History of Hong Kong Police

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Emblem of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force (1969─1997)

The history of the Hong Kong Police originates in 1841, when the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) was officially established by the British colonial government, the same year that the British had settled in Hong Kong. While changes have been implemented throughout the People's Republic of China (PRC) since the transfer of sovereignty in 1997, the Hong Kong Police Force (formerly the Royal Hong Kong Police Force) has since been responsible for serving the city.



Hong Kong police officer, early 20th century.

On 30 April 1841, twelve weeks after the British had landed in Hong Kong, orders were given by Captain Charles Elliot to establish a police force in the new colony.[why?] The first chief of police was Captain William Caine, who also served as the Captain of the Chief Magistrate.[1]

The Hong Kong Police was officially established by the colonial government on 1 May 1844, and the duties of the magistrate and head of police were separated. At the time of its establishment, the police force consisted of thirty-two men. The ethnic composition of the inaugural force consisted of mixed Chinese, European nationals or Indians.[1] Policemen from different ethnic groups were assigned a different alphabetical letter before their batch numbers: "A" for Europeans, "B" for Indians, "C" for local Chinese who spoke Cantonese, and "D" for Chinese recruited from Shandong Province. "E" was later assigned to White Russians who arrived from Siberia after the Russian Civil War.

For several decades, Hong Kong was a 'rough-and-tumble' port with a 'wild west' attitude to law and order. Consequently, many members of the force were equally rough individuals. As Hong Kong began to flourish and make its place in the world, Britain began to take a dim view of the government's lack of grip in both public and private sectors, and officials with strong values and Victorian concepts of management and discipline were sent to raise standards. Strong leadership, both of Hong Kong and of the force, began to pay dividends towards the latter part of the 19th century, and business prospered accordingly. Piracy on the seas, a centuries-old way of life for many dwellers on the coast of south China proved a thorn in the side of the Water Police from day one up until the early 1960s.

The 1890s brought challenges, both operational and organisational - there were outbreaks of bubonic plague in 1893-94; whilst the annexation of the New Territories (an additional 356sq.m. of land) in 1898-99, created difficult, but surmountable problems.

20th Century[edit]

The fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 brought civil unrest, and the start of World War I in 1914 saw many European officers enlist and return to the United Kingdom. In the 1920s and 1930s, Hong Kong's general peace was punctuated by bouts of civil unrest sparked by labour disputes, instability in China and Japanese militarism. When war came again in 1941, an unknown number of police officers and reserves - Chinese, Indian, European and Eurasian - had their lives taken by the Japanese during both the main conflict and the occupation.

From 1942 to 1945, the Kempeitai recruited former Chinese and Indian officers in the Japanese military police unit[2] and headquartered at the Legislative Council Building.

After the war, the mechanism of government in Hong Kong was in shambles; no men or equipment, devastated buildings and important resources like intelligence files, fingerprints, criminal records and personnel documents all lost or destroyed. The Water Police had four barely serviceable launches. Nevertheless, the situation presented an opportunity to "start from scratch" and after the 'British Military Administration', during which Colonel C.H. Sansom headed the force, Hong Kong was in a position to stand on its own feet again in May 1946.

Japanese invasion and reforms[edit]

Model of Hong Kong Kempeitai officer in uniform

When Japan invaded Hong Kong on December 8, 1941, the commissioner was John Pennefather-Evans, and through his wartime internment, he worked secretly to draft a conceptual plan for the reorganisation of the force, presenting his plan in July 1946[where?]. Although he was not to head the force after the war, his plans were both sound and progressive[how?]. Governor Sir Mark Young broadly supported them, and they were implemented under Commissioner Duncan MacIntosh thereby generating the foundation of today's structure and philosophy. The proposals included equality in recruitment and promotion for local officers and the cessation of recruitment of European constables. Moreover, doubts about the willingness of the Hong Kong people to accept Indian officers who had worked, and often abused their authority under the Japanese administration[how?] (December 1941 until August 1945) forced authorities to wind down the Sikh contingent. Instead, Pakistani and Shandong Chinese were recruited as constables, and this went on until the early 1960s. The last European inspectorate officers joined in 1994. The first female inspector joined in 1949, followed by the first intake of Woman Police Constables in 1951 - currently about 14 percent of the force is female, being represented in all ranks between constable and assistant commissioner.

Increasing growth of Hong Kong[edit]

The 1950s saw the start of Hong Kong's forty-year rise to global eminence. Throughout this period, the Hong Kong Police had successfully tackled many issues that had challenged the city's stability. Between 1949 and 1989, for example, Hong Kong experienced several huge waves of immigration from mainland China, most notably the period from 1958-62. (The force took over responsibility for manning the border from British forces in 1990-91.) In the 1970s and 1980s, large numbers of Vietnamese people arrived in Hong Kong, putting considerable strain on police resources - first for the marine police who intercepted them, then for the officers who processed them and manned the dozens of camps in the territory, and lastly for those who had to repatriate unsuccessful asylum applicants up until 1997.

Civil disorder[edit]

The most serious challenge to the force however has been civil disorder. In 1956, supporters of the China Nationalist movement defied government regulations providing the pretext for the eruption of conflict with pro-Communist activists and sympathisers - serious disorder was suppressed by the force and British military. In 1966, Communist groups fanned the flames of discontent: Riots broke out over a price rise on the Star Ferry. Following this, in the spring of 1967, at the time of the Cultural Revolution in China, left-wing workers instigated long and bloody riots. The Hong Kong Police lost ten men during the turmoil which saw a ten-month campaign of insurrection, bombing and murder. For its determined and successful efforts in suppressing this lengthy insurrection, the Hong Kong Police were granted the "Royal" prefix in 1969. HRH Princess Alexandra was appointed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to become the Commandant General of the Royal Hong Kong Police. The prefix was dropped at midnight on 1 July 1997, when China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong, and the force reverted to the title Hong Kong Police.


Despite loyal and steadfast service and efficiency levels which have grown steadily over 160 years, life on the force has not always been rosy. No administration anywhere can ever claim to have been free of corruption in its varying forms and severity. The spectre of corruption became really prominent in Hong Kong in the 1960s; the Hong Kong Police—as did almost every government department—experienced this[why?] and it peaked between 1962 and 1974, involving officers of all ranks and ethnicities.[why?] Motives and opportunities for corruption were many and varied, but mainly included poor pay and worries about China invading and abolishing pensions, while opportunities resulted from the vibrant growth in economic progress and its industrious, self-starting people were forming thousands of small street-level businesses all ripe for "protection."

During this time, the police, along with members of departments like Public Works, Fire, Transport and others, all had their own distinct methods of earning illicit income to boost their meagre wages. Members of the police were offenders with the highest profile and took most opprobrium. It took the determined stance of Governor MacLehose, together with Commissioner Charles Payne Sutcliffe, to instigate the firmest of measures to eradicate syndicated corruption—and the establishment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in 1974 was the prime one. After teething troubles, including a mass walkout by officers in 1977, by the early '80s a combination of the ICAC, firm police management, better emoluments and an amnesty had succeeded in destroying the overall culture, removing powerful figures, educating against greed and increasing instances of accountability.

Changing responsibilities[edit]

Responsibility for the city's prisons passed out of the control of the police in 1879, a separate fire brigade was formed in 1945, and the department assumed responsibility for immigration, customs, and excise duties until 1961. The boundary with mainland China is still manned by Hong Kong police and a very high percentage of smuggling interdicted at sea is carried out by its marine police.

Ethnic composition[edit]

Whilst 99 percent of the 35,000-member police force is Hong Kong Chinese, the overall establishment reflects the cosmopolitan nature of the city and, since the end of the recruitment of Europeans in 1994, as of January 2013, there were about 140 Europeans in the force from inspector to assistant commissioner, and a handful of officers with Indian, Pakistani, Thai, Singaporean and Malaysian heritage. Moreover, many Chinese officers have resided in countries such as Canada, the US, Australia and the UK. New recruits have to satisfy basic academic and language requirements (being able to read and write Chinese and speak fluent Cantonese) as well as have a permanent residence in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Regions (SAR).

Over the years, the proportion of Chinese staff within the Hong Kong Police, and the number of senior staff has increased; for many decades, the senior leadership had remained exclusively European, though this began to change in the 1970s. The first appointment of a local Chinese as Commissioner of Police was made in 1989 (Mr. LI Kwan-ha).


Police officers in summer uniform. Everything, except for the shorts, was used until about 2004/2005.

The headgear worn during the 19th century varied according to ethnicity: the whites wore kepis, the Sikh Indians had turbans, and the Chinese wore a form of straw conical Asian hat. All of them, however, shared the same green tunics in winter - giving rise to the nickname, day tau luk yee (big head, green coat). By 1900 dark blue had become standard, although the style and headdress still varied according to the race of the police officer concerned. The conical hat of Chinese personnel disappeared after about 1920 and similar khaki drill (for hot weather) and dark blue uniforms (for cold seasons) were worn by all personnel. Both Chinese and European officers wore the same dark blue peaked caps with silver badges. The Sikhs however continued to be distinguished by red turbans. White tunics were worn by police bandsmen and senior officers for ceremonial occasions.

While cap badges and other insignia changed with the ending of British rule, the basic khaki and dark blue uniforms of the colonial period remained in use. Up until December 2004, when a year-round blue uniform was adopted, the Hong Kong Police continued to wear two seasonal uniforms - a green/khaki summer uniform (tan for women officers) and a dark blue uniform for winter, with constables and sergeants wearing blue shirts and more senior staff wearing white ones.

Biometric technology[edit]

In April 2012, the Hong Kong Police Force publicly confirmed a ten-year contractual agreement with the 3M Cogent company to develop the biometric arm of the organization. Live scan technology and biometric identification products feature in the arrangement, and will be utilized in 32 city police force branches and three immigration locations.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Staff (2012). 警队历史:历史-第壹个壹百年. 香港警务处 (in Chinese and English). Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Retrieved 21 June 2012. 
  2. ^ Carroll, John Mark. [2007] (2007). A concise history of Hong Kong. ISBN 0-7425-3422-7, ISBN 978-0-7425-3422-3. p 123-125, p 129.
  3. ^ Staff (11 April 2012). "Hong Kong Police Force awards ten-year biometrics contract". ThirdFactor. AVISIAN, Inc. Retrieved 22 June 2012. 

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