On May 29, 160 years ago, 62 businessmen gathered at the Hong Kong Club (right) and founded the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce. From the very beginning, the Chamber was an international organization with membership open to “all mercantile firms and persons engaged or interested in the commerce or shipping of China.”
As Hong Kong was at that time a British colony, it is not surprising that the biggest national group among the original members was also British. But what may be more surprising is that they made up less than half of the membership, with other founders including Indian, American, German, Danish and French merchants. Chinese businessmen first joined the Chamber in 1880.
This international character in the early years laid the foundation for HKGCC’s role as the most global and dynamic chamber in the city throughout its history. Today, our membership consists of an extremely diverse range of companies and individuals, and we continue to help our members explore the emerging business opportunities in Hong Kong, Mainland China and around the world.
The voice of business
The name “Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce” was formally adopted at the Chamber’s second General Meeting on June 14, 1861. The 62 initial members included representatives from 51 merchant houses and five banks, as well as six individuals. Alexander Perceval was the first Chairman: born in Ireland, he had previously served as a partner of Jardine Matheson & Co in Hong Kong.
The purpose of the Chamber was set out at this meeting:
“to watch over and protect the general interests of commerce, to collect information on all matters of interest to the mercantile community, and to use every means in its power for the removal of evils, the redress of grievances, and the promotion of the common good; to communicate with authorities and others thereupon to form a code of practice whereby the transaction of business may be simplified and facilitated; to receive references, and to arbitrate between disputants, the decision in such references to be recorded for future guidance.”
Little has changed in this regard. The Chamber continues to be the voice of business in Hong Kong, to share information, to work to improve the business environment, and to represent the interests of all members.
Providing business information has always been a priority, and by 1862 the Chamber started to issue a fortnightly “market report and price current report.” Today, members can access information not only in The Bulletin magazine, but also online and on our app.
Keeping up with technology is crucial for businesses to stay ahead of the competition, and for organizations like HKGCC to best serve our members. As early as 1914 the Chamber pioneered the use of wireless communication. The Chamber’s first website – Chamber-NET – was launched back in 1991, offering trade and other information online as well as an email service to our members.
Online webinars are among the latest technology developments at the Chamber, which has enabled us to continue to offer informative talks and seminars even amid the coronavirus restrictions of the past year.
Committees and lobbying
HKGCC’s committees date back to the very early days. At the General Meeting in May 1863, Chairman James MacAndrew noted that the General Committee was keen to understand the interests of particular merchant groups, which led to the setting up of the Chamber’s committee structure. Today, we have more than 20 committees and working groups that focus on industry sectors and geographical areas, as well as our Women Executives Club and Young Executives Club.
These committees enable members to keep up to date with sectoral developments, explore new opportunities, and network with industry peers. Our lobbying work also benefits from our committees, as we can access the deep knowledge and experience of our members in specific areas. This also gives weight to our policy suggestions, as the Government appreciates that our submissions are crafted on the foundation of considerable expertise and insight.
Today, the Chamber makes frequent submissions to the Government: these include suggestions on the annual Policy Address and Budget as well as our thoughts on policy proposals that impact the business community. This is another element of the Chamber’s work that dates back to the beginning of the Chamber. What we now call submissions have had a few different monikers over the years, including statements, position papers, petitions and memorials.
In 1863, for instance, a bill intended to give the Post Office the right to compel vessels to carry mail without compensation, and to detain and search vessels, was strongly resisted by the Chamber. Our efforts succeeded in burying this bill.
Almost 160 years later, our lobbying continues to be heard by the Government. Most recently, the Government listened to our appeal for support for the business community amid the Covid-19 crisis, and rolled out measures including the Employment Support Scheme and the D-Biz programme to help businesses upgrade their technology.
While the Chamber’s primary role is to act on behalf of the business community, our purpose has always included “promoting the common good” to create a better Hong Kong for all citizens.
Back in 1894, for example, the Chamber voiced the concerns of local Chinese residents about regulations that had been proposed to deal with an outbreak of the bubonic plague. The Government listened to the issues raised and then reviewed its plans based on the Chamber’s suggestions. With another deadly illness threatening Hong Kong in the past year, HKGCC has again carefully balanced the need to protect the health and well-being of citizens while considering the impact of any policy measures on the business community.
In 1973, the Good Citizen Award scheme was launched. This programme, organized by the Police Public Relations Branch and with HKGCC as the sole sponsor, rewards Hong Kong citizens who have helped the police to fight crime in the city. More than 4,000 citizens have been awarded over the past almost 50 years for their bravery in helping Hong Kong remain one of the safest cities in the world.
Looking to the future, climate change is one of the biggest threats we all face. The business community must play its part in tackling this issue, and the Chamber is working to help companies become more sustainable, to ensure that we create a better living environment for all Hong Kong citizens.
Leaders of the business community
Perhaps the best-known of the Chamber’s leaders in living memory is Tung Chee Hwa, who became the first Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in 1997. Tung had a long association with HKGCC, and served on our General Committee between 1980 and 1989.
The Chamber has a permanent presence in the Legislative Council, as our members are responsible for electing the LegCo Representative for the Commercial (First) Functional Constituency. Currently held by Jeffrey Lam since 2004, our LegCo representation dates back to 1884, when the Chamber elected its first LegCo member, Thomas Jackson, chief manager of the Hongkong Bank.
Our Chairmen have all been senior figures in the Hong Kong business community, and generally with concurrent high-profile and demanding jobs. We greatly appreciate the time they take to fulfill their role at the helm of HKGCC; today our Chairmen usually serve for a period of two years.
Past Chairmen sometimes held the position for considerably longer. Notable among these was Phineas Ryrie, who was Chamber chairman for 12 years between 1867 and 1889, and E.A. Hewett, who also served for 12 years, from 1903 to 1915.
It was 1984 before the Chamber got its first ethnic Chinese Chairman, Jack Tang, who had been a member of the Chamber’s General Committee since 1980. He was also the first Chamber Chairman to visit Beijing in that capacity, in June 1984, where he discussed the future of Hong Kong with Deng Xiaoping.
However, Chinese membership of the Chamber dates back to the 19th century. As the Chinese merchant community in Hong Kong became more established, the Chamber wanted to encourage their representation, and in 1880, three Chinese firms – the Sun Yee Hong, Lai Hing Hong and Tak On Bank – were the first Chinese members. In 1961, four Chinese community leaders were invited to join our General Committee: Sir Sik-nin Chau, RC Lee, Fung Hon Chu and TY Wong.
Today, the Chamber’s leadership and membership continue to reflect the broad range of industries and nationalities in Hong Kong. This is one of the key strengths of HKGCC: deeply rooted in Hong Kong but with an international outlook. As the global business environment continues to evolve, our mission remains as true as the day we were founded: to protect the interests of the whole business community in Hong Kong and promoting the good of all citizens.
- The first general meeting of the Chamber was held in the Hong Kong Club on 29 May, 1861.
- The first Chairman was Alexander Perceval of Jardine Matheson & Co.
- The first General Committee of the Chamber consisted of nine members.
- The first full-time executive of the Chamber was JC Baldwin, appointed Secretary of the Chamber.
- The first Chinese member companies joined the Chamber in 1880: the Sun Yee Hong, Lai Hing Hong, and Tak On Bank.
- The first LegCo representative, Thomas Jackson, Chief Manager of the Hongkong Bank, was elected in 1884.
- The first Certificates of Origin were issued by HKGCC in 1920.
- The first Chinese Chairman of the Chamber was Jack Tang of South Sea Textiles, who was elected in 1984.
- The first Chamber website was launched in 1991.
- Tung Chee Hwa, who was a member of the Chamber’s General Committee between 1980 and 1989, became the Hong Kong SAR’s first Chief Executive in 1997.
- The HKGCC app for mobiles was first launched in 2015.
The Hong Kong business environment has changed dramatically since the Chamber was founded and today includes industries that could not have been imagined back in 1861. Many companies from the mid-19th century no longer exist, while others have transformed or merged with other businesses. So it is quite remarkable that 27 companies have been members of the Chamber for at least 100 years. Among them are Standard Chartered Bank and Jardine Pacific, two of our founding members. Our many loyal members are a great testament to the cooperation that has built the Hong Kong business community.
- Standard Chartered Bank (Hong Kong) Ltd
- Jardine Pacific Limited
- The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited
- Melchers (HK) Ltd
- Credit Agricole Corporate and Investment Bank
- Mayer Brown
- The Hong Kong & China Gas Company Limited
- Jebsen & Co Ltd
- Green Island Cement (Holdings) Ltd
- British-American Tobacco Co (HK) Ltd
- The Hongkong Land Co Ltd
- ExxonMobil Hong Kong Ltd
- Wharf (Holdings) Ltd
- John Swire & Sons (HK) Ltd
- Lane Crawford (Hong Kong) Ltd
- Li & Fung (Trading) Ltd
- Shell Hong Kong Limited
- Connell Brothers Co (HK) Ltd
- Nestle Hong Kong Ltd
- A S Watson & Co Ltd
- CLP Holdings Ltd
- The Dairy Farm Company Limited
- The Bank of East Asia Ltd
- DKSH Hong Kong Ltd
- The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, Limited
Building a Network of Business Organizations
As Hong Kong grew rapidly and its role as a global business centre became ever more complex, the need arose for focused business organizations in certain areas. Several significant business groups’ origins began in HKGCC as discussions on the needs and aspirations of businesses operating in various sectors. Today, the Chamber sits on the boards of many of these organizations.
- The Hong Kong Trade and Development Council (HKTDC) is perhaps the biggest and best-known of the groups that originated at the Chamber. In 1949, HKGCC started arranging public relations activities for Hong Kong’s export development and to promote Hong Kong’s image overseas. This evolved into the organization that is now the HKTDC, which became a separate statutory body in 1966.
- The Hong Kong Exporters’ Association was established by the Chamber’s General Committee member H Owen Hughes and Assistant Secretary DW Leach in 1955 to promote and protect Hong Kong’s export trade.
- 1985 saw the establishment of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre after several years of planning, to replace the Chamber’s Arbitration service and committee.
- The Chamber founded the Hong Kong Article Numbering Association in 1989 to bring barcodes to the city, which became part of the global GS1 network in 2005.
- The Chamber founded the Business Coalition on the Environment in 1999 to address sustainability issues in Hong Kong. The coalition has grown to include more than 30 business associations and other chambers.
- HKGCC established the Hong Kong chapter of the Pacific Basin Economic Council in 1999, which fosters cooperation between governments and businesses in the Asia Pacific.
- Going back to the 1920s, we also helped found business interest groups such as the Hong Kong Shipowners’ Association.
A Permanent Home
The first general meeting of the Chamber took place in the Hong Kong Club. The Government then provided a room at the Court House until 1862, when the Chamber moved to rented premises. Over the decades to come, our head office was based in several different locations including City Hall, St George’s Building and Swire House. Then in 1984 the Chamber purchased a permanent home here at the United Centre in Admiralty. In 2016 a major renovation was completed that created a brighter and more welcoming space for members and staff, with a flexible mix of theatres and meeting rooms to host the Chamber’s many events.