[REVIEW] “Not Hardened Criminals: A Review of Patrician O’Sullivan’s Women, Crime and the Courts” by Susan Blumberg-Kason

{Written by Susan Blumberg-Kason, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Patricia O’Sullivan, Women, Crime and the Courts: Hong Kong 1841-1941, Blacksmith Books, 2020. 344 pgs.

When the British took Hong Kong in 1841, they expected to only prosecute British subjects who broke the law. The colonists were quick to establish courts and start a legal system, yet they figured that if Chinese residents in the new colony committed a crime, their cases would be heard by a magistrate in Kowloon posted from mainland China. Whether this magistrate was stationed at the yamen, which still stands in what is now Kowloon Walled City Park, author Patricia O’Sullivan does not say in her new book, Women, Crime and the Courts: Hong Kong 1841-1941. In any case, that’s beside the point as she instead provides insight into early colonial life for women and how these early plans to govern the colony fell by the wayside as Chinese, Macanese and British flocked to Hong Kong for business opportunities. Soon it became impossible to split these jurisdictions and the British heard all criminal cases in Hong Kong, including those involving women.

O’Sullivan’s research is meticulous and it shows not just in the stories she tells of women who ran afoul of the law and those who administered the prisons, but also in the way she shows how women figured into the building of Hong Kong almost from the beginning. It wasn’t uncommon for British wives to join their sailor husbands at sea for up to three years at a time. Some of these naval officers would remain in Hong Kong, many joining the police force, and their wives made up the early population of foreign women. Joining them were women from Macau, usually with husbands who acted as intermediaries between the British and Chinese. Chinese women were always in the area, many of whom lived amongst the floating population along the coasts of Hong Kong.

When it came to crime, women were treated differently. For instance, in 1847, a band of women and men illegally chopped down trees for firewood. They were caught and the men were fined $5 or suffered a flogging if they couldn’t come up with the money. For the women, however, the fine was $10 or a 14-day jail sentence. This inequity in punishment was soon changed so women didn’t suffer more than men for the same crime.

Most of the crimes committed by women included kidnapping, child-abduction and prostitution, although O’Sullivan is quick to explain the error in labelling prostitutes as criminals.

While in this work the term prostitute is occasionally used, since it generally implies a woman working with at least some autonomy, brothel slave might better capture the situation of many. However, since these houses also contained women and girls who worked in other capacities and yet were similarly owned by the brothel-mistress, the term brothel inmate has been generally employed.

—Patricia O’Sullivan, Women, Crime and the Courts: Hong Kong 1841-1941.


Kidnapping became a cross-border affair and sometimes children—often girls—were taken from Macau and brought to Hong Kong or China, where they could be sold many times over. Institutions that people today might know were instrumental in helping families in the nineteenth century. Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road is a tourist spot now, but in early colonial Hong Kong it was a place where disputes were settled. Tung Wah Hospital not only helped people with medical issues, but also helped girls at risk of being trafficked into prostitution to return to their home villages in China. And Po Leung Kuk was started by the Tung Wah committee “to investigate and adjudicate on suspected kidnaps and repatriate those affected”.

The first case heard by the Supreme Court in Hong Kong in 1844 involved a married couple accused of kidnapping two girls to sell them into prostitution. Both were sentenced to 18 months in prison. Hong Kong’s first prison was a stone structure built quickly in 1841, but it wasn’t intended to accommodate women. So in the early days of British Hong Kong, women convicts were most likely detained in a room in the British Magistrate’s house. As jail space became tight—for both men and women—new prisons were constructed that accommodated women in their own area, away from the men.

It’s interesting to read how the British legal system worked alongside Chinese customs when it came to law enforcement. In Hong Kong, it wasn’t illegal for men to keep concubines. So when there were disputes or crimes involving a concubine and first wife, the British would try the case according to British law, but would not try to influence this Chinese custom. In fact, the British didn’t outlaw concubinage in Hong Kong until 1971.

Overall, O’Sullivan’s tales of women’s crime are fascinating because the victims all seemed sympathetic and not what one would classify as hardened criminals. Foreign women who came to Hong Kong with their husbands often found themselves destitute when their husbands died or left them. Sometimes the only way they could put food on the table was to turn to prostitution. Chinese women were put in tough situations when they were married to men who took concubines or were concubines themselves. And girls had little protection when they were kidnapped or were sold by families into indentured servitude, including prostitution. But once cases went to court in Hong Kong, there was more hope for justice than one would think for the late nineteenth century. It’s this legal tradition in Hong Kong that would go on to set it apart in the region.

Also see this review in Cha:

How to cite: Blumberg-Kason, Susan. “Not Hardened Criminals: A Review of Patrician O’Sullivan’s Women, Crime and the Courts.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 29 Jan. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/01/29/crime-courts/.

Susan Blumberg-Kason.jpg

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong. Her writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)

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