Monday, February 06, 2006

'The Virility of Victorian England'

This is a quote from the man once considered the master of Hong Kong history, Mr. G.B. Endacott. The full quote:"Another astonishing thing is the virility of Victorian society. The men of that age pushed their way to every corner of the globe, and this book aims to show that part of the process which relates to Hong Kong. Their methods were rough and ready as with all pioneers, but their energy and enterprise must command admiration."

I have been reading a book by Endacott called "A Biographical Sketch-Book of Early Hong Kong." What has been eye-opening reading has been the new Introduction to this old publication (Endacott died in 1971), which I thought was an excellent way to re-introduce an history that has clearly aged badly in the global post-colonial era. It was written by rising star John Carroll of Harvard, and he mentions how a contemporary of Endacott's only half-jokingly said at an academic conference that his work 'would lead readers to believe that the colony had no Chinese residents.'

Basically, like many histories written in his era about Hong Kong, no agency is given to the Chinese that live in Hong Kong - they are simply portrayed as 'temporary sojourners' that leave the colony immediately. Carroll does an excellent job of highlighting some of these flaws of Endacott's work in the introduction. Allow me to quote from his introduction:
Like most colonials, Endacott took the legitimacy of British colonialism in Hong Kong as given. Never in this book, for example, does he question the British motives or means for acquiring Hong Kong. In both A Biographical Sketch-book of Early Hong Kong and A History of Hong Kong (1958), which for decades remained the definitive English-language history of Hong Kong, Endacott praised Carles Elliot's remarkable restraint in the first Opium War. Note, for example, how Chapter 23 on the "Princely Hong" of Jardine, Matheson & Co., the largest of the European firms in South China, never mentions opium, which although not necessarily the underlying cause of the first Opium War was nonetheless its immediate cause...

Like many British merchants and politicians from the period he described, Endacott saw that war between Britain and China had been inevitable. "The old methods of solving disputes between the two countries were becoming no longer acceptable," he wrote in A History of Hong Kong, "and since the Chinese would not open diplomatic negotiations or recognize the British government as anything but normally tributary, it followed that any serious incident would easily lead to war. There was no acceptable alternative." The British acquired Hong Kong not for territorial empire but for commercial expansion in China:"A healthy trade demanded settled conditions, suppression of robbery, guarantee of contract and of impartial justice. Since the Chinese were thought to be unable to provide these conditions, the British had to provide them. This is fundamental to understanding any history of Hong Kong."
There were of course few if any sources in Endacott's histories that were Chinese. The quote Carroll brings up that I started today's entry with makes it clear that he lionized these pioneers and saw fit to forgive any transgressions made against the Chinese during their time here.

Yet it seems that in the 21st century, Carroll is quite right - students of Hong Kong's history in English must get over the lazy and dangerous habit of perceiving local history as an elite one, measured by the length of Governors' terms, and seeing events ultimately as the credit or failure of the Governors or of the British government that had sent them.

Here's to history that challenges old sources, and tries truthfully to find other perspectives and voices from colonial Hong Kong's beginnings. A trail I too shall try to sniff out in the Year of the Dog!

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