By Vaudine England.
A dear friend and colleague from a past journalistic life — educated, erudite and well-informed — delighted in saying: ‘I hate history!’ Why bother with stories of days gone by when so much is happening, right now? she asked. She would only allow tales from the past if they carried direct relevance to the here and now; it was not a bad discipline after all.
So when the idea for a new, revitalised and freshly funded approach to studying Hong Kong’s history came up, it seemed worthwhile. Because if there was ever a time when the history of Hong Kong should be looked at anew, it is now.
Thanks to funding from the Hatton Trust, the Hong Kong History Project was established in January 2015. It is based at Bristol University under Professor Robert Bickers, with a link to HKU’s history department, and aims to stimulate new research into many aspects of Hong Kong’s under-covered past. It fundings young Hong Kong students’ PhDs, and has begun a series of international seminars of experts on Hong Kong to see where the gaps are and where fresh work should be focused.
It also has a website: hkhistory.net, which carries a Bibliography on Hong Kong Studies, and regular ruminations on aspects of Hong Kong’s past. This is only the beginning. With more funding hoped for, and a growing critical mass of scholars and writers turning their attention to post-Occupy Hong Kong, the project has legs and will run.
Dr Ron Zimmern of the Hatton Trust said: ‘Hong Kong is what it is today as a consequence of its history. The 100 years since 1850 was a formative period, where many individuals and families contributed to its success, and one where much remains to be researched and discovered.’
But why bother with history here, and why now? Because it is ‘contested’, as academics love to say. Amid the current battle for hearts and minds, we are being bombarded with new versions of Hong Kong’s history, directly linked to notions of what might or might not be our future.
From the north comes the mantra that Hong Kong ‘has always been a Chinese city’, or is ‘just a Chinese city’. The tale is of humiliation by rapacious Westerners and the resurgence of Chinese pride through the communist victory of 1949, culminating in the joyous return of Hong Kong to the motherland. The old-fashioned British narrative wasn’t much better. It would have defended the British empire in all its wonders to behold, its allegedly beneficent pursuit of ‘free trade’, its brilliant contributions of justice, faith and charity.
The problem for post-1945, and particularly for post-1949 Hong Kongers is that there have been few versions of history in the popular imagination that steer a path between these two dead ends.
There is a Hong Kong history, about, by and for Hong Kongers, but it struggles to be heard as old imperialisms joust over past humiliations and conquests. It lies in the details of Hong Kong’s actual lived pasts, its peoples and families, the conflicts and compromises of communities.
Carl Smith made a start on this when he set to work collating index cards on every person of the China Coast, not only the foreigners but all the varied Hong Kong people who made this place their home. Who actually were the people of Hong Kong, why and how did they get there, how did they get ahead, how did they live together. After Carl Smith came Dr Elizabeth Sinn, still the doyen of Hong Kong history, and scholars such as Christopher Munn, Jung-fang Tsai, John Carroll, Tak-wing Ngo and more.
Great stories languish untold from our past, and special individuals, such as Daniel Caldwell the British interpreter who actually married his Chinese love, instead of just keeping a concubine; or Sir Hormusjee Mody, the Parsee millionaire who made the University of Hong Kong a reality; or Ng Akew, the ‘protected’ woman who became a property-owning businesswoman; or Mr Belilios, the Jewish eccentric who commuted by camel and founded schools for girls. The list of incredible Hong Kong characters could go on and on.
Lots of ordinary people built daily lives of compromise in neighbourhoods such as Taipingshan or Shek Tong Tsui that were home to South Asian seamen and Chinese pig-traders, to Muslim Malay traders, Irish policemen and Australian ship pilots. This was a rich world far more interesting and diverse than simple ideas of a British colony, or a Chinese city. Hong Kong was also a haven for the Philippine independence government in exile under Aguinaldo in the 1890s, an inspiration and source of funds for republican revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, and would soon save the life of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh when France wanted his head in the 1940s. It has long been the channel between South East Asia and China, for people and wealth in both directions.
Leading Eurasian figures and some Chinese had joined the motley mix of Baghdadi jews, Scots, Bombay Parsees, English and Irishmen and Calcuttan traders in the highest councils of government as well as trade by the early 20th century. After Ng Choy came names such as Robert Kotewall, Lo Man-wai and Shouson Chow. The mixing had been there from the start in trade, in sport and at the freemasons lodge. Now it was sanctified by government. Dynasties were beginning to emerge, as were divisions, within the Chinese and Eurasian communities and, perhaps least understood, within the world seen from the outside as ‘British’.
The more one attempts to define that word, the harder it becomes. Sir Paul Chater was simply the biggest man around town from the late 19th and into the twentieth century. He devised the Praya Reclamation scheme which created the Central Business District and then did the same for Wanchai (Praya East). He co-founded Hongkong Land, the Hongkong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company, Hongkong Electric, the Jockey Club, and more. He was chairman of the Hong Kong Club and knighted by the Queen. Yet in the 1920s, when Governor Cecil Clementi was lunching with him, the Governor’s ADC Charles Drage (later working for British intelligence) referred to Chater in his diary as ‘that coloured magnate’.
The so-called British hong, or trading company, Hongkong Land had, for the first full half century of its existence, no Englishman on its board of directors. There was always one Scotsman from Jardines, but every other figure — for 50 years — was Parsee, Jewish, Armenian or Eurasian.
In 1940, the Hong Kong government suddenly ordered all ‘British’ women and children onto ships to be evacuated via Manila to Australia. But what about the wives of Portuguese, Eurasian or Chinese volunteers in the Hong Kong Regiment? Many had British passports but were somehow not British enough. Assumptions about colour are not enough to explain this; it was about identity in the broadest sense, suddenly squeezed into a bureaucratic straitjacket. This, incidentally, is the subject chosen by the first Hong Kong History Project beneficiary in Bristol, Vivian Kong.
When Hong Kong faced the Japanese invasion in World War Two, Eurasian, Chinese, and Portuguese Volunteers fought heroically for Hong Kong. They saw their own communities divided between those who fled to Free China in Chungking as resistance fighters, and those who stayed in Hong Kong to later face charges of collaboration for leading Chinese community relations with the occupying Japanese power. Names such as Kotewall and Chow were later exonerated by the British, who stressed they had asked their local colleagues to deal with the Japanese for the benefit of occupied Hong Kong. British colony though it was, people of many races and nationalities chose to fight and died for it. Britain for all its faults did leave behind a more open society; arguably, from recent events, this is more revolutionary, its impacts only beginning to mature.
So was the colonial era all completely bad? Surely the verdict is mixed. (Its postal boxes are rather cute too.) Is Hong Kong just a Chinese city? Not exactly that either.
So here’s another version of our history: this place became a city because foreigners came, along the trading routes linking Europe, Eurasia, east Africa, the Malabar coast, through the spaghetti junction of South East Asia, to China and beyond. World trade linked those adventurers to Chinese intermediaries, in Canton and other coastal centres. A couple of decades later, more respectable Chinese come to Hong Kong to get a life in this polyglot town. They came to escape unrest and distress on the mainland. They still do. Then, the Free Port, and the freedom to live relatively untrammelled lives in more secure surroundings was key. They came because Hong Kong was not China.
Fast forward to the 1980s-90s, which the writer/investigator Stacy Mosher called that ‘golden period when Hong Kong was no longer a colony and not yet an SAR – when it was a “territory” in which the native-born had recently become the majority, and had come to think of themselves first and foremost as “Hong Kong people”.’
That’s when a lot of Hong Kong parents were getting together to start having some of the children who are now winning district council seats under a yellow umbrella.
Now say history doesn’t matter.
This article originally appeared as ‘Great Stories Languish Untold from Hong Kong’s Past’ in The Correspondent (January-Februar 2006), 33-35.