Introducing Zardas Shuk-man Lee

Our guest writer this week is Zardas Shuk-man Lee, PhD student at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before her PhD, Zardas completed an MPhil degree with HKU. Her MPhil research was on film censorship in cold war Hong Kong, and yet for her PhD she explores another South East Asian country – Malaya. So we gave Zardas the task of telling us why this switch of topic, and whether she sees any connection between the history of Hong Kong and Malaya. Here’s Zardas fulfilling this task:

I am a year two Ph.D. student in the Department of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I received my B.A. and M.Phil. degrees (in History) at the University of Hong Kong. When I was an undergraduate, I noticed that many authors of my favorite books either are teaching in the U.S. or received their graduate education there. I also intended to attend more courses before writing my Ph.D. dissertation. Thus, I decided to study at UNC, where there are many amazing scholars in different departments working on Asian, transnational, and global history.

For my M.Phil. research at HKU, I worked on the history of film censorship in Cold War Hong Kong from the late 1940s to 1970s. Through film censorship, my thesis explores how the international Cold War politics and the relationship between the Colonial Office and Hong Kong government shaped the nature of local policy. My thesis also discusses how the censorship authorities in Hong Kong and the Straits Settlements copied policies of each other while occasionally contradicting each other. It is the imperial network between Hong Kong and the Straits Settlements that fascinated me the most. I am not explaining here why I am interested in the network since that would require a psychoanalysis of myself.

Bearing networks in mind, I moved on to study a British scholar-official in Malaya—Victor Purcell—for my M.A. thesis in UNC. Purcell underwent cadet training in Hong Kong and Guangdong in the early 1920s. He was an official of Chinese affairs in various parts of Malaya and the Straits Settlements from the 1920s to 1940s. In the interwar, he traveled to central and southern China for his PhD dissertation. Since the late 1920s, Purcell had been publishing a number of works on Chinese in Southeast Asia, which are still widely cited nowadays.

My M.A. thesis, which I am now editing the final draft, explores how Victor Purcell produced knowledge towards “Chinese” subjects within and beyond the British Empire. My thesis centers upon two issues: what did it mean to Purcell to be a colonial official in British Malaya and what epistemic condition enabled Purcell to think that he was different from typical “Orientalists” even though he was working within the structure of colonialism?

The more I read Purcell’s works, the less I become interested in colonial bureaucracy. The more I interact with people inside and outside the academia in the U.S., the more I am aware of how important it is to study the subalterns in the American/European empires. I have now turned to the Malayans with whom Victor Purcell did and did not interact. I am interested in studying the social imaginaries of the Malayans before the Bandung moment—how the people attempted to transcend the ethnic division (Chinese, Malay, Indian, and so on) made up by Europeans and British colonizers, and how the Malayans struggled against the British Empire. I would reconstruct the networks of anticolonialists that stretched across Malaya, Singapore, India, and some other places from the pre-WWI period to the mid-1950s, and how those networks contributed to anticolonialism in Malaya. While my focus is now on Southeast and South Asia, Hong Kong is still in my mind. After all, nationalists and anticolonialists, such as Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam and Sun Yat Sen of Republican China, had been based in Hong Kong, for example.

Technically, Hong Kong was part of Southeast Asia in the British colonial administration. Government officials from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya, and Borneo often came together and discussed policies. My M.Phil. thesis shows that the governments copied and pasted (with little editing perhaps to avoid plagiarism?) the policies and censorship guides of each other. The connection among Hong Kong and the other British colonies in Southeast Asia was not limited to elite politics. For instance, scholars have been studying the circulation of goods and popular culture, and migration of workers, women, and children from places via Hong Kong to/from Southeast Asia.

Here, I would offer one more example of Hong Kong’s connection with Malaya. Last year, in the National Archives of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, I was waiting for the photocopy of some files, which made me feel a bit bored. Since the archives has digitalized a good amount of archival materials, I randomly input keywords into the search engine and wanted to see what would come up on the computer screen. The keywords included “Cantonese,” “Chinese,” “Hong Kong,” “schools,” “teachers,” “censors” and some bizzare words that I avoid to disclose here. In any case, when I read the files regarding teachers and schools, I found that middle school teachers from Hong Kong worked in Malaya, perhaps in some sort of exchange program with political agenda. I didn’t have time to go through every page of the files, but I suspected that the teachers from Hong Kong and Malaya might be part of the forces containing nationalist (Kuomintang) and communist influence in British colonies. In short, the connection among British colonies in Southeast Asia, including Hong Kong, was wide-ranging and it deserves more investigation.

It’s been more than fifteen years since historian Tony Ballantyne proposed the concept of “webs of empire” in his Orientalism and Race: Aryanism in the British Empire. His works, the scholarships on empires in recent two decades, and the works in the fields of transnational and global history have been pushing me to (re)consider the position of Hong Kong in the world.

Are you also an ECR/postgraduate hoping to let the wider community know about your work on Hong Kong history? If you’re interested in contributing, please write to Vivian Kong ( for more details!