Introducing Gemma O’Neill

Gemma O’Neill started her PhD at the University of Bristol last September. Here’s Gemma telling us why she decided to put her career on hold to find out how manifestations of a political identity of Hong Kong emerged as early as right after the Second World War. Gemma’s also looking for interviewees who are willing to share with her their experiences of life in late colonial Hong Kong. Please get in touch with Gemma by writing to if you’re interested! 

I came back to academia after ten years of working on China and East Asia, first for BBC Monitoring (part of the BBC World Service) and for the last six years in the research section at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I’ve always had an interest in non-European languages, and after an undergraduate Chinese history module piqued my curiosity, I applied to take an MSc in Chinese and International Relations at the University of Sheffield. But first, I packed my bag and headed off to teach English for a year in Wuhan, central China, to check if I was making the correct decision. Ten years later, including a year studying even more Chinese in Nanjing, and a period heading up the political team at the British Consulate in Guangzhou, I think I did.

My interest in Hong Kong goes back to childhood wonderings about how this far-flung, unfathomably neon city could possibly be British, but it was only during the 2014 universal suffrage protests that my work really developed a Hong Kong element. I set myself an objective to learn as much as possible about how Hong Kong’s colonial past it affects its future, and in so doing decided to put my career on hold and do just that. I applied to the University of Bristol, and to my absolute delight, was accepted.

My topic was inspired by curiosity towards the myriad localist and self-determination groups that came onto the radar in the period running up to the 2014, and beyond. I want to understand the origins of these movements, and to look deeper into the manifestations of a separate political identity that was emerging in Hong Kong from the end of the Japanese occupation until the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984. In particular, I hope to uncover new ways of understanding how society organised itself, politically and administratively, in the Kowloon Walled City, which lay beyond the constraints of formal government.

My project is going to be quite challenging, as I am based in the UK yet intending to focus on the activities of the Hong Kong Chinese, rather than on top-down British policies. To help with this, I have been learning Cantonese and will be taking an intensive course in Hong Kong this summer. I hope that this will help me gain access to a much richer range of sources, including anyone who would be willing to share their experiences of life in late colonial Hong Kong.


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!