In early colonial Hong Kong, the city had yet to standardize the medium of trade.
Although the British pound and Indian rupee were listed as the only currencies for circulation in 1845, the general public was rather resistant to the change and stuck to the old practice of accepting copper coins of the Qing dynasty or Mexican silver coins.
Hercules Robinson, the fifth British governor of Hong Kong, decided in 1864 to found the Hong Kong Mint to manufacture the city’s own silver coins, so as to safeguard the interests of the merchants.
Setting up the mint was no easy task.
First, the government failed to locate a suitable site in Central and decided to reclaim the required land in Causeway Bay instead.
Meanwhile, the legislature kept stalling the funding for the mint, as the project was expected to be unprofitable.
The mint finally opened in 1866, operated for two years and then was ordered by governor Richard MacDonnell to cease operations in 1868.
The quality and production volume of the new coins were unsatisfactory.
The coins did not have enough anticounterfeiting measures, and soon fakes were widely available in the market.
Amid a poor economic landscape, the public was again reluctant to make the switch, and so the mint’s coins piled up in bank vaults.
The site of the mint was sold to Jardine Matheson the same year, and the machinery was sold in Japan.
As early as 1842 — the year China ceded Hong Kong Island to Britain in the Treaty of Nanjing — Jardine Matheson set up offices and a dockyard at East Point in Causeway Bay.
Around the time the trading company was transforming the mint building into a sugar refinery, Jardines acquired the China Sugar Refinery.
The new refinery and the newly acquired brand were collectively referred to as the China Sugar Refinery.
Table sugar, a kind of refined sucrose, was very popular among foreigners, and sales were very good.
However, in 1874, a typhoon from the South China Sea hit the city so badly that most of its buildings were damaged, including the refinery.
It was rumored that the rainstorm washed all the sugar into the sea, causing the fish to grow fat.
Jardines didn’t repair the building but continued to produce sugar in other plants.
The refinery was situated in Sugar Street, the name of which is now the only clue that it was there.
Many streets in Causeway Bay’s East Point still show the influence of Jardine Matheson.
For instance, Yee Wo Street (怡和街) was named, in Cantonese, after the company.
Matheson Street, Paterson Street, Keswick Street, Irving Street and Percival Street are all named after 19th-century Jardine Matheson taipans.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 18.
Translation by Darlie Yiu
[Chinese version 中文版]
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