Introducing Adonis Li

Our guest writer this week is Adonis Li, PhD student at the University of Hong Kong. We first met Adonis in 2016 when the Project visited the University of York, where Adonis did his BA and MA, for a symposium on Hong Kong history. Our paths have crossed often since: in January this year Adonis spoke at our postgraduate workshop about his earlier work on Sir Percy Cradock and the future of Hong Kong, and in June we met in Hong Kong again, where we heard that he is now working on another project that is also very relevant to the daily lives of Hong Kongers – the history of the city’s public transport. Adonis kindly accepted our invite to tell us more about his research here, and explained how his interest about history shifted from the ‘Horrible Histories’ series of children’s books and historical video games to the modern history of Hong Kong. 

History was one of my favourite subjects in school, not least because of the popular Horrible Histories series of children’s books. The sense of humour and the ‘gory bits’ of the series taught me that history doesn’t have to be just lists of kings and queens and great deeds. Instead, history could talk about how both elites and regular people lived. Yet, as time went on and topics of study narrowed due to exam requirements, I found myself increasingly disillusioned with what I was studying. Modern history, in particular twentieth-century history, was all that my high school taught. I grew tired of regurgitating the same information over and over again, perhaps once from the British perspective, then again from the American perspective, then German, Soviet, French and so on. Thankfully, I continued to receive good grades in the subject.


I managed to keep up my interest in history during this period through historical video games. Series such as Age of Empires and Total War mixed strategy, city building and medieval history together into one fun yet difficult package. I would eventually find myself spending more time reading the introductions to different historical factions and events than playing the actual games. I remember thinking ‘if only school would teach us medieval history and not the Second World War!’

I then went to the University of York, where I obtained a BA (Hons) in History and an MA in Contemporary History and International Politics. Aside from its location close to my home in Leeds and the campus’s beautiful brutalist architecture, I chose York because of its rich medieval past. During my second year there, I lived a few metres away from its medieval city walls (though unfortunately I ended up with nosy tourists peering into my windows every afternoon). I fulfilled my wishes of studying medieval history by enrolling in early medieval courses; the first seminar I ever attended was on the course titled ‘Goths and Romans’.

However, alongside Goths, Romans and Vikings, I also enrolled on modern history courses. I became increasingly interested in my place of birth, Hong Kong, and wanted to know more about its past. The Umbrella Movement of 2014 coincided with the start of my studies at York, and I chose courses on the history of the British Empire and on Chinese history. There were weeks where I would juggle reading translated Latin texts with reading translated Chinese texts, then trying to look up the original source of the latter. Over time (and with a dissertation proposal deadline looming), I came to realise that though medieval history is incredibly interesting (and fun!), modern history was a better subject of serious study for me personally.

I worked with David Clayton, Senior Lecturer at York, to complete my BA dissertation on the visit of Governor Murray MacLehose to Beijing in 1979, which started the negotiations over Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty. I then wrote an MA dissertation on the role of Sir Percy Cradock during and after these negotiations, using documents from his papers collection.

My original plan was to write a PhD thesis on another facet of the negotiations. However, I had become interested in something that was, and still is, very important for Hongkongers and city-dwellers all over the world; public transport.


Through websites such as CityMetric and Facebook groups such as New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens, I started to look at my own commutes and usage of public transport critically. It turns out there’s more to it than just complaining about two buses coming at once after a long wait. Behind every journey were histories of mobility, political negotiations, financial considerations, and social changes. Once I had moved to Hong Kong, I had very contrasting experiences to compare, between commuting on the underfunded, aging northern English rail-lines and on the largely punctual and clean Mass Transit Railway.

The line I spend most of my time on, the East Rail Line, was once called the Kowloon-Canton Railway. It was completed in 1910 and was Hong Kong’s first heavy rail line, one that withstood war, regime changes and takeover by the MTR Corporation. It has been ever-present in Hong Kong’s modern history. Yet, very little academic history has been written on the Kowloon-Canton Railway. My project will be the first to do so.

The old Tai Po Market Railway Station, now the Hong Kong Railway Museum, photo by Adonis.

My project looks at the history of the railway from different perspectives. I will use official sources from the National Archives in Kew and the Public Records Office in Kwun Tong. I will also use unofficial ones, such as travel guides and newspapers. If there’s one thing that has been a constant amongst commuters over the past century, it’s complaining about their mode of transportation. Of course, I am open to any suggestions on other potential sources.

A Kitson 2-6-4 train, being delivered to Kowloon Terminus in 1912. Photo from Robert J. Phillips, Kowloon-Canton Railway (British Section): A History (Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1990), 112.


As well as plugging a gap in histories written about Hong Kong, my research can also tell us how railway problems of the past were overcome, perhaps providing lessons on how to overcome present issues. The construction of the line was late and over-budget. Trains suffered from poor punctuality and overcrowding. Overzealous fare collectors caused issues. Policing and border control demanded resources. Fare increases were invariably met with passenger disgruntlement.

Sound familiar? These issues could have been chosen from 1919, 1969, or 2019. In a city so heavily reliant on its rail network, a look at its history is needed.


Introducing Allan Pang

We are delighted to have Allan Pang writing for us this month. Currently an MPhil student at the University of Hong Kong, Allan spoke in our conference in June about his research on the promotion of Cantopop and colonial Chineseness. We were fascinated by his research and therefore invited him to tell us a bit more about his wider research on our blog.

Unlike other contributors to the HKHP blog, I do not have an intriguing story of how I became interested in my research topics. I took history in my secondary school, chose history as my (only) major during my BA at HKU, and decided to pursue an MPhil in history. I became loyal to this subject because it gives me the autonomy that I can never experience while taking courses in other disciplines.I could criticise my history textbooks and the syllabus in class when I was a secondary school student, and I could choose whatever topic for my essays at the university. Eventually, I started to research the histories of things that I am interested in, such as popular music, history education, and postage stamps in my home – Hong Kong. When I was a school kid, I enjoy searching for old news reports to find out details about the concerts that I like (though they usually took place before I was born), flipping through outdated history textbooks and syllabuses, and finding out how the old Lunar New Year postage stamps look like. I thought I was simply gossiping about insignificant items in my life (or in Cantonese baat gwaa 八卦). But thanks to my teachers at the History Department of HKU, I realised I can turn all these into my research topics.

My MPhil thesis examines how the colonial government attempted to promote, shape, or even control Chineseness in Hong Kong from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. It analyses colonial policies from three perspectives: language, festivals, and objects. My study starts with policies on the Chinese language. Inspired by the revolutionary spirit of the Cultural Revolution in mainland China, youth in Hong Kong started the Chinese Language Movement to demand an official status of the Chinese language. To pacify the activists, the government superficially reformed its language policies by introducing the Official Language Ordinance and slow changes in government operation. My thesis then focuses on festivities. Officials promoted both traditional and modern Chineseness to pacify people across generations. To achieve this aim, they promoted traditional Chinese festivals in the colony. They also held the Festival of Hong Kong and numerous variety shows (including those featuring traditional and popular music). My study also examines policies on various objects: postage stamps, commemorative coins, and monuments. The government sold postage stamps and coins that showcase Hong Kong’s traditional Chinese culture to people within and without the colony. Officials also preserved and promoted Chinese monuments to locals and tourists.

Photo taken at the National Archives, UK, provided by Allan Pang.

I started my research with government records in The National Archives in Kew and the Public Records Office in Hong Kong. As official documents cannot reveal the whole story and part of them are always missing, I also consulted materials from various university libraries and archives. The Hong Kong Collections at HKU provide numerous official publications during the colonial era. I also utilised materials from the Hong Kong Tourism Board Collection. Its brochures and leaflets illustrate how the Hong Kong Tourist Association helped promote Chinese monuments from the late 1970s on. Hong Kong collections in the Hoover Institution Archives also provide useful materials. Various personal papers, such as the James Hayes Papers, John Walden Collection, and Michael Kirst Papers, contain official documents and correspondence which help me understand several social policies, especially those related to the Chinese language. I also visited the Weston Library at the University of Oxford to consult transcripts of interviews with former colonial officials. These interviews reveal how several high-ranking officials, including governors, made their decisions.

I became interested in this topic because but it reveals how the colonial state utilised culture as a tool of control (while it also brings together items that amuse me!). Through these cultural policies, Governor Murray MacLehose attempted to foster the local population’s sense of belonging by Chinese standards. His government tried to promote Hong Kong not only as a better place to live but also an authentic Chinese city in order to make local Chinese people, especially the younger generation, consider Hong Kong as their home. I also hope to link this period of Hong Kong history to the international situation, such as the cultural aspect of the Cold War and international tourism.

Suggested Syllabus for History in Anglo-Chinese Secondary Schools (1964 Edition). Hong Kong: Government Printer, 1964.

At the same time, I am researching two other topics on Hong Kong history. The first one is the development of history education since the 1950s. This project will explore how the state utilised the past to stabilise (and later decolonise) Hong Kong and construct colonial legacies. Through this research, I also hope to expand the concept of history education beyond syllabuses and textbooks to include museums, monuments, and festivals. This study will also examine Hong Kong’s transnational linkages to other former parts of the British Empire in Southeast Asia. The second topic is the history of local popular music. The global dimension to Hong Kong’s popular music also deserves our attention. I hope to show that popular music other than Cantopop, such as English pop, was also significant globally even while Cantopop was in its age of glory. In other words, I would like to explore the history of a “global Hong Kong Pop.”