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The Laureate Centre Reading Group discussed two pieces of Huang’s work: the unpublished Introduction to her book manuscript, titled Visual Fragments: Hong Kong in British Culture 1841-1941 and her article ‘“Hong Kong can afford a typhoon or two”: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

What We’re Reading: QandA with Jarrod Hore on ‘Settlers in Earthquake Country’

Jarrod Hore and Chi Chi Huang, 28 September 2021

Black and white photo of Alexander McKay’s son William on Glyn Wye station in 1888. McKay is sitting on the ground, using his body to indicate the size of the vertical rupture. It's the length of his legs, about 1 metre

Jarrod Hore: ‘Settlers in earthquake country: Apprehending instability in New Zealand and California’ (forthcoming in Pacific Historical Review) examines how two slightly different colonial societies responded to seismic instability throughout the late nineteenth century. Focusing on two earthquakes in Aotearoa New Zealand and two in California, I align the temporality of natural disaster with an economic temporality of settler colonial boom and bust. In contrast to more recent disasters, such as the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, settlers in earlier times often confronted seismic instability with optimism and enthusiasm. Despite some dissenting voices, most settlers were quick to resume their speculation on colonial markets in both Wellington in 1855 after the huge Wairarapa earthquake and in San Francisco after the 1868 Hayward quake. Shifts in the faults underlying Wellington and San Francisco could produce opportunities to reclaim land, improve infrastructure, and reiterate settler control.

In some ways earthquakes signify the creative destruction at the core of the settler colonial project, which ‘destroys to replace’ to adopt the terminology of the historian and theorist Patrick Wolfe. This was simple when boom economies insulated settlers from the anxieties of dispossession, but more complicated during crashes. In the aftermath of the 1888 North Canterbury earthquake for example, settlers were more circumspect about recovery, eventually reinventing the image of the city’s toppled cathedral as a symbol of stoic endurance. A more open articulation of instability inflected scientific reports in the aftermath of the 1872 Owens Valley event, which, according to the geologist Joseph LeConte, was a symptom of a whole world in a ‘rather unstable state of equilibrium.’

Read together, responses to these four events offer us a new way into the environmental history of settler colonialism. Earthquake country is, for me, an intriguing site to begin a consideration of the relationships between scientists and settlers, their environmental knowledge, and the physical world. These relationships always came back to the fundamental conflict over land between settlers and First Nations people, but they were also shaped by economic conditions that insulated colonists or exposed their worries.


Chi Chi Huang: I was struck that it was quite novel to think about Aotearoa New Zealand and California in the same historical space. You make a great case for thinking about both these places as comparable earthquake country, but could you expand a bit more about them as comparative sites within your research? And perhaps comment on the extent to which there was exchange or communication about these events and the subsequent approach to seeing them as moments of opportunity?

JH: It’s kind of interesting to reflect on that double register actually. I came to this topic through a wider comparative history of settler environmental attachment in nineteenth-century California and Australasia. We know that there was quite a high degree of trans-Pacific mobility throughout the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. Gold-seekers, to begin with, circulated from California to the Australian colonies to Otago. Later on, as Thomas Dunlap, Ian Tyrrell, and now Marilyn Lake have shown, agriculturalists, environmentalists, and politicians looked across the Pacific (from both sides) to adopt technologies and strategies to improve yield and preserve or transform environments. From this perspective it’s natural to think about National Parks, intensive settler agriculture, progressivism, and earthquakes as trans-Pacific phenomena. Of course the other fundamental history that these places share is one of Indigenous dispossession, which I think is important to always return to in environmental and economic histories.

I found that earthquakes, especially, were useful because they have a very clear material basis in plate tectonics. While those other phenomena can be explained by the exchange of people and ideas, I wondered whether there was something essential about shaky places that might reveal the fundamentals of settler colonialism. They were also almost immediately linked together within scientific networks. I start the essay with Charles Lyell, who upon learning of an 1855 earthquake in Wellington immediately tried to place its importance geologically in a kind of earthquake ‘power ranking.’ The causes of these earthquakes were a very much a live question within scientific networks, and so we get people like the geologist Josiah Whitney, in 1872, trying to place local events in a global ‘earthquake cycle,’ and the Berkeley geologist Joseph LeConte trying to emphasise the importance of comparison in studying seismic movement. Overall, I was initially quite surprised by how unperturbed settlers were in the aftermath of earthquakes, which I think attests to how powerful flows of capital and people could be when times were good in the colonies.

CH: While this is a story of scientists and settlers making sense of seismic instability, you mention that photographers and artists also participated in the production of sentimental post-disaster landscapes. How did photographers and/or artists contribute to the documentation and interpretation of these earthquakes? Were images created in the process of studying these earthquakes as well?

JH: Absolutely. Alfred Burton takes quite a striking photograph of the Christchurch cathedral in the wake of the 1888 north Canterbury earthquake (see below for image). This image has, as you say, quite a sentimental affect, and is reminiscent of some of the imagery we’re so familiar with now when seismic events from around the world are reported. Another settler, Alexander McKay surveyed the area around the Hope Fault closer to the epicentre of the quake in 1888 and took several photographs of fence lines shifted out of alignment and of vertical ruptures. These photographs ended up settling some contention over horizontal displacement and became part of a collection of about 150 photographs that McKay used to document his explorations of the cause of the elevation of the Kaikōura Ranges north of Christchurch.

McKay was particularly invested in photography as a way of communicating geological arguments, but this crossover wasn’t unique. Settler photographers were often involved in scientific debates and expeditions. In California, Eadweard Muybridge’s spectacular images of ‘glacier channels’ in Yosemite fed into a controversy about the formation of the valley that pitted those who figured that something like an earthquake created the valley and those who favoured glacial origin. Similarly, Carleton Watkins’ images of trees were used as botanical index images across the United States and his 1870 photograph of the Whitney glacier became an important piece of evidence in a disagreement about the existence of ‘living’ glaciers in California. I like to think there’s still sentimentality in these images, but no doubt it differs from the pictures of urban places that photographers captured in the wake of natural disasters.

CH: In my study of typhoons in Hong Kong during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I similarly saw how, in the aftermath of a destructive natural event, it became an opportunity. In the Hong Kong context, it was an opportunity to consolidate imperial sentiment. What other dimensions did this sense of settler optimism and enthusiasm take on in the aftermath of an earthquake?

JH: Certainly, there’s a version of imperial sentiment being consolidated in 1888 as the Burton Brothers were developing that image of the Christchurch cathedral and processing it into photographs, colourised images, and eventually, postcards. It becomes a visual marker of settler endurance in much the same way that McKay’s geological studies across Canterbury are eventually celebrated as a kind of hard-won knowledge about the formation of this part of Aotearoa. The image of the spire carries a bit of extra symbolic meaning, though, which leads to some provincial press writing about the ‘melancholy appearance of the wreck.’

Settler colonies are also places of that same imperial sentiment, but I tend to think there’s often a fundamental vulnerability hovering on the edges. As I mentioned earlier, in times of rude health settlers were adept at thinking optimistically or even opportunistically about natural disasters like earthquakes, but in more trying times or in contested places this vulnerability creeps in. 1888 was one such time in Canterbury. Historians refer to it as the ‘great bust’ and it comes after a long period intense conflict between Māori and Pākehā: the New Zealand Wars. While few settlers made these connections at the time, and while this conflict mostly took place in the North Island, I do think it’s important to link any expressions of doubt in the settler project in this period to this history of settler colonial conflict, as well as to those economic patterns of boom and bust.

Images (top of page): Alexander McKay’s son, William McKay, on Glyn Wye station in 1888. GNS Science (photo by: Alexander McKay). Images (from left): Alexander McKay’s son, William McKay on Glyn Wye station in 1888, GNS Science (Photo by Alexander McKay); Christchurch Cathedral, injured by earthquake, September 1, 1888, Dunedin, by Burton Brothers studio. Te Papa (C.011676) (Creative Commons)

What We’re Reading: QandA with Aprajita Sarcar

Stephen Pascoe and Aprajita Sarcar, 7 September 2021 – Jump to QandA

Last month, the Laureate Centre Reading Group read the work of Aprajita Sarcar, a New Delhi–based scholar of population history in post-independence India. She is in the process of converting her doctoral research into her first monograph and she shared two samples of her work with us: a chapter from her recently-completed PhD and the introduction to her book-in-the-making.

Sarcar’s work begins with a captivating description of how the slogan “Hum Do Hamare Do” (“we two, our two”) – first developed in the postwar decades as a family planning campaign to limit reproduction to two children per family – has retained a “cultural currency” in contemporary India. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the slogan was accompanied by the symbol of an inverted red triangle, a powerful “synecdoche for the nuclear family”. This fascinating artefact of cultural history is the point of entry to Sarcar’s central purpose in this book: to show how the postcolonial state created the “psycho-social conditions and built environments for the modern nuclear family to prosper”. The innovation of Sarcar’s approach to population history emerges clearly in this introductory chapter. While population control has long been understood by historians as a crucial element of modern statecraft, it has overwhelmingly been viewed in top-down, or centrifugal modes. In this work, we see things from the other side: how population control came to be widely accepted by Indian public and intimately embedded in postcolonial popular culture: what Sarcar dubs a “vernacular neo-Malthusianism”. Moreover, she pays attention to not only the targets but also the local agents of population management. Whereas the history of family planning in India has heretofore focused on elite actors – the Nehrus and the Gandhis making pronouncements for the nation from on high – she brings to life the previously anonymous officials working in the middle-rung bureaucracies (sarkari daftars). These “mid-to-lower-level bureaucrats,” writes Sarcar, “translated the logic, need and rationale for a planned family for the Indian populace”.

In Chapter 1, Sarcar provides a fascinating account of the role of family planning centres in the Indian capital in counselling new couples, as the postcolonial Indian state attempted to limit population growth. As Sarcar demonstrates compellingly, overpopulation was understood by state officials as the primary social problem in 1950s India, from which all other problems (such as malnourishment, overcrowded housing, and illiteracy) emanated. Recent improvements in income and health meant that Indian citizens were living longer; however, the associated problems of unchecked population growth, it was feared, would erode these gains in standards of living. Hence the enthusiasm for neo-Malthusianism as a nation-building project of first-order priority.

Methodologically, this work makes splendid use of previously underutilised archives of differing scale: from local municipal archives to those of transnational organisations like the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. This allows Sarcar to slide between scales of analysis and bring “the local and the global” into meaningful conversation: a task to which lip service is so often paid, but which is rarely achieved satisfactorily. The result is a richly textured social and cultural history of population which demonstrates how the work of population control seeped into the popular culture of post-Independence India.

Q. and A. with Stephen Pascoe:

In your analysis of the urban geography of postcolonial Delhi, you argue that “differing moral economies of governance” were applied across three distinctive spatialities: (1) New Delhi, “the privileged child of empire”, imagined as populated by model middle-class nuclear families; (2) Old Delhi, “the illegitimate older sibling”, inhabited by poorer, predominantly Muslim residents who were disproportionately targeted for sterilisation programs; and (3) the peri-urban zone of “urbanizing villages” which were seen as ripe for developmentalist intervention.

I am curious to know more about the intersection of class and religious identity. You write that middle-class Indians most enthusiastically embraced targeted sterilizations of lower-class peoples. How did this class attitude intersect with religious community, especially among minority communities? For instance, what of middle-class Muslims? Was there are sense of loyalty to one’s sect trumping enthusiasm for population control?

Before responding to the question, I would like to clarify my use of the terms ‘family planning’ and population control. I see family planning as an individual family’s decision to space births, use contraceptives and consciously curtail family size. Population control, on the other hand, is the state advocacy measures that include incentives for contraception and sterilizations. In the early decades of the 1950s-60s, I believe there is sufficient archival evidence to show that people were enthusiastic about family planning. They understood the postcolonial state’s attempts to link family size to economic productivity of the nation. This linkage was secular and I found no resistance on religious lines in the archival material I unearthed. For instance, an article from December 1967 showed the Shahi Imam from Jama Masjid (a prominent Muslim cleric) spoke to a large male audience to encourage them to use contraceptives.

But by the late 1960s, I see an ambiguity creep in, as to how individuals accessed contraceptives. Again, it is important to mention that people were doubtful about the efficacy of the various contraceptives available, and not about the need for population control. In the early years of the 1970s, there were drastic shifts in the way large families were linked to specific communities. Scholars have shown how transnational funders, who wanted to see a major dip in birth rates, may have pushed the national programmes towards harsher measures of population control around this time. This rushed advocacy pushed for long-term sterilizations as a poverty removal measure. In this frenzy to curtail birth rates, we see the first discussions on high Muslim fertility. A similar line of editorials and commentaries in newspapers linked large families to subaltern populations. In fact, I believe even in the discussions about saffron demography today, we see large families as symptoms of poverty and illiteracy, as if reducing family size would automatically and immediately translate to capital gains for the community. So now we have a situation wherein upper caste Hindu nuclear families see themselves as ideal citizens and blame high fertility on communities who do not share their historical location.

In our reading group discussion, there was an interesting conversation on how best to understand Malthusianism in twentieth century India, and how bureaucrats absorbed and promoted what you call “vernacular neo-Malthusianism”. Could you expand on that here? How do “Malthusian” ideas get translated from Malthus’ writings to a framework of government policy?

This response will be a slightly disappointing as I am still thinking through this discussion. Through scholarship on birth control debates in late colonial India, we know that a section of elite Indians were reading Malthus. Annie Besant was based in India. Her advocacy for contraception did not wither away when she started supporting Indian voices for self rule. She brought those conversations with her to the independence movement. Educated, upper class Indian intelligentsia invited Margaret Sanger and other birth control advocates to speak to political leaders in the country. However, the lines of influence get murkier in the post-Independence scenario. We have a national bureaucracy welded to the idea that birth rates need to be curtailed in order for the national income to go up. Were the middle and lower-rung bureaucrats aware that this logic came from a text written in 1798? I don’t think so. However, the fact that a link existed cannot be denied. I am therefore proposing that Malthusian ideas of population growth, of linking fertility to material prosperity, became vernacularized. These ideas were translated in different contexts and reached the postcolonial political geography in India in ways Malthus may or may not have imagined. Studying the municipal or city-level governance of family planning advocacy in Delhi from 1950s to 70s helps me unearth this localized interpretation of Malthusian ideas.

You also mentioned in our discussion that “age” is controversial as a category in census-taking in India. Could you explain why?

There has been some work on the early enumeration practices for censuses. Sumit Guha has shown that census taking as a modern state practice borrowed from earlier traditions of documenting age, occupation and family histories. The process of documentation was more complex than a simple teleological affair. Ishita Pande in her work on child marriages in colonial India shows how contentious age as a category was to determine consensual sex or even forced marriages of young girls. Social technologies like the census, or a law to curb child marriages depend on the biological grounds of the ‘correct’ age of a person, as against a fluid concept with astrological determinants. This friction between a modern concept of age and a more translucent one which relies on social roles (or planetary positions) made census taking a contentious act.

Read More: Aprajita Sarcar on population policy imagery in post-Independence India