Nele Fabian is a PhD candidate in Chinese History at Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Faculty of East Asian Studies, in Germany with a thesis on the “Social and Cultural Dimensions of Waste Treatment in Chinese Cities in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries”. Her research focuses on modern Chinese environmental history, urban social history, and the history of insurances in China. In this post Nele kindly shares with us her way into the fascinating history of waste management of Hong Kong, and her thoughts on how waste management transformed HK’s social sphere and urban environment.
I was born and raised in Germany, and educated in Chinese History and Philosophy at Ruhr University Bochum. My strong interest in the history of Hong Kong was created during my MA studies at Bochum; out of my motivation to explore Chinese environmental history I stumbled into an archival reading class in environmental history where I came across some fascinating 19th century primary material on British fire insurance along the China coast which primarily reported on Hong Kong and Shanghai. Intrigued by my findings on how both cities were infrastructurally and socially transformed in the quest for safety from fire, I dedicated my MA thesis to this topic and became fascinated by Hong Kong’s historical uniqueness and social complexity. My research touched on a variety of topics besides the history of modern insurance in China, most of which I have since stayed true to. They include the perception of and reaction to urban environmental danger, transformation of the natural sphere through urban expansion, urban public administration and infrastructural development, and urban spaces of encounter between Chinese local and ‘Western’ cultures.
My PhD thesis is still oriented towards this framework but focuses on the history of waste management in Chinese metropolises. In this context I compare my major case study, Hong Kong—again—to Shanghai but additionally also to Chengdu in order to understand the relations and differences between ‘Western’ (or ‘Western inspired’) waste regimes that were executed within a Chinese urban context, and primarily ‘Chinese’ solutions to urban waste problems and their resulting environmental complications. Hence, the Chengdu case study, while Shanghai serves as a hybrid example.
Throughout my investigation of the Hong Kong case I have found that an analysis of its history of waste treatment has direct implications for the present, since the Hong Kong region has relied primarily on intense land use for waste disposal throughout most of its history. The relative absence of relief through more sustainable approaches—which could have grown historically, but in fact did not or hardly did—today shows serious consequences as landfill space is quickly diminishing, thus the government of Hong Kong SAR now faces a far overdue reorganisation of a long established waste management routine. Although the problem of limited space for waste disposal and its possible consequences for Hong Kong’s society and natural resources was foreseen as early as the 1950s, both the British Colonial Government and the Government of Hong Kong SAR have sustained a relatively passive stance towards a possible future waste crisis, which I seek to explain historically in my thesis. To present a broader historical perspective, my Hong Kong related research covers waste management solutions and their implications for the Hong Kong society throughout the whole colonial period. Methodically, I integrate archival documents from the Hong Kong Public Records Office and The National Archives in London as well as a variety of historical local newspapers in both English and Chinese language. I have completed five months of research in Hong Kong thanks to the kind help of Professor John Carroll at HKU’s Department of History, and will go back for more backup data collection in early 2018 before I hope to submit my thesis in late 2018.