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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more details!