Back Story to the Study of Hong Kong History

By Vaudine England

With this initiative to breathe new life into the community of historians of Hong Kong, a glance back at some earlier programmes might be useful.

An article in the Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society back in 1987 was also dedicated to something called ‘The Hong Kong History Project’. Over almost 30 pages, the journal published the transcript of a taped discussion led by James Hayes, David Faure and Patrick Hase. This described a project that ‘aims at rescuing something of the social, economic and political history of the communities of this area before 1841, and indeed right up to the eve of the modernization of the New Territories in the 1970s’. The interest was focused clearly on the New Territories, then facing unprecedented change and development, and anthropology was more the guiding discipline than history.

James Hayes spoke of the shocking neglect of Hong Kong-related scholarship, when Hong Kong was viewed as ‘no more than the railway route into Guangdong’. Already by the 1980s that was changing, he said, with the late Barbara Ward studying the boat people of Kau Sai, and Hugh Baker and Bob Groves working in Sheung Shui and Tai Po Market. Hayes himself was using his time both on and around his government day-job to tackle the communities of Sai Kung and Clearwater Bay, enlisting staff to collect inscriptions and other records of fast-disappearing rural life. David Faure picked up the theme and credited some pre-war researchers before describing his own team’s efforts to collect far-flung histories before it was too late. Patrick Hase described his focus on Shatin village life, not least because of his job as District Officer there.

These three men felt they were battling against a large wall of indifference, even scorn, from established academic institutions which they suggested regarded village life and oral history as beneath their touch. They stressed the importance of collecting what records existed – of land transactions, family genealogies and even the local guides to rural life which were often hand-written and passed down the generations. The challenges involved in these researches were immense. ‘It has taken many years of effort to convince the villagers that their own history is of value,’ said Patrick Hase. Once the value was recognised, the doctoring often began, in which past incidents were rewritten.

The basic problem was gaining public acceptance of the importance of local history and the need to preserve its raw material – even though actual study and analysis of this material was yet to come. Elizabeth Sinn was credited in the discussion for her inspiration to the Tung Wah Hospital Group to pull together its records properly – which brings us to the next phase in this story, a decade later.

Elizabeth Sinn had early on set up a Resource Centre for Hong Kong history, initially based in the history department at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). Here she collected relevant records, family papers, newspaper articles, oral history recordings and whatever else came her way to provide insight into Hong Kong’s social history. Once she moved across to the Centre of Asian Studies, still at HKU, her leadership in the field was seen in the Hong Kong Culture and Society Programme which she ran in the mid-1990s. The Centre was later absorbed by the newer Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences. But its earlier work on Hong Kong has lived on in many ways – through publications and research inspiration, and vitally through personal connections.

Elizabeth compiled a Bibliography on Hong Kong studies which was uploaded online and regularly updated, something our new project is also doing.

Elizabeth also organised what she called the Post-Graduate Symposia of 1996, 1997 and 2001. Abstracts presented at these Symposia included:

– The Making of “Women’s Voice”: Cantonese Women’s Ritual Songs in Hong Kong, by Chan Wing-hoi.
– Literacy, Lineage and Landholding: Holding and Transfer of Property in a New Territories Village, 1811-1955, by Kentaro Matsubara.
– Chinese Custom in a “Borrowed Place, Borrowed Time”, by Selina Ching Chan.
– The 19th Century Catholic Mission in Hong Kong, by Louis Ha.
– Catholic Education in Hong Kong under Decolonization, by John Tan.
– The Church as a Social Institution: Case of the London Missionary Society in Hong Kong, 1840s-1880s, by Timothy Wong.
– Interaction Between Politics and Education: Case Study of a “Patriotic School” in Hong Kong, by Lam Ka-ka.
– The Scholar-Newspaperman: a Vanishing Paradigm in Hong Kong, by Cheung Kwai-yeung.
– Cantonese Network: Social History of Modern Hong Kong, by Hiroyuki Hokari.
– Urban Grassroots: Rickshaw Pullers in Hong Kong, by Fung Chi-ming.
– Foreign Banks in Hong Kong and their Relation with Canton, 1845-1865, by Shinji Kanada.
– An Insubordinate and Semi-Barbarous People: Chinese Defendants and Criminal Justice in Early British Hong Kong, 1841-1866, by Christopher Munn.
– The Success of Low Intensity Democracy in Hong Kong, by Daniel G. Skinner.
– Chinese Business Groups in Hong Kong and Political Change in South China, 1900s-1920s, by Chung Po-yin.
– The Making of the Hong Kong Chinese Bourgeoisie: State and Society in Early Twentieth Century Hong Kong, by John M. Carroll.

– Colonial Penality – Prison and Penal Programme in Early Hong Kong, by Samson Chan.
– Report of the Police Commission 1872, by Austin Kerrigan.
– Hong Kong’s Colonial Surgeons and Their Civilizing Influence on Prison Life: 1843-1897, by Sheilah E. Hamilton.
– Negotiating Space and Identity: The Transfer Practices of Housing Property in a Chinese Lineage Village, by Chan Kwok-sing.
– The Colonial State Building in Rural Hong Kong, by Hung Ho Fung.
– Gender in Hong Kong: A Discourse Analysis of the Debate over the Women’s Inheritance in the New Territories, by Wong Kin Wai.
– Social Organization and the Emergence of Chinese Capitalism – Gongsi in Hong Kong and Shanghai in the First Half of the Twentieth Century, by Chang Wai-keung.
– Fashion Design and Fashion Designers in the Garment Industry, by Lisa Skov.
– Working Daughters in the 1990s, by Lai Pui Yim.
– Job Opportunities and Women’s Strategies of Employment and Family in Hong Kong, by May S. Partridge.
– The Popularisation of Charity in Contemporary Hong Kong and its Diffusion into South China, by Satohiro Serizawa.
– Gambling, Tax and Charity in Hong Kong; Consumerism Disguised as a Regressive way of Paying Taxes and Funding Charity? by Henning Høeg Hansen.
– The Social Well-being of Hong Kong During 1988-1995: An Index Approach, by Lai Yuk Lin.
– Father-Adolescent Conflict in Chinese Families in Hong Kong, by Sandra Tsang Kit Man.
– The Political Origins of Income Tax in Hong Kong, by Michael Littlewood.
– The Political Economy of High-Tech Industry in Hong Kong, by Paul Wong Yan-yin.

– The Construction of “Hongkongness” through the Right of Abode Issue, by Chang Jung-a.
– Interpreting the Basic Law: An Examination through the “Right of Abode” Cases, by Hiroe Noriko.
– “High Degree of Autonomy” and “Hong Kong People Ruling Hong Kong” – Public Opinion in Hong Kong Politics, by Kurata Toru.
– The Influence of Socilialization and Critical Thinking on Hong Kong University Students’ Attitudes towards China, by Gregory Fairbrother.
– A Sociolinguistic Study of a Hong Kong Chinese Community in Britain, by Sherman Lee.
– Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta Qiaoxiang, by Michael Williams.
– Inter-regional Trade, Networks and Trade Finance of British Traders in the South China Sea 1800-1860, by Patrick Mok Kin Wai.
– Re-considered Crossings: An Intercultural Report on a Visual Arts Exchange between Hong Kong and Vienna, by Norman Jackson Ford.
– Rendering in Media and Legal Translation in Hong Kong, by Dawn Tsang Fei Yue.
– Detachment in the Cultural Interaction on James Legge’s Complicated Attitude to Chinese Culture, by Zhang Wanmin.
– Food and Women’s Role in the Families with an Anorectic Daughter, by Zenobia Chan Chung Yee.
– Food, Embodiment and Female Subjectivity in the Literary Works of Xi Xi, by Li Tsui Yan.
– The Management of Women’s Bodies: Regulating Mui Tsai and Prostitutes in Hong Kong under Colonial Rule 1841-1935, by Angelina Chin Yanyan.
– All Roads Lead to Hong Kong: Martial Arts, Digital Special Effects and the Production of Transnationality in Contemporary Action Film, by Andrew Schroeder.
– Colonial Modernity – A Study of Tsui Hark’s Production and Genre Films, by Cindy Chan Shu Ching.
– The Genre Development of Science Fiction in Hong Kong Literature, by Jacky Leong Hang-tat.
– The Rise of a Sanitary City: The Colonial Formation of Hong Kong’s Early Public Housing, by Ip Iam Chong.
– Urban Regeneration in a Restructuring Executive-led Polity: A Case Study of Hong Kong, by Winnie Law Wai-Yi.
– Governance of Land Use Planning for Harbour Reclamation in Hong Kong, a Case Study of South East Kowloon Reclamation, by Penny Wan Kim Ying.
– A Distinctive Community Grasping its Forgetting Past, the History of the Rennie’s Mill Settlement, Junk Bay, Hong Kong (1907-1960), by Kenneth Lan On Wai.
– The Rise of Hong Kong as a Tourist Metropolitan: Tourism Development and Transformation of Urban Space, by Lui Chi Wai.
– Prisoners of the Californian Dream: Panic Suburbs in Hong Kong, by Laura Ruggeri.

Bringing this field right up to date, Dr Elizabeth Sinn ran a one-day workshop on 3 January 2013: “Multicultural Encounters in Hong Kong”.

The papers presented included:

1. Bert Becker (History Department, HKU), “Western Firms and Chinese Compradors: The Case of Jebsen & Co. and Chau Yue Ting”
2. Ching May Bo (History Department, Sun Yatsen University), “A Clone of Canton: the Origins of Pre-War Hong Kong Urban Culture”
3. Patricia Chiu, “The Making of Accomplished Women: English Education for Girls, 1890s-1940s”
4. Stacilee Ford, “Cathay’s New World: Transpacific flows in Hong Kong Film”
5. Peter Hamilton, “War in the ‘Jukebox Jungle'”: American GIs and Hong Kong Identity”
6. Vicky Lee, “A Minority in the Margins (1860s-1960s)”
7. Kentaro Matsubara, “Local Society, Colonial Government and the Catholic Church in the Early Administration of the New Territories”
8. Christopher Munn, “‘More Brown Than Pale’: Carvalho Yeo and the 1928 Hong Kong Treasure Swindle”
9. Yoshiko Nakano, “Japanese Ramen with a Chinese Twist: Instant Noodles and their Localization Efforts in Hong Kong”
10. David Pomfret, “‘Trouble in Fairyland’: Ministering Children and Imperial Childhoods”

Dr Sinn described the workshop as part of a larger effort to highlight the historically global nature of Hong Kong society and how such history continues to intertwine with Hong Kong present positioning as a business and cultural hub. In her words: ‘Hong Kong, for over one and a half centuries has been a space of flow for people, goods, information ideas, values and practices, a phenomenon that needs to be examined beyond the conventional “east-west” paradigm. In rewriting the history of Hong Kong, how must we seriously take into consideration the accumulated efforts and effects of interactive social groups and their diverse cultural resourcefulness? How has a Sino-centric or Anglo-centric narrative of Hong Kong prevented us from appreciating Hong Kong society as multi-ethnic, inter-racial and globally situated? How can we demonstrate the historically significant roles these individuals, families and groups have played, and give them the recognition they deserve as Hong Kong developed from a trade port at the margins of trading empires in the mid-19th century to Asia’s logistics and financial hub in the 21st?’

For the 2013 gathering, and the themes it was addressing, the cutting off point was the 1970s which, according to Professor Helen Siu, founder of the Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, was ‘when Hong Kong underwent a process of localization which in many ways eliminated the cosmopolitanism and homogenised the local population. An inward-looking generation began to identify themselves proudly as Hong Kongers, and it seems that today, they and their children are least prepared to face challenges brought about by accelerating globalization and rapid changes in China.’

Participants were asked to rise above the making of general statements about the cosmopolitan nature of Hong Kong, and actually explore ‘the points and modes of interaction and encounters at different levels in business (finance, trade, shipping), social interactions and employment, in court rooms, school rooms, board rooms and bedrooms.’

Publication of this workshop’s contributions is forthcoming.