Hong Kong Studies and Frank Dikotter’s Work on Race

By Vaudine England

If talking about race has been hard, how much harder has it been to accept that racism in statecraft has never been the sole preserve of white people. Not only Western imperialists have been racist; the Chinese were, and are, too. Proof of this is found, if any were needed, in the work of Frank Dikotter, back when he was still at SOAS. His analysis of ideas going into the republican revolutionary era showed how startlingly race-based Chinese nationalism has always been.

‘Myths of origins, ideologies of blood, conceptions of racial hierarchy and narratives of biological descent have indeed formed a central part in the cultural construction of identity in China,’ wrote Dikotter in The China Quarterly. That racism has so often accompanied nationalist passion is hardly a new thought; however, amid globalization, ‘racial identities and racial discrimination have in fact increased in East Asia’. The problem, he added, was that little work has been done on the detail and deployment of racial frames of reference in China. It’s another one of those taboos.

Dikotter has gone some way to remedy this, highlighting the use of language (volk in German, and the gradations of zu, zhong, zulei, minzu and zhongzu in Chinese) to denote racial hierarchies. In China, he noted, racial categories began to replace ethnocentric senses of identity in the last decade of the 19th century. He cites the charming thoughts of Tang Caichang (1867-1900): ‘Yellow and white are wise, red and black are stupid; yellow and white are rulers, red and blacks are slaves; yellow and white are united, red and black are scattered,’ to make this shockingly clear. Of course there was a political purpose for republicans to stress racial unity as they sought the end of the hitherto vital unifying force of dynastic rule. By the end of the republican period, sure enough, people in China had come to identify themselves and others in terms of race.

Yet many in China accused of racial thinking proceeded to blame it on western imperialism. They did so partly in the wrong belief that racism is somehow a single variant ‘which is universal in its origins (the West), its causes (capitalist society) and its effects (colonization)’, wrote Dikotter. The historiography of how the word ‘yellow’ came to be associated with the Chinese is fascinating, long before the republicans became active fashioners of their own identity, which was specifically based on race.

‘Racial identities during the late imperial period, in other words, were neither generated by a self-contained system called “Chinese culture”, nor imposed through “Western hegemony”. They were created through cultural interaction with a variety of schools of thought … leading to a variability of racial narratives which cannot be reduced to a single model called “Chinese racism”.’ Dikotter added: ‘the racialization of collective senses of identity has actually increased within both state circles and relatively independent intellectual spheres, particularly since the erosion of Communist authority after the Tiananmen massacre’. Failure to look race in the face when racial nationalism is rising remains problematic.

One can bring this right up to date by trying to answer the simple question: how many Americans (or Britons, or Swedes) are there in Hong Kong? The question revolves around which set of numbers you choose to use. Ask the American consulate and you’ll get a number for how many people in Hong Kong hold a U.S. passport. Ask the Hong Kong government’s immigration department and you’ll get a number for how many people use a U.S. passport to enter and leave the territory. Ask the Hong Kong government’s census and statistics department  and you will get a number for how many non-ethnic Chinese people in Hong Kong hold U.S. nationality.

The first number you get will be the highest — after all, lots of Hong Kongers have a U.S. passport which they rarely use but keep in the top drawer for insurance. The second number will be smaller, and the third number the smallest of all.

The most recent example of this was when the missing bookseller apparently taken out of Hong Kong in December 2015, Lee Bo, was described as ‘first and foremost a Chinese’ despite his British passport.

In short, China claims its own. Foreign passports mean little if a person is deemed Chinese, and Chinese nationality law is race-based. A very few exceptions exist, where a white person (virtually never a brown or black person) is granted a Chinese passport as a special favour. They do not obscure the point that an ethnically Chinese person is seen as Chinese by the state, wherever they are and whatever passport they hold. That warm, fuzzy notion that a person is whoever they define themselves to be — for example when a Eurasian chooses to identify as Chinese, or not; or when someone born as a man chooses to identify as a woman — can simply be thrown out the window.


Dikotter, Frank. The Discourse of Race in Modern China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press , 1992.

Dikotter, Frank. ‘Racial Identities in China: Context and Meaning’. The China Quarterly, No 138 (June 1994), 404-412.

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’.