Earth Coolies

Submitted by patricia on Thu, 04/13/2023 - 03:47

Earth Coolies - can anyone tell me what these people did? I'm assuming that they were digging labourers, perhaps stone breakers as well, working on construction sites. The period I'm looking at is at the turn of the (19th-2oth) century - thanks - Patricia 

I found a few reports in the newspapers that mention earth coolies. The reports are usually because there had been a landslip on the slope the man was working him, either injuring or killing him. It seems their work involved digging earth, and moving it to another location.

The 1935 report mentions four men and their trades: earth coolie, building sub-contractor, stone breaker, and magazine watchman. This suggests that earth coolie and stone breaker were separate trades.



A landslip occurred at Hunghom yesterday morning, as a result of which a coolie who was employed in the vicinity lost his life. The accident occurred at the Railway Reclamation Works, near the old slaughter house, shortly after eight o'clock. A gang of contractor's coolies were engaged at work at the foot of a bank. Some were cutting away at the bank, while others were engaged in filling a truck with the earth. While the coolies were thus employed the bank suddenly collapsed. A huge amount of sand and rock came crashing down, striking a coolie, named Chang Fuk. In falling backwards the coolie struck his head against the metal of one of the wheels of the truck, fracturing his skull. The other coolies who were fortunate enough to escape injury removed the injured man to a nearby shed and the police were sent for. Policeman Attewell, of Hunghom Police Station, responded with an ambulance and proceeded to remove the man to hospital, but he died on the way.

The Hong Kong Telegraph, 1907-09-24, p.4



At the Hongkong Magistracy, yesterday, Mr. E. D. C. Wolfe, in his capacity as Coroner, held an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of a Chinese earth-coolie, who was killed as a result of a piece of rock falling on him while blasting operations were being carried out in Stanley Road on May 23rd.

The following were the jury:— Messrs. A. L. Silva, O. Oliviera and F. M. Smith.

It appeared that on May 23rd certain blasting operations were being carried out on the Stanley Road between Tytam Tuk and Stanley in connection with the construction of the motor-road from Repulse Bay to Tytam Tuk. Deceased and another man who were not at work at the time, heard blasting going on and, apparently for greater security, rushed into a matshed. Hardly had they taken shelter there when a large piece of rock came through the roof, striking deceased on the head and fracturing his skull. The man died, despite all medical efforts.

A foreman stated that he took all necessary precautions in connection, with the blasting. After all the fokis had left the vicinity of the blasting he sounded two warning gongs at both ends of the road. The matshed was situated 300 feet away from the blasting operations. One witness was of the opinion that the piece of rock was part of a large boulder of bad rock, which broke up into bits when blasted.

The jury brought in a verdict of “Death due to misadventure".

Hong Kong Daily Press, 1918-06-11, p.3



At the Kowloon Docks on Saturday, a Chinese earth coolie was killed through being knocked down and run over by a truck loaded with earth. He was pushing an empty truck along one set of rails and stopped for  a while, stooping down on the other set of lines. The loaded truck was coming from the opposite direction on the other track and ran into him before he knew of its approach. His name was given as Kwok Lo (22) of  the Fuk Un matshed, Tat Wan, Hunghom.

The China Mail, 1923-05-28, p.4




Another death has to be added to the toll at Morrison Hill, near Happy Valley, where coolies are engaged in the work of cutting down the hill to provide material for the Praya East reclamation.

At 1.30 yesterday afternoon a boulder weighing about a quarter of a ton suddenly rolled down the cutting opposite the Police Recreation Club and struck a coolie, killing him    on the spot.  Apart from other injuries, the man's right leg was smashed to pulp.

Two clans, Hoklos and Puntis, were at work on the bottom and top of the hill at the time. Immediately after the accident members of the clan to which the deceased belonged were roused to anger at what they considered was a wilful act on the part of the other clan in loosening the rock without giving warning. Armed with boring tools, bamboo poles and other weapons, the bottom gang climbed the hill and engaged in a fight. The police arrived, just in time to avert a very serious situation which was arising with each side increasing in strength every minute. Several men on the top of the hill attempted to run away from the attackers and one of them who came down to the road had a rough time at the hands of a man with a bamboo pole.

With good sense prevailing once more, the body of the coolie killed by the boulder was removed to the mortuary.

Hong Kong Daily Press, 1927-11-19, p.6


Earth Coolie Fined For Possession


Appearing before Mr. E. L. Wynne Jones at the Kowloon Magistracy this morning on a charge of having unlawful possession of four coils of blasting fuse, Li Lam, a 27-year-old earth coolie,was fined $35, in default one month’s imprisonment.

Wong Yu, a 45-year-old building sub-contractor, Cheung Tin, a 35-year-old stone breaker, and Yiu Wah, a 58-year-old magazine watchman employed at the Sang Lee Company, were also charged with aiding and abetting.

Sergeant Nolan, of the Hung Hom Police Station, stated that the first defendant was arrested and searched at the No. 3 Railway Bridge, Chatham Poad, and the coils were found in his possession. When taken to the police station he said that the second defendant, his master, had told him to buy the fuse, and he had gone to the third defendant who in turn sent him to the fourth man to get it.

A check had been made on the contents of the magazine and all stores were there, meaning that there was no permit for the fuse coils.

The second and fourth defendants were each fined $30, in default six weeks' imprisonment, while the third was fined $10, in default 14 days.

The China Mail, 1935-06-19. p.9


An earth coolie, Wong Mun, age about 45, was killed when he was smothered by a fall of earth while working on the hillside at the back of the Chung Wah Book Factory, Kowloon, yesterday.

His body was removed to the Kowloon Public Mortuary.

The Hong Kong Telegraph, 1939-11-06, p.5 (p.25 in viewer)

David's photo at titled "1920s Excavation of Morrison Road" provides a nice image of earth coolies at work, especially the blown up image of a coolie who is actually hacking at the slope. Most of the replies to applications for government land purchase in Hong Kong that I have read contain instructions about cutting away slopes and ensuring that they were safely shored up again and reinforced to prevent landslips during wet weather.

No explanation of what they did but they get a brief mention in John Saeki's "The Last Tigers of Hong Kong" published by Blacksmith Books 2022. P. 147 mentions two "earth coolies' on their way to work at Shing Mun Pass when they saw a sleeping tiger.