Introducing Phyllis Chan

One of the Centre’s mission is to nurture a new generation of Hong Kong historians.

A Early Career Scholar Network was created under the Hong Kong History Centre in June 2023. It intends to help create a community of Hong Kong historians and offer a platform for face-to-face interaction and academic exchange among young scholars. Research students and fresh doctoral graduates working on socioeconomic, political and cultural history of Hong Kong and its global relevance are welcomed. We usually meet thrice a year (February, June and October) with participants taking turn to present their works in each meeting. Financial support is provided for attending these sessions.

Please write to Prof. Ray Yep, Research Director of Hong Kong History Centre, at, if you are interested in joining this Network.


In this post, we would like to introduce Phyllis Chan, a member of the Network.

Phyllis Chan is a PhD student in Bristol. In the note written by her below, she shares with us her reflections on her academic journey and current project on nationality and identity. This Chinese version is translated by the Centre staff. 


As cliché as it is, I have been interested in history as far as I can remember. The obsession started with mummification practices in Ancient Egypt (which was a bit too morbid for my grandparents) and continued through school, where it was always my favourite subject. I then went up to Cambridge to read history. I developed a real fascination of the construction of race, identity, and empire while earning my BA.

Photo of Phyllis ChanIn my third year I intended to write my dissertation on the rehabilitation of concentration camp victims in Central Europe, but my Director of Studies rather bluntly told me I did not have the requisite languages required. It was then I started to look closer to home, and ended up writing on ‘The ‘Eurasian’ in the British Far East, 1930-1950’, comparing the historic communities of Eurasians in Hong Kong and in Singapore. I had initially become interested in this subject when attempting to write a novel. When researching my thesis I began to move away from an interest in writing fiction to writing history because I realised that the maxim ’truth is stranger than fiction’ had a lot of resonance. Uncovering and presenting the stories of real people is a different kind of challenge to inventing plausible ones, but it’s something that eventually attracted me more.

In looking at the lived experiences of being of mixed-race Eurasian descent, I found many instances of discrepancies between state perceptions, and people’s own views of themselves (whether by the British or the Japanese). As an example of how perceptions can vary wildly, I once found in a war crimes investigation in which three different statements described one woman as ‘European’, ‘Chinese’, and ‘Eurasian’. This one example really condensed the reality of race as a volatile, constructed category, and so dependent on the similarly unstable perception of what people look like, or are meant to look like. I further explored this pattern in my MPhil thesis on the colonial census in Hong Kong and the Straits Settlements between 1880 and 1941.

The experience of empire and cosmopolitanism in Hong Kong had a very real impact on the way people saw and presented themselves. While previously I focused on the former (i.e. self-identity), I am looking more closely at the latter for my doctoral studies. This is due to an issue I had previously ran into in my research. Ordinary people in Hong Kong around the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries rarely left accessible writing on the nuances of how they felt about their identities. What they did leave, however, are their imprints on surviving British colonial documents.

In my project, ‘Ambiguous Nationality: British Subjects of Chinese Descent, 1879-c.1960’, I investigate the reasons for and ways in which individuals from Hong Kong of Chinese descent claimed British nationality. While in theory English common law gave all subjects born within British territories equal legal footing and rights of mobility across the empire, this was not true in reality. Many such subjects had to assert their rights to sceptical colonial officials, and controversial cases often involved consular officials across China as well as the Colonial and Foreign Office in London.

A severely decayed set of documents.








The materials I will use in my project are predominantly colonial official correspondence referring to cases of ambiguous nationality. In the early part of the period (1880s to 1920s) these were usually to do with ethnic Chinese attempting to claim extraterritoriality in the treaty ports. Later, cases were more varied, as more people sought to apply for passports to travel abroad. The postwar period especially saw a range as border controls were instituted between Hong Kong and the mainland. I aim to analyse these cases in a way that uncovers the agency of the individuals concerned, and the ways they articulated their claims. I will contrast this with the official logic and biases of the government to unpack the tensions at hand. 

Today we live in the age of the nation-state, where most people live in a state in which the main criteria for membership is being part of a certain nation. This is so normalised that we forget that, as John Darwin has pointed out, this is a relatively short-term trend in human history. Before the Second World War many people lived in multiethnic empires, where their citizenship did not necessarily correspond to their nationality – even if they had a sense of what ’nation’ actually was. Today, nationality is rarely ambiguous, and many countries cooperate internationally to prevent what is known as ’statelessness’. This was not the case in the period I am looking at. 

With a growing number of Hong Kongers moving to the UK under the BNO visa, there has been an increase in interest in the history of Hong Kong, its people, and British nationality. I hope that my research will encourage people to think of nationality and citizenship as less binary and one-dimensional as they may seem.



在學士第三年,我原本打算寫關於中歐集中營受害者的康復但我的研究指導相當直接地告訴我,我缺乏所需的語言能力。於是,我開始更仔細地研究自己的家鄉,最終寫了名為《英國遠東的歐亞混血兒」,1930-1950》的論文,比較香港和新加坡歷史上的歐亞混血兒社區。我最初對這個主題感興趣是在嘗試寫小說的時候在研究論文時,我開始從寫小說的興趣轉向寫歷史,因為「真實比虛構更奇幻」(Truth is stranger than fiction) 這句話對我來說太有共鳴。揭示和呈現真實人物的故事與創造合情理的故事是截然不同的挑戰,但最終歷史更吸引我





今天我們活在民族國家的時代,大多數人生活在一個必須成為某個民族才得以被視為成員的國家裏。這已經成為常態,以至我們忘記了,正如John Darwin指出,這在人類歷史裏是個相當短暫的趨勢。在第二次世界大戰前,許多人生活在多民族帝國中,他們的公民身份不一定對應到他們的民族身份——即使他們大概也對民族國家有一定理解。今天,國籍很少會模稜兩可,只且許多國家也在國際間合作,以防止所謂的「無國籍狀態」。但在我研究的時期卻並非如此。