Written by Billy Potts and edited by Justina Chong
This is the third in a series of articles in which I explore the cryptozoology of Hong Kong. This animal falls into category 3 of George M. Eberhart’s classification of cryptids, ‘Survivals of recently extinct species’. We had planned for this to be the last in our series but we’ve decided to publish now because of a newly reported tiger sighting near a walking trail in Ma On Shan Country Park today. To mark the occasion we are revisiting one of Hong Kong’s most infamous tiger encounters, one that has passed into the city’s lore.
We need monsters. They fulfill a primal purpose deep within our psyche, to personify fears and give a face to evil. But confronted with real monsters, with no notions of good or bad, would we know how to deal with them?
A slate grey sky hangs low as we pass beneath the Wong Nai Chung Gap Flyover, whose name recalls the malarial swamp which pre-colonials once called ‘yellow mud stream’; the British renamed it Happy Valley. We pass through iron gates into the Hong Kong Cemetery. We have come to visit the victim of a creature thought by many to be imaginary. To others, it was the stuff of nightmares.
From a distance, the tombstones look waist high, but now that we stand in their midst, we are dwarfed by their oppressive marble and granite. The Hong Kong Cemetery, which opened in 1845, is the oldest in the territory and has been the final resting place for ‘all European Protestants and Nonconformists’. The stultifying soup of Hong Kong humidity and the necropolis’ eldritch Victorian air makes for a morbid meeting of East and West. The occupants are an eclectic lot — miniature child graves sprinkle the cemetery, sailors and soldiers cut down in their prime are memorialised by broken stone columns, Russian refugees commemorated by Eastern Orthodox crosses, Freemasons with their squares and compasses and, of course, hundreds of Chinese lay buried beneath tombstones, bearing faded photographs of unsmiling faces.
Halfway up a hill in Section 2, on the far East side of the cemetery, we find a score of policemen’s graves. Treading carefully around the plots, we count until we get to the 6th stone in the 2nd row — the grave of Police Constable Ernest Goucher, a Celtic Cross ‘erected by his comrades as a mark of esteem’. While investigating the death of a villager in Sheung Shui, P.C. Goucher had been attacked and ‘mauled by a tiger’. He had died of his wounds several days later on March 12, 1915.
The Chinese Propensity for Exaggeration
In the early 1900s, many zoologists believed that tigers did not exist within the territory of Hong Kong. So when residents of Sheung Shui reported the killing of ‘a Chinese child’ by a tiger, their claim was ‘not seriously entertain[ed]’ and put down to ‘the Chinese propensity for exaggeration’, according to the South China Morning Post. Past reports of pugmarks found in paddy fields and even tiger attacks were similarly dismissed. Perhaps to humour the village head, two officers were sent to investigate the tiger on the loose.
Ernest Goucher was the son of a gamekeeper to the Duke of Portland. He joined the police on March 24, 1913, and had completed nearly two years of service. At 21, his superiors deemed him to be ‘an officer of much promise’. The lush subtropical rainforest of Hong Kong and its New Territory to the north could not have been more alien to this young man who had been transplanted halfway across the world from his native hamlet of Belph, just north of Mansfield, a market town in Nottinghamshire. Many of his compatriots back home would have been fighting in the trenches of World War I at this point. Originally posted to the Central Station, Goucher had only recently moved to Sheung Shui after an ‘intimate friend’, P.C. Ralph Miller, ‘accidentally shot himself [in] August whilst in the chargeroom at the Central station’. The incident so upset Goucher that he requested the transfer.
On Tuesday, March 9, 1915, Goucher and his colleague P.C. Holland received orders to investigate reports of a tiger attack near the walled village of Lung Yeuk Tau. Armed with a shotgun and ‘an automatic pistol containing eight shots’, the constables set off on what they believed would be a wild goose chase.
A Coolie Carelessly Throws a Stone
A cool, humid spring day greeted Goucher and Holland as they arrived in Lung Yeuk Tau. The constables wasted no time in tracking the phantom cat.- Goucher ‘found spoor measuring eight inches in diameter’. The Telegraph, which gave Goucher’s name as ‘Croucher’, reported that villagers guided the constables to a small thicket when ‘a coolie standing close by carelessly threw a stone into the bush [and] a monster tiger, likened to the size of a pony, sprang from the bush’.
Accounts vary as to what happened next. The Telegraph reported that the tiger ‘caught P.C. Croucher [sic] in his claws, and – though the constable [was] some six foot in height, and turn[ed] the scale at fifteen stone – tossed him about like a shuttlecock.’ The Post reported that Goucher ‘fired both barrels at the brute’ before falling to the ground. The tiger tore into Goucher, breaking his arm, ripping four gashes down his back, and another in the shoulder, severely lacerating his body down one side. Said The Telegraph, ‘[Holland] went to his assistance and fired two shots,’ but according to the Police Museum, Holland emptied his revolver into the animal’s flanks. ‘A small revolver was of course next to useless against such an animal but had the effect of causing it to release its victim and beat a retreat,’ the Post reported.
Bleeding profusely, Goucher was taken to a hospital in Kowloon by train. Holland refused hospitalization.
Having revealed himself once more, ‘Stripes’, as the press referred to the tiger, was suddenly the talk of the town. The police were now firm believers of the Sheung Shui tiger. Despite their colleague’s serious condition, there was sport to be had.
Shortly after the attack, Assistant Superintendent of Police Donald Burlingham arrived at Lung Yeuk Tau with the cavalry: several policemen armed with heavy sporting rifles. According to the South China Morning Post:
‘The tiger had retreated into the trees. Marksmen shot it, but although wounded the huge cat came hurtling out of its lair and leapt on Indian constable Rutton Singh. His comrades poured bullets into the tiger, but it was too late to save the constable.’
The Post said little else about the deceased Constable Singh, but Burlingham and his men did stop to pose for a photo with the tiger, strung up on a pole borne by two villagers.
A sort of carnival followed.
Stripes was put on display at City Hall. The feline measured 2.2 metres from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail. It was a metre high and its paws were 15 cm across. It weighed 131 kg.
The Post reported that ‘thousands of Europeans and Chinese visited the City Hall [to] see the Kowloon tiger’. Mee Cheung, a local photography studio, exhibited photos of the big cat in its shop window. Plaster molds were made of the cat’s paws and put in a window display at Lane Crawford.
The Post went on to say that the tiger was skinned and that, once a taxidermist had been called in, the skin would have ‘a place of prominence in the museum’.
A contemporaneous report from the Government Civil Hospital stated that Goucher was ‘still in danger [but] holding his own’. Nevertheless, he died of his wounds on the March 12, 1915, and was shortly after buried. His funeral took place at the Hong Kong Cemetery, his coffin was carried from the Government Civil Hospital Mortuary on a gun carriage and draped with a Union Jack.
What became of Stripes?
A short drive from the cemetery where Goucher lies, up steep flights of stairs above a playground on Coombe Road, is the former Wan Chai Gap Police Station, now the Police Museum. We walk through linoleum tiled corridors lit by fluorescent tubes. Along the wall, black and white pictures of European police commissioners with handlebar- mustaches give way to colour photographs of today’s post-colonial leadership.
We walk past a replica heroin lab and a room which contains Triad ceremonial garb and an assortment of vicious homespun weapons, like sharpened pipes, meat cleavers, crude machetes, and whips fashioned from bicycle chains. We enter a large room that looks like a cross between an armoury and a motorcycle museum. Revolvers, machine guns, batons and wicker shields of all descriptions adorn the walls. A limp bomb-disposal robot sits in a corner.
At the far end of the room is a case. There, behind a thin pane of glass, is Stripes, his stuffed head fixed in a menacing snarl, framing his fearful symmetry. His glass eyes stare out vacantly, a pale approximation of the fire which once burned within. Before coming here, the taxidermied head had hung, for almost 60 years, above the entrance of the Officers’ Mess in the former Central Police Station. Coming face to face with the remains of this apex predator, one cannot help but feel respect. One can only imagine the blind terror its victims, one of whom lies buried in the valley below, would have felt in the face of such primal ferocity.
It is strange to think that an English police constable from rural Nottinghamshire and a tiger from the wilds of Sheung Shui, should be fated to cross paths in one cataclysmic meeting that would ultimately result in both their deaths. It is poignant to consider that they will spend their eternal rests in such close proximity to one another – one in a glass case high on a hill and the other in the shaded valley below. As for society, it denied the existence of a beast amongst them, confident in the might of His Majesty’s forces – Britain ruled the world, no local legend could harm it or stand in its way and yet, nature recognizes the authority of no man. Perhaps this was what disturbed the most. The incident has been mythologised and become lore. Both Goucher and the tiger have achieved a degree of immortality.
The Stanley Tiger
We had one more tiger to visit.
It is strange, in hindsight, that the police would have treated the reports of a tiger attack with such derision. There are many contemporaneous claims of sightings: four children scared a tiger away on the Peak by throwing rocks at it; a tiger killed a bullock at Cape D’Aguilar; and one was spotted in Pokfulam.
During the Japanese Occupation, prisoners at the Stanley Civilian Internment Camp were terrorized by a tiger that stalked the grounds by night. This is an extract from the diary of George Wright-Nooth, a prisoner at the camp:
Last night Langston and Dalziel who were sleeping outside at the back of the bungalow, were woken up at about 5.00 a.m. by snarls and growls. Langston…got up to have a look. He went to the edge of the garden and looked down the slope to the wire fence. There Dalziel saw him leap in the air and fly back into the boiler room shouting ‘There’s a tiger down there’…
Next morning he’s laughed at by other Bungalow C residents.
The Stanley tiger has arrived. None of the bungalows has any doors or windows, and soon laughter changes to fear.
The Stanley tiger was shot in 1942 by Rur Singh, an Indian policeman, in front of the Stanley Police Station. This tiger, however, was suspected to be an escaped circus animal. According to Geoffrey Charles Emerson in his book, Hong Kong Internment, 1942-1945: Life in the Japanese Civilian Camp at Stanley:
”One of the internees, who had been a butcher with the Dairy Farm Company in Hong Kong before the war, was taken out of the Camp to skin the tiger. After being stuffed, it was put on exhibition in the city and attracted many viewers. The meat was not wasted either, as The Hong Kong News reported on 27 June that ‘thanks to the generosity of a Nipponese officer, some officials of the Hong Kong Race Club were recently given the rare treat of having a feast of tiger meat. The meat, which was as tender and delicious as beef, was from the tiger shot at Stanley.’
The tiger’s pelt, now damp and blackened with age, ended up in Stanley’s Tin Hau Temple, where it hangs even today.
Over the years there have been many unsubstantiated tiger sightings in Hong Kong. In 1965- a schoolgirl from Diocesan girls’ school claimed to have seen one in Tai Mo Shan. There was another reported sighting at Sha Lo Tung in Pat Sin Leng Country Park in 2013 – a search yielded nothing. The World Wide Fund for Nature has declared the South China Tiger functionally extinct. It seems that tigers in Hong Kong, once thought to be a figment of overactive imaginations, have returned to being just that.