Hong Kong Reads: Colonialism in All its Guises

The war that gave birth to Hong Kong

No matter how much we love Hong Kong and its ever surprising twists, history and stories, there is no sugar coating the fact that the way the place became what it is today was started through a war of greed, waged by Britain and its allies against the late Qing Dynasty (1644–1911).

That war, known as the First Opium War, which lasted from 1839 to 1842, when Hong Kong Island was ceded to the British, was started by Britain. It was motivated not only by a desire to freely sell opium in China, but also to wrestle from a proud country, living on its own parallel time, the right to have permanent representative offices called legations, a now-defunct type of diplomatic mission that was a step below embassies in status and power. 

Britain won the war, not only because it possessed more cannon boats, but also because it caught China somewhat distracted. For eons, the main danger to China’s borders had come not from the seaside, but from Central and North Asia, like in the case of the last dynasty, the Manchus, who had invaded China from the northeast, or the Mongols, who invaded China and established the Yuan Dynasty from 1271 to 1368. Convincing China’s rulers to invest in securing the coast had been a losing proposition for the few Chinese ministers and advisors who had tried to do so. 

This is the history explored by British scholar Julia Lovel in her fast-paced book The Opium War. She gives the outline of both Opium Wars (the second one was waged from 1856 to 1860, and saw the British acquire Kowloon), giving not only a very clear account of the historical events that unfolded, but zooming in on a number of pivotal characters, making all that happened that much more relatable and comprehensible. 

On the British side, a number of the protagonists are to this day immortalised in the city’s toponymy:  Pottinger Street, for example, owes its name to the Anglo-Irish soldier who would become the first Governor of Hong Kong. Gough Street is named so after Hugh Gough, the chief commander of British forces in China in the mid- to late-19th century. Elgin Street carries the name of Lord James Elgin, whose fame is also linked to the ransacking of the imperial Summer Palace called Yuanming Yuan – the looting of which, by British and French troops is, to this day, one of the rallying cries of Chinese nationalism. (Although parts of the palace survived that initial destruction, the ruins were gradually picked over and destroyed in subsequent conflicts.) 

Lovell’s book, while solid and informative on the history and the reasons behind certain unexpected twists in the events, also takes a very readable approach by concentrating on the lives and personalities of some of the people involved. And she does not water down the narrative, never minimising the brutality of the British attack. 

After the war: the colonial era 

Once Hong Kong became British, the way things were run can no longer be described simply through the brutality of colonialism: the fact that a place with just a few thousand inhabitants eventually became home to millions goes to show that British rule in Hong Kong was not as harsh as it was elsewhere, like India or Jamaica. The little book penned by Austin Coates, Myself a Mandarin, is one read that shows precisely that.

Coates, a British civil servant, was appointed in 1947 magistrate in the Southern District of the New Territories, an area half urban (all the way to Boundary Street) and half rural (the area that is now Shatin and its surroundings). What makes this such a pleasant read is the steady self-irony that Coates manages to keep throughout his learning curve: how he misunderstands what is at stake when he has to adjudicate cases, until someone points out to him his errors whilst trying not to offend him, their superior. 

One of the most memorable of the stories from Coates’ years as a Special Magistrate is the one called “The Errant Cow,” in which he had to adjudicate according to Chinese law and custom – still valid in the New Territories at the time, together with British common law. It’s the story of three men and two women, farmers in small villages in the Southern New Territories, who had come to Coates presenting him with a case of a cow who was accused of grazing in the “wrong” village.

It turns out to be a most confounding case. Only through slow untangling and the help of Mr. Lo, his interpreter, Coates ascertains that the cow belongs to one of the two women present, and that each claims it as her own. But there’s a twist: it turns out both of the women are married to the same man, and the case isn’t actually just about the cow.

“Is it true,” I asked, “that there isn’t enough suitable grass in your village to feed the cow?”

“There isn’t much.”

“There is none,” said the man.

“Then would it not be more sensible,” I said to the woman, “to continue to allow this man the use of your cow, but charge him for it?”

“I wouldn’t pay!” said the man sharply.

There was something in the way he said it. And at this moment, the magistrate, lulled by the cigar, became subject to a brainwave. 

“You say you come from the other village?” I asked the woman.


“Where do you actually live?”

“In his village,” she said, nodding at the man, and using the same off-hand expression he had used about her. 

“Mr. Lo, there is a relationship of some sort between these two people. Can you find out what it is?”

The interpreter asked a rapid question. There was a scowling silence, then a word from the man. They were husband and wife. 

“Ah!” I said, and addressing the wife, “The position is that you want to go back to your village, and you want to take your cow with you. Is that it?”

“Yes, Magistrate.”

We had arrived. It was a divorce case. 

It is a very good example of how a colonial magistrate in the New Territories might often have found himself busier in trying to extrapolate just what the issue at hand was, and what exactly he was being asked to adjudicate on, than studying the legal codes he might have been required to follow. Throughout this little book, the self-deprecating tone, the excitement of discovery of a different way of thinking, and the lightness of touch with which episodes are described, Coates makes for a very fun narrator of a long gone Hong Kong.

Reading the landscape

Not only in Hong Kong, but throughout the history of colonialism, one of its most important missions has been to identify new plants, animals and rocks, with herbariums, botanical illustrations and nature’s descriptions being a constant in imperial scientific and artistic production from the colonies. Meant as a way to exploit the territory and expand imperial knowledge, the studies of nature produced by colonial officers have nevertheless remained as remarkable collections of information and illustrations. Some of these botanical studies are still delightful to look at, and they have shaped a large part of our understanding of nature and plants.

Portraits of Trees of Hong Kong and Southern China, a beautiful book published in 2019, in a sense follows in the footsteps of these colonial collections, but it does so in a much more modern way. Illustrations by Sally Grace Bunker follow with most delicate attention the veins and gentle curve of a leaf, or the way in which a petal snugs its way next to the others, forming the crown of a flower, in the most realistic colours. There is also a black and white pencil illustration on every page that shows the tree or the plant in full, so that the reader can see both the details and the complete plant, with a superimposed circle with, inside, a drawing of the enlarged cortex. 

The book is too large and heavy to carry along during a walk or a hike, but it is nonetheless a real pleasure to come home with the phone full of photos of plants and look them up, learning to refine one’s observations page after page. For example, the page dedicated to the kapok plant, describes on one side all the scientific facts – from its Latin name, Bombax ceiba, to its origin (tropical Southeast Asia) to all the details about pollen sacs and stamens and petals. The illustration shows the flower at various stages of blossoming, and also sections of the same, again at various stages of development. On the following page you can find the kapok fruit in all of its stages, including with all its fluffy cotton bursting open, ready to be used as stuffing for cushions, mattresses or packaging, or simply left to decorate the ground with a white carpet. 

It is one of those magical books that, the more you look at it, the more the outside world of plants and trees makes sense, and becomes more and more readable. A bit like all three of the books we are recommending today: they make the colonial experience in Hong Kong more readable, less abstract and nostalgic, adding to it colour, personal experience and humanity.

The Opium War by Julia Lovell is published by Picador.

Myself a Mandarin – Memoirs of a Special Magistrate by Austin Coates is published by Oxford University Press.

Portraits of Trees of Hong Kong and Southern China, illustrated by Sally Grace Bunker, text by Richard M.K. Saunders and Chun-Chiu Pang, is published by Earnshow Books.

Go back to top button