source of his sugar was the island of Java. Today Java is part of Indonesia, but in the 1920s it was part of the Dutch East Indies (DEI).
The reason for a large Dutch community in Hong Kong
Now things start getting clearer. The Netherlands, like Britain and France, had a colony in Asia - the DEI. A look at Hong Kong's imports in 1925 shows Hong Kong imported £3.7 Million worth of goods from the DEI, about one twelfth of Hong Kong's total imports for the year. By contrast, the 1925 imports from "Holland" were just £0.1 Million.
So I shouldn't be looking at the Dutch population back in Europe when trying to understand their influence here in Hong Kong. Instead, we should look to Hong Kong's trade with the DEI.
Hong Kong's Trade with the Dutch East Indies
That list of 1925 imports shows Hong Kong's imports from the DEI were split into two main categories - around three quarters by value were in the category "Foodstuffs and Provisions", and the other quarter was listed under "Oils and Fats". The report doesn't give any further breakdown, but I'll assume the majority of the "Foodstuffs and Provisions" trade was sugar, while the "Oils and Fats" were petroleum products. These were two of the commodities that the DEI was famous for at the time.
We can look into the 1925 Jurors List to get an idea of the Dutch companies that were in Hong Kong to service this trade. The biggest is the Asiatic Petroleum Co., Ld., with 71 Jurors. They were the ancestor to the modern Shell company, and handled the petroleum part of the trade.
The rest of the trade was split among several companies: Nederlandsche Handel Maatschappy / Netherlands Trading Society (21 jurors), Transmarina Trading Co. (15 jurors), Holland China Trading Co. (10 jurors), and the Holland Pacific Trading Co. (8 jurors).
Supporting them were a shipping line: Java-China-Japan Lijn (20 jurors), and a bank: Nederlandsch Indische Handelsbank / Netherlands India Com'l Bank / Netherlandsch Indische Com'l Bank (21 jurors).
The assumptions above seem to make sense, but please leave a comment below if you've spotted any mistakes in my logic, or if you can tell us more about the Dutch community in Hong Kong.
I'm also curious to know what effect Indonesia's independence after WW2 had on Hong Kong's Dutch community. I guess the disappearance of the DEI meant reduced business opportunities for the Dutch companies listed above?
We're lucky to have photos of the early Dutch community from a couple of sources:
- The gallery "1920s Marks family photos" has been uploaded by Jan Schultheiss, who writes that his grandfather P. Marks was from the Netherlands, and worked in Hong Kong for the Nederlandsch-Indische Handelsbank.
- Pieter Lommerse has uploaded a large selection of photos related to the Dutch in Hong Kong that he gathered during research for his book, Charles in Shanghai. Charles Gesner van der Voort worked in Shanghai for Holland-China Trading Company (HCHC), which had offices in Hong Kong and Tientsin (Tianjin) also. Pieter's book is about Charles and his friends.
The thread "Dutch roots in Hong Kong" gathers reminders of the Dutch community in Hong Kong.