- History and Identity in Hong Kong: Resisting China’s Political Control; Embracing China as the Motherland
Several recent publications related to the history of Hong Kong command attention. They include the works of Stephanie Chung, Chan Lau Kitching, Christopher Munn, and Philip Snow, of which I have written reviews for various journals.1 John M. Carroll’s Edge of Empires: Chinese Elites and British Colonials in Hong Kong is a recent welcome addition to this list of solid works. It is a revision of a Harvard doctoral thesis by a diligent, bright young scholar, who writes with enthusiasm and some insights.
This article critically reviews Carroll’s book, analyzing its strengths and weaknesses. In writing the critique, I also offer my thoughts on the theme of “history and identity”—most Hong Kong people resist political control from Beijing, while at the same time they embrace China as the motherland. The causes for their current predicament are deeply rooted in history.
This is a timely volume with contemporary political relevance. Memories of history still haunt people today.
Colonialism and Collaboration
In a theoretically informed introduction, Carroll rightly asserts: “We need more than theoretical criticisms or defenses of Orientalism, subaltern studies, and post-colonialism; we need more local histories that both engage and challenge these approaches . . . Colonies were not just about exploitation; they were also about how people learned to work within cracks” (pp. 9–10). He therefore seeks to “explore the fissures in British colonial rule that left room for local Chinese elites,” specifically, in early British Hong Kong. “The gulf between government and governed, the government’s failure to provide adequate medical facilities for its Chinese subjects, and its inability to provide a secure business environment all helped Chinese merchants obtain recognition by providing services to the local Chinese population and the government” (p. 10).
Carroll particularly stresses that “[f]or many Chinese in Hong Kong, colonialism was more of a liberating force than an oppressive one. Eager to escape the economic depravity and political turmoil of nineteenth- and twentieth-century China, most Chinese came to Hong Kong because of its economic opportunities and political stability” (p. 12). This helps to explain why Chinese of various classes and interest groups cooperated with British imperial efforts. This book recounts the rise of a Chinese bourgeoisie [End Page 78] in Hong Kong from 1841 to 1941, focusing on the elites who collaborated with the British colonials to build a place that these Chinese came to consider as their own.
Chapter 1, “Colonialism and Collaboration,” demonstrates that “Colonialism in Hong Kong was not imposed upon a passive Chinese population,” rather, it attracted many merchants, contractors, and laborers from the mainland. “Without Chinese help, there might well have been no colony” (p. 35). “Chinese cooperation assisted both the British victory in the Opium War . . . and the early development of the infant colony” (p. 21). Marginal figures such as Loo Aqui and Tam Achoy, who had provided British vessels with fuel and other supplies during the war, were rewarded with land and monopolies of opium and/or salt in the colony. Similarly, Kwok Acheong, a Tanka boatman who had helped the British during the war, became a comprador of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. These men began to acquire wealth and used it to become leaders of the colony’s Chinese community. These interesting stories are familiar to anyone who has read Carl Smith’s articles published decades ago;2 Carroll uses them to confirm Nicholas Dirks’s theory of colonialism, which challenged the common notion of an all-powerful colonial state, insisting instead that rulers were always aware of the limitations of colonial power. This theory explains the Hong Kong government’s need to reward and co-opt collaborators in building the colony.
Carroll uses the same approach in chapter 2, “A Better Class of Chinese: Building the Emporium of the East.” He demonstrates that in the colony’s early years Chinese merchants...