The life of Sir Hormusjee Naorojee Mody is best
summed up by the plaque under his bronze bust at the University of Hong
Kong: “A distinguished Parsi businessman, renowned philanthropist, and
benefactor of Hong Kong for over fifty years.”
Naorojee Mody was born in Bombay on 12 October 1838. After completing his
secondary education, he founded a printing press and began publishing a
newspaper in India.
The exact chronology of his early years in
Hong Kong is not well documented. Some sources say Mody came to Hong Kong
in 1860 at the invitation of his maternal uncle, Jehangirjee Buxey. Buxey
wished to retire from his modest auction firm in Hong Kong, Buxey & Co,
and wanted one of his India based sons to take over the business. But
when they declined, he turned to Mody, who willingly agreed to come and
join him. These sources believe that later in the 1860s Mody worked for
an Indian Bank (presumably the Bank of Hindustan, China, and Japan) before
starting his own auction house.
According to other sources, Mody first arrived
in Hong Kong in 1858 (aged only 19) as a clerk in the aforementioned
Indian Bank. Then in 1860, already in Hong Kong for two years, he took
over Buxey & Co. upon his uncle’s retirement. Regardless of whether he
took over Buxey & Co. or founded his own company, Mody was making a
handsome profit from auctioning in the 1860s, until the installation of
the telegraph. The telegraph would forever alter the prevailing trade
practices of the day, making local auctioneers such as Mody
uncompetitive. Recognizing the changing situation, Mody looked for
opportunities outside of the auction business.
In 1868, Mody formed Chater & Mody with
Catchick Paul Chater (later Sir Paul), an Armenian Christian whose family
had resided in Calcutta for several generations. Chater had arrived in
Hong Kong four years earlier as an 18-year-old assistant at the Bank of
Hindustan, China and Japan. Mody and Chater made a remarkable team, one
of the most brilliant of Hong Kong’s early years. Mody was a private man,
but fluid, always ready to explore new opportunities while Chater was
outgoing but steady.
Leveraging Mody’s auctioning experience,
Chater & Mody first became brokers on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and
Hong Kong Gold Bullion markets. Previously, though both markets existed,
trading had been very thin. Thanks in large part to the pioneering
efforts of Mody to vitalize both exchanges, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange
is now the second largest in Asia and the Hong Kong Gold Bullion market is
now Asia’s largest and the world’s fourth largest.
Chater & Mody later branched out into real
estate and this brought them their greatest financial successes. Both
Mody and Chater were men of great vision. They believed in the potential
of Kowloon (the area across the harbor from Hong Kong Island) at a time
when it was almost undeveloped, and invested heavily in real estate
there. This reaped huge profits in later years. Mody Road is still a
major artery in the heart of the vibrant Tsim Tsa Tsui district. In the
Tsim Tsa Tsui East district, Mody Road and Mody Square are home to a row
of deluxe hotels and up-market shopping malls.
Mody and Chater also initiated the development
of the port of Hong Kong at the foot of Kowloon Peninsula. The scheme
started in 1872 with the reclamation of the waterfront, building of a
seawall, then godowns (warehouses). This laid the foundation of what
later came to be known as the Hong Kong & Kowloon Wharf & Godown Co.
Encouraged by the successful completion of
this Kowloon project, they then started the Praya (waterfront promenade)
Reclamation on Hong Kong Island. The Praya Scheme was originally floated
by Sir John Browning in 1854 but had to be abandoned because of various
problems between the merchants who held the foreshore rights, the
government, and the navy. Thanks in large part to Mody and Chater, the
Reclamation of 1890 – 1904 was finally built and named Connaught Road.
The introduction of electricity to Hong Kong
in 1890 provided another opportunity. In 1892, Mody and Chater founded
the Societe Francais des Charbonnages du Tonkin to develop coal mines in
Vietnam. They were able to undercut the price of coal from more
traditional sources and establish a successful business. The enterprise
has been described as ‘one of the only truly successful commercial
undertakings in the entire history of French Indo-China’. A grateful
French government rewarded Mody with the Legion of Honour.
Through his investments and dealings in the
stock market he became the director of many companies. As a responsible
and innovative member of Hong Kong’s international business community, he
was invited to become a director of many more companies. In fact, Mody
became the director of so many companies that he was nicknamed ‘the
Napoleon of the Rialto [market]’.
There is no record of
when Mody’s wife, Manekbai arrived in Hong Kong, but before she returned
to India for a visit in 1886, she arranged to have a marble fountain built
for the Parsee Cemetery in the Happy Valley district of Hong Kong Island.
There is also a record in the annals of the Parsee community of Hong Kong
that their third and fourth sons were born in Hong Kong in 1872 and 1875
respectively. It is believed that she was the first Parsee lady to have
resided in Hong Kong.
Mody had a great interest in collecting
antique furniture, French paintings, porcelain, silver, and objects d’art
for his palatial home, Buxey Lodge. Mody was reputed to have the finest
collection of European art ever to exist in Hong Kong. Buxey Lodge, named
after his benefactor, was first listed in the government rate books in
1894-5 and was one Hong Kong’s finest residential showplaces for many
years after. Buxey Lodge, possibly renovated or rebuilt in 1911, was
donated by Mody’s widow to the Hong Kong Government in 1946.
Chater, an incredibly keen race-goer,
introduced Mody to horseracing. Mody took up racing with tremendous
success. Mody (using the name “Mr. Buxey”) and Chater (using the name
“Mr. Paul”) set up a successful stable together in 1872. In 1884 they won
17 out of a possible 26 races in Hong Kong. Mody expanded his stable to
Shanghai and soon became a viable rival to David Sassoon, who had
dominated Shanghai racing since 1886. In 1892 Mody’s ‘Royalist’ won the
Shanghai Derby and other Mody horses won six more races at the meet.
Later both Sassoon and Mody brought their best horses from Shanghai to
Hong Kong and renewed their rivalry. Mody continued to run one of the top
stables in Hong Kong throughout the first decade of the twentieth
century. There is still an annual race on the Hong Kong racing schedule
named after him.
Mody’s public spirit and charitable
contributions took many forms and occurred near and far. Along with many
smaller local charities, Mody funded the building of a Soldiers and
Sailors Home and a Seamen’s Institute in Hong Kong. At the opening of the
Institute he is reported to have said “I have taken keen interest to the
Mission to seamen here, because to our merchant seamen this Colony owes so
much for its prosperity, its commerce, its very existence.”
Mody was also the President of and a generous
contributor to the Kowloon Cricket Club. He solely financed the
construction of the KCC’s Clubhouse and laid the foundation stone on 18th
January 1908. The KCC was also home to the Amateur Athletics Association
until 1950. During Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebration he donated a
statue of Queen Victoria to Hong Kong. This statue originally stood in
Statue Square and now resides in Victoria Park.
Mody was actively involved in the Zoroastrian
community and local civic affairs. He was the President of the
Zoroastrian Charity Funds of Hongkong, Canton, & Macao in the 1890s. He
was a special juror for the judicial system at a time when most were only
British. He was also Acting Consul General for Siam (now Thailand).
There is a record of a Mody being on the organizing committee for and
contributing a large sum to the Irish Distress Fund, set up after a great
famine in Ireland in 1880. There are also records showing a Mody was a
Justice of the Peace. However whether these two were Sir Hormusjee, one
of his sons, or some other Mody is unknown.
Mody’s greatest and most remembered
contribution is his donation that founded the University of Hong Kong. At
that time most people felt that since Hong Kong was so commercially
oriented a university was unnecessary. However, inspired by the
suggestion of then Governor of Hong Kong Sir Fredrick Lugard and his wife,
Mody pursued the idea whole-heartedly. Mody donated the entire amount
needed to build the Main Building, and contributed a very generous
secondary endowment for its running as well.
On 16 March 1910 a grand ceremony was held to
lay the foundation stone. The 13th Rajput’s band played the
national anthem and Governor Lugard announced to the gathered crowd of
dignitaries “I am pleased to announce I have received a telegram to the
effect that His Majesty has been pleased to approve that Mr. Mody be
appointed Knight Bachelor and Letters Patent will be issued in due
course.” Mody, wearing his Pagri proudly, rose from his seat next to his
old friend Chater to give the main speech. He modestly explained his
motives in making this benefaction “the idea of in some measure providing
for others what I was myself denied.”
Sadly, Sir Hormusjee Mody did not live to see
the completion of his greatest contribution to Hong Kong. He died, at
home in Buxey Lodge, on 16 June 1911, greatly admired and respected. He
is buried in the Hong Kong Parsee Cemetery in Happy Valley.
The University was officially opened on 11
March 1912 in the presence of Lady Mody and their son Naoroj Mody. The
building is magnificent, built in the traditional red-brick ‘Renaissance’
university style. It has open courtyards inside and is surmounted by a
tall clock tower and 4 turrets. One of the finest buildings of the
colonial British period in Hong Kong, it is gazetted a historic building.
His son was made a Life Member of the Court of the University of Hong Kong
a few months later.
On 17 June 2002, as part
of the University’s 90th anniversary celebrations, a brand new bronze bust
of Sir Hormusjee was installed in the original Main Building he had
donated. The bust was unveiled by Professor Ian Davis, the
Vice-Chancellor of the University, and Mr. Jal S. Shroff, J.P., the
President of the Zoroastrian Charity Funds of Hongkong, Canton, & Macao (a
position Sir Hormusjee had held 110 years earlier).
Sir Hormusjee N. Mody
made a considerable fortune from his businesses, but he returned much of
it to the land and people that made him successful.