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  • Gender and Community under British Colonialism: Emotion, Struggle, and Politics in a Chinese Village
  • Michael G. Chang
Gender and Community under British Colonialism: Emotion, Struggle, and Politics in a Chinese Village. By Siu Keung Cheung (New York and London: Routledge, 2007. xvi plus 199 pp. $95.00).

Anniversaries, by definition, invite historical reflection. On the tenth anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from British to mainland Chinese (PRC) sovereignty, then, what are we to make of this much heralded event? This detailed yet compact study is a timely reminder that answers to such questions must be framed within the longer sweep of history. Only against some understanding of the past may we adduce the degree and nature of change. With this in mind, the author, as both an ethnographer and a native son, explores the impact of British colonial rule on one Chinese community-Da Shu village in the New Territories-prior to the watershed of July 1, 1997.

Chapter 1 provides a historical overview of the New Territories-covering the initial British acquisition of the region in 1898, the implementation of "indirect rule" shortly thereafter, the economic and demographic transformations following World War II as well as the diplomatic and legal accommodations that preceded the end of colonial rule in mid-1997. Chapter 2 details how the region's rapid industrialization and commercialization affected Da Shu village, spawning both out-migration (to Hong Kong and abroad) and influxes of rural mainlanders as well as a shift in land utilization, away from agricultural production toward landlordism (rent collection and property development) (44, fig. 2.2). Here Cheung focuses on officially conferred land rights (dingquan), which permitted "indigenous males in the New Territories to construct one premium-free [tax free] village house during their lives" (56). His account of wealthy individuals purchasing the dingquan of kinsmen as a broader strategy of land development and personal enrichment foreshadows the main argument of Chapter 3-that "British colonial rule ... ultimately reinforced the landed privileges [of] Chinese patriarchs" by allowing them to gain "increasingly substantial economic advantages from their agnatic corporation as a result of the rapidly rising market value of their land," all of which was "made possible by the general development of the New Territories" after World War II (80).

From a scholarly perspective, none of this is entirely new. Indeed, footnotes indicate Cheung's indebtedness to contemporaries such as David Faure and Allen Chun. As such, some readers may chafe at his belaboring of what is by now well-documented and widely accepted view that village life in the New Territories hardly remained static under the ostensibly "noninterventionist" policies of British "indirect rule." But two points are worth noting here in the author's [End Page 207] defense. First, the portrayal of the New Territories as a pristine bastion of "Chinese tradition" persists in tourist, journalistic, and even textbook accounts (5). Second, knocking down intellectual straw-men (scholarship from the 1950s and 1960s) is not Cheung's ultimate end, but rather a necessary precondition to a deeper understanding of the local practices and daily concerns of Da Shu village's denizens.

Chapter 4, one of the book's richest, examines the social effects of Chinese patriarchy, highlighting its complexities, its indeterminacies, and its vulnerabilities when confronted with the exigencies of daily practice. Although most villagers in Da Shu village internalized an ideal of a male-centered nuclear household-with the husband acting "as a full-time breadwinner, the wife as a full-time mother, and the children as full-time students"-this was not a practical reality, at least until the onset of economic transformations in the 1960s and 1970s (82). Instead, both men and women, young and old, ensured the economic viability of their families in various and sundry (and ideologically unprescribed) ways. Gendered hierarchies, moreover, generated differences in lived realities. While many village women carried a "double-burden" of fieldwork and housework (85), "men frequently fail[ed] to achieve the fundamental domestic requirements and social expectations of the dominant patriarchal discourse" (86). Avuncular adoptions (guoji, the transfer of sons between brothers) might resolve some men's inability to sire their own heirs (87), but many men still...


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