Kennedy Town has evolved from being the once-negligible strip of coastline past which the HMS Sulphur carried Sir Edward Belcher towards Possession Point, marking the beginning of the colony, to becoming the up-and-coming, vibrant and urban hub that it is today. But did you know that where the high-rises, trendy restaurants and MTR exits stand today, there once stood mortuaries, plague hospitals, slaughterhouses and massive incinerators? Back then, there was a pretty morbid and seedy reputation in K-Town as Hong Kong Island’s ‘wild wild west’ became a centre for grimy businesses and criminal dealings. So, to toast this chequered past, here at theDesk we thought we’d bring you a slice of K-Town’s crooked past. We’ve scoured 100 years of news archives to bring you the most shocking crimes that have happened over the years in this area. Try to spot the scenes next time you wander our neighbourhood…
1. Desperados pause for tea, 1919
A newspaper called an incident that happened on November 26, 1919, ‘one of the most sensational armed robberies that has ever taken place in Hong Kong’. Basically, six men swiped $4,000 from a money changer’s shop at 40 Des Voeux Road West in Sheung Wan, which is now an HSBC, before fleeing in a hired car after threatening the frightened driver at gunpoint. What made this case so ‘sensational’ was that, following a police chase through Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun, five of the robbers lost the cops before settling down for a nice afternoon tipple on a teahouse’s verandah in broad daylight at 20 Catchick Street. The desperados, all recent arrivals from the Mainland, were easily spotted and then arrested after a firefight on the Praya and Smithfield. These guys could have been the first criminals in Hong Kong history to lead policemen on a high-speed car chase…
2. Tragedy on Catchick, 1920
A pretty tragic one, this. At midnight on November 18, 1920, at 38 Catchick Street, which was then an iron dealer’s shop, a young boy was murdered during a robbery. Four men broke into the store and threatened the boy and his uncle, who was a cook, ‘with very unpleasant consequences’ if they didn’t keep quiet while they carried out their criminal enterprise. The feisty and uncooperative boy wouldn’t relent, though, and was fatally stabbed and left in a pool of blood after the robbers departed with the booty. Today, Thai Heng Thai Food Restaurant is at number 38. Try not to think about this tragedy the next time you go for your pad thai.
3. Misbehaving soldiers, 1930
It was pretty rare back in the day for colonial soldiers to be tried for crimes against Chinese locals. But, following this incident at 9pm on October 10, 1930, military gunners John T Phelan and Frederick D Hamer were thrown in the slammer for assaulting a local carpenter on the Praya and robbing him of $6. In sentencing, the judge reprimanded the young soldiers for bringing ‘disgrace, not only on themselves, but also on the uniform of their regiment’. Surely any illusion of privilege must have vanished when the court denied Phelan’s request to be placed under military custody rather than in jail. Whoops! Sorry, lads, but the law exempts no-one. Not even those in uniform.
4. Toothache causes fire, 1930
Deep into the night of February 19, 1930, an owner of a wines and spirits shop at 40 Praya found it impossible to fall asleep due to a nagging toothache. Determined to come up with a cure, the alchemist-in-agony prepared a concoction of herbs over a wood fire before returning to bed and, this time, falling into a deep slumber. His alchemy had worked only too well, though. He later awoke to discover his home ablaze along with the upper floors of an adjacent building. Fortunately, there were no casualties reported. Yeah, not strictly a heinous crime but we reckon this was a crime against intelligence. Don’t, er, leave your fire on at night after talking loads of, er, homemade medicine. Not unless you want to become an alchemist-turned-arsonist, that is.
5. Buffalo with bad intentions, 1933
In a gross reversal of fortune, a butcher was gored to death on the night of December 4, 1933, by a disgruntled buffalo while he was trying to slaughter it in the now-demolished abattoir on Smithfield. It happened when three men held the creature down while the butcher attempted to slit its neck in accordance, apparently, with Halal principles. However, the beast was having none of it and broke loose in a ‘furious’ rage before fatally goring the butcher. While this story may seem a load of bull (pun completely intended…), it was in the newspaper of the day. In fact, tales of misbehaving cattle are littered throughout the history of Kennedy Town. From a bull diving into the harbour while evading recapture to angry buffalo terrorising well-to-do Europeans in their backyards on Victoria Road, misfit cattle may be some of the most prolific criminals in the area.S
6. Lovers’ tiff turns fatal, 1938
A series of quarrels between an engaged couple culminated in tragic ends on August 29, 1938. A 20-year-old fiancee decided she’d had enough of her lover, a 23-year-old man, and requested her soon-to-be-ex sign the necessary papers to end their engagement. But he instead became soon-to-be-murderer as they argued loudly before he pushed her into the path of a moving lorry on the corner of Collinson Street, just around the corner from theDesk. She died as a result. This horrifying event took place just across from present-day Westwood, leaving a hidden-yet-tragic mark on the short and unassuming Collinson Street.
7. Cleaver-wielder goes on the lam, 1961
Panic reigned for two hours on now-obsolete Kee Cheong Street, which used to run between Davis Street and Smithfield, on August 27, 1961, when a lard factory worker got hold of two cleavers and went on a murderous rampage. The man killed a co-worker before dashing out of the factory, cutting off the company accountant’s ear and critically wounding a 12-year-old boy. He then climbed up to the third floor of an adjacent building. Hundreds of people gathered in Kee Cheong to watch as the assailant appeared on the verandah, bizarrely began to sing and then jumped to his death. Seems like somebody had a seriously bad case of the Mondays.
8. A K-Town murder mystery, 1971
When, on September 5, 1971, the mother of a police constable received a call from someone who told her that her son had been shot dead, she dismissed it. These calls were a common occurrence back then, apparently. However, sadly, it was true. Constable Tam Chi-keung had been found with multiple gun wounds next to his wife, who had also been fatally shot inside the Kennedy Town Police Married Quarters in Ka Wai Man Road. However, no-one has ever solved what actually happened here. The couple had three kids who were found crying near the scene but they weren’t able to shed any light on the crime. Was it a double murder? A double suicide? A murder-and-suicide? Had there been a break-in? What happened to the gun? It seems no-one’s ever found out…
9. Mob boss returns to shore, 1996
This has to be our all-time favourite K-Town crime. When elusive triad boss and ‘Hong Kong’s most wanted man’ Yip Kai-foon was finally placed in custody in 1985 after he made off with millions of dollars worth of jewellery during a string of violent robberies, law enforcement thought the cat-and-mouse game was finally over. They were oh-so-wrong, though. In 1989, the seasoned criminal escaped from Queen Mary Hospital during a routine medical examination and seemingly disappeared into thin air after commandeering a van. A whopping $1 million bounty was put on his head but he managed to lie low until the early hours of May 13, 1996, when two constables spotted a group of silhouetted figures on the Kennedy Town harbourfront. Drawing their pistols, they realised one of them had a gun. Can you guess who it was? Yep, Yip Kai-foon had been on the Mainland, run out of cash and taken a speedboat back to Hong Kong with his crew. Following a brief chase up Victoria Road and a shootout with the cops in which his gun jammed, Yip was taken into custody, sentenced to 41 years in prison and to this day remains one of the most notorious criminals in Hong Kong history.
‘Hong Kong’s most wanted fugitive’ Yip Kai-foon makes his first court appearance under heavy police presence.
10. Woman loses her head, 2017
The days of a seedy and criminal Kennedy Town may have passed but, of course, crime never ends. On March 21, 2017 the headless body of a woman wearing black underpants and a single sock was found floating in Victoria Harbour, just 1.5 km away from K-Town’s Western Wholesale Food Market. Authorities said that, at the time of discovery, it was possible that the body had been in the water for less than 24 hours. The case is ongoing. As is Kennedy Town’s colourful, tragic and ultimately fascinating history.
By Grace Fung