'European' salaries in pre-war Hong Kong?

Submitted by brian edgar on Sun, 05/17/2015 - 22:18

I wonder if anyone can give me some information on salary increases in pre-war Hong Kong?

I'm struck by the fact that in 1924 Thomas Monaghan (executed for resistance activity on October 29, 1943) was given a rise by Canadian Pacific (he was Catering Superintendent) and his pay went up to (Canadian) $466.67 per month. In 1926 the company added a $100 living allowance. And that was it. He was still earning the same sum in 1940. 

It's probable prices didn't rise very much once the depression hit Hong Kong (about 1931) but my understanding is they were rising quite quickly once the refugees started to arrive (1938).

So what happened to 'European' salaries in general during the 1920s and 1930s?

BTW, a Canadian dollar was worth about 3.6 HK dollars.

Hi Brian - I read about Thomas Monaghan on your website.  Very interesting.  Thanks for sharing it.

Looking back at historical Canadian statistics, Mr. Monaghan earned a healthy wage, despite not receiving a raise from '26 through '40.  In 1928, just before the Depression, the average wage for a skilled Canadian male employed in a white collar position was around $1400 (Canadian).  Average wages were stagnant in Canada during much of the 1930s as well.  It would be interesting to know what Mr. Monaghan's superiors earned at that time.   

I have wondered about pre and post-war salaries in Hong Kong as well.  I posted a question about Hong Kong executive salaries in the 1960s and '70s a few years back - that kind of information was not public knowledge.  Over the years, I have pieced together some information, but it is not much.  If anyone is interested, I can find and revive my old question / topic and add a few figures to it.

Good idea, David.

In 1927 our friend George Kennedy-Skipton was a humble Second Assistant Colonial Treasurer on £500 per annum plus allowances that are given in HK$ and probably didn't make much difference. By 1939 he was a Speci

al Commissioner, not far from th top of the Civil Service tree, and earning £1,350. Government employees, 'European' ones at least, seem to have got an annual increase even when staying in the same post.

But see my next comment!

Thanks, Compradore. Those Canadian figures are illiuminating, and it seems that you're correct in your general suggestion, and that what I thought was the CPR being mean in 1940 was in fact them being generous in 1926. The Canadian dollar was worth roughly half the British pound in 1939, so Thomas Monaghan's salary then was in the region of £2,650 per annum, which is almost twice as much as that of a senior Civil Servant. Iin the 1920s the differential was even greater.

I was so surprised at this I checked to see if perhaps the figures for Mr. Monaghan's salary (supplied by the CPR to a post-war tribunal) were in Hong Kong dollars not Canadian, but this can't be the case as they give his remuneration in Canada in the same units.

So it seems that working for the private sector didn't get you the automatic pay increases guaranteed by the government, but your salary was so much higher anyway this wasn't a problem. For Canadian firms at least, which leaves me wondering about other employers - the HSBC, Jardine's etc.

The Canadian dollar fluctuated greatly in 1939, as war was declared against Germany in September and the exchange controls were imposed.  The loonie had been plummeting against the US Dollar in the months leading up to the war declaration.  By mid-September 1939, the exchange rate was fixed at $4.43 Cdn. per £1 pound sterling.  

I am only speculating here, but I tend to think that managerial / executive level private sector employees were better paid in the 1920s/1930s and Mr. Monaghan's stagnant salary situation was common.  I have never seen reliable estimates about Jardine executive salaries pre-1980, although there are newspaper articles that suggest the most highly remunerated Hong Kong chief executive in the late-1970s was not the Jardine or Hongkong Land chairman.   

HSBC's annual accounts listed their directors' combined remuneration, but did not give details regarding the exact pay of each executive.  Canadian banks had a similar policy of not detailing individual executive pay until the early-1990s.  In the mid-1970s, I believe HSBC's top four or five executive directors earned a combined $4 million HKD and this aggregate number likely included housing benefits.  I have not seen earlier remuneration figures from the Arthur Morse and Michael Turner era at HSBC.     

Thanks for sharing your obviously great knowledge. What you tell us makes possible a fair comparison between Mr. Monaghan's salary and that of his rough social equals in the government. It still looks good, especially in the 1920s, and, as you suggest, the flat-lining might well have been the usual situation. 

Frank King's history of the HSBC (Vol 3, p. 204) tells us that when Vandeleur Grayburn was made Chief Manager in 1930 he declined the full salary package on offer and accepted instead a flat £6,000 for the year's work. The Governor was on £4,800 in 1939, but with a hefty package of allowances and the use of three residences including of course Government House. A comparison would be hard, but my guess is that in terms of cash in hand to spend on what you want, Grayburn was getting quite a bit more by that stage.

Wow.  Thanks for the information about Vandeleur Grayburn's flat salary, Brian.  I had no idea it was in Frank King's book.

I do wonder why Grayburn declined the full package - it may have to do with the fact that he was appointed to Chief Manager in 1930 and the appointment may have occurred mid-year.