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Book Review


Carroll, John M. A Concise History of Hong Kong (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Inc.). 270 pp, $24.95.
      The former British colony of Hong Kong, and historians who study that city, sometimes seem to be neither fish nor fowl. The study of Hong Kong lies in the intersection of imperial, Chinese and world historiography. John M. Carroll, a historian of both China and Hong Kong, illustrates precisely this point. Carroll effectively situates the history of Hong Kong within the context of imperial and world events. More than that, however, Carroll intertwines these events to show how they affected the colony as well as how Hong Kong impacted both its region and the world. Carroll narrates how Hong Kong from the outset served as an integral part of the British India trade and, because of its unique placement in that trade, became the nexus of five overlapping trade networks with China, southeast Asia, India, Britain (and Europe) and the Americas. (35) As such Hong Kong, according to Carroll, exists not only as a window to and for China, but also provides a unique vantage point to explore the history of these interlocking systems of world trade and cross-cultural interaction.

     In addition to serving as a major hub of the Pacific trade, Hong Kong also became China's most crucial link to the rest of the world. It has served as a window for both China watchers and for the Chinese to view the west. This was especially true, as Carroll points out, during the United States' and the United Nations' involvement in the Korean conflict because of the trade embargos imposed on mainland Chinese products. This embargo also served as an economic boon to the colony by forcing it to shift from a trade entrepot to one of manufacturing. Not only is Hong Kong an integral part of modern Chinese history and development, it is also part of British colonial history. While the overriding culture of Hong Kong is Chinese, observers should not underestimate the impact of British colonial rule on the development of its cultural and social life. (3)

     Carroll devotes a good deal of space to tracing that distinctiveness and the development of a Hong Kong identity. Indeed, the Chinese residents of Hong Kong have often distinguished themselves from their counterparts on the mainland.(6) This was especially true during the Chinese Communist Revolution, when it became clear that the inhabitants of Hong Kong—while often sympathetic to either Nationalists or Communists—identified themselves first with Hong Kong rather than China. In fact, by the 1990s most Chinese in Hong Kong preferred colonial rule and the opportunities provided under British auspices to that of being Chinese.

     Hong Kong is also important for understanding comparative colonial history. As Carroll points out, many scholars argue that much of the world is still colonial, or neo-colonial, in that the Euro-American nations have historically derived much of their wealth and power at the expense of the less fortunate African, Asian, and Latin American nations. (4) Hong Kong, however, bucks this trend. As British rule in Hong Kong came to a close, it held the world's seventh largest foreign reserves and was the world's third largest exporter of clothing. Moreover, it had the second highest per capita gross domestic product in Asia (after Japan) having passed that of Australia, Britain, and Canada. (7)

     Despite its obvious importance, scholars of British colonialism have paid more attention to Africa and India than to Hong Kong. Within the scholarship on Hong Kong, most research focused on colonial administration without much observance of Chinese contributions who made up the overwhelming majority of the colony's denizens. It is only in the last two decades that scholars, mostly based in Hong Kong, have constructed a much more complex and nuanced history that considers both Hong Kong's colonial features and the contributions of local Chinese to its historical development. (2)

     Current historians, like Carroll, offer a much more balanced view of both positive and negative aspects of colonialism in Hong Kong which is Anow understood more as a layer of encounters, some based on bewilderment but others based on mutual understanding. (5) Colonial rule in Hong Kong did not always interrupt the lives of its natives nor make sweeping changes in Chinese culture. For example, Carroll discusses the custom of Mui-Tsai (little sister). This was the practice of impoverished families selling daughters to wealthy ones as servants in order to provide money for the former and domestic help for the latter. Even though many British protested this as a form of slavery, the colonial government interfered as little as possible in what the Chinese called a longstanding part of their culture. This lack of interference enabled Mui-tsai to continue well after World War II and even into the 1970s. Part of the motivating factor for this is that the colony could not have survived without Chinese collaboration and cooperation. Additionally, the author makes good use of both traditional historiography and more current studies of Hong Kong in order to provide a more balanced view of both colonial and Chinese forces and personalities which shaped the colony's development.

     Carroll successfully attempts to dispel many of the myths about Hong Kong that persisted throughout decades of colonialism and scholarship. One of the more persistent ones was that Hong Kong had been a Abarren island until the arrival of the British. Carroll cites former colonial official and historian James Hayes in showing that the island had multiple settlements, market towns, and established agriculture which demonstrated that it was certainly well-established in settled communities long before 1841. (10) Chapter two shows Hong Kong as developing a multi-ethnic society of not only British and Chinese but other Europeans, Americans, Indians (both Muslim and Parsee), and Sephardic Jews. He also traces the development of social welfare in Hong Kong and explodes the myth that it was mainly a post World War II phenomenon. He also shows that the Hong Kong government did not truly follow Great Britain in forming a welfare state, since many of its social programs were promulgated and carried out by private interests and individuals. In addition, the main government program, that of housing Chinese who had been living in squatter settlements throughout the colony, provided a standard of accommodation little better than the shanties that the squatters had lived in before.

     Carroll organizes the book chronologically and thematically. He takes the reader through the major events, influences and adjustments in the formation of the colony and its societal structures, the first forays into the building of a nationalist identity, the influence of the major wars (especially World War II and the Japanese occupation), Hong Kong's recovery and rise as an industrial and economic powerhouse, the reversion to Chinese sovereignty and finally, in an epilogue, to the events of the last thirty years. He also subdivides each chapter to highlight major events and influences of each period demonstrating their impact on the colony. He discusses both major political and economic developments as well as major social and cultural events and issues.

     Missing from the book, though, is a more detailed explanation and examination of Hong Kong immigration policies in attempting to prevent an overabundance of mainland Chinese from crossing the border into Hong Kong with such efforts as the Expulsion of Undesirables Act and the issuing of an identity card system. Also, little mention is made of successive British Nationality Acts from the 1940s through the 1980s. This could have been a great opportunity to contrast the issue of immigration and national identity with nations in the process of decolonization while keeping some ties to their imperial roots (though admittedly imperialism in Hong Kong did not end until the 1997 handover).

     Regardless, this is an extraordinary study and could be used by any level of scholar and in any number of classrooms. While it might not be appropriate for a lower level survey, it could easily be used in upper-level or graduate classes on the British Empire, comparative colonialism, urban studies (whether Asian or world) and Chinese history.


Michael Houf
Texas A&M University, Kingsville


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