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Colonial Cases

Wong Kong Chun, 1899



Wong Kong Chun

Mixed Court, Shanghai
Cheng and Mayers, 23 January 1899
Source: North China Herald, 30 January,1899



Shanghai, 23rd January.

Before Mr. Cheng, Magistrate, and Mr. S. F. Mayers, British Assessor.


   Wong Kong-chun, housekeeper, Jong Ah-she, cook, Sing Ash-sai, Sing Ah-hoo, and Sing Ah-yang, servants, were charged by the Police and at the instigation of the Court on suspicion of being concerned together in wilfully and maliciously setting fire to tea-shop, No. 56 Honan Road, at 4.30 a. m. on the 18th inst. The case was remanded on the 20th inst., when defendants were let out on bail of $1,000. Mr. Morgan Phillips appeared on behalf of the defendants. 

   At the opening of the case Mr. Phillips asked the Court at what length the proceedings had already gone. Mr. Mayers said that on the morning of trh fire, Mr. Cheng and he visited the scene and, on inspection, came to the conclusion that there were sufficient grounds for the charge. At the previous hearing the manager of the tea-shop had been examined but not the other defendants. Mr. Phillips asked whether the Court was satisfied with the financial part of the question, regarding the value of effects and the amount for which insured.  Mr. Hunter, on behalf of the Insurance companies interested, said he would rather not make any statement as to whether the contents of the premises were under or over insured. He had not valued them. 

   Mr. Phillips said all he had heard about the case was from a brief account he had cut out of the North China Daily News. The Assessor, giving a detailed account, said that a constable saw smoke coming from the windows at 3.30 a.m. and could not get the occupants to answer, but forcing the premises he found the men fully dressed and doing nothing to put out the fire. The police got water from the back yard and extinguished the flames. Defendants said they had endeavoured to put the fire out. 

   Mr. Phillips said he would like an opportunity of cross-examining the constables as it seemed to him, on the evidence of the police, to be merely a case of suspicion. The Assessor stated that the manager had been examined and his evidence amounted to a suggestion that a spark might have dropped and that when the police arrived the fire was out. One of the prisoners, an employee examined by Mr. Cheng, said he was asleep and, smelling some smoke, woke up. He called the other employees and tried to put out the fire. The fire was suppressed immediately after.

   Mr. Phillips (to Mr. Cheng) - Will you kindly ask how the fire was put out?

   Magistrate - The witness says he got the water from the outside of the building and that they were in such a hurry he did not hear whether the police were knocking or not.

   The Assessor - He did not see any police?

   Magistrate - After the fire was out he saw the police come in.

   Mr. Phillips - I imagine a deal of confusion took place?

   Mr. Cheng - Yes.

   Mr. Phillips - Did the police assist in extinguishing the fire?

   Witness (through M r. Cheng) allowed the police did not assist at the fire but quite a number arrived afterwards.

   Mr. Phillips - I understand the fire was being extinguished when the Police came in.

   Magistrate - I am afraid all the other witnesses will give the same evidence.

   Mr. Phillips - Has the resident manager's evidence been taken? I presume it will be the same. 

   The manager, through M r. Cheng, said that he was afraid to open the door on the outbreak of the fire on account of thieves or roughs, md that the door was not opened until the fire was extinguished. 

   M. Phillips - I would like to know where the first prisoner slept.  - Prisoner stated that he slept on a platform just opposite the staircase in the front room next to the door.

   Mr. Phillips asked where the second prisoner slept, and was told in a big stall at the back.

   Mr. Matheson - Did the second prisoner see the police?

   Mr. Cheng interpreted that witness saw the police, after the fire was put out. The fire was put out within a quarter of an hour and when the police arrived they were ready to wash their feet and retire. 2nd prisoner examined by Inspector Matheson said he was outside passing along the buckets of water and therefore could not see the police extinguishing the flames.

   Mr. Phillips - Where did the third witness sleep?

   Mr. Cheng - In the same room as the second. He was also called by one of the employees. He turned on the tap and tried to pass the water to put out the fire. He was busy fixing a hose to a tap in order to put out the fire. The hose was about 20 ft. long.

   Mr. Mayers asked if any hose were found on the premises to which Inspector Matheson replied in the negative.

   Witness said that the hose had not been used as the fire was extinguished by the time it was ready.

   Mr. Phillips - Had they obtained water from the tap before applying the hose? - Yes.

   Mr. Phillips - Is there a large wooden bucket or other vessel for dipping out of? - Yes, there are all kinds of vessels.

   Inspector Matheson - Is the hose kept purposely for extinguishing the fire? - Witness allowed a length of hose was kept in cases of emergency. The hose was fitted to a tap up-stairs while the water in the buckets was from a tap downstairs. They were using both taps at the same time.

   The Magistrate - I don't think it necessary to continue the examination.

   Inspector Matheson - The police evidence directly contradicts the witnesses.

   Mr. Mayers - It is not necessary to cross-examine.

   Mr. Phillips - This is merely a case of suspicion, and seems to me the Court is fully cognizant of the value of the effects and the amount insured for. Only two policemen bring the evidence against the accused, and only policemen, no other disinterested persons. It is a waste of time to go further but of course if the Court desires I will cross-examine them.

   Inspector Matheson stated that Mr. Hunter had something to say.

   Mr. Hunter here stated that the Insurance Company had already cancelled the policy.

   Mr. Mayers - That is not relevant to the case.

    Mr Phillips - On the evidence of the Police it is only a case of suspicion. The financial position of the proprietor and value of the goods are sufficient to rebut the evidence of the Police. It seems to me a waste of time to cross-examine the police but I wish to make a few observations. 

   There is not a scintilla of evidence to support the charge. We know there have been of late a great number of fires and no doubt some have been due to incendiarism, but is that a reasonable ground for innocent persons to be charged as defendants have been? No doubt the police have been instructed to investigate all fires.

   Mr. Mayers - If the defendants have any ground of complaint they can petition the Taotai.

   Mr. Phillips - On public grounds it is desirable for me to say that the proceedings of the police have been unfair. Is it proper in every case of fire in a Chinese dwelling that the Chinese should be hauled before the Court at once?

   Mr. Mayer - We have no control over the Police at all.

   M r. Phillips - I do not suggest that.

   Mr. Mayers - I am satisfied.

   Mr. Phillips to Mr. Cheng - If you think it unnecessary for me to say any more I will refrain from wasting the time of the Court.

   Mr. Cheng - The case is dismissed.

   Mr. Phillips - Of course the bail of $1,000 will be returned.

Published by Centre for Comparative Law, History and Governance at Macquarie Law School