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Long Shadow of the Union Jack

Written by: on June 7, 2018

In both style and substance, Steve Tsang’s in depth work, A Modern History of Hong Kong is well worth the read.  Surveying the history of Hong Kong from 1842 with its founding as a “Crown Colony” in the aftermath of the First Anglo-Chinese War (also known as “The First Opium War”), Tsang traces the development of the place, its people, and especially its relationships with the outside world.

Many of the broad brush stroke events and names will be familiar to a general audience of history readers.  The way the British colonial empire operated through the East India Company to establish trading relationships and monopolies around the world.  The way the Empire then backed up those mercantilist claims with militaristic might.  The way that, through pressure, threats and outright war, the Empire laid claim to far flung territories around the globe.

This was the case with Hong Kong, which, the then-British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston described as, “a barren island with hardly a house upon it”[1]when the British took possession of it.  What becomes clear throughout this book is that it is impossible to untangle the history of Hong Kong from the presence and involvement of the British.  The very characteristics of the place and its people are formed through the ongoing encounters with the outside world, specifically the British Empire.

Tsang explains that, “British rule… led to the rise of a people that remains quintessentially Chinese and yet share a way of life, core values and an outlook that resemble at least as much, if not more, that of the average New Yorker or Londoner, rather than that of their compatriots in China.  The modern history of Hong Kong must therefore address how the residents of Hong Kong came of age as a people with a common identity and shared worldview.”[2]

Part of the critical response to this book has focused on this idea of what it actually means to write a “modern history of Hong Kong”.  Danny Yee points that that, “despite publication in 2004 and the “modern” in the title, there’s no coverage of the post-1997 period, of Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region of China.”[3]

Another reviewer adds that, “insofar as it spans a time frame that historians call modern, it is without doubt a modern history, but it should be called more precisely a history of British Hong Kong.”[4]  Here, the question is about perspective and the personal location of the author, as a Hong Kong resident, of Chinese background and British training. Tsang makes a claim near the end of his book that the only way to assess the legacies that the British have bequeathed is through the prism of personal experience nad perspective.  Indeed, this history looks very different to a mainland Chinese Communist party official, or a Foreign Secretary in an office in London, or, for Tsang as “an academic historian of the British liberal tradition who grew up in Hong Kong and witnessed first-hand its transformation from the 1960’s.”[5]

Throughout the book, Tsang offers both the positive and negative aspects of British colonial rule as it affected the development and history of Hong Kong.  He writes glowingly that, “the greatest contribution of British rule in this regard was to provide the political framework and social stability that enabled Hong Kong’s economy to flourish.”[6]  He himself is a beneficiary of this system, and the opportunities that it has afforded to many of those involved.  At the same time, he describes a kind of “benevolent paternalism” and even “implicit racism” that was always present during colonial times.

“The government in Hong Kong, like colonial governments elsewhere in the British Empire, generally did not bother to legislate to discriminate against the colonial subjects because it was unnecessary.”[7]  The racial/ethnic dynamics of Hong Kong paralleled the class-consciousness of the British, Chinese and other groups (Parses, Portuguese and Indians).  This meant that there was much de facto segregation rather than de jure, as it was the British who sent the overall tone and context for life in Hong Kong, and the population had to adapt and operate within it.

It is clear that Tsang has much appreciation and respect for the unique history of his city.  For this reason Chun reflects that Tsang, “prefers to avoid in any serious way”[8], a focus on imperialism or colonialism, even though it is the larger context around this place and its people.

In the end, this book is a detail packed, well-researched and well-written history.  The larger scope of events is made clear and the author makes good use of primary sources as well as contemporary accounts (like newspaper articles) to bring the story to life.  The “modern history of Hong Kong” is still being written, as 20 years have now passed since the handover from British control.

It seems that, if the past is any directional indicator for the future, Hong Kong will continue to be marked by the forces of international business, the interchange between China and the West, and the striving for quality of life and rule of law amidst a changing environment.  It is a fascinating place to read about, and even more so, to visit.

[1]Steve Tsang, a Modern History of Hong Kong (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), 14.

[2]  Steve Tsang, a Modern History of Hong Kong (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), ix.

[3]Danny Yee, “a Modern History of Hong Kong Steve Tsang,” http://dannyreviews.com/, accessed June 7, 2018, http://dannyreviews.com/h/Hong_Kong.html.

[4]Allen Chun, review of a Modern History of Hong Kong, by Steve Tsang, East Asia: An International Quarterly(January, 2006): 86-88, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322355046_Book_Review_of_Steve_Tsang_A_Modern_History_of_Hong_Kong_1841-1997_2004.

[5]Steve Tsang, a Modern History of Hong Kong (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), 274.

[6]Steve Tsang, a Modern History of Hong Kong (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), 274.

[7]Steve Tsang, a Modern History of Hong Kong (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), 62.

[8]Allen Chun, review of a Modern History of Hong Kong, by Steve Tsang, East Asia: An International Quarterly(January, 2006): 86-88, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322355046_Book_Review_of_Steve_Tsang_A_Modern_History_of_Hong_Kong_1841-1997_2004.

 

About the Author

Dave Watermulder

3 responses to “Long Shadow of the Union Jack”

  1. Mark Petersen says:

    Great post, Dave.

    You said, “Tsang makes a claim near the end of his book that the only way to assess the legacies that the British have bequeathed is through the prism of personal experience and perspective.” How this prism differs for each individual!! I am currently dealing with a conflict – one person believes something wholeheartedly and is fully convinced that the other was wanting to offend. The other sees things completely differently, and would see things in a completely benign way. Tsang’s perspectives are definitely slanted toward supporting the British period. It’s his perspective.

  2. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Dave,

    Well written my Brother. I can almost see you smile when you write it. You have a bright mind, and all of us see it in you. The more in depth a book, the better able you are to parcel it out understandably.

    I think your points about this book really being about the colonial part of history of Hong Kong is accurate. Lucky for us, because if they didn’t speak English, we wouldn’t be visiting for our next Advance! Can hardly wait to go there with our group…

  3. Shawn Hart says:

    Dave, your post reminded me a little about our trip to South Africa, in that, they too had influences of Christianity added as a result of British colonization efforts. That provoked the question for me regarding the how much the need to colonize someone else’s country also influenced their own interpretation of God? We have had a lot of discussion in this course lately regarding the nature and influences of mission work, but from a truly political outlook, the primary intent of the British was not really set on evangelism, but rather ruling authority. Does the desire to dominate a culture, taint the very fabric of Christianity? I just cannot believe that this kind of process could actually present the right aspect on brotherly love and Christian hope that a more personal method of mission work would have instilled.

    Perhaps understanding the progression of Christianity could be better understood in China if we also took the time to understand the motives of why early Christianity was presented to them.

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