in Book Reviews Hong Kong
This is a book review that's been sitting in draft stage as a collection of raw quotes and no commentary since mid 2007. Edge of Empires: Chinese Elites and British Colonials in Hong Kong by John M Carroll, © 2005 (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, ISBN 0-674-01701-3) is perhaps the best book I've read describing Hong Kong's socio-economic development under colonialism.
I took a few of those quotes for this post in August 2007 on HK's Chinese elite and how they see themselves as separate and above the general Chinese population here.
This touches on one of the keys to the accuracy of the book. Old school historians either were apologists for colonialism, trying to focus on the education or infrastructure they brought to places like Africa or Tibet or India, or they openly decried colonialism as sucking the life out of a country and keeping the locals down. There is a new school that sees both of these schools of thought as unrealistic. Far from keeping all of the locals down and sucking the life out of a country, colonialism inevitably formed/forms a symbiotic relationship with a certain strata of locals, who use the symbiotic relationship to accomplish their own goals, which may not mix with the colonialists.
Yet, by forming their own exclusive social world instead of trying to join the Europeans' world, they were able to define themselves in contrast to the European bourgeoisie and thereby highlight their own uniqueness. Had the leaders of the Chinese bourgeoisie tried to join the European social world, they would have remained in a subordinate position. In their own social world, however, they were the undisputed masters.
Some fine examples of this are the Tung Wah Hospital group, which still puts on gala shows to allow HK's elite to parade themselves above the masses, while providing an opportunity for the masses to buy in to this group via donations to the charity. This elite didn't just create a parallel social hierarchy to the European social world, but to the social world across the border.
The leaders of the Hong Kong bourgeoisie claimed to represent the interests of the colony. They were conscious, indeed proud, of their contributions to economic development in Hong Kong and China. They were careful about the people with whom they associated, how they conducted their professional and social lives, and how they presented themselves to the rest of society. As elsewhere, the bourgeoisie was united by a strong sense of itself in regard to other classes. In Hong Kong, this bourgeoisie identified itself against a wide array of "others", including the Chinese bourgeoisie in China, the local European bourgeoisie, and the Chinese lower classes of the colony.
But Hong Kong's Chinese elite was not a spontaneous phenomenon. They were created and nurtured by the colonial leaders.
In early Hong Kong, colonialism not only required collaboration with a local elite, it also helped create a local elite. Although the British did not attempt to create a local bourgeoisie as actively, for example, as the Japanese after annexing Korea, the making of the Chinese business class was inseperably linked with the colonial nature of the island. By rewarding such men with privileges—for example, land grants—and offering them lucrative monopolies, the government helped foster the growth of a local Chinese business elite. By enforcing separate business and residential districts for Chinese, the colonial government provided them with a domain in which to flourish (though this did not always work to the government's advantage). Hong Kong did not merely continue patterns of collaboration; it intensified and institutionalized them.
Would you be surprised that from the very beginning of colonial occupation of Hong Kong, that one of the prime "gifts" to reward the right sort of businessman was land?
Land grants constituted one important source of wealth. The new government used these to reward those Chinese who had helped the British secure and develop the island. For his services during the Opium War, Loo Aqui received a plot of valuable land in the Lower Bazaar. He was later able to obtain, through other grants or purchases eased by his connections to the colonial regime, many more lots in the Lower Bazaar.
And it didn't stop at land grants to individuals.
p.113 - 114
That many Chinese had come to see Hong Kong as their permanent home became evident in December 1911, two months after the Chinese republican revolution. Ho Kai and seventeen other Chinese petitioned Governor Frederick Lugard for a permanent cemetery for "Chinese permanently residing in Hong Kong."
In July 1912 Lugard's successor, Francis May, happily approved the request. As May explained to the Colonial Office, Lugard had supported the proposal because "it would tend to create a colonial feeling and to specialize a class who desire to identify themselves with the Colony."
In fact a real history of early Hong Kong calls in to question the official narratives, including about Hong Kong's growth being the result of the free market and free trade.
Apart from land grants, the early colonial regime introduced other measures that made the colony attractive to Chinese willing to settle there. Scholars of all political stripes have stressed the role of free trade in Hong Kong's economic development. This economy, however, was neither free nor, at least in the early years, impressive. An elaborate system of monopolies and farms, usually offered at public auction, regulated the production, preparation, and retail of commodities such as opium and salt. Liquor and tobacco were licensed and taxed. Ironically, it was from these same types of regulations and monopolies that the British has insisted the Opium War and the "imperialism of free trade" would liberate China.
So how did these official narratives get formed? Marketing 101 and collaboration between the colonial leaders and Hong Kong's Chinese elite.
If defined at all, Hong Kong has generally been delimited by its negative qualities: a sleepy colonial backwater overshadowed until 1949 by semicolonial Shanghai; a capitalist paradise without history or culture, where nothing matters but money; a place where the only political values are pragmatism and apathy; and a haven for sojourners or refugees with only a temporary identity. Even the legendary "Hong Kong success story" depends on Hong Kong's negative qualities: before the British arrived in the late 1830s, Hong Kong was nothing but a "barren rock"; prior to the communist revolution of 1949, when entrepreneurs from Shanghai poured into the colony, Hong Kong was just a colonial entrepot with little industry of its own—and the best-known appellation of all, "borrowed place, borrowed time," is based on the assumption that Hong Kong has no real time or place of its own.
None of these are historically true, but they've all been told uncountable times as part of the official narrative and conventional wisdom. For example:
Even though Hong Kong's industries were highly developed before 1949, when entrepreneurs came from Shanghai to escape communist rule, the government maintained that Hong Kong's economic success was due to the entrepot trade. This interpretation followed from colonial policy, which dictated that Hong Kong should be an entrepot, even though Chinese industry was the largest employer in the colony.
Through dating the "real" history of Hong Kong to its founding as a British colony—they linked themselves to this history. By stressing the colony's commercial growth, they stressed their own role in the process.
By discounting anything that had gone before, they raised their own importance in the historical narrative. This can still be seen at work today in Hong Kong as archaeological studies of the time prior to the Elite Families of the New Territories go underfunded and underworked.
Another fine example provided for the social reinforcement of the Chinese elite and the moulding of the official narratives were the directories of prominent business and social persons in the colony.
Regardless of their intent—whether to display the human "holdings" of the British Empire or to illustrate how a colonial society should be organized—these guides and directories distinguished such Chinese from the rest of the colony's Chinese residents. By showing how far some Chinese businessmen had come since the colony's early days, they explained the rules for making it to the top of Hong Kong society.
And since 1997 the rules for making it to the top of Hong Kong society haven't changed much, with a simple switch of allegiance from London to Zhongnanhai being enough to boost one to the very top of society.
Although Hong Kong has returned to China, it has not been de-colonized. Rather, it has been re-colonized, with the metropole, simply shifting from London to Beijing. The new cadres coming down from Beijing are reminiscent of the early British administrators in the 1800s, with their own language, their own clubs, and their own condescending attitudes toward their new subjects.
If you're going to read one book about Hong Kong's socio-economic development during the colonial period and want to come away with the groundwork to understand the current socio-economic and political situations in Hong Kong, this is it.