2. Background information, 1865-1911

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Submitted by David on Sat, 03/21/2015 - 17:33

Brief History of Racing at Happy Valley Racecourse

    Interest in horses was not a traditional Southern Chinese characteristic. Lawrence (1984:5), claims it was imported by the British when they took over the then sparsely inhabited island of Hong Kong in 1841.

    The racecourse itself was established in 1865 on a flat, swampy area of land to the east of a small town named Wong Nai Chung (Yellow Mud Valley), but known to the European inhabitants of Hong Kong at that time by the much more agreeable name of Happy Valley. Bamboo railings marked out the oval race track whilst temporary matsheds were erected to provide cover for spectators.

     On 17 and 18 December 1846 the first two day race meeting was reportedly held on a small scale, co-ordinated by a small group of racing enthusiasts comprising army officers, government officials and businessmen.

    Ching [5-1] (1965:183), mentions George Wingrove Cooke, a special correspondent of The Times, who allegedly described the racecourse as being one of the world’s most picturesque spots. According to Ching, the 1865 Annual Race Meeting was indeed a public picnic; and it remained so until the 1930s.  Race days were not holidays for all; but everyone who could desert his treadmill was there. Flags and bunting abounded and there was always a military band. Attendance within the Owners grandstand enclosure was at first predominantly European; and ‘mixed with the uniforms and jockey silks there was a generous sprinkling of swallow tails and toppers.’ Outside of this area, members of the public, ‘with their natural tendency to congregate and speculate, were background extras to the scene, or crowded into the centre of the course, which was open to all.’  The inevitable caterers were in attendance there, adding to the carnival atmosphere. Whilst bookmakers were not  tolerated, and in the absence of any accessible totalisator, holiday-makers nevertheless contrived to have their small flutters.

    The Jockey Club itself was established in 1884 whilst in about 1890 the Hong Kong Golf Club was formed, and laid down a nine-hole course in the centre of the Racecourse. The golfers built their pavilion immediately opposite the Monument and had two greens outside the race-track.

    In 1896 the Jockey Club embarked upon plans to add to the safety and comfort of the ponies as their existing matshed stables had been constantly in serious risk of fire. Permanent stables for eighty ponies were built - a two-storied brick building. While there were private boxes for owners, there was as yet no special accommodation for members generally. In 1900 “reserved enclosures” were provided for members in front of the grandstand.  These were fenced-off pens, along the rails, to which admission was by ticket.

    The next improvement of interest was the provision, in 1906, of a special matshed stand for Chinese ladies, erected at Jockey Club cost on a site rented from the Government, outside the Members grandstand enclosure. It stood in the border zone between the permanent stands and the Golf Club pavilion and was erected afresh for each Annual Racing Meeting.  In subsequent years other similar matshed stands were added alongside it, until they combined into a long crescent.

History of the Public Matsheds from 1865 to 1911

    Up until 1890, the general public had been permitted to erect matsheds  on racecourse Crown land for the annual races upon application and without charge. However over the years the matshed complex had expanded to encompass 26 sites, although constructed as one continuous structure. Moreover the number of applicants continued to increase each year. Therefore, to bring control back to what was perceived to be a rapidly deteriorating situation in the fairest possible way, the Public Works Department (PWD) of the Hong Kong Government decreed that, with effect from the 1891 meeting, the matshed complex would be limited to 19 annually auctioned sites. A photograph [5-2] taken in 1901, clearly shows this long line of contiguous matsheds.

    The annual auction arrangements commenced with a letter from the PWD Superintendent of Accounts, Correspondence and Stores to the Government auctioneer, instructing the latter to auction the rights to erect and occupy 19 designated racecourse sites for race day matshed booths.

 The auctioneer subsequently advertised the sale in all local English language papers and in four Chinese papers.  Site plans and a list of the six conditions of letting were placed in the hands of intending purchasers a week before the sale. On the day of the sale, with the exception of conditions 5 and 6, they were taken as read.

Interestingly, in line with prevailing custom, the auctioneers did not publish the names of  certain buyers. Therefore the list of purchasers by name was not the same as listed in the company book. Moreover both company names and aliases were also accepted without the auctioneer necessarily first ascertaining the identities of individual purchasers.

Regrettably it has not been possible to acquire a list of the six matshed letting conditions prevailing up until 1911. Conditions No 1-4 are  however believed to be unimportant to this case study. Condition No. 5 referred to the long standing prohibition on gambling in and around the vicinity of the racecourse whilst No. 6 provided for the protection of the Golf Club putting greens also situated on Crown land behind matshed sites 10 and 13.

Successful purchasers obtained a certificate from the auctioneer on production of which they were issued with a permit by the PWD Executive Engineer in charge of the Building Ordinance Office. The permit in question was of a standard type utilised for many years to cover a multitude of miscellaneous permit requirements. As in many cases the permit was not issued by name, subsequent individual accountability for condition infringements was not possible. In any case the permits did not specify any penalties for condition infringements.

 The 19 individual matshed sites were pegged according to the plan by a PWD Land Surveyor. He did not subsequently inspect them, instead assuming that the matsheds were subsequently constructed in accordance with these pegs.

Legislation Governing the Erection of Matsheds 

    The Building Ordinance of 1889 included matsheds within the definition of ‘building’. Thus, by strict interpretation of this Ordinance, no matshed could lawfully be erected without first submitting an application for approval on a special form, together with plans. Although the Director of Public Works (DPW) was not provided with any legal authority to dispense with this particular procedure, nevertheless in practice he did just that, on the grounds that the law as framed was impracticable.

    In about 1903 the Building Ordinance was superseded by the Public Health and Building Ordinance, the main objective of this being sanitary improvement in urban areas. Despite the above mentioned impracticalities, matsheds were still included within the definition of ‘building’. Section 222 of the Ordinance rendered it unlawful for anyone to commence any building or repair or reconstruct any existing building without first submitting a plan signed by an authorised architect to the Building Authority. A scale block plan showing neighbouring streets and buildings was also required. Section 209 also has clear relevance to matsheds in that:

    no person shall erect a matshed without previously obtaining permission in writing from the Building Authority or officer deputised by such Authority in that behalf and except subject to the regulations in the schedule or such other regulations as might from time to time be made.

     Irrespective of these sections, compliance with this new Ordinance, with regard to general matsheds was never insisted upon. Whilst there was a general belief within the PWD that the racecourse matshed erection permits were issued in accordance with Section 209, there was no mention of this on the permits. Having not applied the law to these matsheds, there was no need to certify them as having been constructed in accordance with the requirements of the Ordinance. Although the racecourse matsheds had been inspected by a PWD overseer annually since 1903 with a view to protecting the public, the Building Authority did not, in practice, supervise the erection of ordinary matsheds, of which there were a large number scattered throughout the territory.

    The PWD was also responsible for permits and licences for matshed theatres, which were erected for the purpose of staging Chinese opera performances. Regulations relating specifically to matshed theatres were strictly enforced by the PWD. Staff were obliged to specify the number of persons the building was licensed to accommodate and the number of fire buckets to be provided. There were also regulations dealing with gangways, entrances and exits and a prohibition on naked lights and smoking. When questioned at the Coroner’s enquiry as to why racecourse matsheds were not subject to matshed theatre legislation, the PWD argued that theatrical performances were generally held at night when there was a great deal of artificial light and in enclosed buildings with some limited exits. They were therefore at greater risk.  The racecourse matsheds were only utilised during daylight hours and allegedly open at both the front and rear. Thus in the PWD’s eyes the risks were lower. On this basis they were of the opinion that the application of the matshed theatre legislation to the racecourse matsheds was inappropriate. 

Matshed Construction from 1891 to 1911

    As from the 1891 meeting, construction of the matshed complex had been undertaken by the Sze Hop Matshed Construction Company, under the supervision of their foreman and partner Mr. Kwok Sun. The company supplied all the materials, principally bamboo poles of varying lengths up to 40 feet, with some fir poles as well. The roof was composed of bamboo matting. Labour was also provided for construction and dismantling afterwards. In practice, all successful racecourse matshed site purchasers were obliged to engage the company on an individual basis. 

    From 1891 to 1911, all 19 sites were composed of two storeys; the ground forming the natural base for a basement floor from which a raised flooring of varying height would be constructed for the ground floor, with one full floor above. Up until November 1911, the matsheds were braced by bamboo struts both from the front facing the racecourse and from the rear facing the golf course greens. The rear struts were either placed in holes dug into golf course land or lashed to a stake driven deeply into this same ground.

Matshed Supervision and Safety from 1891 to 1911

    From 1903 onwards and following the issue of permits and the pegging out of sites, it was PWD practice for a Building Inspector to be notified of the issue of the permits and tasked  to make inspections of the racecourse matshed booths during the construction period. 

    Whilst little information is available regarding these inspections during the period from 1903 to 1911, there is reason to believe that constructional safety was minimal. No instructions were given to the matshed construction company either by the PWD or the site lessees as to the maximum number of people to be accommodated within the matshed complex. There were no directives with regard to the size and number of entrances and exits; no requirements to submit construction plans for PWD approval; nor any restrictions placed on the maximum number of storeys that could be built. Furthermore there were no specifications as to material quality, no regulations pertaining to the length or thickness of the poles, or as to the distance between poles, nor as to the lashings to be used. No stress or dead weight loading tests were carried out by any party so as to confirm the structural soundness of the matshed complex nor, for that matter, was any data relating to the stress and sheer properties of bamboo itself available in this respect. Construction techniques appear to have been left very much in the hands of the matshed construction company; this being on the premise that the construction supervisor was considered by the PWD to be the acknowledged expert. Finally there were no restrictions regarding fire, cooking or smoking on the premises. 

Prohibition on Gambling

    Despite the prohibition on gambling as specified in Condition No. 5 of the site permits, it was common knowledge that lessees operated betting on the races from their stands. According to Dr. Douglas Laing [5-3], many were little more than gambling dens. It was therefore commonplace for the stands to have four foot by six foot wells, each constructed in the upper storey floor, from which small baskets could be lowered to purchase betting tickets from the ground floor vendors. Although prohibited they were nevertheless clearly tolerated by the police, as Messer indicated:

The police have not interfered with pari-mutual or cash sweepstakes conducted in these sheds. Other gambling is interfered with.......The Government did not instruct me not to interfere.

SCMP (26 March 1918:11)

Government Inter-Departmental Co-ordination

    In terms of responsibility, the PWD was responsible for the provision and enforcement of measures so as to ensure, as far as was possible, the safety and convenience of the public and for the preservation of the property of the public. The Police and the Fire Brigade were tasked with the protection of persons and property of the public from the malicious or careless acts of individuals, to keep order and to deal with the outbreak of fire. Regrettably in terms of inter-departmental liaison between them, scant evidence of this was evident.


  • 5-1: Henry Ching was previously the Editor of the South China Morning Post newspaper.
  • 5-2: The continuous row of 19 public matshed sites can be seen in the upper left to middle section of the photograph shown on page 59 of Henry Ching’s book ‘Pow Mah’.
  • 5-3: At the time this document was written, Dr. Douglas Laing was believed to be the sole surviving witness to the disaster. He was aged 94 when interviewed by the author in 1996.
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