Hong Kong History Project – First Acts

By Vaudine England

The Hong Kong History Project, born in January 2015, has earmarked PhD funding and support to a young student from Hong Kong, Vivian Kong Wai-yan, who will take up her researches into the pre-war British community of Hong Kong under Professor Robert Bickers in the autumn.

The Project also hosted its first international workshop – a one-day gathering of a wide range of bright sparks, keen on sharing information about their studies into Hong Kong’s past. Titled “Hong Kong History, Past, Present, and Future: The View from Hong Kong”, it was a relatively unstructured programme, allowing for great collegiality and an enjoyable day. Each of the four speakers on a succession of panels were allowed only a few minutes to give a formal thought or summary of their work, before the discussion was thrown open to the floor. This format allowed for a free flow of ideas.

After introductory remarks by HKU Vice Chancellor Peter Mathieson, HKU’s Professor John Carroll, and Bristol University’s Professor Robert Bickers, the first panel, Why Hong Kong History?, was tackled by Lui Tai Lok of the Hong Kong Institute of Education, Ray Yep from City University Hong Kong, Bickers, who is director of the Hong Kong History Project, and HKU Visiting Assistant Professor Carol Tsang.

Lui spoke of the new Hong Kong Studies programme he is establishing which will fund post-doctoral fellowships and continue research into the MacLehose Years as well as allow for further work in the archives of the Society of Community Organisation (SOCO), a fascinating resource. Yep outlined the large disconnect between mainland and Hong Kong views of Hong Kong. Locally the central issue is autonomy, which could prompt more work on past relationships between the territory and its colonial metropole. Bickers admitted he had long regarded Hong Kong as a backwater, being more seduced by the cosmopolitan delights of historical Shanghai. However, he was now revising his opinions. Carol Tsang is teaching history at HKU and was able to show through graphs how the focus of her students had been profoundly influenced by the Umbrella Movement of last October, just as the Tiananmen movement of 1989 had long provided a topic of research.

The second panel’s topic was Hong Kong Communities, led by Su Lin Lewis of Bristol, Bert Becker from HKU, Cathy Ladds of Hong Kong Baptist University, and Vivian Kong of HKU (heading to Bristol).

Lewis suggested four areas for future studies in Hong Kong history: the trading diasporas of Chinese, Armenian, Jewish, Eurasians and Parsis; the development of regional intellectual networks, such as through the press, or through HKU students who returned to Malaya in the 1920s; civic associations, such as Freemasons, Rotary and others, and their links to modern civil society; and, popular entertainments. Perhaps a new task could be the hosting of a workshop on Hong Kong in Global and/or Asian History. Becker gave a fascinating insight into the German community of Hong Kong, one of the largest and most influential up until World War One. Ladds introduced her interest in the Anglo-Chinese Eurasians of the China Coast, rightly noting that the current research on Eurasians in Hong Kong is full of gaps. Kong introduced her studies on the 1940 evacuation of British women which revealed the extent to which many Britons described Hong Kong as their home.

The third panel considered the theme, ‘Global city, Imperial city’, with the help of John Wong from HKU, Mark Hampton from Lingnan University Hong Kong, Simon Potter from Bristol and Zardas Lee from HKU, soon to start her PhD at the University of North Carolina.

Wong pointed out that Hong Kong usually find its footing during times of geo-political strain and he highlighted the significance of the colony during the Cold War as another example of Hong Kong’s centrality in networks within South China, within the region, and internationally. Hampton described Hong Kong as a nation without a state and stressed the deep roots of its global role. Potter’s interests lie in international histories of broadcasting, a topic which has received little attention in the Hong Kong context despite the wealth of subjects that could be covered. Lee looked at the local consequences of the cold war and the censorship that resulted; one goal is to trace horizontal linkages, for example in the practice of censorships in Singapore compared to Hong Kong.

The fourth panel considered Hong Kong Public History, with Elizabeth Sinn, Chris Munn and Stephen Davies of HKU, and Kwong Chi Man of Baptist University.

Sinn introduced her enthusiasm for what she thinks should be a new focus: not simply on the land-based lives of Hong Kong people, but on those of the water-world. After all, she argued persuasively, Hong Kong’s existence has always been defined by its waters. Its role in local and regional fishing networks has been key, as has its usefulness to naval fleets. Whole communities across generations of distinct peoples have lived their lives and found their livelihoods on Hong Kong’s waters. Sinn highlighted the work of Wong Wai-ling on the fishing community of Aberdeen as an example of what future work could be done here. Her thoughts were soundly seconded by Davies, a maritime historian, who has long felt that this field demands far closer scrutiny and offers many important stories yet to be told. Chris Munn’s contribution was the suggestion that more must be published on Hong Kong, and more in Chinese, not just English. In this push to publish, small presses in Hong Kong could play a larger role, as can commissioned products such as his own history of the judiciary and other works funded by – and about – leading institutions, companies and clubs of Hong Kong. Kwong Chi-man, the military historian of Hong Kong, offered insights into the travails of advising museums and other public bodies on how to present Hong Kong’s history accurately. He called for more work in original sources, such a Japanese sources which he uses, and for a greater awareness among academics of the usefulness of social media, particularly in the growing public conflicts over versions of history.

The fifth and final panel, on new techniques, featured James Fellows of Lingnan, Wong Wai Ling of HKU, Michael Ng of HKU and Robert Bickers. Fellows is studying the economic discourses involved in the restriction of textile export quotas from Hong Kong. Wong’s work on the Aberdeen fishing community has involved an extensive and data-rich exercise in oral history. She has interviewed scores of fishermen and women over several years and delved deeply into their lives and the changing patterns of their business. This work has shown her that Hong Kong sits in the middle of the South China Sea – this is how the fishermen see it – not merely on the edge of China. Their focus for their livelihood is to the south, not the north and this point alone cries out for more exploration. Ng’s work involves the mapping of Hong Kong (following his similar work on Peking and Shanghai) by occupation (in his case, legal practitioners) as a way to use geography to glean larger insights into the shape of a city. This led into Bickers’ description of a project in Bristol he has been engaged with which is a public-facing mapping tool called Know Your Bristol. Members of the public can upload information about their homes or other significant locations, with digital images too, as a way to be part of public planning processes.

He concluded with the thought that the day’s mutual brain-pick had mapped out areas in which future ideas could develop. The goal, he said, was to facilitate connections and stimulate more Hong Kong histories. The next such workshop is scheduled for the autumn in Bristol.