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.