East Meets West: Where Do Eurasians Come From?

By Vaudine England

For a place which has so often been so eulogised for being such a marvellous meeting of East and West, the detail of the most intimate connections between east and west is surprisingly uncovered. Fiction has largely carried the burden of revealing aspects of the Eurasian existence. Richard Mason’s The World of Suzy Wong is the obvious example, and Han Suyin’s Love Is a Many-Splendoured Thing. But where are the histories of Hong Kong’s real Eurasians?

Several important family memoirs have been produced. Peter Hall, the former company secretary of Hongkong Land took this furthest with his In the Web, followed by Eric Peter Ho’s Tracing my Children’s Lineage. Irene Cheng and Jean Gittins both wrote family memoirs. Vicky Lee has investigated the writings of three Eurasian women and reflected on what it means to be Eurasian. These are all interesting works, but none can be called a history of the Eurasians of Hong Kong. So far, just one thesis has been done on the subject – back in 1975! This was Stephen Fisher’s survey of Eurasians as a marginal group. He is more sociological than historical and of course time has passed. Many more family papers are now, hopefully, available for consultation by serious researchers. With, too, the diminishing stigma attached to being of mixed race, it is hoped more will feel able to talk about and discover more Eurasian history.

In the meantime, where could one begin to consider such a history? Defining the word might help. Dictionaries cite its earliest use from India in the late 18th century and early 19th centuries; many of the same dictionaries say it now refers more to American-Asian than to European-Asian mixtures. In Hong Kong parlance, it can also refer to the mixture of two different Asian races, such as the Kotewall family which was a mixture of Parsee and Chinese.

In Britain’s Indian empire, confusingly, it was the British who had lived a long time in India, often generations, who proudly called themselves Anglo-Indians, and so this term was not available for use by literally mixed race Anglo-Indians until permission was granted in the early 20th century. Instead, they were called ‘half-castes’, ‘East-Indians’, ‘Indo-Britons’ and ‘Eurasians’. Richard Symonds, in his Eurasians Under British Rule, divided the history of Eurasians in India into three periods: until about 1785 they were able to assimilate with the British and suffered no discrimination; from the 1790s to 1835 they were excluded from government service as either British or Indians; from 1835 until the end of British rule there in 1947 they were seen as Indian for purposes of employment but British in terms of education and defence, employed mostly in intermediate positions in central government services, the railways, telegraphs and customs.

Symonds refers to the sole comparative study made of people of mixed race under the British and other empires, namely Half Caste, by Cedric Dover, published in 1937. This was an angry polemic by an Anglo-Indian biologist and entomologist of Calcutta, written partly to combat then-current fascist theories of race. A vast literature exists on the mixed race people of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). There is almost nothing about mixed race people under British rule, in all its variations.

Symonds also makes important points about how the caste of Indian women marrying East India Company men was replaced with their husband’s standing in the company. This meant that some Eurasian offspring married British aristocracy; mixed blood trails can be traced into the prime minister’s office on three occasions. In Calcutta, an Upper Orphanage was established for the Eurasian children of British officers and a Lower Orphanage for those of other ranks. But later restrictions on offspring from the orphanages against gaining higher education in Britain radically affected their chances of employment.

The early 20th century was perhaps the worst time to be Eurasian in India, writes Symonds. A new moralism decreed mixed race children to be the product of ‘vice’; in practical terms, doors to education and employment were successively closed. These Eurasians looked with envy across to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where the Burghers, as Eurasians were called, were much more integrated with the Dutch. A foreshadowing of British talk during Hong Kong’s 1922-25 strikes and boycotts — when support from the local elite’s Eurasian leaders was needed to restore stability — is heard in the 1810 wish of the British in Ceylon to conciliate the Burghers as much as possible in order to consolidate British rule.

Attitudes towards Eurasians were contingent upon time and place; categories and definitions were neither fixed nor certain. The British might have been peculiar in the hedging about of their mixed race subjects with varying restrictions over time. As Symonds notes: ‘It is interesting that the British, themselves hybrids, should have placed so much emphasis on race in the style of rule’, (p 41).

One theme here which emerges across any historical survey of race in empire is that of how ideas about it changed during the course of empire. In those rampant early days of explorers and swashbuckling entrepreneurs, cohabiting, if not marrying and starting families, with local women was considered the ideal way to move in on a new society. Portuguese, Dutch, French and British all enthusiastically engaged with the local populations they intended to trade with, convert or exploit. Divisions and the breaking into hierarchies involving race as well as religion and class, seemed to come when government bureaucracies became more involved in the colonial enterprise in the mid-19th century onwards. As any reader of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities can cite, the emergence of nationalism as an idea from the late 19th century on would dramatically affect notions of self and harden divisions along ethnic and other lines.

To my mind this must give cause to consider so many post-colonial blanket assumptions. That the British empire was founded on racism, for example, could do with some re-examination. Given the wide variations between colonies within that empire (in their founding, construction, management and much more), it seems logical that the role of race and thus the place of Eurasians within each colony might also differ markedly. That we even know now what people meant about race then, and which ‘then’ we are talking about, are also assumptions that need testing. Definitions we impose now may not have been how people saw themselves then. Nor are all modern ideas about race and tolerance necessarily the most advanced or progressive ideas over time.


Allen N.J., Gombrich, R.F., Raychaudhuri, T., and G. Rizvi (gen. eds). Oxford University Papers on India, Volume I, Part 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. Chapter 3: Eurasians Under British Rule, by Richard Symonds, pp 28-42.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed. London: Verso Books, 1991.

Cheng, Irene. Clara Ho Tung: A Hong Kong Lady, Her Family and Her Times. Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1976.

Fisher, Stephen F. Eurasians in Hong Kong: A Sociological Study of a Marginal Group. PhD Thesis, University of Hong Kong, 1975.

Gittins, Jean (Hotung). Stanley: Behind Barbed Wire. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1982.

Hall, Peter. In the Web. Wirral: Hurst Village Publishing, 1992 (2012).

Hall, Peter. In the Web. Birkenhead: Apprin Press, 2012 (earlier editions 1992, 1993).

Han Suyin. Love Is a Many-Splendoured Thing. London: Jonathan Cape, 1952.

Ho, Eric Peter. Tracing My Children’s Lineage. Hong Kong: Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Hong Kong, 2010.

Ho, Eric Peter. ‘The Welfare League, The Sixty Years 1930-1990’. A pamphlet held by HKU Library Special Collections (HKP 361.763 W46 zH). The Welfare League was formed specifically to provide aid and welfare to Hong Kong’s Eurasians and was thus a first public statement of the existence of a mixed race community.

Lee, Vicky. Being Eurasian: Memories Across Racial Divides. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2004 (also, her PhD HKU 2001).

Mason, Richard. The World of Suzy Wong. London: Collins, 1957.

Race Memory Puzzles in China, Japan War Histories

By Vaudine England

This week (on 3 September) the Chinese government has decreed a special one-off public holiday (and vast military parade) to mark what it calls China’s victory over Japan 70 years ago. As with all anniversaries, a plethora of frantic re-writings of history is now underway to mark this moment. One can debate if it really was China or the impact of Hiroshima that defeated Japan, and the argument over whether it was China’s communists or nationalists who fought most, suffered more, are most responsible for the victory, will rumble on.

This blog looks back at a supposed racial impact of the war, specifically of the ignominious defeat of the British followed by Japan’s occupation of Hong Kong. Both then, and more recently, the view has been expressed that Japan’s appeal to the Asian populace for the overthrow of Western imperialism was attractive, and encouraged versions of collaboration among particularly Eurasian as well as Chinese Hong Kongers.

A gentle look at the first point comes in Asia for the Asiatics, by Robert Ward, published by the University of Chicago Press just before the war ended. Ward had been a consular officer for the United States, stationed in Hong Kong, and was interned for six months before being repatriated. He witnessed the early efforts of the Japanese to establish an empire in Asia ‘for the Asiatics’.

This was, according to Ward, a calculated, brutal and systematic process, of which the initial outbursts of rampant disorder, rape and looting was an integral part. Ward claims this had the effect (and so Ward assumes the intention) of forcing the local Hong Kong elite into submission. Leading figures such as Shouson Chow and Robert Kotewall, members of the Li (Bank of East Asia) family, and others did consent to take roles in committees set up by the occupying Japanese powers. No doubt they did so for self-preservation but it is also on record that departing British senior civil servants had specifically asked Chow and Kotewall to deal with the Japanese to help feed the people.

Ward’s primary concern was to consider what the post-war landscape will be in East Asia, after this idea of Asia for Asians has taken hold. Writing in 1945, he doubted that the brutality and subjection imposed by the Japanese would entirely neutralise the power of the pro-Asia ideal.

The overwhelming fact for many writers, then and since, has been the shaming collapse of the white man, of white power, seen in Japan’s rapid takeover not just of Hong Kong, but other British colonies such as Malaya, Singapore and Burma. These defeats would leave a residue, the impact of which would change post-war Asia forever.

All this was true, of course, but it is interesting to examine now the extent to which the collapse of British military power in the East did Not mean an end to British rule in Hong Kong, nor to Western impact and roles in East Asia’s post-war development. It is also interesting to note that, according to many Hong Kong people’s recollections, the brutality of Japanese rule did in fact fatally damage that ideal of Japan-led Asia for the Asians.

Perhaps race was simply less of a defining characteristic for people struggling to survive than some theorists would accept.

A more dramatic version of the view that colonial racism met its nemesis with the Japanese can be found in Gerald Horne’s Race War! White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire, published in 2005 by New York University Press. Amusingly, reviews from the United States academic community laud this book as a radical retelling of the war, an unflinching survey of race and empire, and a fabulous study which shows where global history can go. At the same time, a detailed, calm and considered blog by a member of the community of people apparently so oppressed by Horne’s British colonialists — the Eurasian historian Brian Edgar — shows how full of holes the Horne thesis is.

According to Horne, the Japanese were appreciated, admired, and supported by the majority of Hong Kong’s population, at least at first, for Japan’s overturning of white supremacy. Several ideas seem to be involved here — that the British empire was founded (solely) on racism and thus that Hong Kong was too, and that British assumptions of racial superiority produced a vast and violent discriminatory universe of abuse and exploitation of the ‘non-pure’. On such ground, a fertile appeal of Japanese inversions of white rule could be imagined.

But as Brian Edgar points out, the detailed realities of daily life made Horne’s thesis ‘dead in the water’. Yes, Eurasians faced discrimination, but from the Chinese as well as from the British. Yes, some Eurasians were discriminated against at work but others were among the colony’s richest people. Edgar goes on to point out various pockets of Hong Kong life which were ‘relatively race-free’, some intellectual and some in sports; I would add most of business was multi-cultural too. But of course white racism existed — the argument is over whether this made Eurasians (and some Hong Kong Chinese) vulnerable to Japanese ideology and rule. As Edgar notes, Horne fails to cite one single Hong Kong Eurasian who was not part Japanese who can be proven to have joined the Japanese after Christmas Day 1941. On the contrary, people like the young (Eurasian) women, Phyllis Bliss and Irene Fincher escaped and Irene even married the race enemy, a British policeman who was working with the Chinese resistance. One fascinating case, Laurence Kentwell, is the subject of research by Baptist University’s Catherine Ladds, and he is an exception to every theory.

Edgar then tackles the case of Sir Robert Kotewall and laments that Horne has clearly failed to take note of British exonerations of the Executive Council member’s work under the Japanese. According to Edgar, Kotewall did shout ‘Banzai’ several times at public meetings but otherwise did little but ‘hedge’ while trying to help poor Chinese get fed. Tony Banham, author of the excellent http://www.hongkongwardiary.com/, regards Kotewall as ‘selfless’ and the charges of collaboration unfounded.

As Edgar notes, one has to be careful about jumping to conclusions. Amid the hoopla of a Chinese Communist Party-organised exercise in creating nationalism today, it is even more interesting to discover where the historical record makes clear not a nationalist narrative, but the nuance.