What We’re Reading – Visual Fragments: Hong Kong in British Culture, 1841-1941

QandA with Chi Chi Huang and Emma Thomas, 12 October 2021

A postcard from Hong Kong, dated 1910. It shows Hong Kong as a small port city, with a mountain in the background. In the top centre, there is a Christmas greeting in Pidgin English.

Chi Chi Huang is an environmental and medical humanities historian of the British Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her research interests lie in the intersection of transnational and imperial histories, with a focus on Southeast Asia and China. Her doctoral research on the production of British popular and visual cultures of Hong Kong explores the environment as commodity, the notion of an imperial ideal, and tropicality. Huang’s next project takes the third plague pandemic in Australia as a starting point to explore the history of the Australian-Asian connection through the lens of health.

The Laureate Centre Reading Group discussed two pieces of Huang’s work: the unpublished Introduction to her book manuscript, titled Visual Fragments: Hong Kong in British Culture 1841-1941 and her article ‘“Hong Kong can afford a typhoon or two”: British discussions of revolving storms’, published recently in the British Journal of the History of Science.

In the Introduction to Visual Fragments, Huang outlines how Hong Kong, a small entrepot, featured persistently in British popular culture before World War II. She reveals how Hong Kong’s existence in British popular culture functioned differently to other larger colonies like India and British colonial holdings in Australia and Africa. Hong Kong came into the British imperial mindset at the height of its empire, and as such, it was frequently imagined and portrayed not as its own space, but as a reflection of other British spaces and a connector of imperial networks. It is upon this myriad of associations that Hong Kong is construed as an ideal tropical and cosmopolitan colony as a result of British rule. Huang draws on a rich and varied archive in order to advance her arguments about the place of Hong Kong in British culture, beginning with a compelling analysis of a postcard, made in Hong Kong around 1910. As Huang argues, picturesque imagery portrayed the island as a model colony, whose orderly nature and aesthetic similarities to the Home Counties signaled British ‘colonising genius’ to metropolitan viewers. Huang’s article ‘Hong Kong can afford a typhoon or two’ extends this analytical frame through a fascinating examination of British discourses on weather events in the region. In studying how the experience of typhoons affecting Hong Kong were covered in the British press and scholarly publications, she argues that the occurrence of a typhoon became an opportunity to celebrate colonial and cosmopolitan unity within this colony. These discourses demonstrated the perception of successful British authority in the aftermath of a crisis, but also British authority over the management of the weather.

Q & A

Q (Emma Thomas): Hong Kong emerges in your analyses as occupying a paradoxical space in imperial British imaginaries in a number different ways. Firstly, there’s the ‘tropical paradox,’ in the beauty and prosperity of the island sit uneasily next to the dangers of disease and chaos associated with tropical locales. Related to this, Hong Kong is portrayed as a ‘model colony,’ but it is also one that is associated in British imaginaries with disorder, criminality, and immorality. Perhaps most strikingly, Hong Kong was simultaneously a ‘small colony’ and one of the largest and most important ports in the British empire. How do these contradictions contribute to Hong Kong’s unique position within the empire?

A (Chi Chi Huang): I would argue that Hong Kong’s unique position within the British empire came from the fact that it sat in the margins of imperial concern. There were episodic scandals and sagas that shone a negative light onto the colony from the metropole. However, the way it moved into and out of public concern in Britain, bolstered by its significance as a trading port, enabled the perception that it had been developed into the perfect vision of what a tropical colony could be. This was made all the more apparent in the fact that Hong Kong was frequently spoken about in direct contrast to the Chinese mainland, to Macau, to the Malaya Straits, but also in direct comparison to visions of Europe and Britain.

Q: As a historian of the German empire, your research brought to my mind George Steinmetz’s argument in The Devil’s Handwriting – that oscillations between Sinophilia and Sinophobia were key factors in shaping German colonialism in Qingdao. Do you see similar factors at work in the case of British rule in Hong Kong? And if so, how did this play out over the time period you study?

A: What a great question. While the oscillation between Sinophilia and Sinophobia certainly played a factor in the ways that Hong Kong was represented in British culture, the subject of my study, I think this was not a large factor in the colonial rule of Hong Kong. This is mainly because there was a sense of distance created between Hong Kong—as a fundamentally British vision of a developing colonial city—with China. This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t an anxiety about China and the Chinese. That was a continual presence. Rather, there wasn’t an oscillation towards the admiration for Chinese characteristics in the same way. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that British rule in Hong Kong was impacted by a fluctuation of Sinophobia at different times.

Q: I was fascinated to learn about how weather events like typhoons were mobilized by the British as a legitimizing narrative of empire. You also demonstrate that British colonialism in Hong Kong was predicated on the colony’s being ‘made barren’ so that it could in turn be reconfigured as a tropical ideal. With this emphasis on environment, I’m interested to know if these British imaginaries effectively worked to de-people Hong Kong in ways that also served imperial claims. How do local people appear (or not) in the British discourses you study?

A: There are two ways in which the island of Hong Kong was ‘de-peopled’ in the British imaginaries. When the British first took control of Hong Kong, it was only of the island. It wasn’t until 1860, that the Kowloon Peninsula on the Chinese mainland was ceded to Britain. So early references to local or existing Chinese people in Hong Kong were referring to people who lived on the water or lived in small villages. While the population on the water was a concern for the British colonial government, they were considered fluid and not part of the landscape, and thus didn’t pose in those early years a claim to the land of Hong Kong. In the nineteenth century, narratives of the local population in the small villages tended to veer towards the same orientalist tropes used to depict any Chinese villages at that time, rendered them an ornamental addition to the landscape. With the establishment of the colony and extension of the colony into mainland China, the majority of the ‘local’ population was Chinese, but they were seen again to be fluid and migratory under British rule. So while this Chinese population became the local, supplanting the villages and water population, they were similarly divorced from the land in these British discourses. Effectively, British discourses rendered Hong Kong barren of people and civilization at the very moment it was ceded to Britain.

About the authors:

Dr Chi Chi Huang is a postdoctoral research fellow at UNSW, working on the ARC Special Initiative Project, ‘Rethinking Medico-Legal Borders: From international to internal histories.’ She holds a PhD from HKU (2018) and an MPhil from Cambridge. Her doctoral research on the production of British popular and visual cultures of Hong Kong explores the environment as commodity, the notion of an imperial ideal, and tropicality.

Dr Emma Thomas is a postdoctoral research fellow with the Laureate Centre for History and Population at UNSW Sydney. She specialises in histories of gender, labour and colonialism, with a focus on transnational histories of Oceania and Europe. Her doctoral dissertation (Michigan, 2019) and first book project analyses intersections of gender and sexuality, labour regimes, violence, and demographic concerns in Papua New Guinea under German colonial rule.

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