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.
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.
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.