How and Why a Fresh Start to the Study of Hong Kong History Is Being Made

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:, 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.

Kaori Abe’s City of Intermediaries

Dissertation Reviews has posted a review of Kaori Abe’s fascinating doctoral dissertation, The City of Intermediaries: Compradors in Hong Kong from the 1830s to the 1880s. Take a look at:

Kaori is currently Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University. She completed her PhD in the Department of History at the University of Bristol under the supervision of Prof. Robert Bickers.

Also be sure to also take a look at her recent article in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society: ‘Intermediary Elites in the Treaty Port World: Tong Mow-chee and His Collaborators in Shanghai, 1873–1897’.

2016 HK History Project Studentship Announced

The Hong Kong History Project Studentship for next year has just been announced. Generously funded by the Hatton Trust, this scholarship will support a doctoral project to be undertaken in the University of Bristol’s Department of History under the supervision of Prof. Robert Bickers starting in 2016.

Students will also get the opportunity to contribute to the Past Matters Festival of History.

For further information and details about how to apply, check out:

And be sure to check back next week to find out more about the research of Vivian Kong, current recipient of the Hong Kong History Project Studentship!

Hong Kong History Project – First Acts

By Vaudine England

The Hong Kong History Project, born in January 2015, has earmarked PhD funding and support to a young student from Hong Kong, Vivian Kong Wai-yan, who will take up her researches into the pre-war British community of Hong Kong under Professor Robert Bickers in the autumn.

The Project also hosted its first international workshop – a one-day gathering of a wide range of bright sparks, keen on sharing information about their studies into Hong Kong’s past. Titled “Hong Kong History, Past, Present, and Future: The View from Hong Kong”, it was a relatively unstructured programme, allowing for great collegiality and an enjoyable day. Each of the four speakers on a succession of panels were allowed only a few minutes to give a formal thought or summary of their work, before the discussion was thrown open to the floor. This format allowed for a free flow of ideas.

After introductory remarks by HKU Vice Chancellor Peter Mathieson, HKU’s Professor John Carroll, and Bristol University’s Professor Robert Bickers, the first panel, Why Hong Kong History?, was tackled by Lui Tai Lok of the Hong Kong Institute of Education, Ray Yep from City University Hong Kong, Bickers, who is director of the Hong Kong History Project, and HKU Visiting Assistant Professor Carol Tsang.

Lui spoke of the new Hong Kong Studies programme he is establishing which will fund post-doctoral fellowships and continue research into the MacLehose Years as well as allow for further work in the archives of the Society of Community Organisation (SOCO), a fascinating resource. Yep outlined the large disconnect between mainland and Hong Kong views of Hong Kong. Locally the central issue is autonomy, which could prompt more work on past relationships between the territory and its colonial metropole. Bickers admitted he had long regarded Hong Kong as a backwater, being more seduced by the cosmopolitan delights of historical Shanghai. However, he was now revising his opinions. Carol Tsang is teaching history at HKU and was able to show through graphs how the focus of her students had been profoundly influenced by the Umbrella Movement of last October, just as the Tiananmen movement of 1989 had long provided a topic of research.

The second panel’s topic was Hong Kong Communities, led by Su Lin Lewis of Bristol, Bert Becker from HKU, Cathy Ladds of Hong Kong Baptist University, and Vivian Kong of HKU (heading to Bristol).

Lewis suggested four areas for future studies in Hong Kong history: the trading diasporas of Chinese, Armenian, Jewish, Eurasians and Parsis; the development of regional intellectual networks, such as through the press, or through HKU students who returned to Malaya in the 1920s; civic associations, such as Freemasons, Rotary and others, and their links to modern civil society; and, popular entertainments. Perhaps a new task could be the hosting of a workshop on Hong Kong in Global and/or Asian History. Becker gave a fascinating insight into the German community of Hong Kong, one of the largest and most influential up until World War One. Ladds introduced her interest in the Anglo-Chinese Eurasians of the China Coast, rightly noting that the current research on Eurasians in Hong Kong is full of gaps. Kong introduced her studies on the 1940 evacuation of British women which revealed the extent to which many Britons described Hong Kong as their home.

The third panel considered the theme, ‘Global city, Imperial city’, with the help of John Wong from HKU, Mark Hampton from Lingnan University Hong Kong, Simon Potter from Bristol and Zardas Lee from HKU, soon to start her PhD at the University of North Carolina.

Wong pointed out that Hong Kong usually find its footing during times of geo-political strain and he highlighted the significance of the colony during the Cold War as another example of Hong Kong’s centrality in networks within South China, within the region, and internationally. Hampton described Hong Kong as a nation without a state and stressed the deep roots of its global role. Potter’s interests lie in international histories of broadcasting, a topic which has received little attention in the Hong Kong context despite the wealth of subjects that could be covered. Lee looked at the local consequences of the cold war and the censorship that resulted; one goal is to trace horizontal linkages, for example in the practice of censorships in Singapore compared to Hong Kong.

The fourth panel considered Hong Kong Public History, with Elizabeth Sinn, Chris Munn and Stephen Davies of HKU, and Kwong Chi Man of Baptist University.

Sinn introduced her enthusiasm for what she thinks should be a new focus: not simply on the land-based lives of Hong Kong people, but on those of the water-world. After all, she argued persuasively, Hong Kong’s existence has always been defined by its waters. Its role in local and regional fishing networks has been key, as has its usefulness to naval fleets. Whole communities across generations of distinct peoples have lived their lives and found their livelihoods on Hong Kong’s waters. Sinn highlighted the work of Wong Wai-ling on the fishing community of Aberdeen as an example of what future work could be done here. Her thoughts were soundly seconded by Davies, a maritime historian, who has long felt that this field demands far closer scrutiny and offers many important stories yet to be told. Chris Munn’s contribution was the suggestion that more must be published on Hong Kong, and more in Chinese, not just English. In this push to publish, small presses in Hong Kong could play a larger role, as can commissioned products such as his own history of the judiciary and other works funded by – and about – leading institutions, companies and clubs of Hong Kong. Kwong Chi-man, the military historian of Hong Kong, offered insights into the travails of advising museums and other public bodies on how to present Hong Kong’s history accurately. He called for more work in original sources, such a Japanese sources which he uses, and for a greater awareness among academics of the usefulness of social media, particularly in the growing public conflicts over versions of history.

The fifth and final panel, on new techniques, featured James Fellows of Lingnan, Wong Wai Ling of HKU, Michael Ng of HKU and Robert Bickers. Fellows is studying the economic discourses involved in the restriction of textile export quotas from Hong Kong. Wong’s work on the Aberdeen fishing community has involved an extensive and data-rich exercise in oral history. She has interviewed scores of fishermen and women over several years and delved deeply into their lives and the changing patterns of their business. This work has shown her that Hong Kong sits in the middle of the South China Sea – this is how the fishermen see it – not merely on the edge of China. Their focus for their livelihood is to the south, not the north and this point alone cries out for more exploration. Ng’s work involves the mapping of Hong Kong (following his similar work on Peking and Shanghai) by occupation (in his case, legal practitioners) as a way to use geography to glean larger insights into the shape of a city. This led into Bickers’ description of a project in Bristol he has been engaged with which is a public-facing mapping tool called Know Your Bristol. Members of the public can upload information about their homes or other significant locations, with digital images too, as a way to be part of public planning processes.

He concluded with the thought that the day’s mutual brain-pick had mapped out areas in which future ideas could develop. The goal, he said, was to facilitate connections and stimulate more Hong Kong histories. The next such workshop is scheduled for the autumn in Bristol.