HKHP Interviews: Christopher Munn

The Project is delighted to have Dr. Christopher Munn to be our interviewee this week. A former administrative officer in the Hong Kong Government 1980-1992, and a staff member of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority 1998-2010, Dr. Munn has published extensively on Hong Kong History. In particular, his book Anglo-China: Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong, 1841-1880 sheds light on how colonial governance affected the lives of people in early British Hong Kong, and how they in turn sought to shape colonial rule.

Dr. Munn has also co-edited with May Holdsworth the Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography, a collection of more than 500 biographies of lives spanning the whole of Hong Kong history, and one of the most well-received publications to researchers working in the field.


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

 CM: I came to Hong Kong in 1980 as a fresh history graduate from England to work for the Hong Kong Government. After a decade or so of interesting work I wanted to continue my education. For certain romantic reasons I also wanted to be in Toronto. I therefore studied for an MA and then a Ph.D. at the University of Toronto under Timothy Brook. I picked Hong Kong as a thesis topic mainly out of interest but also because Hong Kong in the 1990s was a hot topic. Toronto turned out to be a good place for this because it is a centre of British Empire studies. It also has a strong Hong Kong connection and excellent libraries, including a Hong Kong collection built up by Peter Yeung, who had earlier helped build up the Hong Kong collection at HKU. I did much of my research in Hong Kong and was fortunate to be selected as a Toronto-HKU exchange student, so that I was able to spend a whole year back in Hong Kong working under the guidance of Elizabeth Sinn. 

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

CM: The field is in excellent shape. It has received an enormous boost from initiatives such as the Hong Kong History Project. I often find it surprising how much has been written, even though a great deal of research remains unpublished. There are now also some excellent general histories by Steve Tsang, John Carroll, Tsai Jung-fang and others. I wish there were more longitudinal studies of special topics over the full span of Hong Kong’s history of a city. For example, we have no comprehensive economic history of Hong Kong. Nor is there a general demographic history of the city, despite the role that movements of people have played in politics, economics and identity. And what about some scholarly histories about corruption in Hong Kong, or about important institutions such as the governorship or the Executive and Legislative Councils? It would also be good to see more comparative studies on Hong Kong and other colonial or Chinese cities. This is difficult to do well, but it is good to see some movements in this direction.

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

CM: Hong Kong has a large population with a distinct history driven both by its own dynamics and by external forces. It was the last British colony to be decolonized and one of a handful of former colonies to be given a special status within a much larger country. Its history is packed with interesting events, personalities and controversies. It surely deserves to be studied as a place in its own right. However, it is also interesting to see Hong Kong’s history in the context of modern Chinese and world history, and in comparison with the history of other colonies and the metropole. Just through examining aspects of Hong Kong’s legal history in my recent research I have been struck by how much its development has been influenced by processes, personalities and experiences in other colonies.

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

CM: The same challenge which faces all historians: finding, reading, understanding and interpreting the sources in as balanced a way as possible. Another challenge is to make Hong Kong interesting and relevant to people who have no direct experience of the city. 

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

CM: In my research I have been looking at cases in the Hong Kong courts. Most of these cases are sad rather than amusing but occasionally some bizarre disputes arose, often involving visiting performers. In a case in 1912, for example, an army officer sued ‘the Great Raymond’, a world-famous escapologist, after he had refused to honour his offer of £100 to any member of the audience who could extricate himself from a pair of locked handcuffs. The army officer had beaten the challenge, but the Great Raymond claimed that the handcuffs were not properly locked. The officer won the case and donated his winnings to charity.

Another case was about two mermaids and a monkey. This was an action in 1890 by a German showman to recover $100, being the cost of two ‘dried mermaids’ he had entrusted to a Chinese painter to produce pictorial advertisements for some sort of semi-aquatic show. The showman had also insisted that he, along with a monkey appearing in the show, be included in the pictures and had supplied the monkey to give sittings: ‘the trouble of getting these accessories to harmonise was considerable,’ the painter told the court. The painter refused to return the dried mermaids when the showman, not happy with the paintings, declined to pay the price agreed on. During the hearing the paintings and the mermaids – concoctions sewn together from various dead animals (Barnum’s museum had a similar specimen) – were laid on the table in court and a great deal of evidence was given in German and Chinese. The judge concluded that the pictures were not bad considering the unpromising subject matter, and he found for the painter.

HKHP: What are you working on now?

CM: I have recently finished writing a history of the Hong Kong Judiciary, from 1841 to recent times. I have also been working with May Holdsworth on a book on the history of the Central Police Station complex and have helped Elizabeth Sinn edit a book on cultural encounters in Hong Kong history, which will be published soon. Earlier this year I began work on a history of the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong, planned as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations in 2019.

[CFP] Postgraduate Workshop at the University of Bristol, January 2018

Call for Papers

Challenges in the study of Hong Kong History: Postgraduate Workshop at the University of Bristol, January 2018

The Hong Kong History Project at the University of Bristol is pleased to announce that the second Postgraduate Workshop will take place on January 11-12, 2018. The workshop welcomes postgraduate students and early career scholars working on Hong Kong history and related disciplines in the UK and overseas, and provides an opportunity to network and the share ideas. Participants will be invited to give a twenty-minute presentation on the theme of challenges facing the study of Hong Kong’s history. This can include issues relating to archives and sources, as well as broader challenges around differing historical approaches and interpretations. This will be followed by question and answer sessions.

Candidates are invited to submit a 200-word statement briefly outlining their area of research and motivation for attending the workshop, along with their Curriculum Vitae. Please submit all applications to Catherine Chan (, Gemma O’Neill ( and Katon Lee ( by November 24, 2017. Accepted participants will be notified by December 1, 2017. Two nights’ accommodation in Bristol and some meals will be provided. Although priority will be given to history postgraduate students and recently completed PhDs, applications from other disciplines will be considered provided an appreciation of history is shown.

HKHP Interviews: Mark Hampton, Lingnan University

Our second interviewee is Prof. Mark Hampton, of the history department at Lingnan University. A resident of Hong Kong for almost eleven years, Prof. Hampton has published widely on British media and culture, including the recent book Hong Kong and British Culture, 1945-97.


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

MH: For about twenty years now, I have been a historian of British culture, and Hong Kong is just one of my areas of interest within this broader field. The two main reasons that I took my interest in British cultural history in the direction of the British in Hong Kong are, 1. in 1996 while conducting research in Manchester, I met a young woman from Hong Kong who piqued my interest in Hong Kong (“Reader, I married her”), and 2. I was fortunate enough to be able to move to Hong Kong in 2007 to take a position at Lingnan University, after spending the first several years of my career in the United States. Upon moving to Hong Kong, I quite naturally took advantage of the opportunity to move my interest in British cultural history into the arena of Hong Kong studies.

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

MH: I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask, given that I approach Hong Kong studies from a firmly British cultural perspective, which is obviously limiting. But my sense is that there is still a lot more to learn about Hong Kong from the vantage point of its inhabitants who are neither Chinese nor Western: in other words, its Asian ethnic minorities. People like John Erni and Gordon Matthews have done important pioneering work, but I think there is much more to be done in this area.

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

Hong Kong is interesting as a city that is simultaneously an entry point into studies of globalization, of Chinese history, of British imperial history, of Hong Kong’s role as an exemplar of neo-liberalism and a place for what Davidson and Rees-Mogg call “the sovereign individual” to assert his or her sovereignty. Some of the infrastructure projects of the second half of the twentieth century offer interesting case studies in urban planning that would be of interest to any urban geographer. Hong Kong is a liminal place—in the 19th century what John Carroll evocatively calls the “edge of empires”, and in the later 20th century, a contact zone between China and the world. Basically, for 19th- to 20th- century historical studies, there are few cities that offer entry points into as many different fields of historical enquiry as Hong Kong does.

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

MH: To me, the biggest challenge is that as Hong Kong studies develops, and more scholars—especially, but not only, those based in Hong Kong — devote their professional careers to Hong Kong studies, it can tend to become myopic. I think my answer to the previous question points us to the best antidote: the more different perspectives are brought to bear on Hong Kong, the better off “Hong Kong studies” will be. I think it would be a good thing if we have scholarship on Hong Kong being conducted not only by people who devote their careers to scholarship on Hong Kong, but by people interested in Chinese history, British history, global history, financial history, international cinema, and any number of other topics that go well beyond “Hong Kong studies”.

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

MH: I’m afraid my favorites are not from my studies in the history of Hong Kong, but things I encountered in British journalism and cultural history: from the great Guardian editor, C.P. Scott: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred”. In terms of books, I’m a big fan of Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922) and, before that, R.A. Scott-James’s The Influence of the Press (1913). Between them, I think they were instrumental in establishing Anglo-American media studies. Keeping it strictly to Hong Kong: as I worked on post-1945 British culture and Hong Kong, I found Richard Hughes’s Borrowed Place, Borrowed Time (1968) and James Clavell’s Noble House (1981) to be among the most interesting—and especially interesting that Clavell—an Australian who became a US citizen—was as concerned about promoting British culture as anyone who ever wrote about Hong Kong. Hughes, of course, was also Australian.

HKHP: What are you working on now?

MH: I am working on several projects: one on British radicals and reformers in Hong Kong from the 1840s to 1990s; one on the film theory of Michael Balcon, a major film producer in mid-twentieth-century Britain; and one on discourses of “whiteness” in post-1945 Britain and the United States. In addition, I am general editor of a six volume Cultural Histories of Media from antiquity to the 20th century, under contract with Bloomsbury, and I am co-editing the 19th-century volume.