HKHP Interviews: John Carroll, HKU

We are delighted to announce that our Blog is starting a new series! In this series, we ask the same set of six questions to scholars with a common interest in Hong Kong from different disciplines.

Our inaugural interviewee is Prof. John Carroll, Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Hong Kong. Prof. Carroll spent his childhood and teenage years in North Point and Causeway Bay before he moved to the US for his undergraduate study. Author of Edge of Empires and bestseller A Concise History of Hong Kong 香港簡史, he has reorientated the study of Hong Kong history to stand between the history of China and British imperialism.


HKHP: How did this all begin? (Your research interests, your career, or your life in Hong Kong, etc.)

JC: It was an accident – and I do mean an accident. Although I was raised and educated in Hong Kong, I never had any interest in its history. It wasn’t taught in my primary or secondary school, and we never went on any field trips. I think I visited the Hong Kong Museum of History, then in Star House, exactly once. When I began the research for my PhD thesis back in the early 1990s, Hong Kong was the last place on my mind. I was interested in Western missionaries in China and treaty-port culture in Shanghai. At some point I decided to read a bit about Hong Kong. The more I learned, the more interesting it became. The rest, as they say, is history.

HKHP: What needs to be further explored in Hong Kong studies?

JC: I don’t think there’s any particular “missing link”. No two people will ever agree on what is most important about any place or period. But, speaking of people, those who need to be incorporated much more thoroughly into Hong Kong history are the South Asians. How such vibrant communities with roots dating back to Hong Kong’s earliest days as a colony have been so overlooked is truly baffling. In terms of periods, one that could use more work is the 1950s.

HKHP: How do you see Hong Kong’s place in the study of history?

JC: When I started my PhD research many years ago, I wanted to use the case of Hong Kong as a way to understand certain issues in modern Chinese history, such as the rise of modern capitalism, state and society, and Sino-Western cultural encounters. Then I started to see it as a way of understanding colonialism. Now I see it mainly as a place on its own terms, and with its own unique characteristics.

HKHP: What do you think would be the biggest challenge facing Hong Kong studies? How can we solve it?

JC: The biggest challenge is the language gap. Walk into any major bookstore here and you’ll see a huge body of work that many people will never be able to read. Some of the best material on Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s is in Chinese, and why shouldn’t it be? Imagine trying to understand France without reading French. And it’s not just a matter of reading: can we really understand a society without understanding its pop culture and – of course – its slang? I grew up immersed in Hong Kong pop culture and slang, and it’s still hard for me to get by. Another problem is that, at least at the university level, historical research is usually framed by nation. Except perhaps here in Hong Kong, no one gets a PhD in Hong Kong history: it has to be in Chinese history or British imperial history. And, except perhaps in Hong Kong, academic jobs are never in Hong Kong history. I can’t imagine that ever changing.

HKHP: Could you please share with us your favorite quote/person/book that you came across while doing primary research?

JC: The most interesting person I’ve ever come across while doing primary research is James Innes, a fiercely libertarian Scottish trader who arrived in Canton around 1825 and died in Macao in July 1841 during the Opium War. He didn’t survive long enough to live in Hong Kong, but he certainly would have made the place even more interesting if he had. I don’t think I would have liked him very much, but he would have been a fun person to share a glass or two of Scotch whisky with. He once publicly threatened to shoot Captain Charles Elliot, superintendent of British trade in China, “through the head, or heart, by a well practised rifle.”

HKHP: What are you working on now?

JC: I’m trying to finish two books on the British in Canton before the Opium War. One is about communities, people (including James Innes), and institutions. The other is about the knowledge of China produced by Britons who resided in or travelled through Canton. And I’ve just started research for another book on Hong Kong, which looks at how from 1949 to 1997 local authorities tried to promote tourism in Britain’s only Chinese colony, and by the 1990s its only significant colony.



Introducing Nathan Kwan

This week we have Nathan Kwan, who’s in his second year of PhD study with the University of Hong Kong and King’s College, London. Nathan’s telling us in this post how he became interested in Hong Kong history, and giving us a trailer of his fascinating research on the cooperation of the Qing and the British officials in combating piracy along the South China coast.

I am connected to Hong Kong through my parents, both of whom were born there. Though they have since emigrated from Hong Kong to the United States, my many happy (and hot) summers spent in Hong Kong left an indelible impression. Serendipitously, recollection of childhood summers helped me find a middle ground during my undergraduate studies between the classical China I hoped to study and my interest in the British Empire, piqued by the British Studies programme at the University of Texas at Austin. Thus, during my MA in Regional Studies – East Asia at Harvard University, my research focused on British and Qing negotiations of sovereignty and jurisdiction over Chinese criminals in Hong Kong.
During my research on Chinese criminals one subset, pirates, particularly interested me and now forms the focus of my PhD research currently undertaken jointly in the Department of History at the University of Hong Kong and the War Studies Department at King’s College London. The European experience of piracy produced a conceptualisation of maritime depredation within a system of international law that was largely unknown to the Qing. However, the prevalence of piracy along the southern coast of China often forced Qing officials into cooperation with the British for its suppression.

Utilising Chinese and English materials in the National Archives in London (including the Guangdong provincial archives captured during the Second Opium War), the Caird Library of the National Maritime Museum, the Hong Kong Public Records Office, and elsewhere, my research hopes to supplement the narrative of the British suppression of piracy in China by including the Chinese perspective. By focusing on the Hong Kong-headquartered Royal Navy (I am in the Department of War Studies after all) and its interactions with the Chinese in suppressing piracy, I hope to present a new perspective on Anglo-Qing relations in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. In addition to challenging the traditional narrative of gunboat diplomacy by focusing on cooperation rather than confrontation between British warships and Chinese officials, I will discuss Qing reactions to British anti-piracy activity off the China coast. In doing so, I hope to assess Qing engagement with and understanding of international law vis-à-vis the suppression of piracy.

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!

Introducing Rodney So

Rodney So has just submitted his MPhil thesis to the History Department of the Lingnan University of Hong Kong. In this post, Rodney explains to us how he became interested in Hong Kong’s fight against corruption, and talks about the challenges he faced in writing this history:

I am in my second year of MPhil in history at Lingnan University, awaiting my viva in the coming summer. My first encounter with Hong Kong history happened in the second year of my undergraduate study at the University of Hong Kong, when I took a course taught by John Carroll about museum and history, in which I came across with materials about post-war Hong Kong history. I was fascinated by the idea of the emergence of the civic identity shared among the local Chinese. And that was the time when I started to contemplate for a research about the fight against corruption, which played an important role in building the civic identity.

The major focus of my ongoing MPhil project is to find out the political and social context which compelled the colonial government to introduce anti-corruption measures throughout the twentieth century up to the 1970s. It sounds peculiar, but the syndicated corruption was a balanced system which fitted in Colonialism in Hong Kong. The collusion between local triads, the rank and file was, on one hand, a lucrative business providing illegal entertainment which were favourable to local Chinese. On the other hand, it serves as a cost-effective system to maintain public order, which was the essential element for commercial activities to flourish. The syndicated corruption within the Police Force cramped the Force in doing anti-corruption investigations, which allows corruption to embed in various government departments. Despite the distaste of the English speaking circle in Hong Kong towards widespread dishonesty within the colonial administration, they were rather apathetic to sustain a cry for eradication. In the 1960s and 70s, they had bigger worries, such as the Sterling exchange issue and the negotiation about British entry to the EEC. James Fellows’s PhD thesis demonstrates the series of negotiations between the colonial government and the British government to prevent the British entry to the EEC and how it affected the business interest of textile merchants in Hong Kong.

The interesting point is that my research findings contradict to what I expected to find. It was only in the final phase of my research that I realised there has been so many misinterpretations, sometimes deliberately done, by the social media and the PR department of law-enforcing units on this topic. Also, doing research on such a sensitive topic is also, unfortunately, more difficult than I expected, in terms of the availability of sources. I was restrained by the limited primary sources on understanding more about the details of police corruption and scandals. Thus, most of the sources I used in the research are official government documents composed by the Colonial Office and the colonial government. They are useful to analyse the strategy composition of the ruling circle when faced with political predicament. However, I regret that I could not do more, due to the lack of sources, to tackle the question about the discourse of corruption among local Chinese.


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!