Generalising Eurasians in Hong Kong

Continuing their espousal of the Eurasian ‘problem’, two authors writing in 1955, Thompson & Adloff, lament the small size of Eurasian communities and their lack of cohesion which leaves them in a weak bargaining position; despite being stable and smart, unity and strength has remained elusive to the group as a whole. The only answer available to these Eurasians is to integrate locally as quickly as possible, they wrote.

Thompson & Adloff then take a closer look at the legal, educational, professional and social position of Eurasians in South East Asia.

For example, laws of 1854 and 1892 in the Dutch East Indies allowed all descendants of Europeans on the father’s side to be legally classified as Europeans. This opened up educational prospects and thus access to higher levels of economic and social achievement. Before World War Two, the heads of four of the eight government departments and the commander in chief of the army were all Indo-Europeans. In 1912 an Indo-European League was formed. The Hague Agreement of August 1949 gave Eurasians (estimated to number about 100,000) two years in which to make up their mind about whether to stay in now independent Indonesia or go to the Netherlands. A government survey commissioned by the Netherlands in 1952 concluded, among other points, that it was inadvisable to bring uneducated, poorer Eurasians out of Indonesia; however, the Dutch government would provide aid to this majority of people advised to stay put.

Brief surveys follow, of Eurasians in Malaya, Burma/Myanmar, the Arakan States (of now Burma/Myanmar), the Malays of South Thailand, and the Ambonese (of Indonesia). In Malaya, despite widespread prejudice, some Eurasians became distinguished lawyers, engineers and journalists; many of the late 19th century Queen’s Scholarships went to Eurasians. Between the two world wars, Eurasians were present on Singapore’s Legislative Council (as they were in Hong Kong). ‘Their social status, however, did not show an analogous improvement, though the Eurasians clung to their British names, spoke English as their mother tongue, and were practically all Christians’.

The point for students of Hong Kong history is — how did the situation for Eurasians in Hong Kong compare?

No parallel to the Dutch laws of 1854 and 1892 are apparent in Hong Kong. It seems there was no clear delineation in law regarding educational, medical and other legal rights for Eurasians in Hong Kong, despite a range of social limitations, prejudices and practices. (Any corrections to this statement would be gratefully received!)

A detailed legal survey simply of this question would be a large contribution to scholarship on Eurasians in Hong Kong. A second step would be a detailed survey of the colonial papers (CO129) for any reference to Eurasians, any studies or social surveys or commissions related to their existence.

Other topics for comparison would include military service: Thompson & Adloff note how Eurasians constantly joined volunteer military detachments, in Malaya, in Singapore, (and, as we know, in Hong Kong). But in Singapore the Eurasian company was disbanded in 1909 (after only eight years) and permission to re-form was a long time coming. After World War Two, Eurasians in Singapore and Malaya agitated to join the British Army and, once in, found they were paid less than their European counterparts. Points of comparison are obvious there. Random memoirs and specific war histories have paid well-deserved tribute to particular groups of Eurasians who identified so strongly with then-British Hong Kong that they laid down their lives to defend it. A systematic comparison with their formation, their actions and their standing in Hong Kong compared to other British colonies would however be illuminating.

Another topic is efforts by Eurasians to organise themselves. Recreational groups were plentiful, but a Eurasian Review, started in Penang in the 1930s lasted only about a decade. That is a decade more than anything comparable in Hong Kong however. There was even an All-Malayan Eurasian Conference held in 1940. Individual Eurasians continued to achieve prominence and public responsibility after World War Two. But Thompson & Adloff’s primary point throughout is that as a community, the Eurasians of South East Asia had to assimilate locally or be doomed.

That seems like another good subject for comparison with Hong Kong, and an interesting assumption of the 1950s to test against the realities of today.

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

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’.