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Hong Kong beyond the divides

Fortune's Bazaar shows that cities are constructed not from zero-sum games and political theory, but from generations of human interactions that defy us-and-them formulas

Book cover

FORTUNE’S BAZAAR: The Making of Hong Kong
Author: Vaudine England
Publisher: Scribner
Pages: 358 
Price: $35

I love every word of A Tale of Two Cities. I just wish Charles Dickens had come up with a different title. In the 160 or so years since it was published, A Tale of Two Cities has become the speech- or opinion writer’s lazy metaphor of choice for the inequities of a particular city.

Every  city, sad to say, in every age has had its haves and have-nots, its filthy rich and its desperately poor, and the divisions can go on endlessly from there. The journalist Vaudine England’s Fortune’s Bazaar: The Making of Hong Kong explicitly rejects this approach, and this is what makes it so illuminating.
It is no small feat on the author’s part, given how easily Hong Kong’s history lends itself to the device: From 1841, when, as one legend has it, a seaman named Mohammed Arab raised the Union Jack at Possession Point, until China’s takeover in 1997, the British colonial rulers lived high up on Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island, while down below their Chinese subjects swarmed Temple Street and packed into the Walled City in Kowloon. At the top, bridge and tennis; at the bottom, mahjong. And somehow, the story usually goes, Hong Kong became Asia’s greatest commercial port even though few residents could speak both English and Cantonese.

Except some did, usually along with a few more languages, and, as England convincingly shows, those who bridged worlds were the people responsible for not just Hong Kong’s success but its very existence as a global port city. “Without its in-between people,” she writes, “Hong Kong simply could not have functioned, and would not have worked.” With British colonisation came traders from countries like Armenia, Portugal, India and the Philippines. They practised religions including Islam, Judaism and Zoroastrianism and established businesses, places of worship and families.

These immigrants merged interests through professional partnerships and interethnic marriages, and the result was much of the city’s institutional foundation. The docklands, the stock exchange, the University of Hong Kong, many of the city’s successful corporations and even the Jockey Club all came out of the alliance between Sir Paul Chater from Calcutta, a member of the “Indian Armenian aristocracy”; Sir Hormusjee Nowrojee Mody, an Indian Parsi businessman; and the Chinese businessman Li Sing. The British may have written the rules, the Chinese may have made up most of the population, but it was the combining of ideas, money and determination from many kinds of immigrant families that built Hong Kong’s capital networks.

England explains that the origins of this book began with her sympathetic interest in the city’s Eurasians, a term historically reserved for the children of Western and Asian parents and one that obscures the more specific heritages of so many Hong Kongers. England introduces the subject of interracial coupling to the historical record in a time when Beijing is trying to stamp Chinese identity onto a crossroads city powered — sometimes quite literally — by networks of Hong Kongers who do not share that identity.

England embraces Hong Kong’s “shifting, Bedouin sort of population” and offers lively, confounding and sometimes even inspiring stories about Eurasians and others. Her tales explore human truths about cities beyond shipping statistics and cables from the Foreign Office. These stories are messy, to be sure; full of multiple spouses, blended families, brothels and “protected women,” who were, England writes, “more than merely being ‘kept.’” But England understands both sex work and marriage as possible forms of agency for 19th-century women living in a society that considered them property. For instance, through their marriages and affairs, the four half-Chinese, half-Spanish Lam sisters shrewdly wove together a multi-faith clan of Portuguese, Americans and Malays. 

Mohammed Arab cared and provided for all of the children he had with two wives, one Arab and one Malay, and a Chinese mistress; after his death, one wife supported the mistress’s son financially. Ng Akew, the “protected woman” who had several children with the prominent New England ship captain James Bridges Endicott, used their relationship to build her own business, and when he eventually married an Englishwoman, he left Ng valuable properties that sealed her wealth.

Despite their shadow presence in histories, Eurasians were no secret in Hong Kong. Though most intermarriage took place among the lower and middle classes, the British colonial government started the Central School in 1862 with the purpose of creating a “Westernized local elite.” The school produced the most powerful Hong Kong Eurasian of his time, Sir Robert Ho Tung, the son of the Dutch businessman Mozes Bosman and a Chinese woman known only as Sze. When Bosman abandoned the family around 1870, his eldest son, Ho Tung, chose to identify as Chinese despite his blue eyes and other mixed features, and, with his brothers, he established the greatest fortune in Hong Kong. England also documents the crucial roles Eurasians played during the Battle of Hong Kong in World War II and the subsequent Japanese occupation.

This book is a testament to a better metaphor for a place like Hong Kong, something molecular: What looks like chaos is actually a group of bonded people bouncing into one another, exchanging capital, building and unbuilding structures. Fortune’s Bazaar  shows that cities are constructed not from zero-sum games and political theory, but from generations of human interactions that defy us-and-them formulas.

The reviewer is the author, most recently, of New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation ©2023 The New York Times News Service

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First Published: May 21 2023 | 10:33 PM IST

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