John Olson

Submitted by David on Tue, 01/19/2010 - 21:01

This story covers rags-to-riches, mixed-marriage, family intrigues - and it's all true!

We first heard about it when Sean Olson wrote to us from Ireland, asking for help finding information about his great-grandfather, John Olson. John arrived in Hong Kong from Sweden around 1860, and lived here until his death in 1918. He started with nothing, but apparently had a measure of business success. Which was a good thing as he had seven children by two different Chinese women to support.

Sean was being modest when he asked for information, as he'd already done a lot of research. Luckily for us he has written up the research, and has just posted it to the web - link below.

You'll see there are still gaps in the story, and a gaping hole as far as any knowledge of his Chinese ancestors goes. If you can add any more information, please leave a message below, or contact Sean via the email address on his website.

(If you add any new places / photos / forum posts related to his story, please tag them John Olson, so they're easy to find. Here's what we have so far.)

Now, over to Sean for his story...

10 Oct 2012 Update from Sean:

I have just put up a new website which tells the story of my great grandfather John Olson who arrived in Hong Kong around 1860 and died there in 1918.



I was just reading the press clipping on Liz's site about the fire. It ends:

Fears were expressed that several members of the Olsen family, who were in the same stand as the Xaviers, had perished, but happily they were found later to be without foundation.

Given that we know John Olson enjoyed the horse racing, and that Olsen is a common misspelling of Olson, I wonder if the article is talking about John Olson's family?

Regards, David

Thanks David for your kind words.

The one certain thing I can tell you regarding the racecourse fire is that my late Uncle William Oswald (Bill) Olson told me he remembered smelling the smoke of the fire. He would have been a very small boy.

I surmise from this that he was probably overlooking Happy Valley on Broadwood Road - No 13 - or would he have smelled the fire if he was living in Morrison Hill Road?

The Olsons were great racegoers and loved a flutter - it went down the generations too - and there is a book published by the HK Jockey Club which has some pictures pre fire which probably show them there so Liz Chater's cutting must I think refer to them. These pictures were found by Jill Fell.

You are dead right that the last o often turns into an e. Have lived with that problem all my life!

When I can find the pictures I will post them. They may be of interest as at least one is in a stand. The shown my great grandfather John and Ching Ah Fung as well as his daughter Elizabeth if memory serves me correctly.

Finally, if they were mentioned as being in a particular stand does this mean that they had broken through the societal (is that a word?) barrier of a mixed race marriage and were they also relatively wealthy?

Thanks again.



Hi Sean,

The cutting describes the booth that collapsed as containing "hundreds of Portuguese and Chinese ladies and children", so it sounds as though it was a family outing in those days. Your late uncle may have been closer to the racecourse fire than Broadwood Road, though you'd very likely be able to smell the smoke there too. (Where they in #13 already by 1918?)

The cutting also says the Olsons were thought to have been "in the same stand as the Xaviers". Xavier is a Portuguese / Macanese surname. Not a lot to go on, but there's also the mention of John Olson on the committee of the Victoria Recreation Club, and a separate mention that that club had a lot of Portuguese members.

I wonder if the Eurasian and Portuguese/Macanese communities were close at that time? They both faced problems of not quite fitting in to either the British or the Chinese communities. I can't remember reading any mention of that idea though, so I'd be interested if anyone can offer evidence for or against it.

Regards, David

Hi David,

First the uncle who told me about smelling the fire.

Not sure where he lived at that time. His mother and father, John 2 and Annie Louisa Moore Bourke certanly lived in Morrison Hill Road but whether they had moved from there in 1918 I don't know.

I have pictures of John 1 and brother Charles as well as Charles' wife Ethel, on the verandah of 13 Broadwood Road. I know this is correct because the pictures show The Towers slightly further up the hill. Or perhaps that is the camera angle. There is also a postcard I posted some time back showing the two houses overlooking the racecourse.

There is little evidence of who lived where in my family records but the research Jill Fell's uncle did shows the family moving around quite a lot. For example, having started married life with his in laws at 33 Caine Road in 1901,  Charles Warren moved to Kowloon and later moved back to another house at Caine Road with his in laws. No 53 from memory. All on website. For some reason I have the impression that John 1 had houses here and there and let his children use them when they were not rented out. For example I know that though John 2 lived at Morrison Hill Road after marriage in 1906, William - the uncle who smelled smoke - was born in Kowloon

With regard to the Victoria Recreation Club I have been remiss in not seeing if they have records. My initial response to you at the time was that the Olson mentioned was likely to be John Olson 2 but of course it could have been my great grandfather John Olson 1. Given the club began in very early HK as a water based facility who knows? However, John I was in his final days by 1916. Had lost his wife of 34 years in 1915 and may well have been in the first stages of throat cancer which killed him in 1918. Also he would have been 78 in 1916. More likely therefore John 2 who seems to have partaken in several areas of HK life - he possibly met Warren when he too was a gunner in the Volunteers.

Afraid I am not much help. In Sweden I can show you the font John 1 was baptised in and the stove his mother cooked on but HK is a different continent!


[Admin: I've made a separate page for Nullin Olson]

Hi Sean

this is probably nothing to do with your folk at all, but since it sort of jumped out at me when I was at Kew a couple of weeks ago, I thought that I must get round to mentioning it.  I've read your Olson HK history, so when I was browsing through the Blue Books - not looking at the police records this time (where I usually am) - I noticed a Nullin Olson in the 1905 book as Junior Assistant teacher at the Bellios Public School, first appointed 1.11.1905 at a  salary of $240.  It was the end of the day, and I didn't have time to get any later Blue Books out ... Is this one of your clan?  



Sean writes in to say his website has been updated:

If you're new to the story, the whole site is an interesting read. Or if you've read previous versions, Sean says the main changes are:

... the chapter Leaving Home which has much more detail regarding the voyage to HK. The preceding chapter has at the end a rather sad little bit of information regarding the background of John 1's family. This at the end of the chapter Beginnings which is the probate of the goods and chattels the family left behind. The chapter headed Hong Kong radically revises the view I had taken about the arrival of Anders and Olof.

Regards, David


Thanks for the mention of the updated website. Much appreciated. As usual anybody who has anything to add or correct can get in touch with me at the email address on the site.

I should also thank Stephen Davies for his huge amount of advice and help regarding how John and his brothers got to HK and wish him well with his new project.

Again many thanks.