Behind the badge: Who was Kimmy Koh, the first woman to serve on Hong Kong’s police force?

Hui Kam-to, who went by Kimmy Koh for much of her professional life, set a new precedent in December 1949 when she became the first female police officer – then called a sub-inspector – on the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF).

Since its formation in 1844, the force had staffed women as ‘female searchers’ but they were not considered law enforcement officers. They were instead tasked with logistics work and handling juvenile arrestees, as well as body searching, guarding and fingerprinting female suspects and prisoners.

In 1949, then Hong Kong Police Commissioner Duncan Macintosh announced plans to recruit the force’s first female officers. Early attempts to attract applicants proved unsuccessful. For example, an advertisement for three sub-inspectors and 50 constables published in Overseas Chinese Daily News in 1949 returned zero applicants.

At the time, officials attributed the lack of interest to the challenging requirements. All-female recruits had to pass both English dictation and fitness tests. Then they’d enter the Police Training School to train alongside male constables for three to six months, depending on the position.

It wasn’t until the HKPF eliminated the physical training requirements that a few women submitted their resumes. Just five interviewed for the sub-inspector positions, including Koh, who was selected as the first and only female officer in Hong Kong at the age of 33.

A Malaysian citizen of Chinese descent, Koh was born into a wealthy family that ran a logging company in Borneo, Malaysia. She was highly educated and proficient in many languages, including Chinese, English, Malay, Japanese and several Chinese dialects.

She had never considered a career in law enforcement. But when she visited Hong Kong in 1946 to seek medical treatment for malaria, Koh stumbled upon the HKPF’s ad for female officers. Curious, she spent 10 cents on a stamp and mailed the application – a decision that her family strongly opposed. They had envisioned Koh in a safe and civilised job that was more suitable for a young woman. Nevertheless, Koh disregarded their concerns and followed her curiosity down an unexpected path. 

“Being active and outgoing, I wanted something challenging, so I joined the force instead of working as a civilian,” Koh recounted in a 2001 interview with Offbeat, the HKPF’s internal newspaper.

Kimmy Koh, Hong Kong’s first female police officer.

Koh didn’t have a Chinese name when she arrived in Hong Kong, so her colleagues started calling her Koh Kin Mei because the pronunciation sounded similar to Koh-Kimmy, her Malaysian name. The moniker would stick with her until the 1980s, when she formally adopted her Chinese name, Hui Kam-to.

Throughout her life, Koh kept her dark hair cropped short and preferred to wear suits instead of dresses. She was direct and pragmatic, the kind of woman who disliked being addressed as “madam,” insisting to be called “Koh Sir” instead, according to Women in the Hong Kong Police Force by Annie Chan and Lawrence Ho.

Her deliberate, serious nature served Koh well in the force. Since she didn’t have any formal police training, Koh was initially deployed to the Criminal Records Bureau where she fulfilled clerical duties, such as taking statements or interpreting.

According to an Offbeat interview with Margaret Clarke, a former HKPF officer, Koh was invaluable to the force and “without her outstanding interpretation skills, the Women Police Contingent could not have developed so quickly, or so well.”

After just three months on the job, Koh was redeployed to the Central District as the city’s first female criminal investigation detective (CID), handling prostitution, gambling and drug cases. It was a natural fit and, just 10 days after joining the investigative division, she brought down an illegal gambling house.

Two years later, in 1951, Koh unravelled a particularly complicated case that involved the attack of four police officers. The perpetrators first attacked and injured two officers and stole their guns; a few days later, they shot two other officers with the guns then stole two more weapons. The two officers later died from the gunshot wounds.

Before Koh joined the case, dozens of suspects had already been detained and questioned but there was no solid evidence – only hearsay provided by informants. Koh combed through the information and found an interesting pattern: Most of the suspects in custody were not only members of the Communist party but had also been arrested based on tip-offs.

Suspicious, Koh began scrutinising the informants instead of the suspects. She soon discovered that one source had been inconsistent in his testimony. Further investigation revealed that the man was a former sergeant of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s army (the political party that ruled China before 1949, when the Communist party took control). His deep resentment towards the Communist party provided political motivation to frame the suspects.

This led Koh to question the source’s subordinates in search of more clues. In a major breakthrough, one underling confessed that his boss was the leader of a robbery syndicate and had led three accomplices to rob a jewellery shop in Kowloon with the stolen guns. Koh arrested the syndicate leader, who was later found guilty of double homicide, and retrieved the guns. Her performance was highly praised and, the following year, she was promoted to inspector.

Leading by example

Witnessing Koh’s remarkable rise, HKPF leaders decided to hire more female constables. In May 1951, Koh was named the first female instructor of the Police Training School and tasked with forming a team of officers to permanently replace the “female searchers” in the force.

This time, the recruitment effort was a huge success, with some 200 women applying for positions. Koh selected 10 and, after a six-month training course under her guidance, nine women joined the force. Throughout the 1950s, Koh and her female battalion played an instrumental role in several dangerous operations and complicated investigations.

During her 12-year tenure on the force, Koh continued to garner accomplishments, including four awards from the HKPF. Although her title remained ‘inspector’, she was considered the de facto director of the women’s police team.

However, circumstances changed in 1961, when the force recruited Marjorie Elsie Lovell, a sergeant from the UK, to officially assume the position of superintendent in charge of the women’s police team. Even though Lovell had slightly less experience, Koh was relieved of her management duties and demoted to a normal inspector. Understandably angry and demoralised, Koh retired that same year at the age of 45.

When asked about her career, Koh told Lin Kim Kong, author of The Origins of Hong Kong Police 1841-1971 (loose translation), that maintaining her integrity was always paramount. “In an era where corruption was so prevalent, I managed to live [and work] with dignity. I remained ‘clean’ from the day I joined the police through to the day I quit!”

After leaving the force, Kimmy Koh still kept a close eye on the HKPF’s developments.

A more inclusive future

After leaving the force, Koh returned to Malaysia where she joined her family’s logging business. Even from afar, she kept a close eye on the HKPF’s developments. She was especially pleased when she learned that women’s benefits and career prospects improved. In the 1970s, for instance, the force introduced equal compensation policies for women. In 1992, they formed the first all-female Police Tactical Unit (PTU) for the first time.

“In the past, we were only entitled to 80 per cent of a male officer’s salary. I am really glad both men and women officers now enjoy the same benefits,” she told Offbeat, at the age of 85. “It not only reflects gender equality but also recognises the work and contributions of female officers.”

Minimal details have been recorded regarding Koh’s personal life, and the police declined to connect Ariana with her family out of respect for their privacy.  But archival interviews and published reports show that, in 1980, Koh returned to Hong Kong to live with her nephew. 

In her final years, Koh suffered from health ailments and was supported by the Hong Kong Police Force Welfare Service Group. Following her passing*, Koh’s family donated her HKPF-related belongings to the Hong Kong Police Museum, where some remain on display today.

*The HKPF declined to reveal the year of Koh’s death out of respect for the family’s privacy.