Introducing Kelvin Chan

We are thrilled to have Kelvin Chan contributing to our blog this week. A PhD student at McGill University, Kelvin gave a fascinating presentation in our conference in June this year in Hong Kong about the repatriation of mental health patients in Hong Kong from the 1870s to the 1920s. Interested to know more about his wider project on the history of psychiatry and mental health in Hong Kong and China, we therefore invited him to tell us more about his PhD research on our blog.


I received my BA degree of history in HKBU in 2017, and a master’s degree in international history in LSE in 2018. In my undergraduate study, I had the freedom to explore different topics that have shaped my current research interest, such as the history of Indian sailors, prostitutes, venereal diseases, and colonialism. To me, these topics centre on the changing definitions of “deviance”, which lie at the heart of my research about the history of mental health.


Under the supervision of Professor David Wright, I am planning to focus on the history of psychiatry and mental health asylums in my PhD research. Broadly speaking, my research focus will be the Mental Health Asylums in Hong Kong and John Kerr Refuge in Canton, which were established in the late 19th century and operated by foreigners.

When I was writing my undergraduate dissertation about Lock Hospitals and venereal diseases in Shanghai, I came across a lot of documents about lunatic asylums. These institutions confined the patients in a separate space and alienated them from society through diseases. Reading these documents makes me curious about the history of mental health in China, and particularly the history of the Castle Peak Hospital (青山醫院). I guess many Hongkongers have a similar perception about the Castle Peak Hospital as a remote or somehow horrifying institution in the past.

Photo of the John Kerr Refuge, located at the intersection of High St. & East St., Hong Kong. Source: Hong Kong Public Records Office website,, accessed 9 December 2019.


However, unlike the US and Europe with a very well documented history of mental health, the institutions in Hong Kong and modern China have received relatively little attention from historians. Perhaps it was because of the hidden nature of treating patients at home in Chinese society. It is essential to mention that the idea of insanity and confining mental health patients in an institution was foreign to Chinese culture before the late 19th century. The second reason might be related to the specific role of asylums in Hong Kong that the colonial Government tended to repatriate the patients to Canton and to their countries of origin instead of providing treatment. Lastly, the archives about these institutions are dispersed and sporadic. So there is an apparent lack of understanding of these institutions, especially the one in Hong Kong.

Photo of John Kerr Refuge. Source: The Kerr Asylum, Report for the years 1908 (Canton, China: China Baptist Publication Society, 1909).

Since the project is still in a preliminary stage, I mostly visited the archive in the UK and Hong Kong. The materials related to the mental asylums are relatively dispersed, so my archives include the government gazette, asylums’ annual reports, records of repatriation from the colonial and foreign office, and missionary records. I will also look at the archives from the Kerr Refuge and other asylums in China as a point of reference. These records have led me to reconstruct the history of mental health through a case study of Hong Kong and Canton. More importantly, it also looks at the trans-colonial context in which repatriation of patients was also a common practice in colonial port cities.

The most surprising finding of my research is the transnational perspective of asylums in Hong Kong. Medical officers in colonies, such as India, often viewed treatment as the solution of handling the insane. The case of Hong Kong shows another understudied perspective of the history of mental health. Colonial Government denied most of the responsibilities in handling this group of undesirable population – usually lower class, sailors, paupers without family support.

Repatriation, therefore, was one of the favourable solutions. It allowed the Government to draw a clear boundary to define who belonged to Hong Kong, and who did not. In many case files I read, Chinese who had resided in Hong Kong for a decade was still not considered a “Hong Kong” citizen. They would repatriate them to Canton for treatment. At the same time, the colonial Government would repatriate European patients to their countries of origin. They sent the European patients to the foreign embassies in Hong Kong, who were very likely to reject European patients’ identity documents such as visa and passport. Foreign insane, in other words, were dumped in Hong Kong and became “stateless”. After all, the colonial Government had to take care of them, and how to handle them became constant trouble.

Although my research is still preliminary, I think it points to some directions that help us better understand the history of Hong Kong. First, the history of mental health tells us more about colonial governance. The confinement of the mentally disturbed defined deviant behaviour in early Hong Kong. On some levels, it severed as a tool of control of the Government. But at the same time, the asylums reflected the dilemmas faced by colonial authorities in which the Government struggled to handle and repatriate the “foreign” patients.

Second, the history of mental health allows us to explore the policies of immigration control in the context of the British Empire and colonial Hong Kong. Until recently, scholars urge to pay attention to the colonial legislation on immigration restriction in which insanity played an important role. Similarly, the colonial Government in Hong Kong introduced a series of laws to regulate the movement of the insane in the 1890s and 1900s, such as the Imbecile Person Introduction Ordinance in 1903. Examining the migration legislation and regulation sheds light on the global history of regulating the transient population.