Introducing Florence Mok

This week we have a contribution by Dr. Florence Mok, whose article ‘Public Opinion Polls and Covert Colonialism in British Hong Kong’ in China Information has recently been awarded the Eduard B. Vermeer Prize (congratulations Dr. Mok!). We first met Florence at the University of York, where she completed her PhD on state-society relations in colonial Hong Kong. Now a postdoctoral fellow in the History Department at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, Florence has kindly accepted our invite to tell us about her academic journey, and her current projects. 

History has always been my passion. I still remember reading my first history book when I was nine. Since then, I have aspired to become a historian. I completed both my BA and MA in Durham University. Prior to my PhD, I specialized in early modern English history. My MA thesis examined Royalism and Royalists during the English Civil War from 1642-1651. The period is fascinating. It witnessed some uncontrollable violence but also the emergence of numerous radical ideas. The world was indeed ‘turned upside down’. As a Hong Kong native, I always found Hong Kong history interesting and wanted to explore how state-society relations evolved from time to time. Inspired by the Umbrella Movement in 2014, I decided to shift my research focus from early modern England to contemporary Hong Kong. I was intrigued by the rise of political activism and wanted to investigate the historical roots of increased political mobilizations and changing political culture in Hong Kong.

During my PhD at the University of York, I was supervised by Dr. David Clayton. My PhD thesis examined the relationship between political culture and policy making in British Hong Kong in the long 1970s. Existing scholarship has not addressed the impact of political mobilizations on new administrative, legislative and institutional changes, and the link between political attitudes and social classes. This field remains dominated by the theoretical work of political scientists and sociologists, and is therefore weakly supported by empirical evidence drawn from archival sources. My thesis explored how a reformist colonial administration investigated Chinese political culture, and how activism by social movements in Hong Kong impacted policy making. It investigated how the colonial state monitored public opinion through covert opinion polling exercises, namely Town Talk and MOOD, and how Chinese communities engaged in political movements and discourses, providing a long-term perspective of the constitutional crisis in Hong Kong today. The content was organized using five case studies of social movements/policy making: the Chinese as the official language movement, the anti-corruption campaign, the campaign against telephone rate increases, the Precious Blood Golden Jubilee Secondary School disputes and immigration from Mainland China.

The thesis argued that the colonial administration possessed increased organizational capacity to monitor the movement of opinion direction in the Chinese society closely. Shifting from indirect rule to the City District Officer Scheme, it invested in its surveillance apparatus in the 1970s. Two covert opinion polling exercises, Town Talk and MOOD, were introduced. These constructed ‘public opinions’ were circulated and discussed among high ranked civil servants, including the Governor and policy makers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. They affected policy formulation in subtle ways. Hong Kong people had extremely limited democratic rights but the public was involved in the policy making process. The thesis also highlighted how ‘public opinion’ was a construction, and how political cultures in Hong Kong varied in accordance with class and age, and changed in significant ways. For example, the upper class believed that political activism was undignified and undermined political stability. The working class, driven by instrumentalism, distanced themselves from social movements. However, in general, the Chinese communities demonstrated increased readiness to engage in political movements and discourses in the 1970s. I have published the preliminary findings of my thesis as a journal article in China Information.

Image of a MOOD document taken by Florence. (HKPRO, HKRS 925-1-1, ‘Current Attitudes of the Hong Kong Public towards China’, MOOD, 23 Oct 1979.)

After completing my PhD, I started working as a postdoctoral fellow in the History Department at Nanyang Technological University in October 2019. I am currently working on two different projects. My postdoctoral project examined Chinese Communist cultural activities in colonial Hong Kong, a pivot in the Cold War, from 1949-1980. It focuses on the four modes of communication used by the Chinese Communists to propagate the Communist regime and expand their influence in the colony: the press, literature, ‘traditional’ cultural activities and school education. The main objective is to investigate through different channels, how the Communists infiltrated Hong Kong society, and to observe how the colonial government countered these activities without, in theory, compromising the concept of ‘the rule of law’. The unexplored primary data in the National Archives in London and the Public Record Office in Hong Kong is rich. The ‘migrated’ Foreign Office Archives are a new source of material. These documents include 110 categories concerning Hong Kong, many of which are related to the organization of sensitive British intelligence and the containment of communism in the colony. This data, which has only come to light in the last few years due to the efforts of lawyers, journalists and historians, will transform our understanding of British colonial history. This study will shed light on the current constitutional crisis in Hong Kong by tracing past Communist activities in the colony and deconstructing the concept and practice of ‘the rule of law’, which is commonly recognized by Hong Kong people as a British legacy.

Source: HKPRO website gallery.

My second project is a collaboration with my former supervisor, David Clayton. The project focuses on water emergency in Hong Kong in 1963-64. Hong Kong suffered from unprecedented shortages of water then, due to insufficient rain, rapid economic development and under-investment in the water infrastructure. Access to water was rationed, placing severe burdens on Hong Kong households, especially women who had to queue, carry and store water. Our project examines how individuals and social groups responded to these privations, and how this crisis altered their relationship with the colonial state. We are going to assess the level and form of complaints and explain these observations in terms of (i) everyday cultural practices and (ii) a contingent factor: how the crisis was managed by agencies of the colonial states. The project will contribute to environment and social histories of water management, which, hitherto, have focused on rural droughts.

Source: HKPRO website gallery.


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.


Introducing Adonis Li

Our guest writer this week is Adonis Li, PhD student at the University of Hong Kong. We first met Adonis in 2016 when the Project visited the University of York, where Adonis did his BA and MA, for a symposium on Hong Kong history. Our paths have crossed often since: in January this year Adonis spoke at our postgraduate workshop about his earlier work on Sir Percy Cradock and the future of Hong Kong, and in June we met in Hong Kong again, where we heard that he is now working on another project that is also very relevant to the daily lives of Hong Kongers – the history of the city’s public transport. Adonis kindly accepted our invite to tell us more about his research here, and explained how his interest about history shifted from the ‘Horrible Histories’ series of children’s books and historical video games to the modern history of Hong Kong. 

History was one of my favourite subjects in school, not least because of the popular Horrible Histories series of children’s books. The sense of humour and the ‘gory bits’ of the series taught me that history doesn’t have to be just lists of kings and queens and great deeds. Instead, history could talk about how both elites and regular people lived. Yet, as time went on and topics of study narrowed due to exam requirements, I found myself increasingly disillusioned with what I was studying. Modern history, in particular twentieth-century history, was all that my high school taught. I grew tired of regurgitating the same information over and over again, perhaps once from the British perspective, then again from the American perspective, then German, Soviet, French and so on. Thankfully, I continued to receive good grades in the subject.


I managed to keep up my interest in history during this period through historical video games. Series such as Age of Empires and Total War mixed strategy, city building and medieval history together into one fun yet difficult package. I would eventually find myself spending more time reading the introductions to different historical factions and events than playing the actual games. I remember thinking ‘if only school would teach us medieval history and not the Second World War!’

I then went to the University of York, where I obtained a BA (Hons) in History and an MA in Contemporary History and International Politics. Aside from its location close to my home in Leeds and the campus’s beautiful brutalist architecture, I chose York because of its rich medieval past. During my second year there, I lived a few metres away from its medieval city walls (though unfortunately I ended up with nosy tourists peering into my windows every afternoon). I fulfilled my wishes of studying medieval history by enrolling in early medieval courses; the first seminar I ever attended was on the course titled ‘Goths and Romans’.

However, alongside Goths, Romans and Vikings, I also enrolled on modern history courses. I became increasingly interested in my place of birth, Hong Kong, and wanted to know more about its past. The Umbrella Movement of 2014 coincided with the start of my studies at York, and I chose courses on the history of the British Empire and on Chinese history. There were weeks where I would juggle reading translated Latin texts with reading translated Chinese texts, then trying to look up the original source of the latter. Over time (and with a dissertation proposal deadline looming), I came to realise that though medieval history is incredibly interesting (and fun!), modern history was a better subject of serious study for me personally.

I worked with David Clayton, Senior Lecturer at York, to complete my BA dissertation on the visit of Governor Murray MacLehose to Beijing in 1979, which started the negotiations over Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty. I then wrote an MA dissertation on the role of Sir Percy Cradock during and after these negotiations, using documents from his papers collection.

My original plan was to write a PhD thesis on another facet of the negotiations. However, I had become interested in something that was, and still is, very important for Hongkongers and city-dwellers all over the world; public transport.


Through websites such as CityMetric and Facebook groups such as New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens, I started to look at my own commutes and usage of public transport critically. It turns out there’s more to it than just complaining about two buses coming at once after a long wait. Behind every journey were histories of mobility, political negotiations, financial considerations, and social changes. Once I had moved to Hong Kong, I had very contrasting experiences to compare, between commuting on the underfunded, aging northern English rail-lines and on the largely punctual and clean Mass Transit Railway.

The line I spend most of my time on, the East Rail Line, was once called the Kowloon-Canton Railway. It was completed in 1910 and was Hong Kong’s first heavy rail line, one that withstood war, regime changes and takeover by the MTR Corporation. It has been ever-present in Hong Kong’s modern history. Yet, very little academic history has been written on the Kowloon-Canton Railway. My project will be the first to do so.

The old Tai Po Market Railway Station, now the Hong Kong Railway Museum, photo by Adonis.

My project looks at the history of the railway from different perspectives. I will use official sources from the National Archives in Kew and the Public Records Office in Kwun Tong. I will also use unofficial ones, such as travel guides and newspapers. If there’s one thing that has been a constant amongst commuters over the past century, it’s complaining about their mode of transportation. Of course, I am open to any suggestions on other potential sources.

A Kitson 2-6-4 train, being delivered to Kowloon Terminus in 1912. Photo from Robert J. Phillips, Kowloon-Canton Railway (British Section): A History (Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1990), 112.


As well as plugging a gap in histories written about Hong Kong, my research can also tell us how railway problems of the past were overcome, perhaps providing lessons on how to overcome present issues. The construction of the line was late and over-budget. Trains suffered from poor punctuality and overcrowding. Overzealous fare collectors caused issues. Policing and border control demanded resources. Fare increases were invariably met with passenger disgruntlement.

Sound familiar? These issues could have been chosen from 1919, 1969, or 2019. In a city so heavily reliant on its rail network, a look at its history is needed.


Introducing Allan Pang

We are delighted to have Allan Pang writing for us this month. Currently an MPhil student at the University of Hong Kong, Allan spoke in our conference in June about his research on the promotion of Cantopop and colonial Chineseness. We were fascinated by his research and therefore invited him to tell us a bit more about his wider research on our blog.

Unlike other contributors to the HKHP blog, I do not have an intriguing story of how I became interested in my research topics. I took history in my secondary school, chose history as my (only) major during my BA at HKU, and decided to pursue an MPhil in history. I became loyal to this subject because it gives me the autonomy that I can never experience while taking courses in other disciplines.I could criticise my history textbooks and the syllabus in class when I was a secondary school student, and I could choose whatever topic for my essays at the university. Eventually, I started to research the histories of things that I am interested in, such as popular music, history education, and postage stamps in my home – Hong Kong. When I was a school kid, I enjoy searching for old news reports to find out details about the concerts that I like (though they usually took place before I was born), flipping through outdated history textbooks and syllabuses, and finding out how the old Lunar New Year postage stamps look like. I thought I was simply gossiping about insignificant items in my life (or in Cantonese baat gwaa 八卦). But thanks to my teachers at the History Department of HKU, I realised I can turn all these into my research topics.

My MPhil thesis examines how the colonial government attempted to promote, shape, or even control Chineseness in Hong Kong from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. It analyses colonial policies from three perspectives: language, festivals, and objects. My study starts with policies on the Chinese language. Inspired by the revolutionary spirit of the Cultural Revolution in mainland China, youth in Hong Kong started the Chinese Language Movement to demand an official status of the Chinese language. To pacify the activists, the government superficially reformed its language policies by introducing the Official Language Ordinance and slow changes in government operation. My thesis then focuses on festivities. Officials promoted both traditional and modern Chineseness to pacify people across generations. To achieve this aim, they promoted traditional Chinese festivals in the colony. They also held the Festival of Hong Kong and numerous variety shows (including those featuring traditional and popular music). My study also examines policies on various objects: postage stamps, commemorative coins, and monuments. The government sold postage stamps and coins that showcase Hong Kong’s traditional Chinese culture to people within and without the colony. Officials also preserved and promoted Chinese monuments to locals and tourists.

Photo taken at the National Archives, UK, provided by Allan Pang.

I started my research with government records in The National Archives in Kew and the Public Records Office in Hong Kong. As official documents cannot reveal the whole story and part of them are always missing, I also consulted materials from various university libraries and archives. The Hong Kong Collections at HKU provide numerous official publications during the colonial era. I also utilised materials from the Hong Kong Tourism Board Collection. Its brochures and leaflets illustrate how the Hong Kong Tourist Association helped promote Chinese monuments from the late 1970s on. Hong Kong collections in the Hoover Institution Archives also provide useful materials. Various personal papers, such as the James Hayes Papers, John Walden Collection, and Michael Kirst Papers, contain official documents and correspondence which help me understand several social policies, especially those related to the Chinese language. I also visited the Weston Library at the University of Oxford to consult transcripts of interviews with former colonial officials. These interviews reveal how several high-ranking officials, including governors, made their decisions.

I became interested in this topic because but it reveals how the colonial state utilised culture as a tool of control (while it also brings together items that amuse me!). Through these cultural policies, Governor Murray MacLehose attempted to foster the local population’s sense of belonging by Chinese standards. His government tried to promote Hong Kong not only as a better place to live but also an authentic Chinese city in order to make local Chinese people, especially the younger generation, consider Hong Kong as their home. I also hope to link this period of Hong Kong history to the international situation, such as the cultural aspect of the Cold War and international tourism.

Suggested Syllabus for History in Anglo-Chinese Secondary Schools (1964 Edition). Hong Kong: Government Printer, 1964.

At the same time, I am researching two other topics on Hong Kong history. The first one is the development of history education since the 1950s. This project will explore how the state utilised the past to stabilise (and later decolonise) Hong Kong and construct colonial legacies. Through this research, I also hope to expand the concept of history education beyond syllabuses and textbooks to include museums, monuments, and festivals. This study will also examine Hong Kong’s transnational linkages to other former parts of the British Empire in Southeast Asia. The second topic is the history of local popular music. The global dimension to Hong Kong’s popular music also deserves our attention. I hope to show that popular music other than Cantopop, such as English pop, was also significant globally even while Cantopop was in its age of glory. In other words, I would like to explore the history of a “global Hong Kong Pop.”

Introducing Stella Wang

This week our guest writer is Meng (Stella) Wang, PhD candidate at University of Sydney. Stella’s research interests lie in the history of childhood, particularly on children’s everyday life, their use of urban space, and the formation of their identity in their lived spaces. Stella has kindly accepted our invite to write a reflective piece on how she uses visual materials in her project.

A Visual History of Colonial School Architecture in Hong Kong 1921-1941

Meng Wang | University of Sydney


This entry is a reflection on the use of visual materials in my project, which explores the history of colonial childhood in Hong Kong, particularly on the architecture of childhood and children’s everyday activity spaces and how that has changed over the interwar years. I trace the spaces that were designed for and used by children such as school playground and science laboratory and the transformation of these spaces. I am interested in, in particular, the coproduction of space, the child’s body, and identity, of how changes in childhood spaces transformed bodily experiences and produced identities.


I use visual images as sources to substantiate the narratives on colonial school architecture, and more generally architecture of childhood in interwar Hong Kong. In this entry, I will discuss the methods I use to approach visual sources, in relation to two research areas: architecture and the child’s body; space, body and identities. I will also address the importance of picture archives to the visual history of colonial school architecture.


I. Architecture and the Child’s Body

Part of my project explores the child’s body and school, I examine the transformation of the child’s body through addressing architecture in relation to curriculum. I look at the transformation of particular school spaces, such as school playground and science laboratory, through which I then trace the gendered history of curriculum, in relation to physical education and science teaching. I am also interested in how the transformation of the child’s body differed at government, grant-in-aid, and vernacular schools, which led me to a search on visual materials on schooling buildings of different types of schools, both their interior and exterior. I read these photographs, collected from different visual image database, including Hong Kong Memory, Hong Kong Image Database, and USC digital library, for the possible bodily movement enabled by the space, for example, the layout of the classroom and how child may possibly use this space, I then compare these among different types of schools. Throughout the project, I aim to trace the difference in school architecture of government, missionary and vernacular schools in relation to the different ideals of the child’s body, of what was considered suitable and capable of the child.

As a second line of questioning, I am interested in gendered difference in schools, and how architecture functioned as a social technology in constructing gendered identities. This focus on gendered history led me to explore the boarder architecture of femininity and masculinity in colonial contexts, which required an interweaving of visual and documentary sources. I use visual sources to substantiate documentary evidence, and I evaluate the pictures base on their potential to answer the key research questions: gendered differences produced by architecture. I collected pictures on school buildings, school children, playgrounds, and school publications, through which I aim to trace the architectural history of schools and the changing use of school spaces, such as access and use of playground. Visual source is an essential piece of this project on colonial school architecture and the child’s body, not only because its potential to add evidence to the argument, but also that the compiling of picture archive on colonial school life lends itself to the analysis of lived experience of schooling and enables comparison on school life in other colonial contexts.

The absence of colonial school architecture in Hong Kong in current historiography makes the compiling of its archive a fascinating opportunity to consider how colonial architecture interacted with the history of education, of femininity, of masculinity. This project will therefore reconfigure understanding of colonial architecture by developing knowledge about the lived experience of its key users, and specifically on the coproduction of colonial educational space and the feminine and masculine body.

I further argue that colonial school architecture is an emerging field in the history of colonial education, particularly in relation to the history of femininity and masculinity, to explore the role of colonial school architecture in the production of the female and male body, therefore, opens up new discussions on the construction of femininity and masculinity in education contexts, and how imperial gender ideals were produced through the choreography of the body.


II. Space, Body, and Identities
When I first approached the existing picture archives in Hong Kong, it was not immediate clear the importance and potential they carry for the project. To get a glimpse into the lived school life in the interwar years, I searched the oral history archives in Hong Kong, and through the reading of oral histories, I traced the memories of school buildings. The second step was to group the school buildings chronically, and based on the school types, as government, grant, or vernacular. Schools built in the interwar years shared common features such as sports and science facilities, which led to a read on curriculum.
When read school photographs, I start by asking the location of schools; the use of space within schools; and methods of learning and teaching. Although not a prime focus of my study, the location of the school suggests the potential liminal spaces the child travelled to and from school, and whether boarding facilities was necessary. The use of space within schools is where I analyse the function of the space. Corridors, gates, verandas are transitional spaces between activities, where interactions and encounters took place, that transforms the individual body to the social body. I am particularly interested in how the space produced experience, and how changes in space reconfigured everyday sensorial experiences.
As another potential line of inquiry, the materiality of schooling, captured in school pictures, also lends itself to the analysis on school architecture and children’s health. The layout of classroom, the size of windows, the height of desks, all had an impact on the users experience of the learning space and children’s wellbeing in particular.

The last point I want to address in this entry is the need to use innovative approach to develop visual archives that lend itself to the collaboration with other types of sources, such as oral, documentaries sources. And to classify the content in the archive temporally and spatially, for example, to map school architecture chronically, and in selected geographic regions. Picture archives on school architecture is only emerging, and quite often for individual projects, the need to collect visual sources from multiple existing archives that were not designed for the specific research on history of education is common, in which case, the interweaving of diverse types of sources becomes necessary, and often with an interdisciplinary research design. The lived experience of schooling, and the everyday life of children at school is not an extensively research area in the history of education, and it is also an area that would benefit from the development of picture archives, and with specific research focuses, the connection between architecture and child’s body could be addressed in a more nuanced manner, and join larger discussions on gendered history of education, modern architecture, as well as order and discipline in modern institutions.



Introducing Tim Yung

Happy new year everyone! We are delighted to have Tim Yung as our first guest writer in 2019. A PhD candidate at the University of Hong Kong, Tim’s research concerns South China Anglican Identity in the early twentieth century. Here’s Tim telling us how and why he works on this fascinating project:

When walking around Hong Kong, I could not help but notice a curious abundance of schools whose names involve Christian themes or names of saints. Another such curiosity occurs in common conversation: upon learning that I attend church, the follow-up question is frequently whether I am a ‘gei1 duk1 gau3’ or ‘teen1 zyu2 gau3’. To the best of my knowledge, the question refers to whether one is a ‘Protestant’ or a ‘Catholic’, though many opt to translate the former into ‘Christian’. In contrast, during my undergraduate studies in the UK, schools tended to be named after localities rather than saints, whilst in common conversation, I would be asked to which ‘denomination’ my church in Hong Kong belonged. It was striking to see the vast difference in local experiences of the Christian faith despite the professed unity of the worldwide church. It is upon the backdrop of this wider question that I began my doctoral studies on South China Anglican identity. What does it mean to be both ‘Chinese’ and ‘Christian’? It would take a lifetime (if not longer) to answer the question properly. Consequently, it hardly would have been ideal to try this as a PhD project. The next best thing within the given time and resources was to reduce it to a smaller area and scope – and so the research on South China Anglicanism began. To facilitate this journey was the timely establishment of the archives of the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui (Hong Kong Anglican Church) as well as a recent series of historical studies of Anglican Christianity in China.


I wonder if there exists a term that describes my experience – namely, that of Chinese who grew up in Hong Kong but attended international school then studied abroad. It is, therefore, rather difficult to answer the question, “Where are you from?” These days, I take the liberty to tell a story that goes around the world in a few minutes. There was a time when such a question would tap into my insecurity and lead me into further confusion about my identity. Turning pain into gain, it turns out that the experience of cultural entanglement has enabled to become a researcher with an enhanced awareness of historical agents caught between cultures. This very entanglement characterized the process of Christianity in China in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially as Protestant missionaries grew in number following the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing.

When observing sources about foreign missions in Hong Kong or Chinese clergy in Guangdong Province, it is never simply a case of ‘East meets West’ or ‘imperialism’. Instead, one sees the unfolding of a relationship where historical agents thoughtfully pick and mix aspects of Christianity that are consistent with the main creeds yet practicable in their cultural context. For instance, entire treatises were written on the integration of Chinese marriage customs with Christian theology. Go-betweens and betrothal gifts were maintained, but personal freedom and monogamy were adopted. “It will be an excellent plan if in future parents will consult with their children before betrothing them”, said Bishop Frederick Graves of Shanghai. In effect, my research merely involves what all historians do: to listen carefully to the voices of the past and to present it in a coherent way. A novelty of my research is how the sources are scattered from Lambeth Palace to Lan Kwai Fong (the Sheng Kung Hui archive is just above it!), from Yale Divinity School to Worcester Cathedral Library. It never ceases to amaze me how interconnected the world was in the early twentieth century, especially within the Anglican Communion and how contemporaries understood their place in the world.


For the wider enterprise of historical research, learning about South China Anglican identity enriches one’s understanding of how Hong Kong is best understood in connection with China and with the world. To see things as Chinese Christians and missionaries in the early twentieth century saw them provides a whole new perspective on what Hong Kong was – and is. Equally, a study of South China Anglican identity acts as a regional point of comparison to the growing field of World Christianity, where researchers from around the world go about discovering not only what makes churches worldwide unique, but also what unites them.

Introducing Vivien Chan

We are glad to have Vivien Chan as our contributor this week. Vivien is a design historian based in London. She is currently a PhD candidate on the Cultures of Occupation in Twentieth Century Asia Project at University of Nottingham, and holds an MA in History of Design from the Victoria & Albert Museum/ Royal College of Art. She is also an Ambassador for the Design History Society, and continues her practice as an illustrator/animator/filmmaker. 

My research topic is consumer cultures in Hong Kong New Town public housing estates, 1950s – 1980s, and my PhD is part of the Cultures of Occupation in Twentieth Century Asia Project (COTCA).  Responding to ‘spaces of occupation’, I wanted to explore the public spaces in Hong Kong that encapsulate the mundane and ordinary aspects of life in this period. The 1950s – 1980s in Hong Kong is a time of transformation, known for its miraculous regeneration after the war through the success of its global manufacturing industry, and reconstructing the shape of the urban landscape to accommodate the increasing needs in the city. In other words, Hong Kong was creating and filled with stuff to be bought and sold, but this was mostly for the export market – so then, what was the consumption practices of those living and working in the city? Rather than the malls that dominate the landscape now, local, everyday consumption took place much closer to home. Consumption, in the form of buying newspapers and sweets, meeting friends for tea, picking groceries for dinner, renting mah jong tables, choosing a new pet goldfish from a hawker’s bucket, or celebrating with a family meal, was largely conducted in the neighbourhood, on your journey between home and work. Shops, markets and hawker stalls were intrinsic modes in the community networks of support, and such spaces of consumption would increasingly be designed into later versions of public housing.

Researching this kind of space reveals a different side to the everyday life in Hong Kong. Neither the ‘dangerous’ fictional stories depicted in movies, nor the privileged journal entries of expatriates and elites, exploring the mundane routines and spaces during a period of great change – in values, way of life, moving through the city, in self-identifying – puts the everyday tactics for surviving and thriving in these conditions at centre stage. A huge community of people made the renewed industrialisation and urbanisation physically happen, but yet their role is little found in the history of the city. In the present day, where the nuances in the experience of history are increasingly eliminated or simplified, it is all the more urgent to locate history in the personal and subjective experiences of the city, and re-interpret the histories that have been written. The necessary and continuous negotiation of identity, culture, memory and heritage in the city can be further diversified through these new perspectives on Hong Kong history.

I became interested in this topic during my research street food stalls for my Master’s thesis, ‘Assembling the Dai Pai Dong: Living and Occupying the Street in Hong Kong, 1950s – present’. While I was in Hong Kong conducting research, I discovered that dai pai dong existed in several different structural forms – one of these forms was the dong gu ting, semi-structured stalls that are mostly found at the outskirts of Hong Kong’s urban centres as part of the facilities at public housing estates. Central (socially and architecturally) to the everyday life of working-class people, then isolated in the New Towns, dong gu ting highlighted the dynamic between the regularity of the formalised prefabricated public housing estate and the seemingly chaotic ways that the community used it. No longer simply for food, or a space confined to men, the dong gu ting was, and still is, an extended dining room for familial connection and remembering. Dai pai dong served as an example of how people changed and manipulated the urban landscape, not explicitly as acts of political resistance, but as everyday negotiations of space. With the PhD project on consumer culture, I hope to extend this further into other spatial forms of consumption.

Photo assemblage of Wo Che Estate, Vivien Chan, 2016, photographs author’s own.

Such ephemeral subjects can be difficult to trace in traditional archives. Although with this topic I can access documentation, architectural plans and photographs related to public housing estates and neighbourhoods, an interdisciplinary approach will be necessary to fill in the missing links. In my work on dai pai dong, I relied on oral histories conducted by the Hong Kong Heritage Project and Hong Kong Memory to inform the lived experience of the street. I also used my background in design, as an illustrator/animator/filmmaker, to visualise the space, by using photography to document my ethnographic research in the city. I hope to develop these methodologies in my PhD project to give further spatial depth to the research. Objects are also a really valuable, underused resource in research of Hong Kong. Drawing from my work researching objects at the V&A, using the collections in Hong Kong’s museums could provide the tactile, material elements to the research, where in many cases objects in everyday consumption spaces may no longer exist in their original environments.

An inter-disciplinary approach to history means that I can access subjects that have been overlooked by ‘official’ forms of documentation. As a design historian, I’m looking at things and histories that have always been present, but disregarded – the stories told and object kept by ordinary people (rather than elites) are just as legitimate narratives of life in Hong Kong as those kept in archives, and fundamental to contextualising the socio-political climate of the time. By flipping the weight from macro, and largely colonial, narratives to the microhistories, directly from the voices of those experiencing the city, and the material construction of the city itself, we can tell an alternative history of Hong Kong. Design history has the potential to rewrite the power-hierarchy found in the current historiography, and shape the discourse of what ‘design’ and ‘history’ mean in the city.


Introducing Shuang Wu

Our guest writer this week is Shuang Wu, PhD student at the University of Hong Kong and King’s College, London. Shuang’s research explores lives of Chinese mothers in colonial Hong Kong and the United Kingdom after the Second World War. Here she shares with us how stories told by her grandmother, an illiterate woman born in Shanghai and moved to Hong Kong in the 1950s, inspired her to conduct a research that thinks about migrant mothers and the meaning of ‘motherhood’. She’s also looking for oral history interviewees for her research (details please see below), so do get in touch with her if you or anyone you know would be interested in participating in her fascinating research!

Growing up I never really understood history. History was just stories told to me by my maternal grandmother, Ah Bu. She was a matriarch. An illiterate dragon lady, born in Shanghai during the worst period of prewar political upheaval, and forced into a largely subterranean existence during the Japanese occupation.


Ah Bu traveled across the PRC-Hong Kong border at the age of 18 during the 1950s to marry my Ah Gong, her former next-door neighbour in Shanghai. He had migrated to Hong Kong four years previously and was now working as a mechanic. They were married while my Ah Bu was still referring to him as ‘the guy from next-door’. Even so, my Ah Gong was a romantic. He pawned their wedding bands, gifts from their parents, and bought tickets to the movies. One movie and a dinner later, they were in love. I am still trying to find out the title of that movie. It was a turning point in her life, starting her on a journey that would lead her to become a devoted wife, mother, grandmother, and great grandmother of 23 proud individuals.

Ah Bu and Ah Gong were not alone. As a result of the significant influx of Chinese migrants during the period, a pronounced demographic shift altered family and community dynamics in numerous ways, including the introduction and expansion of new languages, in addition to different provincial cultures, traditions and perspectives. Domestic overcrowding was particularly challenging for migrant mothers and ‘mothers-to-be’ when they first arrived in Hong Kong. During the 1940s and 1950s, wives and mothers continued to be perceived as the main housekeepers of families and primary carers. Consequentially, domestic space became an immediate concern for women, and many families were forced to live in poorly-built squatter settlements. Housing shortages and a lack of income meant that my grandparents survived a largely transient lifestyle on the outskirts of the colony. They lived in houses that were poorly built, with no bathrooms, and nothing but empty space as a sleeping area, as well as a wood stove for cooking. Since my Ah Gong was always busy at work, it became my Ah Bu’s duty to undertake all childcare and domestic responsibilities.

As there were no bathrooms, Ah Bu would be in charge of emptying the night soil. There were also no electricity or running water, so she would have to fetch water everyday, from a communal tap on the other side of the settlement, making at least ten trips a day to cater for the entire family. The rural setting of their new home meant there were always various insects and animals in close proximity. She fought off rats, red ants, and even deadly snakes in her own home. At one point, she defeated a five-inch centipede with only a pair of chopsticks! While women ruled the domestic space, the term ‘domestic’ is perhaps misleading as it was necessary for women to move outside of the home, to the market for food or other locations for household goods, in order to perform their duties as wives and mothers. Such activities portray the reality of a paradoxical domesticity, and a focus on mothers’ roles reveals the challenges and triumphs of everyday life.

Ah Bu did not find her daily activities easy. Born and raised as the closet daughter of an affluent Shanghai family, she spoke no Cantonese and found it extremely difficult to communicate with anyone who were not Shanghainese, causing her to be bullied by vendors at the market. As she was illiterate, she could not read any of the price tags or names of products at any of the stores. As she was uneducated, she had to learn from the very beginning on how to do mathematics so that she could help Ah Gong manage the books of the family finance. Ah Bu’s perseverance, in the face of this grueling start, led her and became the resilient old lady I know today.

Many female migrants shared similar recollections to those of my Ah Bu during the interviews I conducted as part of my initial PhD research. During the 1950s, many women, wives and mothers crossed the border from the Mainland to Hong Kong. It was also the first time that female migrants had the ability to move between the borders of the Mainland to Hong Kong as independents, unlike Chinese women in prewar Hong Kong, who were made of largely trafficked female labour, working as prostitutes or mui tsais. Consequently, the narratives of mothers are of particular significance as they allow a deeper understanding of what life was like for citizens in the colony. Migrant mothers provide the private side of a very public act, since mothers’ domestic activities took them beyond the boundaries of the inner quarters, revealing the challenges and triumphs of everyday life.

The use of oral testimony in exploring the meaning of ‘motherhood’ in my current work is essential, as women, especially mothers, are often neglected in official documentation due to prioritisation of men in history and society, as well as the fact that many women were illiterate. Chinese migration stories are also often focused on male ‘sojourner’ stories. In addition, the female presence in state-controlled press was very limited, and the personal lives of women only appeared in the press or official reports and documents when they touched on areas of concern to the government. Since my PhD examines the rights, health, legal position and daily lives of Chinese motherhood in colonial Hong Kong and the United Kingdom, many of whom were migrants from Mainland China in the postwar period. As such, oral testimonies are an important way to bridge the gap between state recognition of mothers’ lives, ideals and representations. Yet, at the same time, uncover the private lives and feelings of mothers.

The purpose of this study is to address the experiences of Chinese migrant mothers, as well as female historical experiences, during the 1940s to 1970s in colonial Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. I would love to hear from you if you, or your family and friends, know anything about migrant mothers in the two locations during the proposed time period. If you have any questions about my research project, please also feel free to contact me via I sincerely look forward to hearing from you!

Introducing Luca Yau

Our guest writer this week is Luca Yau, who’s set to start her PhD at Trinity College Dublin in March 2019. During her MPhil study at Lingnan University, Luca explored the representations and self-representations of Hakka women since the mid-nineteenth century.

I was born and raised in a Hakka family, a group whose ethnicity has become marginalized and increasingly unseen in the process of rapid urbanization in the post-war period. In the 1970s, the British colonial government mandated the teaching medium of Hong Kong to be Cantonese, with the result that the Hakka dialect has been dying out over decades, losing its voice almost without a murmur. The number of Hakka speakers has declined to a worrying level, with less than 1% of the population over the age of 30 being able to speak the dialect. It was once one of the major dialects of Hong Kong in the pre-WWII period.

Having grown up in a Cantonese-dominated society, my Hakka identity has been always invisible outside of my family sphere, giving me multiple identities in terms of ethnicity. Being different from the Cantonese majority, questions on what constitutes one’s identity have often come to my mind. This notion has also shaped my curiosity towards the transformation of Hakka identity in Hong Kong, and ultimately inspired the questions that would define the research I pursued for my MPhil degree.

In my research, I worked on the representations and self-representations of Hakka women, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. The first challenge I encountered in my MPhil studies was the challenge inherent in seeking a standard definition of who, or what, constitutes Hakka. This most elementary of questions has long proven to be a stumbling block for scholars who have endeavored to give a solid definition of what it means to be a Hakka. But such efforts of definition are fraught, when their validity can be so undermined by the consideration of any of the numerous counter examples which challenge any fixed criteria of Hakka identity. I later came to realize that the identity itself is fluid, floating, and extremely changeable. It is not scientifically practical to seek to define a group which is in fact ethnically undefinable; rather, Hakka identity has been historically constructed in different contexts.

Images of Hakka women have tended to appear as very vibrant in historical discourses, museum representations, and the ongoing Hakka projects of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). The very first Chinese historical writing on Hakka women emerged in the context of the Hakka people competing for scarce resources with the Punti people (Native Cantonese) in the early 19th century. The population had doubled between 1650 and 1800. When the relations between Hakka and Punti became tense, Hakka women were singled out for comparison with Punti women, receiving constant compliments – for having unbound feet, being hygienic, hardworking, and independent – representations which have acted to effectively constitute the characteristics of Hakka women, adding a layer of perceived glory to Hakka identity. I was intrigued by the vigorous images of Hakka women, produced as they were in what was a significantly patriarchal society at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and the fact that such images have been able to survive through the centuries, such that you can still see them predominating in the exhibitions of the Hong Kong History Museum and in the promotion of ICH on Hakka items.

Had a casual conversation with a Punti woman speaking Weitou dialect (a branch of Cantonese) in the Northern New Territeries on 15 August, 2014. Photo Courtesy of John Choy.

To examine the ways in which Hakka women have been represented, and how they have created self-representations, in museums and in the trend of intangible cultural heritage preservation, entails the employment of anthropological methodologies to enable critical access to the thoughts of Hakka women, to contextualise observations on how they are represented and how they have been given space to make their own self-representations. I was very fortunate to get to know several of the major practitioners of Hakka patterned band weaving in Hong Kong, including Tsui Yuet-ching and Choi Ching-mui, who were both invited to present their cultural practices in different kinds of media. Under the wave of intangible cultural heritage preservation, they have been afforded the chance to empower themselves and to make a voice on behalf of Hakka women.

I conducted interviews with them and attended the talks and lectures that they offered to the public, the analysis and contextualization of which comprised a significant part of my research findings. In their genuine and forthright spirit of sharing, it can be seen that, even in a patriarchal society, women have had their own ability and space to express themselves and to create their own cultures through Hakka mountain songs and patterned bands in the past. In recent years, Hakka women have been enjoying the spotlight in exhibitions and activities at the center of the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage in the public sphere, whilst Hakka men worked behind the scene to preserve Hakka culture, receiving comparatively little attention for their contributions and being unseen in the media coverage. This fact has reminded me to adopt, and to ensure, a more balanced lens in looking at the gender roles between Hakka women and men.

My interviewee, Choi Ching-mui was putting a Hakka patterned band on me at her home in Sha Tin on 20 January 2016. Photo courtesy of Hulu Culture.

I enjoyed the privilege of conducting interviews with the representatives of Hakka women who have endeavored to promote and preserve Hakka culture. They are happy to speak Hakka and share their past and thoughts on safeguarding Hakka culture. When we speak the same dialect, we feel as though we are culturally connected. My Hakka background has enabled me to make interpretations and observations of how they make sense of their identity, and of the revitalization of Hakka culture. My interviewees are very proud of being Hakka – in doing so, they have echoed many of the historical discourses on the Hakka people, and particularly on Hakka women, illuminating the extent to which essentialised views of Hakka women have been inherited. These are products of a historically constructed identity.



The diversity that we see in Hong Kong today is mostly based on the categorization of a territory in which Chinese ethnicities have become almost invisible, as the majority of the population either speaks Cantonese or Mandarin. The various ethnic groups have become homogenized into one all-encompassing Chinese identity, one which overlooks, and forgets, the diversity that previously existed among the Chinese of Hong Kong, and the position that ethnicity once held in defining communities and identity. Further study on ethnicity is needed in order to achieve a fresh understanding of the impacts of colonial policy on the New Territories. The interactions between the ethnic groups, the changing boundaries of ethnicity, the lines between rural and urban, the impacts of urbanization on ethnic merging, and the differences of gender roles between villages and estates. Consideration of these factors offers a window into a little understood aspect of the city’s history, allowing for a more complete picture of Hong Kong history to emerge in the historical record, and for posterity.

Introducing Chi Chi Huang

Our guest writer this week is Chi Chi Huang, who recently finished her PhD at the University of Hong Kong. (Congrats Dr. Huang!) By incorporating archival research and the study of visual culture into her project, Chi Chi’s research explores how British popular culture imagined Hong Kong in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. Here’s Chi Chi telling us how memories of her trips to Hong Kong as a kid influenced the direction of her research. 

I was so excited for my first trip overseas. Mum packed a little goodie bag for me with a tube of Fruit Tingles (a real treat) and Pak Fah Yeow (白花油) (in case I felt sick). I had just turned six, I was going to Guangzhou via Hong Kong for the very first time since I migrated to Australia at the age of two. The trip started with a small hiccup – a delightful detainment at Hong Kong Immigration and Customs where I experienced two firsts in my life. I, (well my father on my behalf), applied for my first individual passport because my previous one was attached to my mother’s, hence the hiccup. And I experienced my first nosebleed. My Uncle swiftly came down from Guangzhou with copies of various documents demonstrating that I was, in fact, “Dao Zi Huang”, the name only my doctor would use. Soon enough, or soon enough in my memory, we were all skipping along on our merry way to Guangzhou.

My second trip to Guangzhou via Hong Kong lives in my memory with less enthusiasm. I was about nine and the previous year, I watched the Handover ceremony on television with utter confusion as to how one country in the first instance could rent a section of another country like you would an apartment or car. This time, the distance between Hong Kong and Guangzhou seemed further apart and littered with more barriers and checkpoints. I think this memory is less a comment of the changes that took place after the Handover, rather a reflection of the things I chose to pay attention to as a kid. In any case, I was not impressed. I simply could not understand why it was so hard to move around Canton!

These trips shaped my curiosity towards the city and ultimately the questions I asked in my PhD research. I grew up thinking of Hong Kong and Guangzhou as more or less one entity because, in my mind, everyone spoke Cantonese, enjoyed steamed fish with abandon, and ate wonton noodles. Once I started to grasp the concept of politics and diplomacy, I started to notice the differences between the two cities. When I was proposing a research topic, I was intrigued by what my friends knew and thought of Hong Kong and China, which seemed to mirror my own initial understanding. This led me to think about how cities shift in ones’ perception through experiences and exposure. Extrapolating from this, I began my research with the question “How did Britain perceive Hong Kong in the early colonial period, and how did this change over time?” Inevitably, this topic was too large, and I refined my core question to “In what ways was Hong Kong made to matter to Britain?”

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the colony of Hong Kong had no discernible product or produce that was a quotidian feature of home life in Britain. The population in Hong Kong, whilst Chinese, wasn’t considered necessarily as intriguing as the more “authentic” visions that could be found just a few hours north of the colony. Hong Kong, however, was far from absent in British popular culture. In the various iterations of this public space, Hong Kong slowly morphed into a tropical ideal, in its geographical position, physical features, and social offerings. These ideals were, of course, in constant tension with colonial anxieties. But it is exactly in this tension that the value of Hong Kong as understood by individuals, scientists, merchants, and the colonial administration was expressed.

One of the postcards that Chi Chi used in her research. (Hong Kong Pavillion at the British Empire Exhibition, Postcard, Fleetway Press Ltd., 1924)

I am now contemplating how to turn my thesis into a book and I find myself wandering back to those memories and to the time when I conflated ideas of Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Before the outbreak of the war in the Pacific, Hong Kong was often talked about in relation to Canton, Macau, Singapore, Shanghai, Calcutta, Scotland, and even Budapest. Some of these connections are more obvious than the others, but it speaks to the malleability of how Hong Kong was perceived by the British. Perhaps the city’s current brand as “Asia’s World City” holds some historical truth, as Hong Kong refracted visions, aspirations, and concerns from across the globe.