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 firstname.lastname@example.org, if you are interested in joining this Network.
In this post, we would like to introduce Alex Cheung, a member of the Network.
Alex Cheung is a PhD student in Bristol. In the note written by him below, he shares with us his reflections on his academic journey and current project on experience of migration.
It is not easy to trace the exact moment I developed an interest in history, but I still remember the younger me always getting fascinated by history stories on TV, in books and video games. When I was studying history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, I was first introduced to the field of Hong Kong history. I also realised history is not just about remarkable events; it is closely relevant to ordinary life. Back then, I was particularly interested in urban history and planning history – whereas Hong Kong is described as a laissez faire city, the government and merchants had always been shaping the landscape of the city. During my MPhil study, I wrote a thesis ‘Town Planning of New Kowloon and Colonial Governance in Hong Kong, 1898-1941’ and explored how the colonial government planned and developed part of the New Territories (the government named it as ‘New Kowloon’) after the lease of the New Territories in 1898. I argued that the Hong Kong government did not simply copy the model of urban planning from Britain and other colonies. It negotiated with property developers over issues including public health, property speculation and terms of New Territories leases. Through this process, it introduced into the colony various practices of urban planning.
Having completed my MPhil thesis, I started rethinking whether the people merely passively lived in urban space as designated by the government and merchants. I developed greater interest in understanding the lived experience of urban dwellers and individual agency in history. When I drafted my PhD research proposal, I once conceived of studying the daily life of Chinese tenement dwellers in the early twentieth century. However, I gradually noticed the mobility of lower-class population of Hong Kong – they came from different places to Hong Kong and they stayed or left for different reasons. Living in Hong Kong was only part of their life. As I sought to explain the relationship between urban life in Hong Kong and experience of migration, I formulated my current research project, which is tentatively titled as ‘Seeking Home in the Colonial Port: Migration and Settlement of Chinese Workers in Hong Kong, c. 1900-1941’. In this research, I examine everyday experience of the working classes in dwelling and working in the port city and moving across borders. I also analyse how the colonial government and public discussed and dealt with associated problems. Apart from notions like race and class divisions, perceived differences between local residents and outsiders also complicated these discussions. Encountering these discursive and practical differentiations, lower-class migrants lived in an unsettled condition and resorted to migration as their tactic.
In search of the experiences of lower-class migrants and attitudes of the government and local society towards them, I will examine a variety of sources. Apart from understanding officials’ perception and decision-making process through the colonial archive, I will also utilise newspapers and magazines to reconstruct how ordinary life was like. I will particularly pay attention to reports on police and court cases. In these cases, ordinary people were arrested and prosecuted for all sorts of crimes and offences. At the same time, they also left written records of their ideas and actions through interrogations of the police and the court (despite these records were usually written from the perspective of the interrogators). Apart from textual sources, I will also study the urban environment and details of life in old photos.
Highlighting labour mobility can help us understand the complicated relationship of the working class and Hong Kong. Like port cities all over the world, Hong Kong emerged amidst the growth of global trade. People from different places came to seek fortunes, rendering the boundary between locals and outsiders constantly in flux. We usually stereotyped the workers in Hong Kong before the Second World War as passer-by. They saw mainland China as home (or to be more precise, saw villages in southern China as home), temporarily stayed in Hong Kong for work and would return to their native villages for retirement and death. Such a narrative emphasised that they were bound to return to their home villages and downplayed how their experiences in Hong Kong affected their decisions of leaving or staying. Enduring inequalities in the colonial power relations, people living in Hong Kong once adopted different tactics to struggle for existence.
Returning to the present, many Hongkongers are migrating overseas and moving between different places more frequently. Despite the historical context varies through time, the mobility of Hong Kong residents is common in past and present. I hope my research can facilitate understanding of the experience of migration and stimulate thinking about opportunities and restraints inherent in it.
Chinese tenements, the typical type of accommodation for working-class population in colonial Hong Kong (photo from the National Archives, London, CO 129/450, p. 381H (16th December 1918).