HKHP Interviews: Ray Yep, City University of Hong Kong

We are honoured to have Prof. Ray Yep, Associate Head of the Department of Public Policy at City University of Hong Kong, to be our interviewee this week. 

A political scientist by training, Prof. Yep specialises in the study of the political economy of China’s reforms, the late colonial governance of Hong Kong, and contentious politics. His book on the ICAC 靜默革命:香港廉政百年共業, edited volume Negotiating Autonomy in Greater China: Hong Kong and its Sovereign before and after 1997, and the co-edited volume with Robert Bickers, May Days in Hong Kong: Riot and Emergency in 1967, provide us new perspectives in understanding late colonial Hong Kong. 

Active in rendering community services, Prof. Yep has also served as a member of the Advisory Council for Environment, the Strategy Subcommittee of Sustainable Development Council, and the Central Policy Unit. Currently he is also the Research Director of Synergy Net (a local policy think tank), a member of Policy Advocacy and Research Committee of Hong Kong Council of Social Services.

HKHP: How did this all begin? (Your research interests, your career, or your life in Hong Kong, etc.)

RY: Not sure if I have really started my career as a historian. I am a political scientist by training. My doctoral work is on political economy of rural reforms in contemporary China, and I am still researching on land reforms and local finance in mainland China today. It is Gary Cheung’s book on the 1967 Riots published 13 or 14 years ago sparkled my interest in history. I found his work exciting and was hungry for more. I hoped there would be more scholarly works available but unfortunately there was not much academic attention to this issue. Then, I thought, “ok. Maybe I should try to do something myself”. Next thing I know is I have been buried in the archives at Kew almost every summer since then.

HKHP: What needs to be further explored in Hong Kong studies?

RY: I am probably not qualified to answer this question. Personally, I am always interested in understanding how the British Empire really worked. Was there a coherent and proactive strategy in London in regulating colonial development? And how did the colony defend and pursue her agenda?  I think the relationship is very much a product of ceaseless bargaining and negotiation and the colony’s subordination depicted in the constitutional documents like Letter Patent and Royal Instructions may not uncover the whole picture.     

HKHP: How do you see Hong Kong’s place in the study of history?

RY: I always believe that Beijing’s idea of governing Hong Kong after 1997 is very much based on her perception of colonial autonomy before the Handover. If we study Basic Law carefully, we can find many provisions are almost identical with the arrangements in colonial years. For examples, the Central People’s Government has the right to invalidate Hong Kong laws, to appoint key officials in local administration and to make laws for SAR. All these were parts of the Royal Prerogatives of the Queen under colonial order. So, for Beijing, the high degree of autonomy bestowed upon the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is simply “Letter Patent/Royal Instructions 2.0”. That is, she would regard herself even more generous than the British as not only did she choose not to impose any new restraint on Hong Kong; but she even granted more freedom that was not allowed in colonial time to the SAR. For example, the right to set up the Court of Final Appeal in the territory, and the policy of not sending officials to serve in HKSAR Government. And probably because of this self-image, she finds the “ungratefulness” of the Hong Kong irritating and incomprehensible. However, this self-perception of being a generous and tolerant overlord is very much based on her misguided understanding of Hong Kong-London relationship. On paper, Hong Kong’s autonomy was rather circumscribed as there was basically no limit on Queen’s power. However, in reality, the colony was not completely impotent in defending her cases and interests. Nuanced understanding of the colonial past is thus imperative to the appreciation of the dynamics of unfolding of the policy of One Country Two Systems.     

HKHP: What do you think would be the biggest challenge facing Hong Kong studies? How can we solve it?

RY: There are two issues. The first one is language. When you write Hong Kong history, you always feel obliged to make it as accessible as possible for the local audience because this is their story. Whereas the majority may be able to read English, you can sense a big drop in interest when the material is not published in Chinese. But we all know about the “perish or publish” culture in academia today and most Chinese journals are not considered as creditable outlets by University management. I don’t see any easy way out. I suppose senior local scholars who are immune to tenure pressure should take the lead in writing in Chinese. The second issue concerns politics. There seems to be a growing number of works on Hong Kong that appear to be more like advocacy materials rather than scholarly pieces. We all have our ideological disposition and preference, but we just have to be more conscientious and professional in reading and writing history. We should be aware of the difference between propaganda and scholarship.   

HKHP: Could you please share with us your favorite quote/person/book that you came across while doing primary research?

RY: “A history that dwells only on divided pasts denies us the just inheritance of what we have always shared, namely a capacity to ‘live together in societies sufficiently harmonious and orderly not to be constantly breaking apart,” wrote David Cannadine. A timely reminder for those who are writing history of Hong Kong.

HKHP: What are you working on now?

RY: I am working on the governorship of Murray MacLehose at the moment. I focus on three episodes: attempt to settle land lease beyond 1997, Vietnamese Boat People crisis, and political reforms in late 1970s. The three issues represents a variation of London’s response in terms of priority, economic concerns and strategic calculation. I see these as window to the understanding of the dynamics of colony-London interaction and the nature of colonial governance.


HKHP Interviews: Christopher Munn

The Project is delighted to have Dr. Christopher Munn to be our interviewee this week. A former administrative officer in the Hong Kong Government 1980-1992, and a staff member of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority 1998-2010, Dr. Munn has published extensively on Hong Kong History. In particular, his book Anglo-China: Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong, 1841-1880 sheds light on how colonial governance affected the lives of people in early British Hong Kong, and how they in turn sought to shape colonial rule.

Dr. Munn has also co-edited with May Holdsworth the Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography, a collection of more than 500 biographies of lives spanning the whole of Hong Kong history, and one of the most well-received publications to researchers working in the field.


HKHP: How did this all begin? (Your research interests, your career, or your life in Hong Kong, etc.)

 CM: I came to Hong Kong in 1980 as a fresh history graduate from England to work for the Hong Kong Government. After a decade or so of interesting work I wanted to continue my education. For certain romantic reasons I also wanted to be in Toronto. I therefore studied for an MA and then a Ph.D. at the University of Toronto under Timothy Brook. I picked Hong Kong as a thesis topic mainly out of interest but also because Hong Kong in the 1990s was a hot topic. Toronto turned out to be a good place for this because it is a centre of British Empire studies. It also has a strong Hong Kong connection and excellent libraries, including a Hong Kong collection built up by Peter Yeung, who had earlier helped build up the Hong Kong collection at HKU. I did much of my research in Hong Kong and was fortunate to be selected as a Toronto-HKU exchange student, so that I was able to spend a whole year back in Hong Kong working under the guidance of Elizabeth Sinn. 

HKHP: What needs to be further explored in Hong Kong studies?

CM: The field is in excellent shape. It has received an enormous boost from initiatives such as the Hong Kong History Project. I often find it surprising how much has been written, even though a great deal of research remains unpublished. There are now also some excellent general histories by Steve Tsang, John Carroll, Tsai Jung-fang and others. I wish there were more longitudinal studies of special topics over the full span of Hong Kong’s history of a city. For example, we have no comprehensive economic history of Hong Kong. Nor is there a general demographic history of the city, despite the role that movements of people have played in politics, economics and identity. And what about some scholarly histories about corruption in Hong Kong, or about important institutions such as the governorship or the Executive and Legislative Councils? It would also be good to see more comparative studies on Hong Kong and other colonial or Chinese cities. This is difficult to do well, but it is good to see some movements in this direction.

HKHP: How do you see Hong Kong’s place in the study of history?

CM: Hong Kong has a large population with a distinct history driven both by its own dynamics and by external forces. It was the last British colony to be decolonized and one of a handful of former colonies to be given a special status within a much larger country. Its history is packed with interesting events, personalities and controversies. It surely deserves to be studied as a place in its own right. However, it is also interesting to see Hong Kong’s history in the context of modern Chinese and world history, and in comparison with the history of other colonies and the metropole. Just through examining aspects of Hong Kong’s legal history in my recent research I have been struck by how much its development has been influenced by processes, personalities and experiences in other colonies.

HKHP: What do you think would be the biggest challenge facing Hong Kong studies? How can we solve it?

CM: The same challenge which faces all historians: finding, reading, understanding and interpreting the sources in as balanced a way as possible. Another challenge is to make Hong Kong interesting and relevant to people who have no direct experience of the city. 

HKHP: Could you please share with us your favorite quote/person/book that you came across while doing primary research?

CM: In my research I have been looking at cases in the Hong Kong courts. Most of these cases are sad rather than amusing but occasionally some bizarre disputes arose, often involving visiting performers. In a case in 1912, for example, an army officer sued ‘the Great Raymond’, a world-famous escapologist, after he had refused to honour his offer of £100 to any member of the audience who could extricate himself from a pair of locked handcuffs. The army officer had beaten the challenge, but the Great Raymond claimed that the handcuffs were not properly locked. The officer won the case and donated his winnings to charity.

Another case was about two mermaids and a monkey. This was an action in 1890 by a German showman to recover $100, being the cost of two ‘dried mermaids’ he had entrusted to a Chinese painter to produce pictorial advertisements for some sort of semi-aquatic show. The showman had also insisted that he, along with a monkey appearing in the show, be included in the pictures and had supplied the monkey to give sittings: ‘the trouble of getting these accessories to harmonise was considerable,’ the painter told the court. The painter refused to return the dried mermaids when the showman, not happy with the paintings, declined to pay the price agreed on. During the hearing the paintings and the mermaids – concoctions sewn together from various dead animals (Barnum’s museum had a similar specimen) – were laid on the table in court and a great deal of evidence was given in German and Chinese. The judge concluded that the pictures were not bad considering the unpromising subject matter, and he found for the painter.

HKHP: What are you working on now?

CM: I have recently finished writing a history of the Hong Kong Judiciary, from 1841 to recent times. I have also been working with May Holdsworth on a book on the history of the Central Police Station complex and have helped Elizabeth Sinn edit a book on cultural encounters in Hong Kong history, which will be published soon. Earlier this year I began work on a history of the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong, planned as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations in 2019.

HKHP Interviews: Mark Hampton, Lingnan University

Our second interviewee is Prof. Mark Hampton, of the history department at Lingnan University. A resident of Hong Kong for almost eleven years, Prof. Hampton has published widely on British media and culture, including the recent book Hong Kong and British Culture, 1945-97.


HKHP: How did this all begin? (Your research interests, your career, or your life in Hong Kong, etc.)

MH: For about twenty years now, I have been a historian of British culture, and Hong Kong is just one of my areas of interest within this broader field. The two main reasons that I took my interest in British cultural history in the direction of the British in Hong Kong are, 1. in 1996 while conducting research in Manchester, I met a young woman from Hong Kong who piqued my interest in Hong Kong (“Reader, I married her”), and 2. I was fortunate enough to be able to move to Hong Kong in 2007 to take a position at Lingnan University, after spending the first several years of my career in the United States. Upon moving to Hong Kong, I quite naturally took advantage of the opportunity to move my interest in British cultural history into the arena of Hong Kong studies.

HKHP: What needs to be further explored in Hong Kong studies?

MH: I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask, given that I approach Hong Kong studies from a firmly British cultural perspective, which is obviously limiting. But my sense is that there is still a lot more to learn about Hong Kong from the vantage point of its inhabitants who are neither Chinese nor Western: in other words, its Asian ethnic minorities. People like John Erni and Gordon Matthews have done important pioneering work, but I think there is much more to be done in this area.

HKHP: How do you see Hong Kong’s place in the study of history?

Hong Kong is interesting as a city that is simultaneously an entry point into studies of globalization, of Chinese history, of British imperial history, of Hong Kong’s role as an exemplar of neo-liberalism and a place for what Davidson and Rees-Mogg call “the sovereign individual” to assert his or her sovereignty. Some of the infrastructure projects of the second half of the twentieth century offer interesting case studies in urban planning that would be of interest to any urban geographer. Hong Kong is a liminal place—in the 19th century what John Carroll evocatively calls the “edge of empires”, and in the later 20th century, a contact zone between China and the world. Basically, for 19th- to 20th- century historical studies, there are few cities that offer entry points into as many different fields of historical enquiry as Hong Kong does.

HKHP: What do you think would be the biggest challenge facing Hong Kong studies? How can we solve it?

MH: To me, the biggest challenge is that as Hong Kong studies develops, and more scholars—especially, but not only, those based in Hong Kong — devote their professional careers to Hong Kong studies, it can tend to become myopic. I think my answer to the previous question points us to the best antidote: the more different perspectives are brought to bear on Hong Kong, the better off “Hong Kong studies” will be. I think it would be a good thing if we have scholarship on Hong Kong being conducted not only by people who devote their careers to scholarship on Hong Kong, but by people interested in Chinese history, British history, global history, financial history, international cinema, and any number of other topics that go well beyond “Hong Kong studies”.

HKHP:  Could you please share with us your favorite quote/person/book that you came across while doing primary research?

MH: I’m afraid my favorites are not from my studies in the history of Hong Kong, but things I encountered in British journalism and cultural history: from the great Guardian editor, C.P. Scott: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred”. In terms of books, I’m a big fan of Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922) and, before that, R.A. Scott-James’s The Influence of the Press (1913). Between them, I think they were instrumental in establishing Anglo-American media studies. Keeping it strictly to Hong Kong: as I worked on post-1945 British culture and Hong Kong, I found Richard Hughes’s Borrowed Place, Borrowed Time (1968) and James Clavell’s Noble House (1981) to be among the most interesting—and especially interesting that Clavell—an Australian who became a US citizen—was as concerned about promoting British culture as anyone who ever wrote about Hong Kong. Hughes, of course, was also Australian.

HKHP: What are you working on now?

MH: I am working on several projects: one on British radicals and reformers in Hong Kong from the 1840s to 1990s; one on the film theory of Michael Balcon, a major film producer in mid-twentieth-century Britain; and one on discourses of “whiteness” in post-1945 Britain and the United States. In addition, I am general editor of a six volume Cultural Histories of Media from antiquity to the 20th century, under contract with Bloomsbury, and I am co-editing the 19th-century volume.

HKHP Interviews: John Carroll, HKU

We are delighted to announce that our Blog is starting a new series! In this series, we ask the same set of six questions to scholars with a common interest in Hong Kong from different disciplines.

Our inaugural interviewee is Prof. John Carroll, Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Hong Kong. Prof. Carroll spent his childhood and teenage years in North Point and Causeway Bay before he moved to the US for his undergraduate study. Author of Edge of Empires and bestseller A Concise History of Hong Kong 香港簡史, he has reorientated the study of Hong Kong history to stand between the history of China and British imperialism.


HKHP: How did this all begin? (Your research interests, your career, or your life in Hong Kong, etc.)

JC: It was an accident – and I do mean an accident. Although I was raised and educated in Hong Kong, I never had any interest in its history. It wasn’t taught in my primary or secondary school, and we never went on any field trips. I think I visited the Hong Kong Museum of History, then in Star House, exactly once. When I began the research for my PhD thesis back in the early 1990s, Hong Kong was the last place on my mind. I was interested in Western missionaries in China and treaty-port culture in Shanghai. At some point I decided to read a bit about Hong Kong. The more I learned, the more interesting it became. The rest, as they say, is history.

HKHP: What needs to be further explored in Hong Kong studies?

JC: I don’t think there’s any particular “missing link”. No two people will ever agree on what is most important about any place or period. But, speaking of people, those who need to be incorporated much more thoroughly into Hong Kong history are the South Asians. How such vibrant communities with roots dating back to Hong Kong’s earliest days as a colony have been so overlooked is truly baffling. In terms of periods, one that could use more work is the 1950s.

HKHP: How do you see Hong Kong’s place in the study of history?

JC: When I started my PhD research many years ago, I wanted to use the case of Hong Kong as a way to understand certain issues in modern Chinese history, such as the rise of modern capitalism, state and society, and Sino-Western cultural encounters. Then I started to see it as a way of understanding colonialism. Now I see it mainly as a place on its own terms, and with its own unique characteristics.

HKHP: What do you think would be the biggest challenge facing Hong Kong studies? How can we solve it?

JC: The biggest challenge is the language gap. Walk into any major bookstore here and you’ll see a huge body of work that many people will never be able to read. Some of the best material on Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s is in Chinese, and why shouldn’t it be? Imagine trying to understand France without reading French. And it’s not just a matter of reading: can we really understand a society without understanding its pop culture and – of course – its slang? I grew up immersed in Hong Kong pop culture and slang, and it’s still hard for me to get by. Another problem is that, at least at the university level, historical research is usually framed by nation. Except perhaps here in Hong Kong, no one gets a PhD in Hong Kong history: it has to be in Chinese history or British imperial history. And, except perhaps in Hong Kong, academic jobs are never in Hong Kong history. I can’t imagine that ever changing.

HKHP: Could you please share with us your favorite quote/person/book that you came across while doing primary research?

JC: The most interesting person I’ve ever come across while doing primary research is James Innes, a fiercely libertarian Scottish trader who arrived in Canton around 1825 and died in Macao in July 1841 during the Opium War. He didn’t survive long enough to live in Hong Kong, but he certainly would have made the place even more interesting if he had. I don’t think I would have liked him very much, but he would have been a fun person to share a glass or two of Scotch whisky with. He once publicly threatened to shoot Captain Charles Elliot, superintendent of British trade in China, “through the head, or heart, by a well practised rifle.”

HKHP: What are you working on now?

JC: I’m trying to finish two books on the British in Canton before the Opium War. One is about communities, people (including James Innes), and institutions. The other is about the knowledge of China produced by Britons who resided in or travelled through Canton. And I’ve just started research for another book on Hong Kong, which looks at how from 1949 to 1997 local authorities tried to promote tourism in Britain’s only Chinese colony, and by the 1990s its only significant colony.