The opening of the Great Exhibition by Henry Courtney Selous 1851-2

The Victorians very often commissioned paintings of major historical events, which were then produced as commemorative prints and sold in enormous numbers. One such example is the painting  above which illustrates the opening of the Great Exhibition on May 1st 1851.

Hee Sing

What the VV really likes about this depiction of an event steeped in royal pomp and ceremony is the ‘other story’ it contains. A story about just one of the 25,000 invited guests, and yet he was not a guest at all, despite being shown in the painting dressed in his ceremonial Chinese robes.

Hee Sing follows the Queen

His name, so it later transpired, was Hee Sing, and his presence that day was not questioned at all, even though there had been no official invitation to Chinese delegates. However, so the story goes, this noble-looking gentleman simply ‘happened’ upon the occasion, having recently arrived in a Chinese junk that had docked in London; a ship which was moored on the River Thames and could be visited by anyone who had a shilling to spare. During this time, when Hee Singh heard the news of the Exhibition, he decied to go and take a look while decked out in his very finest clothes - which then led other dignitaries there to assume him a man of importance. 

Hee Sing mingles with the guests

Lyon Playfair, a Scottish scientist and Liberal politician wrote –‘a Chinaman dressed in magnificent robes, suddenly emerged from the crowd and prostrated himself before the throne. Who he was nobody knew. He might possibly be the Emperor of China himself who had come secretly to the ceremony.’

Later Playfair observed Hee Sing standing between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Duke of Wellington and – ‘In this dignified position he marched through the building, to the delight and amazement of all beholders.’

That delight was also noted by the Illustrated London News. One of its reporters wrote –‘We must also remember the droll Chinese Mandarin amongst the Foreign Ambassadors and Ministers, who swayed along from side to side, those before and those behind him leaving a pretty full berth for his comical progress.’

However comical he looked, the VV would like to imagine that Hee Sing had the last laugh himself, not only visiting The Great Exhibition, but revered as one of the great and the good. What you might call gate-crashing a party in style.


  1. I've always thought good on him, though I wish someone had thought to interview him afterwards. I've wondered if it was intentional or not on his part.

  2. I suspect he was not interviewed because he could not speak English!
    This is a great story from the '51 exhibition, i love the fact that a decent pair of clothes made people think he was some kind of Chinese VIP.

    Security has changed a bit in the last 150 years...

  3. I love this story. I'm always reminded of Chance the Gardener (Chauncey Gardner) in the film Being There.

  4. One of the students on my V&A/RCA History of Design MA did some extensive research into Hee Sing for one of her research projects - would you like some contact details? Danielle

  5. Danielle - thank you so much for letting me know. I would love to read more - and perhaps link your student's research as an Addendum to this post?

    Thank you.


  6. I hadn't seen this post before. Great story Essie.

    1. It's great isn't it. What a great short film or story it would make.