Introduction/Historiography to Date

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By Vaudine England


Biographers like to say that the most formative period in a person’s life is that from late teenage into adulthood, roughly from 17 to 21 years of age. Post-British Hong Kong is just turning 18 years old. Current politics swirls around defining what Hong Kong is. Some argue that it always was and so must be a Chinese city. While few doubt its future lies close to China, degrees of attraction/integration/differentiation are hot topics. Others note Hong Kong never was ‘just’ a Chinese city but rather the special product of a mixture of Global, Asian, European and Chinese influences. Fighting the orthodoxies of both British and Chinese versions of political correctness, many Hong Kongers will argue that its history makes Hong Kong special, and thus unable to ever be other than itself. Historians are looking anew at what made Hong Kong; their new perspectives contribute to debate about what it is becoming.

The formal task of the Hong Kong History Project ( includes the offer and administration of PhD or post-doctoral research. In addition, two international conferences a year will tackle themes of Hong Kong history. The context for this work is that there has, of course, been a lot of research and writing on Hong Kong but, at the same time, not a clear enough focus on some issues. These include, but are not confined to, the role of families in the making of Hong Kong society, the interplay of race and class in making Hong Kong what it is today, and the idea that despite the divisions inherent in a colonial society, there was also mixing across taboos and boundaries. That mixing, or interaction, or encounter, is worthy of further study as it helps to explain the distinctness of Hong Kong today. Through its flows of people, trade, and ideas, Hong Kong’s unique place in patterns of globalization – not just on the edge of China but in South East Asia and so to the West – can also be explored.

Hong Kong’s history is full of stories of amazing characters and fascinating families, and a much richer inter-weaving of varied communities than has hitherto been told. Far from being simply a Chinese city oppressed by British empire, or a benign imperial triumph based on Western ideals, Hong Kong has a much richer, more complex cosmopolitan past. Families came from all over the world, from Baghdad and Guangzhou, Liverpool and Calcutta and beyond. These new arrivals – Chinese, British, Eurasian, Jew, Armenian, Parsee, rich and poor – built their own communities and interacted with each other to get ahead. How they found power and influence, formed companies, emigrated and returned, acted as middlemen or worked in government, built schools and hospitals and charities – all this created the Hong Kong of today.



In the Introduction to his important book, Anglo-China, Christopher Munn outlines the broad range of approaches to Hong Kong history so far. [See: Munn, Christopher. Anglo-China – Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong, 1841-1880. First published by Curzon Press in 2001. This edition: Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009, pp 1-18.]

John Carroll [See: Carroll, John M. A Concise History of Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007, pp 1-7.] points out that Hong Kong has been overlooked for far too long – students of British empire focused on India or Africa; Chinese scholars either ignored the place or held only negative views of it.

I would add that precisely because Hong Kong’s history, existence and character so clearly defy traditional boundaries of nation-states, it has fallen through the cracks of conventional studies. Yet Hong Kong’s importance cannot be gainsaid. It has been ‘China’s most critical link to the rest of the world since the Silk Road and the Mongols,’ notes Carroll. More, its peoples, geography and colonial rule have made it a central lynch-pin for the wider region. Only by looking closely at the affinities as well as difference, the genuine collaboration of local people with the colonial endeavour as well the conflicts, can a more nuanced picture of Hong Kong then and now emerge.

Here is a brief, simple — and personal — summary of work to date:

1. The Colonial School – how marvellous was empire! Whites (mainly European but including some Americans) were leading society (either purely for trade gains or with some ‘civilizing’ mission), with the Chinese seen only as an indistinct homogenous mass with criminal tendencies. Books in this school start their narratives in the glory-days of trade at Canton, romping through the opium wars and into the founding of Hong Kong (be it accidental, mistaken or fortuitous or all three). Works in this category clearly have their conceptual limitations but several key works remain must-reads, and influential. For example:

– E.J. Eitel’s Europe in China: The History of Hongkong from the Beginning to the Year 1882, of 1895;

– J.W. Norton-Kyshe’s 1898 two-volume The History of the Laws and Courts of Hong Kong;

– Guy Sayer of the 1930s, on growth and progress thanks to the British;

– G.B. Endacott publishing in the 1950s-60s, more growth and progress;

– Frank Welsh’s 1994 A History of Hong Kong, a jocular celebration, anecdote without insight.

2. The Marxist, post-1949 Beijing School – this offers a narrative of colonial exploitation & oppression, where the Chinese are the victims of grotesque European misbehaviour. Some of its works are similar to that of the Colonial School in their reliance on officials and statistics. They also take the opium wars as a vital starting point, here not of a grand opening to the world but of National Humiliation. Also in common with colonial narratives is its simplistic one-way vision, both narrow and influential. This is a view from the metropole, the capital city. The views, acts and feelings of Hong Kong inhabitants barely rate a mention. This approach has become more prevalent after 1997; it is actively taught in schools on the mainland and in some circles in Hong Kong. For example:

– Ding You. Xianggang chuqi shihua 1841-1907 [Hong Kong’s Early History 1841-1907]  Beijing: Joint Publishers, 1958. This is all about British aggression, discrimination, exploitation: ‘Hong Kong was built and made prosperous on the blood, sweat and corpses of Chinese coolies’.

– The Academy of Social Science in Beijing – scholars here have been preoccupied with the opium wars. Although less overwrought than Ding, seeing some good in colonial economic policies, the view remains firmly that Hong Kong from its earliest times has been sacred Chinese territory.

3. The Hong Kong School – this diverse, growing body of research is focused on complex social and political dynamics. Works in this field look at conflict and change, not only growth and progress, asking new questions about race, class, gender and the thorny topic of Hong Kong identity. Works here are neither pro-colonial nor pro-Beijing. They take as a starting point the realities of Hong Kong, its peoples, what they have been doing and why and how, where they have come from and where they are going. Many works offer views from Hong Kong which, once examined thoroughly, offer many surprises. For example:

– Henry Lethbridge’s work through the 1970s on class and race was the first to consider Hong Kong society from the spot; he has done some of the most useful work on 19th century Hong Kong life; he considered Eurasians as a much-neglected but increasingly important component of Hong Kong; he also tackled the topic of Poor Whites or Beachcombers, ignored by official colonial histories for lowering the prestige of Empire.

– Carl T. Smith’s work from the 1960s to 1990s; if there is a God-like figure in Hong Kong history it is the late Carl Smith. He spent decades scouring every available record from old newspapers to Land Registry documents to compile his famous Index Cards detailing, individual by individual, almost all inhabitants of early Hong Kong and the China Coast. Through his work on the assembling of fragmented references, Smith subverted the whole idea of Chinese as transients sojourners.

– Elizabeth Sinn discovered the Tung Wah Group of 1870s-80s archives to illuminate the early formation of local elites; she has gone on to pioneer research in social history, families, the emigration industry, and much more; she has introduced the concept of Hong Kong as an ‘in-between’ place, and edited some of the most useful compilations of works and resource guides to the doing of Hong Kong history.

– W. K. Chan’s The Making of Hong Kong Society, 1991, showed that class divisions existed within the Chinese community as well as within the British, and that these were more significant than racial division; he    looked at both Chinese and European merchant elites, and labourers.

– Tsai Jung-fang’s 1993 Hong Kong in Chinese History: Community and Social Unrest in the British Colony 1842-1913 looks at labour unrest, splits within the Chinese between the conservative elite and the pro-western elite, the influence in Hong Kong of Chinese political movements; he showed that the Chinese are NOT apathetic, and that colonial times were of partnership and collaboration ass well as conflict and social crisis.

– Christopher Munn’s Anglo-China, is a vital contribution to the field. Through a scrupulous analysis of the workings of the justice system – the area where Chinese and British came into most contact – he shows that both Chinese ‘criminality’ and British ‘justice’ are concepts which we have all woefully misunderstood. British ‘rule of law’ was often nothing of the sort, although somewhere in there was a system itching to break free. What is most fascinating is the insight into how complex it was to merge Chinese and British ways of running societies.

– John Carroll’s Concise History and his Edge of Empires provide a balanced starting point for students of Hong Kong history – why it matters, and of what it consists. The Edge of Empires details the creation from the late nineteenth century of a Hong Kong-based Chinese and Eurasian elite. These people made colonial Hong Kong their home long before later waves of migrants did the same thing after the Chinese communist victory in 1949, suggesting therefore that the Hong Kong we know today is a product of that early mixing.


More knowledge of Hong Kong and ways of looking at its history is being produced. No single bibliography can be comprehensive, certainly not one focused purely on English-language sources. It should be commodious however. The emphasis here is on the non-Chinese people of Hong Kong. Much more could be referenced to the differences between Chinese groups, ethnic or otherwise, and between northern and southern Chinese. The suggestions below are informed by a rough list of questions.

– Who are the Hong Kongers?

– If we are talking about different races, what is Race, how has it been defined over time, what does mixing of Races mean?

– What is a community, what is nationalism, how is ‘belonging’ defined?

– What is Eurasia, then and now, here and there?

– What are Eurasians?

– What are the various communities making up Hong Kong – such as           Armenians, Jews, Parsees, Malays, Chinese, British and many more?

– Who are the interesting people – individuals and families – of Hong               Kong?

– What are the important organisations that shape/d Hong Kong?

– What actually happened in the making of Hong Kong?

– What are the important global trends/events that shaped Hong Kong?


The works listed in the following chapters are primarily published books and academic articles. For online resources ranging across Government and other reports and papers, check first with the Hong Kong University Library Digital Initiatives:

Government papers and Archives for Hong Kong studies include:

Hong Kong Annual Administrative Reports 1841-1941. Editor R.L. Jarman. Oxford: Archive Editions, 1996.

Hong Kong Civil Service List. Hong Kong: Noronha, 1904-1958.

Hong Kong Government Gazette. Hong Kong: Noronha, 1853-1941.

Hong Kong Hansard: Reports of the Meetings of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Noronha, 1890-1941.

Hong Kong Legislative Council Sessional Papers. Hong Kong: Noronha, 1884-1941.

Irish University Press Area Studies Series. British Parliamentary Papers, China, 24 (1846-60), 25 (1862-81), 26 (1882-99) – Correspondence, Dispatches, Reports, Ordinances, Memoranda, and Other Papers Relating to the Affairs of Hong Kong. Shannon: Irish University Press, 1971.

CO129 – Colonial Office papers – indexed by Dr Elizabeth Sinn:

CO131 – Minutes of the Hong Kong Executive and Legislative Councils.

CO133 – Hong Kong Blue Books 1844-1940

FO17 – Foreign Office General Correspondence – China 1815-1905

FO233 – Foreign Office Miscellanea 1759-1935.


Canton Press 1838-1844

Canton Register 1841-1843; Hongkong Register 1843-1858

China Mail 1845-1974

Chinese Repository 1832-1851

Friend of China 1842-1861

Hongkong Daily Press 1864-1941

Hongkong Telegraph 1881-1924

Hong Kong Weekly Press 1895-1909

South China Morning Post 1903-

The Hong Kong Weekly News 1941-45

The Standard (launched as the Hong Kong Tiger Standard in 1949)

The Star 1965-1984

Eastern Express 1994-1996

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