The most famous Irishman in China is better known as the Englishman of whom it was said, ‘no single foreigner has had more sustained influence or enjoyed a greater measure of Chinese confidence.’
Robert Hart, born in Portadown in 1835, spent all but one of his early years in Ireland. At the age of 18 he was nominated by Queens University, Belfast, for the British Consular Service in China. He was to spend most of his life there, becoming fluent in the language and culture, Inspector General of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service and a close confident of the Chinese government as it sought to modernise at the end of the 19th century. He lived through some of the most traumatic events in recent Chinese history, the Taiping Rebellion and the Boxer Uprising.
In his life he managed successfully to cope with three identities: Irish, British and Chinese.
He believe the British system was the key to prosperity in China, and Ireland, and for that reason promoted British interests though a dedicated Chinese official. He also said, ‘I am an Irishman – a Paddy in heart and soul’ and had no trouble in celebrating both St Patrick’s Day and 12th July. It was perhaps his awareness of being both inside and outside that enabled him to show respect for both the Chinese language and culture, be critical of aspects of the British system while promoting its values and be proud of his Irish-ness while supporting union with Britain.
It is said that when the Chinese Postal Service was included in his remit he had the post boxes painted green. As a result, after the ‘hand-over‘ of Hong Kong in 1997 the Queen’s red post boxes were painted dark green. There is still a Hart Street in Hong Kong.