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Timothy Choy, Ecologies of Comparison: An Ethnography of Endangerment in Hong Kong Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011. 224pp. $22.95.

Hong Kong is awash in comparison. In the past two decades, the anxiety over its identity has been largely perpetuated by various reference points. As soon as Hong Kong began to develop its metropolitan image out of colonial modernity in comparison with its geopolitical other, “Mainland China,” in the late 1970s, it encountered the political uncertainty over its return to Chinese sovereignty in the following decades. At the same time Hong Kong people began to take pride in being one of the Four Asian Tigers or Dragons. Tim Choy’s discussion on “anticipatory nostalgia” and the politics of endangerment sharply captures the structure of feeling of this city at the turn of the century (28). The last two decades have witnessed how various forms of life in Hong Kong, natural and cultural, come to matter as “endangered species.” With his strong background knowledge in environmental science, Choy offers a new and useful toolkit for analyzing the identity politics of Hong Kong. For example, he repeatedly draws our attention to “specification,” a term frequently used by biologists to differentiate one species from another, and he further digs deeply into its cultural and political implications. This book definitely provides a breath of fresh air to the identity talk of Hong Kong.

I am particularly impressed by Choy’s elaboration of the botanists Gloria Barretto and Hu Shiu-ying and their naming of the new kind of orchid Spiranthes hongkongensis (54), which could enrich the discussion on the relationship between natural science and colonization. It is a great topic for the history of science and postcolonial studies. In her classic analysis of natural history and colonization, Mary Louise Pratt highlighted the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus’s classificatory system of plant forms on the planet as a discursive practice for European elites to situate themselves and their relations to the globe. It was not merely a matter of knowledge, but also a “planetary consciousness” marked by the imperial shift from coastal occupation to interior exploration (Pratt 1992: 28–29). It echoes with Michel Foucault’s stress on natural history as the modular form of Western knowledge and ordering system in the [End Page 641] eighteenth century (Foucault 1970: 132–36). The naming of the orchid in Hong Kong, albeit the fact that it was largely confined to a small circle of colonial elites, triggered not simply a new imperial gaze upon Hong Kong, but also a long and ramified process of specification in the social imaginary. Later on the rise in the 1990s of the pink dolphin as a local and national icon attests to the importance of specification of fauna and flora to the project of pursuing Dahksik (uniqueness) in Hong Kong.

After reading the first few chapters, I expected a Foucauldian genealogy of the politics of endangerment from various sites such as botany, environmental activism, and the cultural preservation campaign. How different subject positions and their social practices collaborate and contradict with one another in the late and postcolonial periods of Hong Kong interests me. However, in the following chapters, Choy’s account opens up more discursive sites, or “ecologies of comparison” in his terms, rather than weaving his ethnographic writings into an analysis of power. I am especially fascinated by his thick description of Rupert, a campaigner for Greenpeace China, and William, an environmental engineer and consultant for the Hong Kong government. It clearly demonstrates how these two actors negotiated their subject positions by comparing the local with various geopolitical others in the emergent field of environmentalism in Hong Kong. And it also reminds me of the significance of migratory paths and expatriates’ experience to the shaping of Hong Kong’s contemporary politics. But how this postcolonial moment of Hong Kong’s environmental politics is related to the politics of endangerment still puzzles me. To put it specifically, I am concerned about the following question: in what sense and to what extent do the local actors endorse, disavow, appropriate, modify, and even challenge the agenda set by the translocal elites? How should we characterize their...


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