by an anonymous contributor

With the burden of the family research now in my hands, I decided I would put an enquiry about our family on the Hong Kong Genealogical Forum

Within 24 hours I had a reply from a totally unknown, distant cousin. It turned out that our respective branches of the family had fallen out with each other in Hong Kong and remained out of contact. This cousin believed that we shared a Chinese great-grandmother – a complete shock to me. He also had a different first name for our joint great-grandfather, than the one I had been told by my father.

My biggest disadvantage was that I had never been to Hong Kong. I decided I must go and walk the streets where our family homes had been. Of course, when it came down to it, all the numbering had changed and our family houses had been replaced by blocks of flats, but I had news of my grandfather’s last house, which had been used as a mess for Japanese officers. In the 1950s the neighbouring British children called it their “Castle” and used to pretend to bomb each other with stones down the chimney. The house survived until about 1960.

I decided to apply in person for a search of my grandmother’s birth and death certificates, for I had no idea of her birth or death dates. I have found that personal applications, or at least collection of the certificates in person, mean that errors can be sorted out on the spot.  Online applications for searches for births and deaths via the Hong Kong Government Offices site are advertised, but my own attempts to fill in the form have always failed. A telephone number is required, but a UK number seems to crash the form. It used not to be possible to pay by credit card. I’m not sure if this has changed.  Latterly I found it easier to download and print the application forms and send the appropriate bankers draft. A “Particular Search” can be carried out if you know the approximate date of the birth, death or marriage. Officially, a search will be carried out for the period two years either side of the specified date on the form. The current cost for a “Particular Search” is HK$140. A “General Search,” if the date is unknown, costs HK$360. The latter search may take several months. The search result will be returned as either positive or negative, but without any details. If positive, another payment is required for supplying a copy of the relevant certificate. I have three times challenged negative returns. On one occasion, my application giving the first name and surname alone brought a negative result, but when I suggested there might be a second given name, the result was returned positive. On another occasion when I challenged a negative return on a birth registration, the date in the register turned out to differ from the one that I had copied from the gravestone by only a single day. So much for assurances about searching within five years of the specified date!

I have now visited the crowded “Births, Marriages & Deaths” floor of the Immigration Department at Low Block, 66 Queensway in Hong Kong many times. On the first occasion, I applied for “General Searches” for both my grandmother’s birth certificate and death certificate. I was asked to supply a bankers draft for HK$720, but a more senior official finally agreed to accept cash when I couldn’t find a proper bank nearby. There was no record in Hong Kong of my grandmother’s death certificate, but after two months a positive result was returned for her birth certificate, for which I was invited to apply with a bankers draft for HK$140. Another surprise: my great-grandmother’s name was quite a different Chinese name to that of my cousin’s, and not the English one given to me by my father. My great-grandfather had therefore had children by two different Chinese women. From his first union, my grandmother was the only child to have survived. She was then brought up by my great-grandfather’s second Chinese wife, together with four younger step-siblings.

My subsequent search for my grandparents’ marriage certificate resulted negative and so did my cousin’s for our joint great-grandfather’s. There was no legal requirement to register marriages centrally, so records for marriages and baptisms were held at the churches where they took place. Many of these records were destroyed during World War 2. My grandmother would have needed a passport for pre-war evacuation to Australia, however, and a marriage certificate validating her married name would have been necessary. A passport photo of her still exists, so we know that she at least had a passport. Passenger lists also show her travelling between Hong Kong and England via Canada.

Screenshot of the St John’s Cathedral Records page on by Vivian Kong

The St John’s Cathedral records of marriages, baptisms and funerals 1897-1937 have been published on although there are some gaps in the years. These were copied by a Gwulo contributor from the St John’s Cathedral Notes, held in the Public Records Office [PRO]. I was granted permission to consult the missing numbers that are relevant to my family but only in person. The PRO staff are not permitted to carry out research for enquirers – only to photocopy the documents applied for in their entirety. I was looking for the baptism and funeral of my grandparents’ first child and for a record of their wedding and had identified five church records covering the three years concerned. The five booklets came to 644 pages for which the PRO quoted me HK$1,352. 40 photocopying charge. Only one page turned out to be relevant to my family. Two of the booklets were duplicates, but with a different class mark. Would it really have been an infringement of the rules to tell me that?

Another mystery has been my grandfather’s conversion to the Catholic faith in the wake of his first child’s death. As with my grandparents’ marriage, I have been unable to find that child’s baptism, which cannot have been in St John’s. There were several less prestigious churches than St John’s that I have approached, but whose records were destroyed in WW2. This search has been one of my failures. The records of the Catholic baptisms of my grandparents’ four subsequent children have been preserved. For Catholic baptisms I have had generous help from the Catholic Church Archivists who kindly consulted the Diocesan records for me and who can be contacted at

The London Missionary Society’s handwritten register of baptisms within the Chinese congregation is held by the library of the Hong Kong Baptist University. Applications can be made to borrow it via the inter-library loan system. A Hong Kong contact generously did this on my behalf and found the entry for the baptism of my grandmother’s Chinese stepmother, described as having five children. The children had probably been baptised as babies, but not in St John’s, whose records are among the very few to have survived World War 2.

‘All Roads Lead to Hong Kong: Paths to Becoming a Hong Kong Historian’ Roundtable Discussion

We are delighted to announce that, with HKU History Department, we will co-host a public roundtable entitled “All Roads Lead to Hong Kong: Paths to Becoming a Hong Kong Historian’ on the evening of June 5 at the University of Hong Kong. Four historians at different stages of their careers will share with us their experience of establishing an academic career with a research focus on Hong Kong.
After the roundtable, we will also launch the ‘Hong Kong Through the Lens: Historical Photographs of Hong Kong’ Exhibition. The exhibition features a collection of photos taken by a Scottish vet Francis Davidson, who worked for the Dairy Farm in Pokfulam in the early 1920s.
These events are free of charge and open to the public. For more details and registration, see:

Guest writer: ‘Researching my Hong Kong family’s past: A fourteen-year quest’ [Part 1]

(Part 1)

by an anonymous contributor

Vivian Kong has asked me to share my experience of researching my Hong Kong family’s past. As a graduate of Bristol University, I am more than happy to contribute to the Hong Kong History Project. My BA was in modern languages and my later PhD was in French. Eventually, with two published books, including a critical biography under my belt, I hoped that my academic training, despite not being in South East Asian Studies, would help me in the task of constructing a biography of my Hong Kong family. In the past fourteen years, I have had failures as well as successes and the failures will be a part of my story. Here I am going to set out some of the resources I have used in the hope that they will help other people. As websites improve, the element of human interface with Hong Kong officialdom – simple willingness to help – is deteriorating. It is important not to be deterred by that.

Family members, who could provide the richest vein of information, may prove impossible to unlock. If there is information that they wish to hide, they may refuse to share their memories. Because my father refused to discuss his Hong Kong past, I did not start my search until after his death. I was already in my forties before an older cousin, who had likewise waited until his parents were dead, made a start on our family history and asked me to review what he had written.

Four generations of our family lived in Hong Kong from 1866-1941, but were not spoken of. My generation only knew about our English grandfather, ninth child of a working class Northamptonshire family, who had arrived in Hong Kong 1895. We also knew that he had become an architect and created a successful business in Hong Kong, making enough money to build a magnificent house overlooking the Happy Valley racecourse. The story was that he had lost his fortune and that this loss had led to his premature death at the age of fifty-one. What we did not know was that our grandfather had married a seventeen year-old Eurasian girl, eldest daughter of a tavern keeper by his first Chinese wife (our great-grandmother). This is the secret that his children, including my father, successfully concealed. He and his brother and sister all married English spouses in England and revealed nothing to their children about their Eurasian heritage.

Racecourse, Happy Valley, Hong Kong, c.1890.
University of Bristol – Historical Photographs of China reference number: Bk09-29. Source: ‘Picturesque Hong Kong’ (Ye Olde Printerie Ltd., Hong Kong), c.1925.


Family research is a mixture of tedious work and chance. In my teens, I had asked my father to draw me a family tree.[1] Thus I knew the name of his mother, whom I always imagined had died young. Imagine my shock, when, aged fifteen, I received a memorandum recording a recent payment by my father to an Australian nursing home in her name, mistakenly enclosed in my parents’ weekly letter to me at my English boarding school. I returned it in my own next letter home, but my parents lived far away in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) and I received no further explanation from them. I recorded the event in my 5-year diary and tucked it away in the back of my mind.

In 2004 my older cousin unexpectedly died, but not before sending each of his three surviving cousins, myself included, a typescript of his painstaking work, to which we had each contributed the meagre facts passed on to us by our parents.  After retiring from his job, my cousin, had begun by going through the copies of the South China Morning Post held by the British Library on microfiche (now microfilm). These give lists of passengers arriving and departing Hong Kong; weddings; obituaries; funerals; court cases; company advertisements; and lists of winners of sporting events. The British Library also holds the Ladies Directory of Hong Kong 1904-06. A supplement of the China Directory, it gives the residential addresses of the wives of all the Europeans living in Hong Kong. This can now be cross-checked against the Jury Lists partially published online by Gwulo and also available from the online Hong Kong Government Reports. The Government Reports also provide a wealth of information via a name search, if your relative had any official position whatsoever. It is easier to search for a man than a woman and, apart from three addresses listed against her name in the Ladies Directories, we found no information about our grandmother.

Screenshot of the Jurors List page on by Vivian Kong


Screenshot of Hong Kong Government Reports Online (1842-1941) by Vivian Kong

[1] He gave me a false English name for his Chinese grandmother. It is therefore advisable to use or for a more accurate account of descent.

HKHP Conference: Draft Programme and Registration

We are excited to announce that registration for our ‘“All Roads Lead to Hong Kong”: People, City, Empires’ conference is now open here. The conference will take place at the University of Hong Kong on 6-7 June. We welcome any colleagues, students, and members of the public who are interested in Hong Kong history to join us at the conference. Conference fees for non-speakers are £50 for both days, or £25 for one day (Please note that the option for ‘funded registration’ is only for HKU & University of Bristol students, as well as speakers who received HKHP travel bursaries). A draft programme (as of April 18) is available for your reference.

We are also delighted to announce that, with the HKU Department of History, we will host a public roundtable on the evening of June 5 entitled “All Roads Lead to Hong Kong: Paths to Becoming a Hong Kong Historian’. Four historians at different stages of their careers, Catherine Chan, Elizabeth Sinn, John Wong, and Ray Yep will share with us their experience of establishing an academic career with a research focus on Hong Kong. This event is free of charge and open to the public. More details and registration for the event will be available soon.

We look forward to welcoming you to Hong Kong in June.  In the meantime, do get in touch with us at if you have any questions.

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.



CFP: HKHP Postgraduate Workshop, ‘Hong Kong and Beyond: Mapping the City’s Networks’, January 2019.

Call for Papers
Hong Kong History Project Post-Graduate Workshop
University of Bristol, January 2019

‘Hong Kong and Beyond: Mapping the City’s Networks’

The Hong Kong History Project at the University of Bristol is pleased to announce its third Postgraduate Workshop, which will take place on January 14-15, 2019, and which provides an opportunity to network and the share ideas. We welcome proposals for participation from postgraduate students and early career scholars working on Hong Kong history and related disciplines in the UK and overseas. This year we are looking to explore the transnational contexts of Hong Kong’s history. We seek proposals for 20 minute presentations on current research that can address this broad theme from any angle, and which relate to the wider political, social, cultural, and commercial networks that have helped shape Hong Kong’s history. Presentations will be organized into small panels, followed by question and answer sessions.

Candidates are invited to submit a 200-word statement briefly outlining their area of research and motivation for attending the workshop, along with their Curriculum Vitae. Please submit all applications to Jason Chu ( and Thomas Larkin ( by November 26, 2018. Accepted participants will be notified by December 3, 2018. Two nights’ accommodation in Bristol and some meals will be provided. Although priority will be given to history postgraduate students and recently completed PhDs, applications from other disciplines will be considered provided an appreciation of history is shown.

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!

[HKHP 2019 Conference CFP] “All Roads Lead to Hong Kong”: People, City, Empires

“All Roads Lead to Hong Kong”: People, City, Empires
Hong Kong History Project Conference

6-7 June 2019, University of Hong Kong

Keynote speaker: Henry Yu, Associate Professor, Department of History, University of British Columbia

Ellen Thorbecke, Hong Kong (Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1938).

Under the auspices of the ‘Hong Kong History Project’, the Departments of History at the University of Bristol and the University of Hong Kong are jointly organizing a two-day international conference at the University of Hong Kong on 6-7 June 2019. Hong Kong has been described as its own cultural-historical place at the edge of the Chinese and British empires, and as an ‘in-between place’. But can we also consider Hong Kong beyond the edge of these two empires and as more than an in-between place? Our aim is to encourage work that will consider the city’s history within a global framework that includes, but is not restricted to, networks of people, goods, communications, ideas and culture.

The conference aims to enrich discussions on the connections between Hong Kong and the world by drawing together international scholars and students to share their research on the history of this city and its people, and to encourage participants to consider the city’s history within a global framework. We welcome papers exploring a range of themes and approaches relating to Hong Kong and its wider networks, including its diaspora in a historical perspective. We also encourage proposals for panel sessions of three papers.

Specific conference themes to be explored may include:

  • Migration, communities, and diasporas
  • Environmental history
  • Culture, identity, and belonging
  • Colonialism and post-colonialism
  • Hong Kong’s international relations
  • Globalisation
  • Mobilities, transnational spaces, and port cities
  • Modernity and cosmopolitanism
  • Hong Kong’s economic transitions

Proposals are invited for individual papers of 20 minutes, or for panels including three such papers. To submit a proposal for consideration, send an abstract of 300 words (maximum) and 1-page cv by 5 January 2019 to Accepted participants will be notified by January 30.

We expect to be able to make a significant contribution to the expenses incurred for participants to attend the conference. Additionally, a  limited number of travel bursaries will be available to postgraduate students and ECRs. To be considered, please submit with your application a short statement outlining your research interests, purpose in attending the conference, an estimated budget of expenses, and availability of funding from your institution.

Conference Committee
Robert Bickers, University of Bristol
John Carroll, University of Hong Kong
Vivian Kong, University of Bristol
Nathan Kwan, University of Hong Kong & King’s College, London
Joyce Lau, University of Hong Kong
Chris Wemyss, University of Bristol

The conference is funded by the University of Bristol’s ‘Hong Kong History Project’ and the Faculty of Arts, University of Hong Kong.


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.


Introducing Reynold Tsang

This week our guest writer is Reynold Tsang, MPhil student at the University of Hong Kong. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Reynold shares with us his research on the development of museums in late colonial Hong Kong, and how such research informs us about various aspects of the city’s history.


Thanks to the colourful history comic books from public libraries and various historically themed video games, I developed my interest in history at the very early stage of my life. I received my BA degree at HKU, and naturally picked History as my major. I did not have any specific research interest at first, but I was gradually attracted to Hong Kong history and history of colonialism by the end of my undergraduate study. I was born and raised in Hong Kong. As a Hongkonger, I am eager to learn more about the place I call home and love. I also feel the obligation to record the history of the city before part of it was lost or being forgotten. My interest in colonial history grew from my study of Hong Kong’s colonial past.

Apart from being a history lover, I am also a big fan of museums. So, I wrote about the development of museums in late colonial Hong Kong for my undergraduate dissertation. I later noticed that this topic has been overlooked by historians and there is much more to investigate. I therefore decided to continue my “unfinished” work on museums in late colonial Hong Kong in a more comprehensive manner in my MPhil study.

My study will span from the 1930s to the 1990s, covering the death, rebirth, and growth of museums in Hong Kong. I seek to answer three major questions in my study. First, how did the colonial government and the Urban Council direct museum development? Second, what were displayed or presented in the museums and why were they chosen? Third, what influences did museums bring to the community and how they interacted with each other? I will utilize different sources from various archives, including government documents, minutes and working papers of the Urban Council and the Hong Kong Legislative Council, English and Chinese newspapers, brochures and other publications of museums, guidebooks and other promotional materials for tourists.

Museum history may seem trivial, but it can shed light on different themes and issues in Hong Kong history. For example, by studying the planning and directions of museum services, we can learn about the cultural policies of the colonial authorities, which give us insights on the colonial administration of Hong Kong; by examining the collections and contents of museums, we can identify what kinds of “knowledge” and “facts” were the colonial authorities trying to convey to the public, thus revealing the hidden political or cultural agenda of the colonial authorities. Museums are also highly related to arts and culture, education and tourism. With connections to various aspects of society, museum history offers us a new perspective to look at the history of colonial Hong Kong.