Tong and Tso in the New Territories 1962 | James Hayes

These two traditional Chinese organisations are confusing to foreigners especially as their immediate object is the same; namely that property should be perpetuated and should not be disposed of without due consideration and the consent cf those persons currently involved in its communal ownership or management. Little has been written on the subject, which is not mentioned specifically in Dyer Ball's "Things Chinese".


Of the two the tso ( 祖 ) is especially concerned with the clan. A tso can only take the name of a deceased person. It can originate with a man who, for various reasons, does not want all his property divided among his descendants; perhaps to avoid disputes or to prevent it from being finally broken up into minute parcels, but always, to perpetuate his own memory and those of his direct ancestors alternatively it can be begun on behalf of a certain ancestor by a descendant who buys land which is registered as a tso in his ancestor's name. The title of the tso is simply a man's name with the word "tso" tacked on the end. Tso land is more likely to be bought than inherited land and the vendor must be Lore prosperous than his forebears if he can afford to set aside bought or ancestral land in his own or another's memory. He was generally the founder, or an early member of the clan in a particular village; which, in the New Territories' villages, can mean that he lived anything from one to eight hundred years ago, depending upon the age of the village.

The profit deriving from tso property in the past usually in the form of kuk being rent from the fields - is used to further family workship and the repair and maintenance of the ancestral graves. A surplus is usually eaten up in feasts given at the main Chinese festivals of the year, though traditionally it was supposed to assist with the education and welfare of descendants, and in some cases may still be.

Tso property can be large or small, and will obviously vary from clan to clan but in every case managers are elected to manage the property before and after 1898. Ideally the property should not be sold or mortgaged, and should descend to future generations intact, but the New Territories Ordinance Cap. 97 (19), provides for this contingency provided a request is made to the District Officer (as Assistant Land Officer) to deal in the property and his consent is forthcoming if the usual notice of intention, which is posted locally to ensure that all concerned know about the forthcoming dealings, has expired without objection.

The tso is something personal to the direct male descendants of one ancestor; so much so that even the descendants of the originator's brothers by the same nother have no share at all in the property or its management. It is this highly personal element, and narrow intent to benefit that ancestor and his direct descendants in the Hale line, which differentiates tso and tong.

The tong ( 堂 ) is the more flexible organisation and is not linked to ancestor worship and little else besides, as is the case with the tso. It is a business association as often as not, and can, in fact, be a registered company. Indeed, a new tong with over twenty members, is not, by implication, exempt from the legislation of 1910 Cap. 97 (20) which given exemption to "any clan family or tong owing land on the twenty eighth day of October 1910 in respect of which a manager has been duly registered under this Ordinance", The same exemptions and restrictions presumably apply to tso, since these are family organisations. However, old New Territories' organisations, both tso and tong, which have prospered and become enlarged since 1910, to the extent that they have over twenty members since that date and so put themselves outside the scope of the exemption, rarely registered themselves under the Companies' Ordinance, Cap. 32 and Government seems never to have enquired too closely into the matter. New organisations of the traditional type, large or small, do not seen to register either under the Companies' Ordinance, unless it suits their convenience.

However, it must not be imagined, that tong are only business organisations. At the time of the lease there were four recognisable types. The first was a purely business organisation between friends or business associates with no common relationship (e.g. Shui Shang Tong of Tai O, which was formed by several otherwise unrelated Tai O businessmen, shopkeepers and farmers to buy land in the locality and share in the profits). The second was also a business organisation but one formed between clansmen, etc. (e.g. CHI Wing Shing Tong of Shek Pik which originated in the CHI clan of that place and was, among other things, a money loan association). There was also the religious Tong, usually Buddhist, in which the members of a chai tong ( ), Chi ( ) or am ( ) formed a Tong to further and simplify their internal relationship in respect to land ownership and routine management; especially since membership was always changing due to deaths, disputes, and the recruitment of new inmates (e.g. the Kwong Sin Tong, a chai tong at Luk Wu Tung, which owned a considerable amount of property locally on which it supported its existence). But very few Buddhist halls for themselves into tong, more's the pity. In all those cases the name chosen for the tong was purely decorative and, it was hoped, an auspicious one, as Chinese shop signs and company names contrive to be to this day.

There was in addition the family tong which in many ways is akin to the ancestral tso though usually with a wider scope of activity. It is not always easy to differentiate the two since their objects largely coincide and, (for the tso), have been explained briefly above. The name, too, seems at first sight identical in form though, in fact, the difference lies in the tso using the personal name and the family tong using the ancestor's business or lucky names in the title (e.g. LI Tun Yan Tong of Shek Pik).

The ancestral tong is a convenience, and can be formed not necessarily by one man but by several brothers or clan cousins who do not wish to divide all their ancestral or newly purchased property (ordinarily the latter) but desire to set all or a part of it aside for the benefit of their descendants, with an obligation, as in a tso, to carry out the required sacrifices etc. as a matter of course. The descendants would share the profits on a pre-arranged scale that is subject to change over the years as shares are inherited, bought or sold from other members of the tong.

Welfare matters, e.g. education and the relief of old age are more usually handled by a family tong rather than by tso which relate mainly to the requirements of ancestral sacrifice for which they generally require less land than the family tong with its wider responsibilities and greater need of funds.

But whatever its welfare or family functions, whatever its ends and policies, the tong is mainly a business venture concerned with profit and loss on which the continuance of its activities depend. Some of these tong are very large and are extensive landowners, e.g. the WONG Wai Tsak Tong of Cheung Chau at the present day and the LI Kau Yuen Tong of Sha Wan, Kwong Chau, before the lease, which was the taxlord for the whole of Lantau.

In all these cases a list of members of the tong is required by the assistant Land Officer and managers reported to him by the members can be registered in the Land Office provided no objections are raised when the Assistant Land Officer posts the usual notices of intention to register. Proposed dealings are also dealt with in the same way as for tso.



19th December, 1962