[REVIEW] “Part of a Rare Breed: Reviewing Patricia O’Sullivan’s Women, Crime and the Courts” by Suyin Haynes

{Written by Suyin Haynes, 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.

In early March 1926, Hong Kong was abuzz with anticipation for the year’s most important social and sporting event: the Hong Kong Derby. Those who could afford the $3 entrance fee thronged the Happy Valley racecourse, watching to see if the bookies’ favourite Glorious Dahlia would romp to victory, which she indeed did. But the excited spectators were unaware that the races narrowly escaped being the scene of chaos and potential fatalities, thanks to police intervention that pre-empted a terrorist attack, in which a female accomplice transported an intended bomb from Shum Chun (Shenzhen) to Hong Kong Island in a suitcase.

We do not learn the name of this woman, who was later sentenced to four years in Hong Kong’s Women’s Prison, and was at the time the prison’s only long-term female inmate, in Patricia O’Sullivan’s Women, Crime and the Courts: Hong Kong 1841 – 1941 but  O’Sullivan’s meticulous research reveals much about the inner lives and challenges such women faced in their encounters with the law in the first century of the city’s recorded history. The bomb episode, set against the backdrop of the Canton-Hong Kong strike and hostile plots by activist cells in southern China, is just one of the many hidden histories O’Sullivan unveils in this work, ranging from domestic disputes ending in murder in Wan Chai, to some bourgeois women’s mistreatment and near torture of their mui tsais (“little sisters”), or live-in domestic helpers.

O’Sullivan, who lives in the UK and spends part of each year in Hong Kong, has previously written about Irishmen serving in the Hong Kong Police Force and their families. Here, she looks at the perspective of the women that these policemen may, or may not, have encountered while out on the beat, tracing their changing lives and relationships with crime. O’Sullivan notes that “the women who appear in this book were part of a rare breed”—until the 1930s, less than 5 per cent of defendants who appeared at the magistracy were female. It is quite remarkable then the level of detail that the author has been able to find to reconstruct the intricacies of several of these lives, using contemporary newspaper reports and Colonial Office records.

I found the most absorbing parts of the book by far to be the human interest stories and anecdotes, detailing the lives of women, the crimes they committed, and what those crimes say about the nuanced contexts in which they lived. The tale of Lai Acheong, accused of attempting to smuggle two young women onto a Singapore-bound vessel, provides a clear demonstration of the high levels of kidnapping, trafficking and child-stealing in Hong Kong in the 1870s and 1880s. The example of the tensions between Mrs Kwong, a Chinese first wife, and Wong Po, a concubine, explores familial dynamics at the turn of the century. The intricate reconstruction of the bomb plot at the races reveals more about the broader atmosphere of relations with southern China in the 1920s. The case of Polish woman Helena Rogovi-Kumin, who arrived in Hong Kong in 1927 and was arrested on suspicion of drug-smuggling, indicates the proliferation of the growing heroin trade during this era. And the story of “village justice” in the case of Pun Chiu-ling and her lecherous father-in-law gives an insight into how rural communities conceptualised crime and punishment in the 1930s.

The author raises questions about several of these cases, encouraging readers to think about what information relating to these women was not included in historical records. O’Sullivan notes in her introduction that she was struck by the common themes running through the stories, those of “poverty and powerlessness, of taking back control when it was possible, of abusing that control”. The examples included in the book are from a variety of backgrounds, races and geographical locations, and O’Sullivan certainly hints at the disparities in treatment among them. She notes that the British judicial system, exported to colonial Hong Kong with a belief in its own superiority, of being blind to race, creed and station in life, had several deficiencies that disproportionately affected Chinese defendants. Not least of these was the fact that hearings were conducted in English with poor translation, and “all-western juries were loath to assume that any Chinese defendant might be innocent and accepted evidence that was frequently scrappy”. Certainly, the disparities and comparisons between the ways in which local, working-class Chinese women and wealthy, white expatriate women were treated could be fertile ground for future research.

I also appreciated the multiple perspectives on the subject included: more than two meaty chapters are devoted to women who were involved on the side of law enforcement, rather than the perpetrators. Using Colonial Office and National Archive records, as well as accompanying prison plans, O’Sullivan delves into the lives of the female turnkeys and matrons within the Women’s Prison at Victoria Gaol, which is now the bustling and fashionable cultural and heritage arts centre Tai Kwun. These chapters, detailing the lives and conditions women inmates faced, make for sobering reading, particularly when we keep in mind that, according to recent data, Hong Kong currently has more women among its prison population than any other jurisdiction in the world. Insight into these experiences gives a fuller picture of the lives women led beyond trials and sentencing, and adds greater weight to O’Sullivan’s endeavour to explore stories that have thus far been underrepresented in literature and historical works.

Women, Crime and the Courts is rich in detail and sweeping in scope, yet I was left feeling curiously unfulfilled by the book’s ending, which lacks a conclusion drawing together some of the common themes to emerge from this rigorous research on the subject matter and period. The final chapter instead summarises a series of anecdotes about the bad behaviour of (presumably) white European women in Hong Kong—the colourful characters do make for fascinating reading, but felt a little like a truncated ending given the breadth of material that precedes it. It seems that O’Sullivan’s rationale for ending the book on such a note, as she explains in her introduction, is the hope that her “modest efforts might spur others…to conduct more in-depth research on the subject”. The author self-reflexively comments on her lack of Chinese reading skills and the fact that her “wider knowledge of the region is relatively superficial” in the introduction, and it may be true that these factors have been limiting in some respects. But it seems somewhat a shame not to have pulled a little more at the overarching threads embedded in the fabric of women’s diverse experiences during this era, experiences that the author clearly went to great lengths to research. Let’s hope this work does indeed spur more interest in this fascinating subject, as several individuals named in this book are long overdue for biographical treatments in their own right.

Also see this review in Cha:

How to cite: Haynes, Suyin. “Part of a Rare Breed: Reviewing Patricia O’Sullivan’s Women, Crime and the Courts.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 09 Apr. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/04/09/women-crime-courts/.

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Suyin Haynes is a Senior Reporter for TIME, where she covers gender, culture and underrepresented communities from the London bureau. Her recent work has included reporting on global anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic, protest art in Myanmar as part of the civil disobedience campaign during the ongoing coup, and the ways in which Russian feminist poets are upending both literature and protests. From 2017-2019, she was based in TIME‘s Hong Kong office, where she also reported on stories focusing on human rights from around the region, including the #MeToo movement in East Asia and women’s rights and populism in the Philippines. She was previously an editor at gal-dem magazine, and holds a BSc. in International Relations and History from the London School of Economics. She is currently working on an upcoming oral history project tracing her mother’s migration from Malaysia to the UK in the 1970s. 

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