21 April 2019
A street scene in Santiago, the capital and the largest city of Chile. Hong Kong's ties with Chile date back to the mid-19th century. Photo:
A street scene in Santiago, the capital and the largest city of Chile. Hong Kong's ties with Chile date back to the mid-19th century. Photo:

Hong Kong and Chile: Much closer than you imagine

As an international city and financial hub, Hong Kong has established close ties with a lot of countries and regions around the world.

However, not too many people may be aware that among our long-standing “friends” is the South American country of Chile.

Even though Chile is halfway across the world from here, bilateral relations between that country and Hong Kong actually date back to the mid-19th century.

Before the American Civil War, African slaves were widely employed in farms across South America and the southern US.

However, as abolitionist sentiment and emancipation movements began sweeping across the New World since the mid-1800s, farm owners in the region were suddenly facing an acute shortage of labor.

In order to fill the jobs left by emancipated Black slaves, the farm owners began to look to Asia for cheap labor, and started importing tens of thousands of migrant workers from India and the southern provinces of China such as Guangdong and Fujian.

As a free international port under British rule, Hong Kong gradually became the major gateway for Chinese migrant workers, or the so-called “coolies”, to the Americas.

And Chile was often the first leg of their journey to the American continent.

Most Chinese “coolies” would continue with their journey after they arrived at Chile and would end up working in farms in Cuba, Peru, etc, but the process nevertheless gave rise to a thriving shipping route between Hong Kong and Chile, as Chile was a key transfer station for the Chinese workers.

Yet in the late 19th century, Britain began to prohibit the transporting of Chinese workers to the American continent from ports under its rule, not least because London was under international pressure to ban the “coolie” trade, which was, by its very nature, no less than slavery.

And because of that, Macau soon replaced Hong Kong as the hub for coolie trade in southern China.

Nevertheless, the ties between Hong Kong and Chile didn’t end there. It is because Chile was a major maritime power in the Western Hemisphere throughout the late 19th century.

In 1898, the Baquedano, the newest and most modern battleship of the Chilean navy at that time, was launched, and led a massive fleet to sail on a trans-Pacific voyage the following year.

According to its plan, the formidable Chilean fleet was scheduled to visit Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and then head south towards Singapore and Sydney in Australia.

On November 3, 1900, the Chilean armada finally arrived at Hong Kong. However, one of its sailors by the name of Carlos Krug Boonen suddenly fell very ill shortly after their arrival and died in a local naval hospital four days later.

Boonen was buried at the Saint Michael’s Catholic Cemetery in Happy Valley, and his story has been recorded at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.

Today Chile is no longer a naval power, and Chinese coolies are also history. However, Chile and Hong Kong have remained tied to each other in certain ways.

For example, former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet drew quite a lot of insights from Hong Kong when he was pressing ahead with his economic development program, not to mention that it had been rumored that he had secret gold deposits lodged at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.

Today, there remains much potential for economic and trade cooperation between Chile and Hong Kong, as the two are members of APEC.

Hong Kong and Santiago are eager to advance their trade relations. For instance, in 2012, the two governments concluded a free trade agreement (FTA), which came into effect in October 2014.

It was only the fourth FTA the HKSAR government had ever concluded with a foreign country, suggesting that decision makers were taking the issue of Hong Kong-Chile ties pretty seriously.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 13

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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