Guyana-born, Hilton Cheong-Leen, aka the ‘mayor of Hong Kong’, dies aged 99

Hilton Cheong-Leen

Cheong-Leen had been involved in the city’s civic affairs for decades, starting in 1957

Cheong-Leen, who co-founded the Hong Kong Civic Association in 1954, died in the early hours of Tuesday at his home. The cause of death was old age, according to the family.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor expressed deep sorrow over Cheong-Leen’s passing and sent her deepest condolences to Cheong-Leen’s family.

Hilton Cheong-Leen, who was 100 at the time of his death in the Chinese tradition of counting age, was born in Georgetown, British Guiana in 1922, the son of a Chinese immigrant father and a third-generation Chinese mother. The family left for Hong Kong when Cheong-Leen was nine. He enrolled at the prestigious La Salle College, a Catholic school in Kowloon Tong, when it opened in 1932, and started working at a bank immediately after he graduated.

His career in finance did not last long. In December 1941, Japan invaded Hong Kong and swiftly defeated the Allied forces defending the city. Cheong-Leen and his family fled to Guilin, where he worked at the US consulate.

His family returned to Hong Kong when the war ended in 1945. “One of the first jobs I was offered was with the Post,” he later said. “They offered me the chance to become a reporter with a salary of HK$500 [US$64].”

But his friends suggested he instead import highly sought-after goods such as stockings, shirts and jackets from the US because he had friends in New York. His company would later go on to specialise in importing Swiss watches.

In 1953, Cheong-Leen joined the Hong Kong Junior Chamber of Commerce, a group formed under the auspices of an international NGO that promoted civic awareness. In that year, he represented the Hong Kong chapter at the group’s conference in San Francisco.

After returning to Hong Kong, he decided to form his own political group to offer the community an alternative platform for civic engagement. In October 1954, he co-founded the Hong Kong Civic Association and was elected honorary secretary.

The association is the oldest surviving political group in the city.

He was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1973 and was indirectly elected to Legco in 1985.

Cheong-Leen was also instrumental in pushing for nine years of compulsory schooling for Hong Kong children, which is taken for granted today. He made a speech advocating the change, and used every opportunity to further the cause.

In 1978, the Hong Kong government began funding nine years of mandatory education spanning from Primary One to Secondary Three.

A classic politician of the colonial era, Cheong-Leen believed meaningful change on bread-and-butter issues should come about through persuading the government, rather than taking to the streets.

Flora Cheong-Leen said her father had devoted his life to helping Hong Kong and its people.

In addition to Flora, Hilton Cheong-Leen was survived by one other daughter and two sons.