Race and Hong Kong Studies

By Vaudine England

The thought behind a lot of these ruminations in this blog is that the subject of race in empire, specifically with relation to Hong Kong, has been grossly under-covered to date. Some Dutch academic friends wonder if it is the Britishness of Hong Kong studies — how else to explain, one wondered, the contrast between the huge swathes of scholarship done by the Dutch on ‘their Eurasians’ (the Indos) and the minuscule body of work on the mixed race products of British colonies? Perhaps regarding Hong Kong, the gap is also because the whole idea of studying Hong Kong from a Hong Kong point of view (rather than a Peking or London perspective) only gained traction in the last 20 or 30 years, just when the tides of so-called political correctness militated against any straight look at a topic as murky as race. It has also been the period when scientists of many kinds have insisted that race does not exist.

Not only has being a Eurasian meant a lifetime of taboos; talking about it, studying it, has been shrouded in taboo too.

This thought was thrown into sharper relief when I came across an article I’d kept from a decade ago, by the evolutionary developmental biologist Armand Marie Leroi. It was published in the New York Times as ‘A Family Tree in Every Gene’ on 14 March 2005, and in the Asia edition of the International Herald Tribune the next day as ‘Genes Rebuild Our Ideas About Race’. The difference in headline is already provoking; was the New York editing desk scared to put ‘race’ in bold type?

Leroi was prompted to write by a commentary in The Times of India which feared the loss of endangered tribes around the Andaman Islands in the tsunami of end-2004; this would destroy increasingly rare ‘Negrito racial stocks’, it said. Technically correct, the description jumped out at Leroi in a world long defined by the belief that race is not a scientific concept, but a social category. That belief is now threatened by fascinating advances in genetic research which, he said, were beginning to show that races do, after all, exist.

Leroi recounted how it took three decades to disprove the statement by Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin — that the genetic difference between a European and an African was barely bigger than that between any two Europeans. Leroi said Lewontin had left out the impact of correlations between genes which enabled the reconstruction of large-scale genetic topographies. Of course human beings have always been ‘irredeemably promiscuous’, as Leroi charmingly put it: ‘We have always seduced, or coerced our neighbours even when they have a foreign look about them and we don’t understand a word’. But just as the Pennines and Himalayas can both be described as mountain ranges despite huge differences in scale, so too can races be defined: ‘The billion or so of the world’s people of largely European descent have a set of genetic variants in common that are collectively rare in everyone else; they are a race. At a smaller scale, three million Basques do as well; so they are a race as well…’, wrote Leroi.

None of this is intended to reach new definitions of racial purity; rather the opposite. Leroi wrote that genetic research on people of mixed race ancestry would provide for the greatest scientific advances, in trying to find out what makes blue eyes blue, or not. Such ‘admixture mapping’, where following genetic strands is made easier by the variations, is exciting and would help understanding of the differences that make up the rich human tapestry.

Wrote Leroi: ‘Race is merely a shorthand that enables us to speak sensibly, though with no great precision, about genetic cultural or political differences. But it is a shorthand that seems to be needed. One of the more painful spectacles of modern science is that of human geneticists piously disavowing the existence of races even as they investigate the genetic relationships between “ethnic groups”. Given the problematic, even vicious, history of the word “race”, the use of euphemisms is understandable. But it hardly aids understanding..’

Of course one could argue that in some Asian polities, there’s been a bit too much race all along! The British colonial administrators appeared to experience no qualms when blithely mixing in some Indian Chettiars to do the accounts for the Burmese, or the Chinese ‘coolies’ to work the mines and Indians to tap the rubber trees with the Malays who were too ‘lazy or mystical to work. Having identified races as real after all, a new more blunt scholarship of such events might follow.

Source note: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/14/opinion/a-family-tree-in-every-gene.html

Lethbridge Onward

By Vaudine England

Lethbridge’s article, ‘The Yellow Fever’, had concluded with an image of how the different, mostly non-Chinese peoples of Hong Kong interacted, or not:

‘The full flavour of the European community is to be savoured at a gala occasion… at the City Hall. Then the various layers, tier upon tier, are exhibited in the foyer: befurred and bejewelled Continentals, leading matriarchs, gilded youths and bright young girls back from Swiss finishing schools — the whole range from taipan to pong paang. It is only then that one notices the heterogeneity and subdivisions of the European community and the fact that once dispersed each group goes its separate way and will rarely coalesce with others again. There are many social circuits in Hongkong — few connect. If they are brought together, it is by crisis or ritual…’

As within such groups, so it was between this and larger, other groups.

That clear delineations existed between different racial groups in Hong Kong has been and remains clear however. More than 98 percent of the Hong Kong population has been, and remains, Chinese. Within that term are of course many further variations, between Cantonese, and many other Chinese sub-groups and languages. As Professor Bickers notes in his Scramble for China, diving deeper into the divisions within shows that once the Treaty Port system and British extra-territoriality was established, some Chinese chose to take British papers for practical benefits. Many Chinese living elsewhere under British rule, especially in South East Asia, followed the opportunities under British rule back to the the Chinese mainland. They faced not only prejudice but exclusion at the hands of their fellow ethnic Chinese, and could sometimes leapfrog those compatriots by virtue of British rule.

Beyond the Chinese, since 1841, substantial groups of Europeans, Indians, Portuguese, Malays, Americans and others have co-existed, along with a growing Eurasian community. Within each of these groups, divisions exist too. Even to this day, some expatriate British people believe their experience of Hong Kong — privilege on the Peak, government housing, servants, boarding school and holidays in the East — is the universal expatriate experience. Instead it was and is perhaps the minority. Through the tales of the ordinary lives, a far richer story would emerge.

At some point in any study of Hong Kong’s racial and cultural mix, that idea of ‘melting pot’ has also to be tackled. While busy looking at Eurasians, the clearest example of cross-cultural mixing available, the melting pot idea seems to work. (Within the Eurasian community too existed virulent divisions and competition between leading figures and families, which have affected how its history has been written to this day.)

Beyond that small group however, does the mixing idea hold? Stephen Fisher in his 1975 thesis is quite firm: ‘Hong Kong has never been, and never will be, a melting-pot of these ethnic groups’ (p. 9).

Instead, the model is that of the plural society, first and best espoused by J.S. Furnivall in his Colonial Policy and Practice in 1948. This is where distinct ethnic groups maintain their own ethnic identify, cultural traits and social institutions. While co-existing alongside each other, they do not integrate with each other. To this day, debate is fast and furious on whether this is a good or bad thing – should we all try (pretend?) to be just like each other or able to become just like each other, to fulfil some ideal of universal culture? A kind of political correctness is sometimes attached to having friends of many colours or cultures, regardless of how deep or sincere is the link.

Furnivall had no such illusions in an earlier era. Surveying what he called the ‘medley of peoples’, including indigenous, Indian, Chinese and European, in colonial societies of Burma and Java, he wrote:
‘It is in the strictest sense a medley, for they mix but do not combine. Each group holds by its own religion, its own culture and language, its own ideas and ways. As individuals they meet, but only in the market place, in buying and selling. There is a plural society, with different sections of a community living side by side, but separately, within the same political unit. Even in the economic sphere there is a division of labour along racial lines’ (1948, p. 304).
Fisher says Smith’s contribution to the definition was in the primary role he gave to institutions in forming those separate communities, and in further clarifying that ‘in a plural society, the political rule or rather domination, is exercised by a culturally distinct minority’ (Fisher, p. 12).


Bickers, Robert. The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914. London: Allen Lane, 2011 (and Penguin 2012).

Lethbridge, Henry. ‘The Yellow Fever’. Far Eastern Economic Review (2 May 1968).

Fisher, Stephen F. Eurasians in Hong Kong: A Sociological Study of a Marginal Group. PhD Thesis, University of Hong Kong, 1975.

Furnivall, J.S. Colonial Policy and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948.

Furnivall, J.S. Netherlands India: A Study of Plural Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1944.

Smith, M.G. The Plural Society in the British West Indies. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1965.

On Henry Lethbridge’s ‘The Yellow Fever’ & ‘The Best of Both Worlds?’

By Vaudine England

In my last blog I expressed a hope to be proven wrong in claiming that just two serious articles were published on the subject of Eurasians in Hong Kong in the 20th century. The first was Sir Challoner Grenville Alabaster’s ‘Observations on Race Mixture in Hong Kong’. The second came almost half a century later, thanks to the sociologist Henry Lethbridge, just about the only writer in English to consider all those lesser-known but vital aspects of Hong Kong history. By these I mean the existence, condition and status of poor white people; of Eurasians; the way of life in Hong Kong during Japanese occupation; and his broader work on many aspects of class and race in Hong Kong.

In 1968, he penned two pieces for the Far Eastern Economic Review. One, entitled “The Yellow Fever”, announces that the subject of Europeans in Hong Kong was just as worthy of study as the Chinese. His second piece, “The Best of Both Worlds?”, honed in on the subject of Eurasians.

Let me digress from Eurasians for a moment to ponder: could an article headlined “Yellow Fever” even be published today? Nowadays we may forget that for many men, a major motivation in coming East was to sample the alleged delights of Oriental women, an interchange aided by vast ignorance and no little amount of money from one side and guile from the other. It is not unusual to seek cross-cultural partnership, regardless of money or duress being involved. But only one generation ago, men who expressed such appetites enthusiastically were seen as having caught a dose of Yellow Fever; this was not the same as Going Native, but might of course lead to it.

Lethbridge did not take as his task an analysis of white male behaviour in the mystical cornucopias of Wanchai or beyond. No. He was concerned that Europeans as a group had not been given the study they deserved, nor their interactions with Chinese that were, naturally, producing Eurasians. He noted how Hong Kong, by the 1960s, had become a mecca for Western social scientists obsessing over China, its society and culture. Few of these scholars paid any attention, then, to the life of foreigners in the Chinese world. Lethbridge firmly rebuffed the assumption that Europeans simply led European lives. He said European life in Hong Kong ‘is not necessarily a stale replica of life in Europe and the United States. Something is lost and something is gained on the way. The transformations that occur are always interesting and sometimes bizarre.’ Look around and we can probably see what he meant.

First he sought out numbers, and concluded that the European population in Hong Kong in the late 1960s was between 25,000 and 30,000, inclusive of about 7,000 British troops. Among those ‘Europeans’, British were by far the largest sub-group, followed by Americans, Dutch, German, French and Italian in that order. He also noted that these numbers were likely to be more accurate, coming from a By-Census, than pre-war numbers garnered by counting the amount of night-soil collected.

As in the sparse accounts of 19th century Hong Kong life, Lethbridge saw European society as layered with internal divisions: ‘Status seeking, the display of conspicuous consumption and the desire for exclusiveness, have not declined to any notable extent.’ However, the growing size of the foreign population of Hong Kong, with tourism and American troops, was allowing more people to ‘live full social lives without feeling obliged to enter their names in the visitors’ book at Government House or having to cultivate taipans’. (Phew!)

That post-war decolonisation feeling (if not yet reality in Hong Kong) had stripped the former ruling class of its special allure; Europeans were now more diverse, had starkly different interests and were able to pursue less constrained or conventional interests than ever before.

‘Yet, paradoxically, Europeans pre-war were probably more aware of and knowledgeable about things Chinese than they are today,’ said Lethbridge. He pointed out that pre-war Europeans often took short leaves in China, had relatives or friends working up the coast, and in the absence of jet travel spent far larger chunks of their lives in Hong Kong, which was more intensely Chinese. He was writing, of course, when travel from Hong Kong to China was almost impossible, during the Mao Tse-tung era, before the late 1970s opening. He also enjoyed describing how the lower class Briton transplanted to Hong Kong almost invariably enjoyed a jump in status where Hong Kong became a kind of Surbiton with servants. He also noted, amusingly, that frustrated expatriate wives took as often to the brush as to drink ‘so that there are more exhibitions of bad paintings, on sale at conceited prices, than anywhere else in the world’. Army or missionary families existed, as always, in their own enclaves.

Meanwhile, Americans were having to move on from their earlier condemnation of Hong Kong imperialism now that the only alternative was communism on the mainland. ‘Hence Hongkong has acquired virtue. Like a reformed tart, it has changed its status: it is now part of the “Free World”.’ Among the cultured French, Germans, Italians, not forgetting the Dutch who ‘used to the tropics range widely in their pursuits’, were growing numbers of what Lethbridge called Australasians. Presumably he meant those of us from New Zealand and Australia, ‘who are less caste-bound and class-conscious than their English cousins’.

Generalising Eurasians in Asia

By Vaudine England

Looking at how other colonies’ histories have tackled the topic of Eurasians gives useful clues to how researchers might tackle Hong Kong’s Eurasians.

An early effort looking at South East Asia was Virginia Thompson and Richard Adloff’s Minority Problems in Southeast Asia, of 1955. This states baldly that all Eurasians under colonial rule ‘have faced the same handicaps, reacted to them in identical fashion, and displayed similar communal characteristics’ (p. 135). Can such a sweeping statement be true? It goes on to say that all Eurasians are city dwellers and white-collar workers. As a group, they have been ‘snubbed’ ‘and only a handful among them has been able to surmount the obstacles which the color bar has placed in their way’ (p. 135). The authors place the ‘irresponsibility of their European fathers’ alongside the barriers erected by the European community as a whole  as the major impediments to Eurasian advancement. Those barriers were real, with some jobs, residential areas, schools, clubs, even hotels closed to them.

Of course these authors were writing in 1955, the year that the Non-Aligned Movement first met in Bandung, Indonesia, when the issues of post-colonisation were of pressing daily importance across South East Asia. As is often the case in scholarship about Eurasians, the focus is largely on the sprawling Dutch East Indies, and on the impact of the diaspora from a crumbling China. Those major historical forces, with ramifications around us to this day, have their echo in Hong Kong of course, but can also be useful to highlight what makes the Hong Kong situation unique.

Still, in Thompson & Adloff, here are too many generalisations. Another one on offer is the allegedly striking contrast between the product of an (Overseas) Chinese father and a native Malay/Indonesia/Burmese, which they judge as most likely to be successful, and the product of a European and native mother which they judge to be invariably less successful. Apparently the injection of Chinese other-ness brought a physical stamina and pride in heritage to the mix, unavailable to offspring of European fathers!

Overall, Thompson & Adloff paint a somewhat tragic picture of a people forever stuck in between. Above them in social and financial status are the Europeans with whom they identify; below them are the ‘native’ Asians whom they allegedly despise: ‘While they have received less from the Europeans than they feel is their due, they have enjoyed in Asian eyes a privileged position as regards employment and standard of living’ (p. 136).

However, the survey marks key changes affecting Eurasian communities of South East Asia. Prior to World War Two they retained a privileged role as often the only (half) native people who had become proficient in the European colonialist’s language (Dutch, English, Portuguese, French). They could thus take higher positions in the colonial bureaucracies and business worlds. They mostly identified as Europeans and were strongly loyal to the European power even though they knew they would never have equality with wholly European friends and colleagues. During the war, those Eurasians identifying or identified as European suffered disproportionately at the hands of the Japanese across South East Asia.

As empires fell, through war and decolonisation, the privileged position enjoyed pre-war now evaporated. Unless they had worked to maintain fluency in local languages and norms, they lost out in the brave new post-colonial tropical world. They then faced invidious choices – to stay or go; and if to go, then where? Often the dream was the European ‘homeland’ which they had never seen; only the Netherlands offered any kind of assistance to their Eurasians, the Indos, with many others left in limbo. Wrote Thompson & Adloff: ‘the Eurasians are a rootless, frustrated, and divided minority — foreigners in the land of their birth, yet unable to move elsewhere’ (p. 136).

Reference is made to the idea of a homeland for Eurasians, such as the Jews found in Israel. This may sound very odd to a modern ear, but an attempt was made by Indonesian Eurasians (or ‘Indos’) to settle in New Guinea, on the far eastern edge of Indonesia. This apparently failed due to lack of agricultural skills and finance. Others thought of migrating to Brazil.

How much do these generalisations, experiences and ideas apply to the specific experience of the Eurasians of Hong Kong?

Thompson, Virginia, and Adloff, Richard. Minority Problems in Southeast Asia. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1955.  See: Chapter 3 – ‘Indigenous Minorities – The Eurasians’.

Race Memory Puzzles in China, Japan War Histories

By Vaudine England

This week (on 3 September) the Chinese government has decreed a special one-off public holiday (and vast military parade) to mark what it calls China’s victory over Japan 70 years ago. As with all anniversaries, a plethora of frantic re-writings of history is now underway to mark this moment. One can debate if it really was China or the impact of Hiroshima that defeated Japan, and the argument over whether it was China’s communists or nationalists who fought most, suffered more, are most responsible for the victory, will rumble on.

This blog looks back at a supposed racial impact of the war, specifically of the ignominious defeat of the British followed by Japan’s occupation of Hong Kong. Both then, and more recently, the view has been expressed that Japan’s appeal to the Asian populace for the overthrow of Western imperialism was attractive, and encouraged versions of collaboration among particularly Eurasian as well as Chinese Hong Kongers.

A gentle look at the first point comes in Asia for the Asiatics, by Robert Ward, published by the University of Chicago Press just before the war ended. Ward had been a consular officer for the United States, stationed in Hong Kong, and was interned for six months before being repatriated. He witnessed the early efforts of the Japanese to establish an empire in Asia ‘for the Asiatics’.

This was, according to Ward, a calculated, brutal and systematic process, of which the initial outbursts of rampant disorder, rape and looting was an integral part. Ward claims this had the effect (and so Ward assumes the intention) of forcing the local Hong Kong elite into submission. Leading figures such as Shouson Chow and Robert Kotewall, members of the Li (Bank of East Asia) family, and others did consent to take roles in committees set up by the occupying Japanese powers. No doubt they did so for self-preservation but it is also on record that departing British senior civil servants had specifically asked Chow and Kotewall to deal with the Japanese to help feed the people.

Ward’s primary concern was to consider what the post-war landscape will be in East Asia, after this idea of Asia for Asians has taken hold. Writing in 1945, he doubted that the brutality and subjection imposed by the Japanese would entirely neutralise the power of the pro-Asia ideal.

The overwhelming fact for many writers, then and since, has been the shaming collapse of the white man, of white power, seen in Japan’s rapid takeover not just of Hong Kong, but other British colonies such as Malaya, Singapore and Burma. These defeats would leave a residue, the impact of which would change post-war Asia forever.

All this was true, of course, but it is interesting to examine now the extent to which the collapse of British military power in the East did Not mean an end to British rule in Hong Kong, nor to Western impact and roles in East Asia’s post-war development. It is also interesting to note that, according to many Hong Kong people’s recollections, the brutality of Japanese rule did in fact fatally damage that ideal of Japan-led Asia for the Asians.

Perhaps race was simply less of a defining characteristic for people struggling to survive than some theorists would accept.

A more dramatic version of the view that colonial racism met its nemesis with the Japanese can be found in Gerald Horne’s Race War! White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire, published in 2005 by New York University Press. Amusingly, reviews from the United States academic community laud this book as a radical retelling of the war, an unflinching survey of race and empire, and a fabulous study which shows where global history can go. At the same time, a detailed, calm and considered blog by a member of the community of people apparently so oppressed by Horne’s British colonialists — the Eurasian historian Brian Edgar — shows how full of holes the Horne thesis is.

According to Horne, the Japanese were appreciated, admired, and supported by the majority of Hong Kong’s population, at least at first, for Japan’s overturning of white supremacy. Several ideas seem to be involved here — that the British empire was founded (solely) on racism and thus that Hong Kong was too, and that British assumptions of racial superiority produced a vast and violent discriminatory universe of abuse and exploitation of the ‘non-pure’. On such ground, a fertile appeal of Japanese inversions of white rule could be imagined.

But as Brian Edgar points out, the detailed realities of daily life made Horne’s thesis ‘dead in the water’. Yes, Eurasians faced discrimination, but from the Chinese as well as from the British. Yes, some Eurasians were discriminated against at work but others were among the colony’s richest people. Edgar goes on to point out various pockets of Hong Kong life which were ‘relatively race-free’, some intellectual and some in sports; I would add most of business was multi-cultural too. But of course white racism existed — the argument is over whether this made Eurasians (and some Hong Kong Chinese) vulnerable to Japanese ideology and rule. As Edgar notes, Horne fails to cite one single Hong Kong Eurasian who was not part Japanese who can be proven to have joined the Japanese after Christmas Day 1941. On the contrary, people like the young (Eurasian) women, Phyllis Bliss and Irene Fincher escaped and Irene even married the race enemy, a British policeman who was working with the Chinese resistance. One fascinating case, Laurence Kentwell, is the subject of research by Baptist University’s Catherine Ladds, and he is an exception to every theory.

Edgar then tackles the case of Sir Robert Kotewall and laments that Horne has clearly failed to take note of British exonerations of the Executive Council member’s work under the Japanese. According to Edgar, Kotewall did shout ‘Banzai’ several times at public meetings but otherwise did little but ‘hedge’ while trying to help poor Chinese get fed. Tony Banham, author of the excellent http://www.hongkongwardiary.com/, regards Kotewall as ‘selfless’ and the charges of collaboration unfounded.

As Edgar notes, one has to be careful about jumping to conclusions. Amid the hoopla of a Chinese Communist Party-organised exercise in creating nationalism today, it is even more interesting to discover where the historical record makes clear not a nationalist narrative, but the nuance.