Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Hong Kong and Singapore's Historic Narratives

Please come to a talk to be given by David Wong and Stefan White at the Hong Kong Museum of History on Thursday, 14 Dec. 2006 at 7:00 PM in conjunction with the Hong Kong Anthropological Society.

The talk is entitled:

Postcolonial "Imagined Communities" --- The Curiously Divergent Stories Of Hong Kong and Singapore

The talk will be given in English. Please also join us for a self-paying dinner to be held after the talk. More details can be found below.

The Curiously Divergent Stories
Of Hong Kong and Singapore

An Anthropological Talk by David Wong and Stefan White
Thursday, 14 Dec. 2006 at 7:00 PM
To be held at The Hong Kong Museum of History,
Lecture Theatre, Ground Floor, 100 Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui

All are welcome
(space is, however, limited to 140 seats)

Both Singapore and Hong Kong were British colonial entrepôt ports
started in the first half of the 19th century, with many similarities in their history and governance. Both were made colonies of Britain in a contested manner and inherited positive and negative legacies of colonialism. But while Singapore has recreated an "imagined community," based on the founding myth of Sir Stamford Raffles over the last four decades, Hong Kong has yet to create a compelling historical narrative that serves as a unifying mythology for its citizens. In the talk, the speakers will explore the creation process and the realities of these two historical narratives, and how their existence impacts on each city's ability to attract cultural or heritage tourists.

David Wong and Stefan White operate Walk the Talk, an interpretive heritage service, in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Following the lecture, you are invited to a self-paying dinner with the speaker.

This talk is a joint presentation of




Thursday, December 07, 2006

Down the Drain

Another snippet from the Rev. James Legge's memoirs. As the man first stepped ashore in Hong Kong in 1843, by the 1870s he was one of the longest residents of the Colony. He recalled to some younger men how the drains used for catchwaters and sewage used to wreak havoc with law and order in Hong Kong:
“Bands of Robbers attempted to carry out their attempts by tunneling from the large drains under the premises which they had marked. There was a rumor of a scheme to re-enact the gunpowder plot by means of a tunnel under the cathedral, when the governor, the bishop, and the congregation were to be blown up. The facts of this case, however, if there were any, I could never satisfactorily ascertain. The most successful exploit of this kind was perpetrated so late as January 1865, by a gang who tunneled by the hard labour of several weeks right under the treasury of the Central Bank of India, and carried of upwards of $100,000 in gold bullion and notes. In 1863 twenty-two prisoners made their escape from the gaol by tunneling under it into a drain; and no long after, I did the service to the Government of disconcerting a scheme on a larger scale, by which within a few hours, eighty-nine men would have got away."
Perhaps it explains why Hong Kong to this day does not have a centralized manhole system, requiring endless rounds of construction to dig up and put back roads while workers lay cables and fix rusty pipes...

Friday, December 01, 2006

Opium and Relations with Japan and China

I was reading an account by Reverend James Legge from a speech he made in 1872 about his having lived in Hong Kong since 1843. He had some fascinating insights about why relations between China and the West had gone so badly, and why relations with Japan at that time were so positive. It would be an oversimplification to say that the Chinese unwillingness to emulate Western organizations, technologies and methods in the 19th century were due to the Opium War, but the Rev. Legge certainly makes a plausible case:
...we have given the Japanese little reason to do anything but love us, while we have given China much reason to fear us and hate us. I am not here tonight to express my views on the opium traffic, but I may surely ask, without giving offence to any one, whether, if we had forced that traffic on Japan as we have done on China, the relations between Japan and 'foreign' nations whould be what they are to-day. If there be a man here who thinks that there does not glow in me as true a British patriotism as in himself, I only say he does not know me; but I thank God that the United States preceded us in the opening of the Japanese Empire. Their treaty of the 29th July, 1858, recognizes the prohibition of the importation of opium, and that made by Lord Elgin [who prosecuted the 2nd Opium War for Britain - Ed.], on the 27th of the following month, does the same, and with a very stringent addition. Thus one thing which has embittered and fettered our intercourse with China, and will continue to do so, so long as it exists, has had no place in our intercourse with Japan; and the result has been accordingly.
It is interesting to note also that Rev. Legge must have felt that his strong statement would have caused offense in at least some of his listeners, because it was considered 'unpatriotic' to think of the Opium War as an unjustified impression of British commerce upon an unwilling China. It reminds me of American liberals circa 2003 having to defend their patriotism while at the same time opposing the Iraq war.

As my late, great professor of colonial history, Robin Winks, once said, so much of relations between races and civilizations depends on first contact. If today we still find those hostile to Westerners in China, those feelings may have their sad beginnings in 1839, the year the Opium War broke out and brought the existence of Western 'barbarians' to the attention to China at large.