By Vaudine England
I’m still hoping to be proven wrong in claiming that just two serious articles were published in the 20th century on the subject of Eurasians in Hong Kong. The first was Sir Challoner Grenville Alabaster’s ‘Observations on Race Mixture in Hong Kong’. The second is Henry Lethbridge’s ‘The Best of Both Worlds?’, in which Eurasians were described as ‘a natural by-product of the colonial era’. His main point was to note how dramatically the position of Eurasians had changed since the end of World War Two. Their position, he wrote, was in many ways ‘now an advantageous one, despite the fact that the great pre-war Eurasian families seem to have declined in political and economic importance’.
The first assumption Lethbridge knocks on the head is the old stereotype that Eurasians are usually the product of lower class liaisons. Even if it was ever wholly true, he said it was now — in 1968 — certainly no longer true. Lethbridge noted it was Eitel who saw Eurasians as ‘almost exclusively’ the product of liaisons between European men and brothel workers, most of whom were allegedly Tanka boat women. Modern scholarship has discounted this and as Lethbridge observed, ‘prostitutes normally do not seek to raise a family now are they usually sought as marriage partners. It seems likely, then, that our Eurasian population derives from all dialect groups and races in Hongkong and not solely from some wayward females of the boat population.’
He then surveyed the available data on Eurasians, noting once again how incredibly sparse it was (and is). A few exceptions stand out of Chinese men marrying European women (Sir Ho Kai Ho and Alice Walkden) but the majority of pre-war mixed marriages were entered into by soldiers, sailors and technical workers. Higher status men such as taipans and managers at ‘The Bank’ were prevented from formalising whatever local liaisons they might have enjoyed, by rules of the job. Lethbridge noted the earlier generations’ bigotries and prejudices: ‘Government, for example, discouraged a cadet from choosing a Chinese wife because it feared that his position in public service would be exploited by his wife’s kinsmen; businessmen and bankers worried that a junior would give up the healthy sports of cricket and golf, generally go “native”, and thus be eliminated from the European merry-go-round.’
I wonder if Lethbridge didn’t have his own prejudice against white women, at least in history, as they are continually blamed for the worst of attitudes. No doubt some European wives were jealous, petty and insecure; perhaps many were provincial suburbanites. But can it be true that the majority were so pathetic, and that the women in weak European marriages were entirely to blame, for the alleged greater attractiveness of the Orient? Cannot the men be blamed too? In Lethbridge’s piece: ‘the greatest resistance to mixed marriages came from European females whose usual custom was to snub or patronise Chinese girls and cold-shoulder their husbands.’ Was it only European females who snubbed and patronised local women? Hard to believe. And what about how European women were themselves snubbed and patronised, by both European and Chinese men, and perhaps some women too?
Perhaps we must blame the lack of data for the prevalence of so many sweeping statements on the subject. However, the more closely I read Lethbridge on the subject, the more I wonder about him — or was it simply the male analytical culture of that time — as he again promulgates the view that ‘Certainly many corseted European wives found svelte young Chinese women a sexual threat to their marriages, and reacted violently…’ What violence he had in mind is hard to imagine. And what of the sexual threat posed by svelte (and/or voluptuous) European women to the sanctity of some Chinese marriages?
Surely what we’re talking about here is the attraction of the Other. And perhaps a way in which the discourse of the 21st century on this subject can be conducted is without the ready cliches of the 1960s.
Usefully, Lethbridge analysed available census data from 1901 and concluded that ‘in the past a large number of Eurasians were re-absorbed or married back into the Chinese population — and thus lost a separate identity’. Those identifying as Eurasian were a small minority and either married among themselves or into the European community. ‘Thus there was a constant tendency for the Eurasian community to lose members to either the Chinese or Europeans. The decision to move toward one or other of the predominant groups or to remain Eurasian was a delicate one and was governed by a large number of factors.’
Lethbridge pointed out that there is no biological or any other evidence to suggest the products of mixed marriages deserve any sense of aversion — on the contrary — however, prejudice can create peculiarities. He was then happy to conclude that mixed marriage was becoming ever more prevalent. Ultimately, he put this down to how Europeans and Chinese are gradually beginning to see each other as less alien or depraved.
‘In the 19th century Europeans regarded Chinese as members of an effete and moribund nation, doomed to disappear before the play of world evolutionary forces. But China has regained its position as a great Asian and world power — if anything the Chinese now suffer from an overdose of ebullience.’ And whereas most Chinese met in the West in the past were labourers, now they were students and professionals as well as restaurant workers. ‘Likewise, a growing percentage of Hongkong Chinese is discovering that members of the pink-skinned race are not radically dissimilar from themselves.’ Eurasians could now be seen as a product of a more balanced, healthy ‘cultural give-and-take’, helped along, no doubt, by ‘a decline in the feeling of white superiority, once fostered by concessions, extra-territoriality and the existence of the British Empire’.
Lethbridge was hopeful, in 1968, that future mixed marriages and their offspring would grow up in worlds less obsessed by problems of ancestry; he believed industrialisation made ancestry increasingly irrelevant. Of course prejudice persisted, restrictions remained, ‘Yet racial exclusiveness and bigotry are luxuries that few can afford in a commercial community’.
Amusingly, as I wrote this piece, I bumped into a bold blonde friend at Hong Kong University. She had been walking out recently with her Chinese husband and had enough Cantonese to understand the crunched little old Chinese woman who assailed her husband to congratulate him vigorously on his ‘big face’ in scoring such a Western prize as his partner. That’s almost half a century on from Lethbridge’s comments and helps puncture a few more myths, (not least that one about how of course we are all less racist and sexist than in the past!)
An interesting point for further thought is that Eurasians, first as a product of empire, would learn to garner empire’s benefits: ‘In the past being a Eurasian was a state of mind; and, paradoxically, the Eurasian maintained his identity through the privileges he enjoyed over the Chinese, privileges which marked him off as being different, for by working for a European firm he could command a higher salary than if he was pure Chinese’. However, now, he said, it was the apparent end of empire which promised to liberate Eurasians even more.
Lethbridge, Henry J. ‘The Yellow Fever’. Far Eastern Economic Review (2 May 1968).
Lethbridge, Henry J. ‘The Best of Both Worlds?’ Far Eastern Economic Review (10 October, 1968), 128-130.
Lethbridge, Henry. ‘Caste, Class and Race in Hong Kong Before the Japanese Occupation’. In Marjorie Topley (ed.), Hong Kong: the Interaction of Traditions and Life in the Towns, 42-64. From a Weekend Symposium 25-26 November 1972. Hong Kong: Royal Asiatic Society, Hong Kong Branch, June 1975.
Eitel, E.J. Europe in China [with an Introduction by H.J. Lethbridge]. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1983 (1st ed Kelly & Walsh 1895).