Introducing Shuang Wu

Our guest writer this week is Shuang Wu, PhD student at the University of Hong Kong and King’s College, London. Shuang’s research explores lives of Chinese mothers in colonial Hong Kong and the United Kingdom after the Second World War. Here she shares with us how stories told by her grandmother, an illiterate woman born in Shanghai and moved to Hong Kong in the 1950s, inspired her to conduct a research that thinks about migrant mothers and the meaning of ‘motherhood’. She’s also looking for oral history interviewees for her research (details please see below), so do get in touch with her if you or anyone you know would be interested in participating in her fascinating research!

Growing up I never really understood history. History was just stories told to me by my maternal grandmother, Ah Bu. She was a matriarch. An illiterate dragon lady, born in Shanghai during the worst period of prewar political upheaval, and forced into a largely subterranean existence during the Japanese occupation.


Ah Bu traveled across the PRC-Hong Kong border at the age of 18 during the 1950s to marry my Ah Gong, her former next-door neighbour in Shanghai. He had migrated to Hong Kong four years previously and was now working as a mechanic. They were married while my Ah Bu was still referring to him as ‘the guy from next-door’. Even so, my Ah Gong was a romantic. He pawned their wedding bands, gifts from their parents, and bought tickets to the movies. One movie and a dinner later, they were in love. I am still trying to find out the title of that movie. It was a turning point in her life, starting her on a journey that would lead her to become a devoted wife, mother, grandmother, and great grandmother of 23 proud individuals.

Ah Bu and Ah Gong were not alone. As a result of the significant influx of Chinese migrants during the period, a pronounced demographic shift altered family and community dynamics in numerous ways, including the introduction and expansion of new languages, in addition to different provincial cultures, traditions and perspectives. Domestic overcrowding was particularly challenging for migrant mothers and ‘mothers-to-be’ when they first arrived in Hong Kong. During the 1940s and 1950s, wives and mothers continued to be perceived as the main housekeepers of families and primary carers. Consequentially, domestic space became an immediate concern for women, and many families were forced to live in poorly-built squatter settlements. Housing shortages and a lack of income meant that my grandparents survived a largely transient lifestyle on the outskirts of the colony. They lived in houses that were poorly built, with no bathrooms, and nothing but empty space as a sleeping area, as well as a wood stove for cooking. Since my Ah Gong was always busy at work, it became my Ah Bu’s duty to undertake all childcare and domestic responsibilities.

As there were no bathrooms, Ah Bu would be in charge of emptying the night soil. There were also no electricity or running water, so she would have to fetch water everyday, from a communal tap on the other side of the settlement, making at least ten trips a day to cater for the entire family. The rural setting of their new home meant there were always various insects and animals in close proximity. She fought off rats, red ants, and even deadly snakes in her own home. At one point, she defeated a five-inch centipede with only a pair of chopsticks! While women ruled the domestic space, the term ‘domestic’ is perhaps misleading as it was necessary for women to move outside of the home, to the market for food or other locations for household goods, in order to perform their duties as wives and mothers. Such activities portray the reality of a paradoxical domesticity, and a focus on mothers’ roles reveals the challenges and triumphs of everyday life.

Ah Bu did not find her daily activities easy. Born and raised as the closet daughter of an affluent Shanghai family, she spoke no Cantonese and found it extremely difficult to communicate with anyone who were not Shanghainese, causing her to be bullied by vendors at the market. As she was illiterate, she could not read any of the price tags or names of products at any of the stores. As she was uneducated, she had to learn from the very beginning on how to do mathematics so that she could help Ah Gong manage the books of the family finance. Ah Bu’s perseverance, in the face of this grueling start, led her and became the resilient old lady I know today.

Many female migrants shared similar recollections to those of my Ah Bu during the interviews I conducted as part of my initial PhD research. During the 1950s, many women, wives and mothers crossed the border from the Mainland to Hong Kong. It was also the first time that female migrants had the ability to move between the borders of the Mainland to Hong Kong as independents, unlike Chinese women in prewar Hong Kong, who were made of largely trafficked female labour, working as prostitutes or mui tsais. Consequently, the narratives of mothers are of particular significance as they allow a deeper understanding of what life was like for citizens in the colony. Migrant mothers provide the private side of a very public act, since mothers’ domestic activities took them beyond the boundaries of the inner quarters, revealing the challenges and triumphs of everyday life.

The use of oral testimony in exploring the meaning of ‘motherhood’ in my current work is essential, as women, especially mothers, are often neglected in official documentation due to prioritisation of men in history and society, as well as the fact that many women were illiterate. Chinese migration stories are also often focused on male ‘sojourner’ stories. In addition, the female presence in state-controlled press was very limited, and the personal lives of women only appeared in the press or official reports and documents when they touched on areas of concern to the government. Since my PhD examines the rights, health, legal position and daily lives of Chinese motherhood in colonial Hong Kong and the United Kingdom, many of whom were migrants from Mainland China in the postwar period. As such, oral testimonies are an important way to bridge the gap between state recognition of mothers’ lives, ideals and representations. Yet, at the same time, uncover the private lives and feelings of mothers.

The purpose of this study is to address the experiences of Chinese migrant mothers, as well as female historical experiences, during the 1940s to 1970s in colonial Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. I would love to hear from you if you, or your family and friends, know anything about migrant mothers in the two locations during the proposed time period. If you have any questions about my research project, please also feel free to contact me via I sincerely look forward to hearing from you!

[HKHP 2019 Conference CFP] “All Roads Lead to Hong Kong”: People, City, Empires

“All Roads Lead to Hong Kong”: People, City, Empires
Hong Kong History Project Conference

6-7 June 2019, University of Hong Kong

Keynote speaker: Henry Yu, Associate Professor, Department of History, University of British Columbia

Ellen Thorbecke, Hong Kong (Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1938).

Under the auspices of the ‘Hong Kong History Project’, the Departments of History at the University of Bristol and the University of Hong Kong are jointly organizing a two-day international conference at the University of Hong Kong on 6-7 June 2019. Hong Kong has been described as its own cultural-historical place at the edge of the Chinese and British empires, and as an ‘in-between place’. But can we also consider Hong Kong beyond the edge of these two empires and as more than an in-between place? Our aim is to encourage work that will consider the city’s history within a global framework that includes, but is not restricted to, networks of people, goods, communications, ideas and culture.

The conference aims to enrich discussions on the connections between Hong Kong and the world by drawing together international scholars and students to share their research on the history of this city and its people, and to encourage participants to consider the city’s history within a global framework. We welcome papers exploring a range of themes and approaches relating to Hong Kong and its wider networks, including its diaspora in a historical perspective. We also encourage proposals for panel sessions of three papers.

Specific conference themes to be explored may include:

  • Migration, communities, and diasporas
  • Environmental history
  • Culture, identity, and belonging
  • Colonialism and post-colonialism
  • Hong Kong’s international relations
  • Globalisation
  • Mobilities, transnational spaces, and port cities
  • Modernity and cosmopolitanism
  • Hong Kong’s economic transitions

Proposals are invited for individual papers of 20 minutes, or for panels including three such papers. To submit a proposal for consideration, send an abstract of 300 words (maximum) and 1-page cv by 5 January 2019 to Accepted participants will be notified by January 30.

We expect to be able to make a significant contribution to the expenses incurred for participants to attend the conference. Additionally, a  limited number of travel bursaries will be available to postgraduate students and ECRs. To be considered, please submit with your application a short statement outlining your research interests, purpose in attending the conference, an estimated budget of expenses, and availability of funding from your institution.

Conference Committee
Robert Bickers, University of Bristol
John Carroll, University of Hong Kong
Vivian Kong, University of Bristol
Nathan Kwan, University of Hong Kong & King’s College, London
Joyce Lau, University of Hong Kong
Chris Wemyss, University of Bristol

The conference is funded by the University of Bristol’s ‘Hong Kong History Project’ and the Faculty of Arts, University of Hong Kong.


Introducing Luca Yau

Our guest writer this week is Luca Yau, who’s set to start her PhD at Trinity College Dublin in March 2019. During her MPhil study at Lingnan University, Luca explored the representations and self-representations of Hakka women since the mid-nineteenth century.

I was born and raised in a Hakka family, a group whose ethnicity has become marginalized and increasingly unseen in the process of rapid urbanization in the post-war period. In the 1970s, the British colonial government mandated the teaching medium of Hong Kong to be Cantonese, with the result that the Hakka dialect has been dying out over decades, losing its voice almost without a murmur. The number of Hakka speakers has declined to a worrying level, with less than 1% of the population over the age of 30 being able to speak the dialect. It was once one of the major dialects of Hong Kong in the pre-WWII period.

Having grown up in a Cantonese-dominated society, my Hakka identity has been always invisible outside of my family sphere, giving me multiple identities in terms of ethnicity. Being different from the Cantonese majority, questions on what constitutes one’s identity have often come to my mind. This notion has also shaped my curiosity towards the transformation of Hakka identity in Hong Kong, and ultimately inspired the questions that would define the research I pursued for my MPhil degree.

In my research, I worked on the representations and self-representations of Hakka women, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. The first challenge I encountered in my MPhil studies was the challenge inherent in seeking a standard definition of who, or what, constitutes Hakka. This most elementary of questions has long proven to be a stumbling block for scholars who have endeavored to give a solid definition of what it means to be a Hakka. But such efforts of definition are fraught, when their validity can be so undermined by the consideration of any of the numerous counter examples which challenge any fixed criteria of Hakka identity. I later came to realize that the identity itself is fluid, floating, and extremely changeable. It is not scientifically practical to seek to define a group which is in fact ethnically undefinable; rather, Hakka identity has been historically constructed in different contexts.

Images of Hakka women have tended to appear as very vibrant in historical discourses, museum representations, and the ongoing Hakka projects of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). The very first Chinese historical writing on Hakka women emerged in the context of the Hakka people competing for scarce resources with the Punti people (Native Cantonese) in the early 19th century. The population had doubled between 1650 and 1800. When the relations between Hakka and Punti became tense, Hakka women were singled out for comparison with Punti women, receiving constant compliments – for having unbound feet, being hygienic, hardworking, and independent – representations which have acted to effectively constitute the characteristics of Hakka women, adding a layer of perceived glory to Hakka identity. I was intrigued by the vigorous images of Hakka women, produced as they were in what was a significantly patriarchal society at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and the fact that such images have been able to survive through the centuries, such that you can still see them predominating in the exhibitions of the Hong Kong History Museum and in the promotion of ICH on Hakka items.

Had a casual conversation with a Punti woman speaking Weitou dialect (a branch of Cantonese) in the Northern New Territeries on 15 August, 2014. Photo Courtesy of John Choy.

To examine the ways in which Hakka women have been represented, and how they have created self-representations, in museums and in the trend of intangible cultural heritage preservation, entails the employment of anthropological methodologies to enable critical access to the thoughts of Hakka women, to contextualise observations on how they are represented and how they have been given space to make their own self-representations. I was very fortunate to get to know several of the major practitioners of Hakka patterned band weaving in Hong Kong, including Tsui Yuet-ching and Choi Ching-mui, who were both invited to present their cultural practices in different kinds of media. Under the wave of intangible cultural heritage preservation, they have been afforded the chance to empower themselves and to make a voice on behalf of Hakka women.

I conducted interviews with them and attended the talks and lectures that they offered to the public, the analysis and contextualization of which comprised a significant part of my research findings. In their genuine and forthright spirit of sharing, it can be seen that, even in a patriarchal society, women have had their own ability and space to express themselves and to create their own cultures through Hakka mountain songs and patterned bands in the past. In recent years, Hakka women have been enjoying the spotlight in exhibitions and activities at the center of the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage in the public sphere, whilst Hakka men worked behind the scene to preserve Hakka culture, receiving comparatively little attention for their contributions and being unseen in the media coverage. This fact has reminded me to adopt, and to ensure, a more balanced lens in looking at the gender roles between Hakka women and men.

My interviewee, Choi Ching-mui was putting a Hakka patterned band on me at her home in Sha Tin on 20 January 2016. Photo courtesy of Hulu Culture.

I enjoyed the privilege of conducting interviews with the representatives of Hakka women who have endeavored to promote and preserve Hakka culture. They are happy to speak Hakka and share their past and thoughts on safeguarding Hakka culture. When we speak the same dialect, we feel as though we are culturally connected. My Hakka background has enabled me to make interpretations and observations of how they make sense of their identity, and of the revitalization of Hakka culture. My interviewees are very proud of being Hakka – in doing so, they have echoed many of the historical discourses on the Hakka people, and particularly on Hakka women, illuminating the extent to which essentialised views of Hakka women have been inherited. These are products of a historically constructed identity.



The diversity that we see in Hong Kong today is mostly based on the categorization of a territory in which Chinese ethnicities have become almost invisible, as the majority of the population either speaks Cantonese or Mandarin. The various ethnic groups have become homogenized into one all-encompassing Chinese identity, one which overlooks, and forgets, the diversity that previously existed among the Chinese of Hong Kong, and the position that ethnicity once held in defining communities and identity. Further study on ethnicity is needed in order to achieve a fresh understanding of the impacts of colonial policy on the New Territories. The interactions between the ethnic groups, the changing boundaries of ethnicity, the lines between rural and urban, the impacts of urbanization on ethnic merging, and the differences of gender roles between villages and estates. Consideration of these factors offers a window into a little understood aspect of the city’s history, allowing for a more complete picture of Hong Kong history to emerge in the historical record, and for posterity.