Kaori Abe is a former postdoctoral fellow of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and has a PhD in History from the University of Bristol. Her main research areas are the history of Hong Kong, modern China and the British Empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Don’t forget to check out her book Chinese Middlemen in Hong Kong’s Colonial Economy, 1830–1890 if you’re interested in her fascinating research on compradors in Hong Kong!
I was not planning to research the history of Hong Kong when I started to write my undergraduate thesis at the International Christian University of Tokyo. At that time, I had just returned to Japan from a year abroad programme in Hong Kong.
I enjoyed my stay in Hong Kong, as it was my first time living abroad. Dorm, or hall, life was particularly memorable. I had the opportunity to study, live, and socialise with local students. These students, the young elite of Hong Kong, were good at adopting new technologies, informal and formal networking, learning different languages, and organising activities and societies.
The culture, society, and people of Hong Kong fascinated me. However, I knew that I was too passionate about these things to conduct research related to Hong Kong. An effective researcher should be able to observe and analyse his/her research subject from a neutral perspective.
Therefore, I submitted my research proposal on another area of modern Chinese history to my undergraduate supervisor. My supervisor looked over my research plan, returned it to me, and said, ‘Your proposal looks okay, but is it really the topic you’re interested in?’ I told him that I was interested in the history of Hong Kong, but I did not want to do research on it, because I could not be objective. My supervisor answered, ‘It’s fine. It’s OK to choose a topic about which you are passionate and emotional’.
This was the beginning of my now ten-year career as a Hong Kong history researcher. After completing my undergraduate course in Japan, I moved to the UK, studied the history of modern China and British Empire, and read a PhD in History at the University of Bristol under the supervision of Professor Robert Bickers. Last year, I published the book Chinese Middlemen in Hong Kong’s Colonial Economy, 1830–1890 (Routledge, 2017), which was based on my PhD dissertation on compradors in nineteenth century Hong Kong.
Compradors (買辦 maiban in Chinese) were Chinese middlemen working with foreign institutions and individuals in nineteenth and twentieth century China. The opening of treaty ports in China after the end of the Opium War in 1842 provided new business opportunities in the Chinese market for foreign companies. Similarly, this opening also provided economic opportunities for Chinese individuals interested in foreign markets and foreign companies. Many foreign firms in China hired local Chinese agents who were able to speak English or other European languages, as well as having business skills and a wide commercial network with other Chinese merchants. These individuals were often hired under the occupational title of ‘comprador’.
In the history of Hong Kong, compradors played key functions in the establishment of social institutions including the Tung Wah Hospital and the Po Leung Kuk (the Society for the Protection of Women and Children), together with other leading figures of the local Chinese community during the late nineteenth century.
Why did I focus on compradors? Firstly, compradors, in some ways, resembled the young students I met during my exchange programme in Hong Kong. Like the students I met, compradors embodied many attributes of the contemporary Hong Kong business elite. Present-day attributes of the Hong Kong business elite, such as the intermediation of Sino-foreign business, family-run companies, corruption, and philanthropy, could all be seen amongst compradors in nineteenth century Hong Kong.
There is also a lack of comprehensive research on compradors in Hong Kong. Many preceding works on the history of Hong Kong mention famous compradors such as Robert Hotung, financial magnate and Eurasian comprador to Jardine, Matheson & Co., and Kwok Acheong, comprador to the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company and successful shipping merchant. These preceding works highlight that compradors constituted an important component of the Chinese elite in late nineteenth century Hong Kong. However, existing research has not fully explained why and how the compradors became indispensable economic middlemen by the 1870s and 1880s.
Through researching compradors in nineteenth century Hong Kong, I found that the comprador system was much more diverse than I had originally thought. For instance, some compradors worked for the colonial government and were different from commercial compradors. Most research argues that compradors were influential Chinese economic middlemen serving foreign companies, not official institutions. The diversity of compradors in Hong Kong prompts another question: ‘Who were the compradors in modern China?’, which suggests that further research is necessary. There should be more research into compradors operating in South East Asia and East Asia, outside of China.
Conducting research on intermediaries also enables us to understand the histories of nations, empires and cities from fresh perspectives. The voices of marginal actors, like compradors and local ‘collaborators’, has been silenced or labelled ‘unpatriotic’ in national histories. Focusing on knowledge exchange, and the movement of people and commodities, transnational and global history highlight the trans-national and trans-regional networks of overseas Chinese merchants and workers, whose narratives are not included in national histories. Similar to transnational and global history, the history of intermediaries also provides a voice to local, marginal actors who had previously been granted less attention and reveals the social, economic, and cultural realities that had been masked in national histories.
My next research project will focus on the decline of the compradors in twentieth century Hong Kong. My book analysed how compradors rose in Hong Kong, though it did not explain how they gradually lost their significance during the twentieth century. I will investigate what happened to compradors during the rise of Chinese nationalism, communism, and the decline of the British Empire, along with Japanese imperial expansion and the growth of the United States.
I’m also interested in the careers of shipwrecked Japanese sailors in nineteenth century China. The records on these individuals are sparse, but I am interested in how they worked with British merchants, missionaries, and diplomats in the Pearl River Delta, both before and after the end of Japan’s closed-door (鎖国 sakoku) policy.