Natalie Fong on finding her ancestors in China and Hong Kong

Where There’s a Will There’s a Way:
Finding My Ancestors in China and Hong Kong

by Natalie Fong 鄺黎頌

My research journey started in London, where I completed an MA in Victorian Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London, in 2006. For one assignment, I analysed representations of nineteenth-century Chinese opium dens in London’s East End in literary texts and contemporary accounts. Living in London again in 2013, I researched opium protest movements as a “spin-off” project, possibly as a proposal for an MPhil or PhD. While reading Virginia Berridge’s ‘East End Opium Dens and Narcotic Use in Britain’, something caught my eye: in 1909, 72 Chinese residents in Liverpool signed a petition asking the Home Secretary to ban the importation and sale of smoking opium. Further research uncovered Chinese in Australia who were active anti-opium protestors: Reverend Cheong Cheok Hong (who delivered an address to the Anglo-Oriental Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade in London), and a letter to the editor of the Northern Territory Times and Gazette in 1907 from Chinese storekeepers in Palmerston (now Darwin, Northern Territory) responding to allegations that they were illegally selling opium. Among the signatories was “Wing Wah Loong”, the business established around 1890 by my great-grandfather, Fong How (鄺修榮/Kwong Sau Wing/Fong Sui Wing). The “spin-off project” now had global and personal significance. I needed to go back to Australia.

In 2014, I began an MPhil at Griffith University, Brisbane, on Chinese-organised protests in the Northern Territory, 1880-1920. This was a key period in Australian history with the formulation of the 1901 Immigration Act and other discriminatory legislation (collectively referred to as the “White Australia Policy”). The Chinese merchants in the Northern Territory protested against these discriminatory measures on behalf of the Chinese community in a variety of ways. Authorities in Australia and countries such as America and Canada did, however, make exceptions for merchants who facilitated Asian-Australian trade, their families and their households. Thus, discrimination was not just racial, but also class-based. Such exceptions allowed my great-grandfather and other Chinese merchants to operate businesses that were transnational, familial (branches managed by male family members) and transfamilial (between families). My great-grandfather was apparently in partnership with Northern Territory businessman Lee Chow of Man Fong Lau (萬芳楼) and wealthy Victorian merchant Louey Way Sun (雷維信). The company’s headquarters, Man Sun Wing (萬信榮), was at 9 Connaught Road West, Hong Kong. A managing partner, Lui Leung (雷亮), would later be a founding member of the Kowloon Motor Bus Company. The Fongs had businesses in Darwin, Katherine, Mataranka, Broome, Sydney, Fiji and the Philippines. Fong How was absent from Australia for periods of six months to seven years, reflecting the lifestyle of a merchant with many businesses and more than one family (the first, or principal, wife commonly resided in the ancestral home in the family village in China, with another wife in Australia). Gold was sent from Australia to the villages via Hong Kong, and children might be sent to China or Hong Kong for education and marriage. My project expanded into a PhD examining Chinese merchants as active citizens in the Northern Territory.

Natalie with a portrait of her father’s maternal grandfather, Lowe Dep, in Lowe Dep’s house in his village in Kaiping

During my candidature, I have been working as a secondary English and History teacher at Citipointe Christian College, Brisbane, and my employers have generously allowed me to stay back on overseas school trips to research. In 2016, after our school visited its sister school in Hong Kong, Diocesan Girls’ School (DGS), I enlisted the help of DGS teachers to visit the Hong Kong Public Records Office. Providentially, I found my great-grandfather’s will, long presumed lost or non-existent. He died in 1920, his last visit to China, and is buried in the mountains in Taishan, near his village. This added to our family history puzzle and confirmed the transnational nature of Chinese businesses. The Carl Smith Collection and business directories held by Hong Kong University Libraries are invaluable for locating transnational Chinese businesses. A research project I would like to pursue in future is to map Chinese businesses with links to Australia, America and Asia, with headquarters in Hong Kong (I’ve counted 230 so far).

A further connection with Hong Kong is through my grandfather, Edward Fong (Kwong), who passed away in 1995. He was born and grew up in Darwin and was four when Fong How passed away. In 1928, Edward (aged 14), his brother Harry and their mother travelled to Hong Kong, where their mother died in 1929. Edward returned to Darwin, and his eldest brother became his guardian. As mentioned, merchant families in Australia might send children to China or Hong Kong to be educated in Chinese; for sons, to become scholars, or as preparation for working in family businesses. In 1930, Edward was sent to complete his primary education at the Overseas Chinese Military Academy, part of Lingnam University in Canton (now Guangzhou). He completed his secondary education in 1933 at St Stephen’s College, Stanley. Edward began studying towards a BSc at St John’s University, Shanghai, but with the advancing Japanese forces, he returned to Hong Kong and obtained a teaching position at Diocesan Boys’ School, Kowloon, in 1938. The encroachment of the Japanese led to Edward returning to Darwin, where he worked in a family business. I only found out about his former career as a teacher through this project. This year (2018), while in Hong Kong en route to China, with the help of teacher friends I toured the grounds of St Stephen’s College and Diocesan Boys’ School. I also devised a Chinese Merchants Heritage Trail.

This was my first trip to mainland China, as part of Dr Kate Bagnall and Dr Sophie Couchman‘s Chinese Australian Hometown Heritage Tour (photo diaries @miss pom and #cahht). We visited historically significant sites in Guangdong related to the Chinese diaspora. Exploring the villages gave insight into, and appreciation for, the sacrifices made by those who left and those who remained, in order to pursue opportunities abroad but also to invest back into family villages. We observed the wonderful work of Dr Selia Tan (Wuyi University) and her team in preserving this important cultural heritage. With the assistance of Kate, Sophie, Selia and her students, I visited the ancestral villages of Fong How and the houses built from the profits of his trade, and also my father’s maternal grandfather, Lowe Dep, who was from Kaiping and became a market gardener in the Northern Territory.

Currently, I am researching wives and daughters of Northern Territory Chinese merchants (including my great-grandmother and great-aunts) and their involvement in businesses – an area of history worthy of greater exploration. This has expanded my project’s scope to 1950.

This research project has been an incredible journey, geographically, academically and personally, only possible with the help of many, particularly my aunts Lyn and Barbara Fong, whose family history research has been foundational, and my supervisors, Professor Fiona Paisley and Professor Regina Ganter, for their valuable feedback.

Vaudine England on writing a company’s history


At first glance, a history of a company best known for selling building products, especially sanitary ware, might seem a little dull. This was not a big name like Jardines or Swires; not even Dodwells or Gibb Livingston. This was Arnhold & Company. Looking back at the nineteenth century you won’t even find such a firm, but you will find Arnhold, Karberg & Co, and indeed, they are direct relatives, one growing out of the other.


This gives the first hint of an interesting story — who were Mr Arnhold and Mr Karberg and what happened to them? And why did the company have to change its name? In fact, it changed at least four times over its existence, depending how you define the word ‘change’, and that’s not including the brief period it was publicly listed as i-Onyx.

Luckily, this company has a current patriarch, Michael Green, who was personally enthusiastic about all the ups and, more importantly, the downs of the company. He has told a fantastic story, unafraid of exposing failings or crises, and personally encouraging the discovery of much that was not known about his company’s past.

What makes Arnholds fascinating is that it has lived through interesting times. Arnholds, Karberg & Co was founded in Hong Kong in 1866, with a branch office in Canton opened a year later. The young men involved came from Northern German and Danish Jewish families and already had experience working in silk from Canton. They soon expanded to Shanghai and beyond, and diversified beyond silk into manufacturing machinery and products, bringing part of Europe’s industrial revolution eastwards.

Then World War One began, and being a German company in British Hong Kong suddenly became impossible. All German firms were liquidated, and Germans interned, often breaking up close friendships and ruining lives. From 1914 to 1918, Harry and Charles Arnhold, sons of the firm’s founder Jacob Arnhold, were busy ducking and weaving, desperately trying to find ways to save the business. They managed it — although some of their competitors never quite forgave them for their clever dealing — only to be taken over by Sir Victor Sassoon in Shanghai.

Again, those interesting times intervened — the bombing of Shanghai by Japan in 1937, the onset of expanded war by 1941, internment of the Arnholds and many others, and the slow death of all foreign firms in China after 1949 and the flight back to Hong Kong. By then, a bright young engineer called Maurice Green had risen through the ranks enough to be able to get control of the flailing firm in Hong Kong in the 1950s, and Arnholds has been run by the Green family ever since.

How does one find out what actually happened in places which have been dragged through such revolutionary change that few records survive? The answer in this case was the London Metropolitan Archives near Roseberry Avenue in London, and of course the National Archives at Kew. That’s after spending time in the Carl T. Smith Collection, and tracking down long-forgotten descendants by knocking on deserted doors in deepest Sussex.

For me, the realities of a trading company on the nineteenth century China Coast required a crash course on Treaty Ports. Beyond all that faded grandeur of large old mansions and godowns in far-flung towns, it was necessary to learn what was actually traded (I’m still not absolutely certain what strawbraid is), how it worked in all its very many variations, and how the conditions and personalities in these places changed over time. Just as it takes only a bit of colonial history reading to find out how vastly different each colony was from the next, so too with treaty ports.

There remains a wealth of business history to be done with these and other little-used resources. Using a company as a red thread which one follows through a range of strange places and events is yet another way to tell history. In this case, it meant that a cold case file could be opened and, for now, closed, having told the firm’s owners many things about their company and its interesting times that they never knew. Hopefully others will explore the many more old firms and families whose daily lives and travails help illuminate the past.


Edward Vickers on the History of Education in Hong Kong


This week we have Dr. Edward Vickers of Kyushu University reflecting on the History of Education in Hong Kong. 

The History of Education in Hong Kong – a bibliographical note
by Edward Vickers

The politics of education in Hong Kong has attracted headlines in recent years, especially since the 2012 controversy over plans to introduce a new Moral and National Education school subject. The resulting furore launched the political careers of several student activists who went on to lead the 2014 ‘Umbrella Movement’. But intense public disputes over educational issues are nothing new in Hong Kong. Education has long been a site of tension and conflict between advocates of competing visions of Hong Kong’s identity. At the same time, schooling has had a crucial role to play in shaping local political consciousness – as members of the current generation of student activists have themselves testified.

Despite education’s significance for Hong Kong’s social and political development, historical research in this area has been relatively sparse. The pioneer in this field was the late Tony Sweeting, for thirty years a member of the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Education. His 1993 monograph, A Phoenix Transformed, analyzed the colony’s post-war educational development, tracing the halting progress from classic colonial laissez faire (i.e. minimal provision) in the 1940s to the universalisation of primary and junior secondary schooling by the 1970s. This book was accompanied by two large annotated collections of educational documents dealing respectively with the pre- and post-1941 eras (1990; 2004).

Sweeting showed how the transformation of the schooling system, and its relationship with the colonial government, paralleled Hong Kong’s own transition from a low-maintenance colonial trading post (pre-1941) to a semi-autonomous city-state (by the 1970s). The main determinant of that transformation was the huge influx of refugees from the mainland during and after the Chinese Civil War of the late 1940s. Their permanent settlement broke the pattern of (largely male) transient labour migration up to the 1930s, and facilitated Hong Kong’s rapid emergence as a manufacturing hub largely cut off from its Chinese hinterland. All this implied new demands for provision of schooling, as well as different approaches to managing the system and designing curricular content. In his monograph Hegemonies Compared (2002), Ting-hong Wong adopts a different slant on the educational history of roughly the same period, focusing on the interactions of the colonial (and post-colonial) state and the Chinese-medium private schools sector. Wong compares Hong Kong with Singapore – another largely Chinese-populated British colonial outpost, but more ethnically plural and exhibiting a very different post-war political trajectory.

While Sweeting took the Japanese occupation (1942-45) as the key rupture in local educational history, research in this area has mostly been conducted in the shadow of another political transition: the colony’s transition to Chinese rule. For this reason, much work has focused on the relationship between schooling and political socialisation. Paul Morris has investigated the contemporary history and politics of the school curriculum, notably in a 1995 monograph, The Hong Kong School Curriculum (revised and republished in collaboration with Bob Adamson, 2010). Much of his work has dealt with the curricula for citizenship/civics (e.g. 1991) and related subjects (Morris, McClelland and Wong 1997).

A crucial feature of the school curriculum, and one that remains highly charged politically, is the issue of language. Throughout the post-war period, the majority of secondary schools claimed to offer ‘English-medium’ instruction – in response to parental demand rather than colonial diktat. The history of the role of English has witnessed controversy between scholars who emphasise the intrinsically ‘colonial’ nature of the language in the Hong Kong context (e.g. Pennycook 1998), and others who stress the significance of local agency in long-running debates over medium of instruction (Sweeting and Vickers 2007). Far from being resolved with the departure of the British in 1997, these debates have taken on a new dimension with the growing use of Putonghua (Mandarin) for teaching Chinese language and literature at primary level.

While calls from officials and pro-Beijing elements for schooling to promote patriotism have intensified since 1997 (see Vickers 2011) – sparking resistance amongst the very youngsters at whom ‘national education’ is aimed – the local school curriculum has long embodied a strongly chauvinistic vision of Chineseness. Indeed, post-war Hong Kong, like Taiwan, served as a refuge for scholars exiled from Mao’s China precisely because of their attachment to a traditionalist vision of ‘Chineseness’. During the 1950s, some of these were co-opted by the colonial authorities to help localise curricula for Chinese language, literature and history. These subjects had previously been taught using textbooks produced on the mainland, but the Communist (CCP)-Kuomintang (KMT) Civil War had led to the local circulation of rival texts – all highly politicised and infused with anti-colonial nationalism. With street fighting in Hong Kong between rival KMT and CCP supporters, and British jitters concerning Communist infiltration, the colonial authorities sought to ‘depoliticise’ the curricula for these ‘Chinese subjects’. This story, and its implications for the vision of ‘Chineseness’ taught to generations of Hongkongers, is recounted in a fascinating article by Bernard Luk (1991).

By the 1970s, the culturally chauvinist but politically neutered agenda of the ‘Chinese subjects’ was increasingly in tension with an ostensibly liberal ethos animating other parts of the curriculum. Although the implications of ‘colonialism’ for its educational development have been (and remain) profound and far-reaching, late twentieth-century Hong Kong was far from being a typical colony (if such a thing ever existed). Rather than promoting popular identification with some anachronistic, pseudo-imperial ideal of global Britishness, the colonial authorities (out of eminently self-interested motives) sought to reinforce an apolitical sense of cultural Chineseness. However, simply slapping the ‘colonial’ label on the pre-1997 curriculum has been a favoured tactic of elements keen to legitimate the post-1997 ‘national education’ drive.

The aim of investigating the implications of ‘colonialism’ for Hong Kong’s school curriculum animated the early research of Edward Vickers (the present author) from the late 1990s. Vickers had taught in a local secondary school, and observed first-hand the tensions noted above. His doctoral thesis, the basis of his monograph In Search of An Identity (2003 / 2005), analysed how and why official conceptions of History as a school subject had changed since the 1960s. Benefitting from access to an array of official documents, supplemented by interviews with curriculum developers past and present, Vickers discussed the implications for curricular change of Hong Kong’s post-1960s political, cultural and social transformation. The central theme of his study related to the pressures on curriculum developers resulting from the emergence of a strong sense of local distinctiveness during this period alongside increasing pressure, during and following the transition to Chinese rule, to ramp up patriotic education. Vickers’ study was paralleled and complemented by Flora Kan Lai-Fong’s history of the separate subject of Chinese History (2007). As Luk argued, Chinese History had long been a vehicle for transmitting or preserving a traditionalist sense of cultural ‘Chineseness’, but Hong Kong’s transition saw the subject thrust to the fore of efforts to introduce far more overtly politicised patriotic instruction.

Such efforts have been redoubled in the aftermath of the 2012 abandonment of Moral and National Education. The story of that failed project is recounted by Morris and Vickers in a 2013 article that analyses the historical context for both the official project and popular resistance to it. The 2012 controversy and the subsequent 2014 protests arguably helped spawn a new phase in Hong Kong’s political evolution, with the emergence of unprecedented forms of nativist sentiment amongst local youth (Veg 2016). However, the 2012 pattern of official over-reach and popular street protest, followed by a government retreat, was far from unprecedented, as Morris and Vickers showed. Perhaps, though, the protests of 2012 and 2014, by virtue of the tougher official stance they provoked, will come to be seen as marking the end of the road for what might be termed the Hong Kong model of informal street democracy. With their backbones stiffened by directives from Beijing, local officials have in recent years appeared far less sensitive to their lack of electoral legitimacy, and less inclined to back down in the face of popular protest.

This essay cannot claim to be a comprehensive overview of research on the history of education in Hong Kong. For example, while the landmark work of Tony Sweeting is noted, no systematic attempt has been made here to scope the literature relating to the pre-1941 period. One significant contribution to research on that period is Peter Cunich’s A History of the University of Hong Kong, 1911-1945 (2013).

Nevertheless, the fact remains that the history of education is a relatively neglected aspect of research into the Hong Kong past. Moreover, what research does exist is often overlooked, in part because an artificial disciplinary gulf between ‘historians’ and ‘educationalists’ often leaves scholars ignorant of work conducted by those outside their own field (a failing which the present author doubtless exhibits here…).

Among the issues in Hong Kong’s educational history that deserve more scholarly attention is the role of schooling in exacerbating, reproducing and legitimating the extreme inequality that has been a consistent feature of local society (see Morris and Sweeting 1995) – but which has become more acute in the post-retrocession period. How social inequality has been related to the structural and ideological features of the schooling system, and how and why Hong Kong differs in this respect from other East Asian societies, is a question that should concern historians – not least because of its importance for understanding the tensions that wrack local society today.




Peter Cunich (2013). A History of the University of Hong Kong, 1911-1945. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Flora Kan Lai-fong (2007). Hong Kong’s Chinese History Curriculum from 1945: Politics and Identity. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Bernard Luk Hung-kay (1991). ‘Chinese Culture in the Hong Kong Curriculum: Heritage and Colonialism,’ Comparative Education Review, 35/4, 650-668.

Paul Morris (1991) ‘Preparing pupils as citizens of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong: an analysis of curriculum change and control during the transition period’, in G. Postiglione (ed.) Education and Society in Hong Kong, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 117–45.

Paul Morris and Anthony Sweeting (eds). Education and Development in East Asia. New York: Garland (see especially Introduction, and ‘Hong Kong’ chapter by Sweeting).

Morris, P., McClelland, J. and Wong, P. (1997). ‘Explaining curriculum change: Social Studies in Hong Kong’, Comparative Education Review, 41 (1), 27-43.

Morris, P. and Adamson, B. (2010) Curriculum, Schooling & Society in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: The Hong Kong University Press.

Paul Morris and Edward Vickers (2015). ‘Schooling, politics and the construction of identity in Hong Kong,’ the 2012 “Moral and National Education” crisis in historical context,’ Comparative Education, May 2015, 305-326.

Alastair Pennycook (1998).  English and the Discourses of Colonialism. London: Routledge.

Anthony Sweeting (1993). A Phoenix Transformed. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.

Anthony Sweeting (1990). Education in Hong Kong Pre-1841 to 1941: Fact and Opinion. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Anthony Sweeting (2004). Education in Hong Kong 1941 to 2001: Visions and Revisions. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Anthony Sweeting and Edward Vickers (2007). ‘Language and the History of Colonial Education: the case of Hong Kong,’ Modern Asian Studies 41/1, 1-40.

Sebastian Veg (2016). ‘The Rise of Localism and Civic Identity in Post-handover Hong Kong: Questioning the Chinese Nation-state,’ The China Quarterly, vol. 230, 323-347.

Edward Vickers (2003 / 2005). In Search of An Identity: the politics of History as a school subject in Hong Kong,1960s-2002 (Routledge 2003; revised and updated paperback published in 2005 by CERC/HKU Press).

Edward Vickers and Flora Kan (2005). ‘The Re-education of Hong Kong: Identity, Politics and History Education in Colonial and Postcolonial Hong Kong,’ in Vickers and Jones (eds.), History Education and National Identity in East Asia. London and New York: Routledge: 171-202.

Edward Vickers (2011). ‘Learning to love the Motherland: “National Education” in Post-retrocession Hong Kong,’ in Muller (ed.) Designing History in East Asian Textbooks. London and New York: Routledge, 85-106.

Ting-hong Wong (2002). Hegemonies Compared: State Formation and Chinese School Politics in Postwar Singapore and Hong Kong. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.


Hong Kong History Postgrad/ECRs Network

The Project has recently established a facebook group which serves as an academic network for all ECRs/PGRs working on Hong Kong History. We hope the group would allow members to connect with others in the field, and share with each other news on hk-related events, funding opportunities, training and jobs.

Join our group if you’re also young scholars working in the field!


Hong Kong Studies and Frank Dikotter’s Work on Race

By Vaudine England

If talking about race has been hard, how much harder has it been to accept that racism in statecraft has never been the sole preserve of white people. Not only Western imperialists have been racist; the Chinese were, and are, too. Proof of this is found, if any were needed, in the work of Frank Dikotter, back when he was still at SOAS. His analysis of ideas going into the republican revolutionary era showed how startlingly race-based Chinese nationalism has always been.

‘Myths of origins, ideologies of blood, conceptions of racial hierarchy and narratives of biological descent have indeed formed a central part in the cultural construction of identity in China,’ wrote Dikotter in The China Quarterly. That racism has so often accompanied nationalist passion is hardly a new thought; however, amid globalization, ‘racial identities and racial discrimination have in fact increased in East Asia’. The problem, he added, was that little work has been done on the detail and deployment of racial frames of reference in China. It’s another one of those taboos.

Dikotter has gone some way to remedy this, highlighting the use of language (volk in German, and the gradations of zu, zhong, zulei, minzu and zhongzu in Chinese) to denote racial hierarchies. In China, he noted, racial categories began to replace ethnocentric senses of identity in the last decade of the 19th century. He cites the charming thoughts of Tang Caichang (1867-1900): ‘Yellow and white are wise, red and black are stupid; yellow and white are rulers, red and blacks are slaves; yellow and white are united, red and black are scattered,’ to make this shockingly clear. Of course there was a political purpose for republicans to stress racial unity as they sought the end of the hitherto vital unifying force of dynastic rule. By the end of the republican period, sure enough, people in China had come to identify themselves and others in terms of race.

Yet many in China accused of racial thinking proceeded to blame it on western imperialism. They did so partly in the wrong belief that racism is somehow a single variant ‘which is universal in its origins (the West), its causes (capitalist society) and its effects (colonization)’, wrote Dikotter. The historiography of how the word ‘yellow’ came to be associated with the Chinese is fascinating, long before the republicans became active fashioners of their own identity, which was specifically based on race.

‘Racial identities during the late imperial period, in other words, were neither generated by a self-contained system called “Chinese culture”, nor imposed through “Western hegemony”. They were created through cultural interaction with a variety of schools of thought … leading to a variability of racial narratives which cannot be reduced to a single model called “Chinese racism”.’ Dikotter added: ‘the racialization of collective senses of identity has actually increased within both state circles and relatively independent intellectual spheres, particularly since the erosion of Communist authority after the Tiananmen massacre’. Failure to look race in the face when racial nationalism is rising remains problematic.

One can bring this right up to date by trying to answer the simple question: how many Americans (or Britons, or Swedes) are there in Hong Kong? The question revolves around which set of numbers you choose to use. Ask the American consulate and you’ll get a number for how many people in Hong Kong hold a U.S. passport. Ask the Hong Kong government’s immigration department and you’ll get a number for how many people use a U.S. passport to enter and leave the territory. Ask the Hong Kong government’s census and statistics department  and you will get a number for how many non-ethnic Chinese people in Hong Kong hold U.S. nationality.

The first number you get will be the highest — after all, lots of Hong Kongers have a U.S. passport which they rarely use but keep in the top drawer for insurance. The second number will be smaller, and the third number the smallest of all.

The most recent example of this was when the missing bookseller apparently taken out of Hong Kong in December 2015, Lee Bo, was described as ‘first and foremost a Chinese’ despite his British passport.

In short, China claims its own. Foreign passports mean little if a person is deemed Chinese, and Chinese nationality law is race-based. A very few exceptions exist, where a white person (virtually never a brown or black person) is granted a Chinese passport as a special favour. They do not obscure the point that an ethnically Chinese person is seen as Chinese by the state, wherever they are and whatever passport they hold. That warm, fuzzy notion that a person is whoever they define themselves to be — for example when a Eurasian chooses to identify as Chinese, or not; or when someone born as a man chooses to identify as a woman — can simply be thrown out the window.


Dikotter, Frank. The Discourse of Race in Modern China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press , 1992.

Dikotter, Frank. ‘Racial Identities in China: Context and Meaning’. The China Quarterly, No 138 (June 1994), 404-412.

Race and Hong Kong Studies

By Vaudine England

The thought behind a lot of these ruminations in this blog is that the subject of race in empire, specifically with relation to Hong Kong, has been grossly under-covered to date. Some Dutch academic friends wonder if it is the Britishness of Hong Kong studies — how else to explain, one wondered, the contrast between the huge swathes of scholarship done by the Dutch on ‘their Eurasians’ (the Indos) and the minuscule body of work on the mixed race products of British colonies? Perhaps regarding Hong Kong, the gap is also because the whole idea of studying Hong Kong from a Hong Kong point of view (rather than a Peking or London perspective) only gained traction in the last 20 or 30 years, just when the tides of so-called political correctness militated against any straight look at a topic as murky as race. It has also been the period when scientists of many kinds have insisted that race does not exist.

Not only has being a Eurasian meant a lifetime of taboos; talking about it, studying it, has been shrouded in taboo too.

This thought was thrown into sharper relief when I came across an article I’d kept from a decade ago, by the evolutionary developmental biologist Armand Marie Leroi. It was published in the New York Times as ‘A Family Tree in Every Gene’ on 14 March 2005, and in the Asia edition of the International Herald Tribune the next day as ‘Genes Rebuild Our Ideas About Race’. The difference in headline is already provoking; was the New York editing desk scared to put ‘race’ in bold type?

Leroi was prompted to write by a commentary in The Times of India which feared the loss of endangered tribes around the Andaman Islands in the tsunami of end-2004; this would destroy increasingly rare ‘Negrito racial stocks’, it said. Technically correct, the description jumped out at Leroi in a world long defined by the belief that race is not a scientific concept, but a social category. That belief is now threatened by fascinating advances in genetic research which, he said, were beginning to show that races do, after all, exist.

Leroi recounted how it took three decades to disprove the statement by Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin — that the genetic difference between a European and an African was barely bigger than that between any two Europeans. Leroi said Lewontin had left out the impact of correlations between genes which enabled the reconstruction of large-scale genetic topographies. Of course human beings have always been ‘irredeemably promiscuous’, as Leroi charmingly put it: ‘We have always seduced, or coerced our neighbours even when they have a foreign look about them and we don’t understand a word’. But just as the Pennines and Himalayas can both be described as mountain ranges despite huge differences in scale, so too can races be defined: ‘The billion or so of the world’s people of largely European descent have a set of genetic variants in common that are collectively rare in everyone else; they are a race. At a smaller scale, three million Basques do as well; so they are a race as well…’, wrote Leroi.

None of this is intended to reach new definitions of racial purity; rather the opposite. Leroi wrote that genetic research on people of mixed race ancestry would provide for the greatest scientific advances, in trying to find out what makes blue eyes blue, or not. Such ‘admixture mapping’, where following genetic strands is made easier by the variations, is exciting and would help understanding of the differences that make up the rich human tapestry.

Wrote Leroi: ‘Race is merely a shorthand that enables us to speak sensibly, though with no great precision, about genetic cultural or political differences. But it is a shorthand that seems to be needed. One of the more painful spectacles of modern science is that of human geneticists piously disavowing the existence of races even as they investigate the genetic relationships between “ethnic groups”. Given the problematic, even vicious, history of the word “race”, the use of euphemisms is understandable. But it hardly aids understanding..’

Of course one could argue that in some Asian polities, there’s been a bit too much race all along! The British colonial administrators appeared to experience no qualms when blithely mixing in some Indian Chettiars to do the accounts for the Burmese, or the Chinese ‘coolies’ to work the mines and Indians to tap the rubber trees with the Malays who were too ‘lazy or mystical to work. Having identified races as real after all, a new more blunt scholarship of such events might follow.

Source note:

Hong Kong Material in the FCO’s ‘Secret Archive’: Some Analysis

There are a fair few files relating to the history of Hong Kong among the large collection of Foreign and Colonial Office archival material still retained by the department, largely held at Hanslope Park. This ‘secret archive’ was finally acknowledged in 2011 following a ruling by High Court judge as part of a suit brought by five Mau Mau members over torture and mutilation during the Kenya ‘Emergency’ in the 1950s. Following the Carey Report on files relating to colonial administration, the FCO has released a series of inventory records providing some details of those files. This post looks at Hong Kong-related material found in the latest two inventory lists to be made public by the FCO, released in March 2014 and 2015. The full lists can be found here, while Excel documents with the Hong Kong-related listings can be downloaded here:


2014_Archive_Inventory HK

The material has an overall date range of 1915 to 2000, with many of the listings relating to large groupings of files carrying such a wide range making more difficult the task of identifying potential clusters of and gaps in the material (such as for more controversial episodes such as the 1967 riots, which may be contained within some of the larger record collections but for which there is nothing obviously related in the 2015 release, for example). Within the 2015 inventory, there is slightly Hong Kong-related material listed than in 2014, with roughly 2,200 fewer items taking up approximately 23 fewer metres of space.

Based on the categories used by those conducting the inventory, this archival material comes in many forms, including everything from loose bundles of paper to envelopes and microform copies. This material even contains some floppy disks and computer back-up tapes, which raise some questions about the potential for future preservation and accessibility if and when this material is made accessible to researchers, since use of this material is dependent on now out-of-date technology.

Hong Kong-related material covers a wide range of topics, with just a selection of them being: immigration files, including asylum applications; Sino-British Liaison Group files, including reports, memoranda, and meeting materials relating to work on the Joint Declaration and handover; documents on ‘counter-subversion’ activities concerning groups such as the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organisation; and even includes reports and booklets relating to the administration’s mid-1990’s sewage strategy.

Here are some further details about Hong Kong-related material found in each inventory:

Total Items: 282,349
Total Boxes: 3,368
Linear Length: 454.92m
Date Range: 1915-2000
Formats: Envelopes, Loose Papers, Loose Documents, Files, Folders, Loose Bundles of Paper, Cardboard Map Holder, Diaries, Ring Binders, Bound Report Booklets, Bound Volumes, Books, Microfiche, Microform, Computer Back-up Tapes, Floppy Disks

Total Items: 284,624
Total Boxes: 3,542
Linear Length: 478.035m
Date Range: 1915-2000
Formats: Envelopes, Loose Papers, Loose Documents, Files, Folders, Loose Bundles of Paper, Cardboard Map Holder, Diaries, Ring Binders, Bound Report Booklets, Bound Volumes, Books, Microfiche, Microform, Computer Back-up Tapes, Floppy Disks, Bundle


In Honour of Dan Waters, 1920-2016

By Vaudine England

Since the death of Dan Waters, aged 95, in Hong Kong on 27 January this year, he has rightly been lauded for many things: charm and personality, astounding memory, karate black belt, marathons after 60, and of course being such an inspiration to anyone interested in Hong Kong’s earlier days. His own life was impressive, from being a ‘desert rat’ under Montgomery in World War Two to joining the colonial service in Hong Kong in 1954, in the Education Department. He wrote a best-selling manual to technical education and helped to found the Polytechnic (now University).

Perhaps we can blame today’s political correctness for a refusal to talk about one of Dan’s most important commitments — that of a colonial service officer to a Chinese woman in the 1950s. Either people don’t like to talk about race in case they offend someone, or such an inter-racial liaison is now seen as so utterly normal as to be unworthy of comment. Yet what Dan and Vera did was pioneering.

Along with serving in the auxiliary police and coping with the Shek Kip Mei riots of 1956, Dan worked at the Morrison Hill Technical Institute. There he met Vera Chan, a mature student and also founder and director of Hong Kong’s first beauty and charm school. They married in 1960.

Dan knew this was important. He wrote Faces of Hong Kong in 1995, dedicating it to ‘all cross-cultural marriages and to Eurasians everywhere’. He wrote about it again in 2005 he came out with One Couple Two Cultures: 81 Western-Chinese Couples Talk About Love and Marriage. This is dedicated ‘to my Hong Kong-Chinese wife, Vera, and to all the cross-cultural couples who readily bared their souls and withstood my inquisitive probing…’ Apart from four books on technical English and education, cross-cultural ties were all he wrote about.

Let’s think about that. The 1950s was a time when Hong Kong had found it could recover from World War Two, from Japanese occupation, and from the fall of British empire elsewhere in the world. It had not yet found the excited money-making impulses of the 1970s, nor were skyscrapers blocking the view. This was a quieter, more ‘colonial’ time and one, importantly, when we are told cross-cultural marriages were banned by the banks, the hongs and the government. Yet clearly they were not forbidden. Whereas countries such as the USA and Canada passed laws to ban inter-racial marriage, neither Britain nor Hong Kong ever did so. Nor, as we see in Dan’s case, were they terminal to a career. Instead, they were just as likely to be a source of joy as any other liaisons.

The paradox strikes again: that where race is made important enough to be examined it turns out to be less important after all.

Dan Waters was an exceptional man in most of his fields of endeavour; he was wide open, inquisitive, fascinated. His ruminations in both books ranged from the picking of guavas in the Mai Po Marshes in the 1960s with his wife’s uncle, to the latter book’s detailed survey of how cross-cultural marriages work. He learned about the Man clan of the New Territories, and their migrations to the West (not only to England but whole villages which moved to the Netherlands and elsewhere), the rise of Chinese restaurants, why nouveau riche Chinese are so loud, and whether such migration ‘works’. Even when a transplanted Chinese marries another Chinese in their new home there are adjustment problems, he wrote, but when the marriage is cross-cultural, bigger worries emerge. There is the risk of the offspring never quite belonging anywhere, unhappily marginalised in Britain but out of place back in the New Territories village too. Writing before the handover of sovereignty over Hong Kong from Britain to China, he wondered how many Man clan members would want to keep a footprint in Hong Kong.

Dan’s later book began with a traditional Chinese matchmaker’s saying — ‘Let wooden gates match wooden gates and bamboo doors match bamboo doors’. Such a damning indictment of cross-cultural marriage is soon disproved. In fact, as his interviews with 81 partners in mixed marriages attest, the responses of each side in the partnership varied immensely. Some Chinese women wanted a Western husband to escape the constrictions of patriarchal Chinese culture; some of their families were open to it but most were not. Men’s feelings varied too, from wonder at the chaos of it all, to frustration about never being accepted by their partner’s families. Generalising the experience remains nigh impossible.

Dan managed, as so many (male) writers do, to lay the blame for discrimination against Chinese women in mixed liaisons at the feet of Western women. He also notes that of course there were restraints of which he, as a man in love in the late 1950s, was all too well aware: ‘No decent Chinese girl will marry you. All you can expect is a whore or a bar girl,’ he quotes a clergyman saying in the 1950s. Dan’s own boss was clearly against Dan’s plans to marry Vera; Dan was accused of ‘letting the side down’. He recalled too, his friend Michael Wright (the third generation of his family in government service in Hong Kong, now aged 103 in London) having to sign a declaration when he joined the Crown Colony civil service in 1938, to pledge that he would not take a concubine. ‘Up until World War Two, overseas British Banks required their expatriate staff to obtain approval before they married, and everyone knew what that meant…’ (Waters, 2005, p. 51).

Aside from his own case, Dan found more exceptions to such ‘rules’, many of them revealed in this book. The over-riding message is surely one to last beyond Dan’s life — that cross-cultural connection can be a marvellous thing. He described this book as a starting point for what he believed was a sadly under-researched aspect of life and history in Hong Kong. He hoped much more study and publication could be done on this theme of cross-cultural links, and Eurasians in general.

He ended with a quote from an American women who married a Chinese man: ‘Being in a cross-cultural marriage has mostly been a wonderful adventure, and I would do it all again in a second’.


Waters, Dan, Faces of Hong Kong: An Old Hand’s Reflections (Singapore, 1995).

Waters, Dan, One Couple Two Cultures: 81 Western-Chinese Couples Talk About Love and Marriage (Hong Kong, 2005).

Lethbridge Onward

By Vaudine England

Lethbridge’s article, ‘The Yellow Fever’, had concluded with an image of how the different, mostly non-Chinese peoples of Hong Kong interacted, or not:

‘The full flavour of the European community is to be savoured at a gala occasion… at the City Hall. Then the various layers, tier upon tier, are exhibited in the foyer: befurred and bejewelled Continentals, leading matriarchs, gilded youths and bright young girls back from Swiss finishing schools — the whole range from taipan to pong paang. It is only then that one notices the heterogeneity and subdivisions of the European community and the fact that once dispersed each group goes its separate way and will rarely coalesce with others again. There are many social circuits in Hongkong — few connect. If they are brought together, it is by crisis or ritual…’

As within such groups, so it was between this and larger, other groups.

That clear delineations existed between different racial groups in Hong Kong has been and remains clear however. More than 98 percent of the Hong Kong population has been, and remains, Chinese. Within that term are of course many further variations, between Cantonese, and many other Chinese sub-groups and languages. As Professor Bickers notes in his Scramble for China, diving deeper into the divisions within shows that once the Treaty Port system and British extra-territoriality was established, some Chinese chose to take British papers for practical benefits. Many Chinese living elsewhere under British rule, especially in South East Asia, followed the opportunities under British rule back to the the Chinese mainland. They faced not only prejudice but exclusion at the hands of their fellow ethnic Chinese, and could sometimes leapfrog those compatriots by virtue of British rule.

Beyond the Chinese, since 1841, substantial groups of Europeans, Indians, Portuguese, Malays, Americans and others have co-existed, along with a growing Eurasian community. Within each of these groups, divisions exist too. Even to this day, some expatriate British people believe their experience of Hong Kong — privilege on the Peak, government housing, servants, boarding school and holidays in the East — is the universal expatriate experience. Instead it was and is perhaps the minority. Through the tales of the ordinary lives, a far richer story would emerge.

At some point in any study of Hong Kong’s racial and cultural mix, that idea of ‘melting pot’ has also to be tackled. While busy looking at Eurasians, the clearest example of cross-cultural mixing available, the melting pot idea seems to work. (Within the Eurasian community too existed virulent divisions and competition between leading figures and families, which have affected how its history has been written to this day.)

Beyond that small group however, does the mixing idea hold? Stephen Fisher in his 1975 thesis is quite firm: ‘Hong Kong has never been, and never will be, a melting-pot of these ethnic groups’ (p. 9).

Instead, the model is that of the plural society, first and best espoused by J.S. Furnivall in his Colonial Policy and Practice in 1948. This is where distinct ethnic groups maintain their own ethnic identify, cultural traits and social institutions. While co-existing alongside each other, they do not integrate with each other. To this day, debate is fast and furious on whether this is a good or bad thing – should we all try (pretend?) to be just like each other or able to become just like each other, to fulfil some ideal of universal culture? A kind of political correctness is sometimes attached to having friends of many colours or cultures, regardless of how deep or sincere is the link.

Furnivall had no such illusions in an earlier era. Surveying what he called the ‘medley of peoples’, including indigenous, Indian, Chinese and European, in colonial societies of Burma and Java, he wrote:
‘It is in the strictest sense a medley, for they mix but do not combine. Each group holds by its own religion, its own culture and language, its own ideas and ways. As individuals they meet, but only in the market place, in buying and selling. There is a plural society, with different sections of a community living side by side, but separately, within the same political unit. Even in the economic sphere there is a division of labour along racial lines’ (1948, p. 304).
Fisher says Smith’s contribution to the definition was in the primary role he gave to institutions in forming those separate communities, and in further clarifying that ‘in a plural society, the political rule or rather domination, is exercised by a culturally distinct minority’ (Fisher, p. 12).


Bickers, Robert. The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914. London: Allen Lane, 2011 (and Penguin 2012).

Lethbridge, Henry. ‘The Yellow Fever’. Far Eastern Economic Review (2 May 1968).

Fisher, Stephen F. Eurasians in Hong Kong: A Sociological Study of a Marginal Group. PhD Thesis, University of Hong Kong, 1975.

Furnivall, J.S. Colonial Policy and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948.

Furnivall, J.S. Netherlands India: A Study of Plural Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1944.

Smith, M.G. The Plural Society in the British West Indies. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1965.

Kaori Abe’s City of Intermediaries

Dissertation Reviews has posted a review of Kaori Abe’s fascinating doctoral dissertation, The City of Intermediaries: Compradors in Hong Kong from the 1830s to the 1880s. Take a look at:

Kaori is currently Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University. She completed her PhD in the Department of History at the University of Bristol under the supervision of Prof. Robert Bickers.

Also be sure to also take a look at her recent article in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society: ‘Intermediary Elites in the Treaty Port World: Tong Mow-chee and His Collaborators in Shanghai, 1873–1897’.