- Crossed Paths: Labor Activism and Colonial Governance in Hong Kong, 1938–1958 by Yan Lu
When I wrote about the colonial history of Hong Kong, I was perplexed by the fact that few academic studies paid attention to labor activism in Hong Kong. This does not mean that none could be found. The problem is that most historiographies of labor activism were either written in Chinese or only focused on themes so narrowly confined such as labor relations (see, e.g., Zhou 2002; Ng 1986). Consequently, labor activism has yet to be subjected to academic scrutiny and remained as an underexplored topic of Hong Kong studies. That is unfortunate because labor activism in Hong Kong used to be vibrant and could effectively challenge the colonial administration and undermine the sociopolitical order, as the notable case of the Hong Kong–Canton General Strike and Boycott demonstrated. Given that labor activism and the governance of it were so crucial for us to understand the political dynamics of Hong Kong society, it is no exaggeration that scholars should fill such an important gap. In this sense, Crossed Paths should be regarded as a timely contribution.
Crossed Paths is remarkable for many reasons. Among them, two are most salient. In terms of rigorousness, the book is a masterpiece. The book leverages archival records from both Chinese and British sides as well as union organizers' autobiographies. In doing so, triangulation allows Lu to juxtapose various sources of evidence when interpreting historical events and therefore depict a thoroughgoing picture of the popular political experiences in Hong Kong. Theoretically, Lu not only contours labor activism in Hong Kong but also brings the case back to the discussion of working class formation in China argued by labor historian Jean Chesneaux that industrialization led to the emergence of the "new working class solidarity" (p. 1). The case of Hong Kong is compelling because it shared "demographic similarity to other modern Chinese cities" and [End Page 283] was under colonial rule, and could, therefore, shed light on how the working class took collective action under foreign rule, contrasting with "the case of foreign domination that fragmented Shanghai textile workers" (p. 4).
The central thrust of Crossed Paths is that labor activism in Hong Kong was an outcome of two intersecting forces: "civic activism for national salvation" and London's intervention in colonial labor affairs (pp. 9, 10). Civic activism for national salvation, "the popular impulse toward voluntary action . . . to resist foreign invasion" (p. 9), was in place on various occasions, as Lu demonstrates. Despite crackdowns by the colonial administration, the Seamen's Union soon became active and prominent in aiding China's war against Japan through boycotting Japanese products and donating funds (pp. 56–60). In the workplace, nationalistic sentiment induced Chinese workers to act, and labor organizers were able to leverage workers' grievances to organize strikes. Members of labor organizations later joined the Chinese Communist Party and, under its instructions, became the East River guerrillas during the Japanese occupation. For labor activism, this period was pivotal because it provided an opportunity for activists to extend their social influences through the provision of social services and armed protection to the Chinese in rural Hong Kong (p. 84). It also helped the activists to gain the limited trust of the British after participating in paramilitary operations such as a "rescue mission" for the Allied personnel (pp. 100–106).
These historical experiences "gave new meaning and opened a new vision to those whose lives never mattered . . . Fighting for the survival of one's own country . . . dignified the resisters" (p. 110). Thus, when labor activists and workers returned to the workplaces in the postwar era, they took pride in their national identity, resisted the pro-business social order through strikes, and eventually became a powerful social force that the colonial authority deemed a threat. The strength of labor activism could be seen in the case of the Hong...