5. Appendix - List of Successful Matshed Permit Purchasers

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Submitted by David on Sat, 03/21/2015 - 17:58

List of Successful Matshed Permit Purchasers 1918 Race Meeting: 

Site 1-3              The Jockey Club
Site 4-6              Unity
Site 7                 Xavier
Site 8                 Remedios 
Site 9                 Ritchie
Site 10               Chan Shui Tong
Site 11               Cheong Lee
Site 12               Lok Kee
Site 13               Kwong Kee
Site 14               Yow Kee
Site 15               Aoi
Site 16               Ahman
Site 17-19          A Hon

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Good to see your piece on the matshed owners of 1918. In The Hong Kong Legacy - now off the web - I wrote:

"There are many things we do know about John 2 who had other business interests dotted around the Far East in places such as Singapore which may explain a goodly portion of his income. We certainly know that his involvement with C.E.Warren and Co was not his only source of income in Hong Kong.

He owned land in Hong Kong and possibly houses and thus rents. There were houses in Canton and Shanghai - already mentioned -  probably established by John 1 - but they would have been confiscated by the Maoist government and there would have been no reparation. John 2 also had strong business connections with Japanese industry while still in Hong Kong and these lasted through the inter war years when he assisted Japanese businessmen in Europe. These men were voracious users of postcards and I have many of them still.

Along with Warren and another man named J.J.Blake, John 2 was in the horse racing business and between them they licensed and built three matsheds, or temporary stands, numbers 4, 5, and 6, for each racing season at Happy Valley from 1905 until the great fire of  Derby Day, 1918. 

There is no doubt this was a profitable sideline. Licences for the matshed cost HK$706 plus another HK$180 to build the sheds which was more than the average annual wage in the Colony at the time.

From this it is obvious that a very good return must have been made on the investment. The HK Public Works Report-1918, under “Sites for Booths at Race Course” says the revenue from the licensing of matsheds in the fire year of 1918 was HK$ 13,420.50, about GBP 1,087.21 (or about $3.3 million in today’s US dollars). Over the years this syndicate must have made large amounts of money from this business which ended with such tragic consequences on February 26, 1918, with the loss of at least 670 lives, mostly Chinese. No official figure has ever been agreed.

The building of these stands, the licenses, and the wagering, like the races themselves, had a long history. Large prizes at Happy Valley had drawn wealthy horse owners from all over Asia since the 1860’s and they were made  possible by the high value of the “pari-mutuel” and “cash sweeps” gambling that was permitted by the government in betting booths located on the main floor of each matshed. The pari-mutual was a system, like the Tote, in which all bets are placed together in a pool, taxes and the “house take” deducted, and the payout was then calculated by sharing the pool among all winning bets.

It is not hard to see how investors who could afford the initial outlay made substantial profits each year by charging a commission on each wager particularly as gambling was almost second nature to many Chinese patrons. As well as stand entrance fees, money was also made from renting out the bottom floor of each stand to food and drink vendors.

This lucrative business came to an end after the tragic fire in the matsheds in 1918.

That John 2 took this source of income seriously is shown by the fact that four years before the tragedy he is recorded as having complained to the Clerk of the Course that Matshed No.7 which stood three stories high was too weak and compromised his own structure which was No 6. Tragically nothing was done.

The Olsons are noted as having escaped the fire in at least one newspaper report  and one of my now deceased uncles, who was probably in The Towers at the time, recalled how he could smell the burning on the day of the fire."

What I know now is that these three gentlemen must have called themselves the Unity Syndicate or some such. My information came from Roy Xavier an historian of Macanese life in HK. If you Google him you will find him. He has a particularly fine account of 1918 and the aftermath in one of his newsheets which are called Far East Currents. Well worth a look. That is where I got most of my info and also from the SCMP.