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  • Hong Kong, 1898
  • Ross G. Forman (bio)

Describing Britain's only Crown colony in the Far East in 1898, John Thomson writes, "Many of the unlettered natives [of Hong Kong] have a notion that England is a small settlement on the borders of China, and that we as a people are wholly engaged in commerce with that Empire, and that Hongkong represents our greatest possession" (25-6). This picture of Britain through imaginary Chinese eyes is noteworthy for a number of reasons. It shocks British readers with the fact that at a distance from the metropole, much of the world might be ignorant of their global power; it envisages the "Middle Kingdom" as a forceful rival empire at a time when European observers discounted China as the "sick man of Asia"; and, in hindsight, it presents this outsiders' perspective just months before Britain expanded its territorial reign in the region. This expansion involved ratifying a ninety-nine-year lease for the so-called New Territories on the Kowloon mainland, as well as a more nebulous lease on the North Chinese area known as Wei-hai-wei, which ran until 1930. From another point of view, Thomson's passing remarks on one attitude of Hong Kong Chinese toward the British yields an image of Victorian imperialism at odds with the notion that the Pax Britannica brought profound changes to Britain's subject peoples. Far from the madding crowd and the civilizing mission, what Britain was overseeing abroad was, for the majority of those affected, more a matter of continuity than change—despite bursts of resistance among local populations.

Of course, the immense consequences that Britain's possession of the New Territories would have in the twentieth century, after the Communist takeover of China, could never have been contemplated at the end of the nineteenth century. Had the Manchu dynasty collapsed as predicted and the much anticipated "carve-up" of China taken place, things might have been quite different. Alternative histories aside, the British government did not intend the occupation of the New Territories as a bulwark in a project for future expansion; it was the result of practical considerations stemming from matters of defence and growth. The nearly four hundred added square miles dramatically increased [End Page 45] the colony's size but did little to alter its identity as an entrepôt, a toehold in southern China. Hong Kong remained a relatively unimportant piece of "foreign China"; it was no more than "a bit of the British Empire," which was the title of a book of illustrations of the colony published in the year the expansion was sealed. Shanghai was a much more crucial contact zone, and economically, much more significant.

Nevertheless, the feeling that Hong Kong might outgrow its reputation as a minor addendum to British interests in China was palpable, especially among metropolitan writers. British periodicals were quick to alert readers to this potential. An article in the Graphic entitled "The Recent Extension of Hong Kong" noted that Hong Kong was the chief arsenal of the British Navy in the Far East and that it "ranks immediately after London amongst all the ports of the British Empire" (751). Alexis Krausse, the author of China in Decay (1898), called the colony the "key to the Far East" in the Pall Mall Gazette. He added, "The possession is one of the most important outposts of British influence, and if properly used it might be converted into a stronghold from which to dominate the whole of the Far East, and serve to maintain our prestige therein" (1c).

Other reports commented on the agricultural and mineral resources of the leased land, the potential for Hong Kong to become more self-sufficient, and the possibility of developing an internal industry in cotton and sugar production that could spur Hong Kong's industrialization. Still others predicted a population influx that would prove the beneficence of the imperial system: "Under British rule it is certain the population will increase rapidly," opined the Graphic, "for the practical Chinaman is quick to recognize the benefits of living under a rule the keynote of which is 'a man's a man for a' that,' whatever his colour may...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 45-49
Launched on MUSE
2012-06-07
Open Access
No
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