Debating Race, Class and Gender in Empire

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By Vaudine England

Thinking about race has changed over the decades and centuries, as have definitions of racism, or what constitutes a race as opposed to class, and what is class anyway. The definitional challenges multiply when gender is also considered. Modern historians are sometimes hard-pressed to understand the attitudes held by actors in colonial history. Our own often untested assumptions get in the way. These are so far removed from the thinking of those who, for example, settled in Hong Kong in the 1840s, that it is easy to castigate their actions as ‘racist’ – another word with a meaning different now to what it was then. Without excusing acts which discriminated on the basis of race or colour, such assumptions impede proper knowledge of what those men of the 1840s were thinking. Our political correctness gets in the way of comprehending their realities.

Take as one example, the Hon. C. G. Alabaster (OBE and Member of LegCo) who, amongst other things, wrote ‘Some Observations on Race Mixture in Hong Kong’. In just two pages in the Eugenics Review, he noted the difficulties in classification of racial groups, describing Eurasians before 1911 as falling into roughly three groups – Portuguese, Chinese or British. Where they fell depended on dress, education, occupation and least of all on admixtures of actual blood. After 1911, he believed, rising Chinese nationalism and the greater education of more Chinese in Hong Kong would change definitions radically, faster. That conclusion was not wrong but some of his language in getting there might repel.

The interesting point for modern students of Hong Kong history is that the subject of race has rarely been tackled in a systematic way. Other colonies and their imperial metropoles have produced reams of scholarly debate on the various racial and other groups within the colony, the treatment they received from their rulers, what rules and taboos existed that governed daily lives in often unexamined but hugely discriminatory ways, and, what was the fate of those people who crossed the taboos.

The Dutch, for example, have a rich culture of research, debate and publication on the Indos – the mixed-race or mixed-culture product of the union between Dutch and Indonesians. Scholars have looked deep into the status of ‘natives’, Europeans, and those who in some way mixed the two. One point to come clear is that race, in such contexts is not about blood. Many entirely white Dutch people became classified as ‘Indos’ for living in a ‘native’ way, speaking the local language and living with a local partner. Perceptions of a racial category often relied on things that were not racial at all, but were about language, dress, behaviour, and class.

In British empire studies, fleeting attention has been paid to non-Britishness, but largely only to Anglo-Indians. Here too, that definition includes generations of ‘white’ people who have made their life in India, whether they have actually procreated to produce mixed-blood offspring. But British scholarship has, compared to the Dutch, largely ignored their transgressors, those who are in some way what we might call “Eurasian”.

This matters in Hong Kong because there is almost no historical attention paid to what is perhaps the most important factor in making Hong Kong the cosmopolitan society it is today. If one holds that it’s the mixing that made it, that it is the conjunction of east and west in myriad forms that makes Hong Kong a distinct and special place, then this is a major gap.

As in other empires, such study requires a confrontation with past taboos, many of which are still held today, most strongly by the victims of them. While it might be fashionable today to be Eurasian – the mixed-race ‘look’ is highly prized in advertising, film and beyond – in the nineteenth century it was almost invariably a source of shame. We can generalize and say the British empire worked on assumptions of racial superiority which in turn demanded racial definitions which, born from insecurity, were far more restrictive in peripheral areas (such as Hong Kong) than Britain’s past as an open and oft-invaded populace would suggest. See the rare use of the term “Eurasian” in the India Papers referenced in Chapter 7, where the author notes that British attitudes were odd, given they themselves were hybrids. In Hong Kong, the earliest example of racial conflict within the British establishment occurred in the case of the Government Interpreter, Daniel Caldwell. He was a valuable civil servant thanks to his proficiency in Cantonese, Hindustani, Malay and more. Yet he married his Chinese wife, was friends with many Chinese (including a notorious pirate) and so was eventually disgraced ‘for being too close to the Chinese’.

Analysis of race in Hong Kong history has yet to be done and integral to it must be an attempt to define class distinctions which were often more significant. A review of literature done on other colonies helps pose some of the questions that should be asked here: what exactly were the marriage laws, the prescriptions, the taboos; who exactly benefitted/was punished by racial restrictions, or was it tougher to be a Poor White than a rich Indian; were these limits imposed by ideas of race or of class; why could all races mix happily at the Races but could not join the same recreational clubs; and where does class come in? Poor people of all races mixed closely at the raunchy bars of Taipingshan. Wealthy Parsees and other Indians mixed socially with Europeans, and the business community was racially mixed; only the top of colonial government was strictly British. Nineteenth century chroniclers talked more of ‘classes’ in Hong Kong, not ‘races’, which may be more accurate. More work is needed.



Allen, Theodore. The Invention of the White Race. London: Verso, 1994/7.

Ballantyne, Tony. Orientalism and Race: Aryanism in the British Empire. Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies Series, Palgrave, 2001.

‪Part of the ‘new imperial history’ tradition of scholarship that sees colonialism as a cultural undertaking as well as a political and economic project, Ballantyne suggests the structure of British empire was like a web, with ‘vertical’ connections developing between Britain and its colonies and ‘horizontal’ connections linking various colonies directly. His writings have addressed a range of issues, including the place of race and religion in cross-cultural history. Ballantyne pursues the Orientalism of Edward Said, traces the migration of evolving concepts of ‘Aryanism’, and sees colonies as powerful intellectual frontiers, ‘where new identities and social formation’ grew from the ‘intellectual engagement and innovation’.

Ballantyne, Tony and Antoinette Burton, eds. Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History. Durham North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2005. An important contribution to world history, highlighting the centrality of race and gender in cross-cultural encounters.

Ballantyne, Tony. Between Colonialism and Diaspora: Sikh Cultural Formations in an Imperial World.  Duke University Press, 2006.

Ballantyne, Tony. Moving Subjects: Gender, Mobility, and Intimacy in an Age of Global Empire. Co-editor. University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Ballantyne, Tony. Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s Colonial Past. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2012.

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Horne, Gerald. Race War! White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire. New York: New York University, 2004. This argues that European racism and colonialism were deftly exploited by the Japanese to create allies among formerly colonized people of colour, turning white racism on its head. His focus, unusually, is on Hong Kong, whose war history he rewrites rather dramatically. His understanding of race is clearly born out of the American black struggle, which might lack relevance to the more nuanced and compromising set of relationships and collaborations that existed in pre-war colonial Hong Kong. He brings in Black Nationalist support of Imperial Japan, and claims connections between General Tojo, Malaysian freedom fighters, and Elijah Muhammed of the Nation of Islam. HOWEVER, a powerful riposte to many of Horne’s assumptions and ideas can be found in the blog by Brian Edgar, product of a Hong Kong Eurasian family:

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Volume 1 | Volume 2

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Volume 1 | Volume 2

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