It had a cast lifted from a Gilbert and Sullivan opera and a plot that would shame a penny dreadful. It is a quintessentially Victorian story, featuring a shadowy, manipulative and evil Chinese mandarin, incompetent natives, an aristocrat dispensing magnanimous British justice and his frail, delicate English wife. And all set against the explosive and exotic backdrop of the Opium Wars and the booming new Crown Colony of Hong Kong.
In the midst of this turbulent chapter of Asian history came the Great Bakery Incident of 1857, a plot so devious and underhand that only a foreigner could have carried it out. This was the only way that the shocked Anglo-Hong Kong elite could rationalise their close brush with death.
This single batch of poisoned bread on a small island off the southern coast of China would ultimately fan the flames of the Second Opium War, demonstrate the virtue of British justice and lead to the foundation of the grandest of Hong Kong’s department stores.
In 1842 the island of Hong Kong was ceded to the United Kingdom under the Treaty of Nanking. The treaty merely formalised a British occupation that had started in 1841 as part of the First Opium War (1839 – 1842). The humbling of the numerically superior Chinese forces combined with the British seizure of Hong Kong was a bitter blow to Imperial China and nationalist Chinese.
By the 1850s Hong Kong was firmly established as a lucrative British trading centre on the doorstep of the massive Chinese market. By the mid-1850s, the island’s population had risen from approximately 7,500 to 72,000.
But the commercial success and great wealth masked serious tensions between westerners and the Chinese. Society was almost entirely segregated along racial lines and the British held a tight grip on the reins of power. It was inevitable that such disparity or opportunity and privilege would breed resentment, plot and intrigue.
The tensions were exacerbated by the knowledge that the Chinese vastly outnumbered the Europeans. In 1857 the population of Hong Kong consisted of approximately 70,000 Chinese, 2,000 Indians and only 500 Europeans. In addition, friction with Imperial Chinese officials on the mainland had already reached boiling point, with the Arrow Incident providing the casus belli for the Second Opium War.
It was with all this in mind that a plot was allegedly hatched. The conspirators, it was reasoned, planned on the basis that only the westerners ate bread in Hong Kong whilst the Chinese ate rice. If the bread supply were tainted, it would therefore only affect ‘foreigners’, leaving the Chinese free to reassert their control of the island.
It was alleged that Chinese agents managed to convince Cheong Au Lum, the owner of the colony’s most popular bakery – the E Sing Bakery, to put arsenic in his bread. On 15 January 1857, the dastardly plot was put into motion. According to the reports, that morning, Cheong added ten pounds of the tasteless powder to the usual mixture and then fled the island with his family on board a steamer bound for Macau. The plan was almost a devastating success – over 400 Europeans were poisoned. But the plotters had overlooked two key factors.
The first was that arsenic poisoning was a delicate balance – too little arsenic would allow the victim to survive the attack. Too much arsenic and the body’s natural response was to vomit, violently expelling the toxic substance. Cheong had added far too much powder to his mixture, resulting in a distinctly indecorous bout of vomiting on the Peak, but few fatalities. Or, as the Morning Post put it:
“The hideous villainy, the unparalleled treachery, of these monsters of China, on whom the seraphic Gladstone and the un-English Cobden bestowed their unnatural and mischievous sympathy, had defeated itself by the very excess of iniquity. The poisoner had put such an immense amount of arsenic into the dough, that the deadly dose acted as an emetic, and was discharged form the human stomachs.”
The second was the fact that the island’s Indian population also ate bread. As they were earlier to rise than their European masters, they acted as involuntary food tasters for the western population. It was clear in many households that there was something very badly wrong with breakfast that day.
Soon, the colony was alive to the danger and an urgent message was circulated amongst the Europeans:
The bread is poisoned. Antidote, powerful mustard emetic and white of eggs.
At first it seemed as though the ruling elite had enjoyed a lucky escape. The few immediate fatalities were confined to the boarding houses, home of: “the dregs of the foreign population, whose powers of resistance had been weakened by abuse of alcohol, or where, in ignorance, remedies where not applied in season.” But the poisoning would eventually claim a victim on the opposite end of the social scale when the Governor’s wife, Lady Bowring, finally succumbed.
The island was gripped by paranoia and hysteria – a mood that was only exacerbated by the arrest of 52 of the bakery’s employees and the return of the Cheong family. Only the Governor’s person intervention prevented a mob from lynching the suspects. The case was seized upon by by the pro-war party in Westminster to support the rather flimsy pretext behind the Second Opium War.
Was Cheong part of a widespread Chinese nationalist conspiracy? Or did he act alone out of a grudge against the English? Was he independently demonstrating his displeasure with the Second Opium War? Or was he the puppet of a malevolent mainland Mandarin? These questions were discussed at length in both Britain and Hong Kong, but no definitive truth ever emerged.
Cheong was eventually acquitted for lack of evidence in a case that, for many on the island and around the world, demonstrated the even-handedness of British justice1. Just to be on the safe side, however, the British deported Cheong and his family back to mainland China.
Another curious consequence of the poisoning plot was the establishment of Hong Kong’s greatest department store. After the Great Bakery Incident, the European population on the island refused to buy bread from Chinese bakers. Into this doughy vacuum stepped two Scottish bakers, Thomas Ash Lane and Ninian Crawford. They would go on to make a fortune in the booming colony and found Lane Crawford, a department store so grand and expansive that you could find everything from a “pin to an anchor”.
Main sources: Poisoning by Wholesale: A Reminiscence of China Life by Albert Farley Heard and Deadly Dreams: Opium and the Arrow War (1856-1860) in China by J. Y. Wong
1 Admittedly, this interpretation glosses over the original lynch mob mentality and the suspects’ incarceration in a room so small it was soon dubbed the “Black Hole of China” (in reference to the Black Hole of Calcutta of 1756). The interpretation is further undermined by Hong Kong’s attorney general, who was quoted as saying it was: “better to hang the wrong man than confess that British sagacity and activity have failed to discover the real criminals”.