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 I often find it surprising how much has been written, even though a great deal of research remains unpublished.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.