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‘It was part of the art of life for Chinaman and Irishman alike, and was purely esthetic’

Date:   16 February 2023 (Monday) 

Time:   5:30 pm – 6:30 pm 

Venue: Multipurpose Area, 2/F, HKU Main Library 

Languages: English 


Speakers: May Holdsworth


Moderator: Christopher Munn

    A few photographs and an exchange of correspondence are the only remaining evidence of a long-running friendship between Sir Robert Ho Tung and George Bernard Shaw. They first met in 1933, when Shaw and his wife Charlotte stopped over in Hong Kong during their world tour on the Empress of Britain. Sir Robert’s house on the Peak, encompassing within a ‘radiant miniature temple’, seized Shaw’s imagination so indelibly that, years later, it would reappear in two acts in Buoyant Billions, his last full-length play. The enormously wealthy Bill Buoyant, eponymous protagonist of the play, is shown to find spiritual refreshment in a Chinese-style shrine at his house in London’s Belgrave Square.  


    Sir Robert Ho Tung, for his part, felt a special connection to Shaw. Like others of his generation, he had a straightforward admiration for the work and reputation of the dramatist and critic. At a deeper level, Shaw’s tenacity and indomitable spirit resonated with him. The parallels enhanced their relationship, particularly as they aged. Sir Robert was ‘a mighty man of business: in his hands all things turn into money 'But entirely to Shaw’s approval, he had demonstrated power over circumstances and made money without forfeiting his own soul. He, too, is spiritually nourished in the original ‘miniature temple’ on the Peak. Perhaps, as claimed in the quotation used as the title of this talk, Sir Robert and Shaw really did share an aesthetic appreciation of the art of life?  


    May Holdsworth’s previous books include Foreign Devils: Expatriates in Hong Kong, and The Palace of Established Happiness: Restoring a Garden in the Forbidden City. She published Sir Robert Ho Tung: Public Figure, Private Man in 2022. Christopher Munn is the author of Anglo-China: Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong, 1841-1880. May Holdsworth and Christopher Munn are co-editors of the Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography, and co-authors of Crime, Justice and Punishment in Colonial Hong Kong: Central Police Station, Central Magistracy and Victoria Gaol.

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