Farewell Hong Kong: the 10 Best Books on the City’s Past, Present and (possible) Future

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From its founding as the world’s largest opium warehouse, to its devastation in WW2, and subsequent resurrection as a center of global commerce, Hong Kong has led a charmed life. And yet, only a little over 20 years since the city’s return to mainland China, Hong Kong finds itself facing radical transformations in its way of life. The almost yearly demonstrations which have rocked the city since 2014 have come to symbolise not only the city’s resistance to a legal regime defined by the central government in Beijing, but also a global movement against a trend towards increasingly authoritarian governance.

Will Hong Kong survive? We dug through the most insightful works on the city’s history, current situation, and potential futures to help you decide.

A Modern History of Hong Kong: 1841-1997

by Steve Tsang

Director of the SOAS China Institute and frequent media commentator, Dr. Tsang has written the only full chronological history of Hong Kong, from its founding until its return to China in 1997. Packed with insightful anecdotes and brimming with the fruits of countless hours of archival research, A Modern History guides the reader through the head-spinning changes, and larger-than-life personalities that have defined the city throughout its history. Founded as a Crown Colony of the British Empire in the wake of the Qing Dynasty’s humiliation in the First Opium War, Hong Kong grew to become a multi-cultural port city linking East and West. Fueled by wave after wave of immigration from China’s vast interior provinces, Hong Kong’s hard scrabble population thrived on the free-wheeling business environment created by the colonial government’s laissez-faire policies. By the late 20th century, the city was a global mecca of free trade and unrestrained capitalism. Tsang’s account lucidly lays out this riveting story, enabling readers to understand the Hong Kong that once was, and sadly may never be again.

Hong Kong in the Shadow of China: Living with the Leviathan

by Richard C. Bush

As former Director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on East Asia Policy Studies, Dr. Bush leverages his nearly two decades of experience working in and on Asia for the US government to produce a compelling account of the Umbrella Movement, and the citizens of the city who resist the Mainland’s increasingly iron-fisted control over their city. Additionally, the author analyses what the city itself, and the central government in Beijing, can do to maintain its competitiveness and promote “good governance”. This is, perhaps, the only weak point of the book; it assumes that Beijing plans any significant role for the city in China’s future economy. Exploring the issue of “good governance” is also, we would suggest, a red-herring, since all future governance is bound to come from Beijing itself. Nevertheless, Hong Kong in the Shadow of China remains a fascinating exploration of how the city’s three most important stakeholders have wildly differing views about its future.

Author Richard Bush recommends…

China’s Hong Kong: The Politics of a Global City

by Tim Summers

A former British diplomat with postings in both Hong Kong and the Mainland, Summers is now a lecturer in the Center for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. China’s Hong Kong seeks to place the developments that have happened since the 1997 handover within the city-state’s constitutional framework, refusing to accept the prevailing orthodoxy that Hong Kong’s recent history and near future must be viewed through the lens of its contentious relationship with the central government in Beijing. Summers’s work provides a ground-breaking re-assessment of modern Hong Kong, from an observer with decades of experience in the region.

Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong

by Kong Tsung-gan

An insider account of the Umbrella Movement which rose first out of the protests of 2014, Kong Tsung-gan’s work is impressive in its balance. While adopting a relentlessly pessimistic view of Beijing’s actions to suppress the indigenous pro-democracy movement, Kong is neither blind to the flaws and contradictions within the protest movement itself. Umbrella permits English-language readers invaluable insight into the minds and motivations of Hong Kong’s protesters. At the same time, Kong is careful to situate Hong Kong’s struggles within a broader global context of anti-authoritarian protest. This wider perspective means Umbrella is likely to remain relevant for many years to come.

Architect of Prosperity: Sir John Cowperthwaite and the Making of Hong Kong

by Neil Monnery

At the end of WW2, Hong Kong mirrored much of East Asia and continental Europe in its scenes of devastation. And yet, by the time of its return to Mainland China in 1997, it ranked as one of the richest, and most expensive, cities in the world. Surely this revolutionary transformation was the product of close co-ordination with legions of economic experts in London, carefully planning and implementing every fiscal policy in accordance with prevailing economic orthodoxy?

Not so much. In the years after WW2, a small team of civil servants, under the leadership of Sir John Cowperthwaite led Hong Kong far away from anything advocated by establishment development economists. Low taxes, and minimal government regulation were the order of the day. And it bore spectacular results. Architect of Prosperity charts Cowperthwaite’s battles within the colonial civil service to maintain Hong Kong’s unique approach to wealth creation. The book’s unflinching advocacy of laissez-faire economic policies will attract adherents of a certain political bent, but the results are undeniable, and the lessons worth considering by all, regardless of political color.

Hong Kong on the Brink: An American Diplomat Relives 1967’s Darkest Days

by Syd Goldsmith

If Hong Kong’s prosperity and political stability under British rule appears to have been a given in hindsight, Goldsmith’s book serves as a valuable and stunning corrective. As the US Consul-General’s Political Officer during the Emergency of 1967, and the only Cantonese-speaking non-Chinese staff member, the author had unparalleled access to key figures within the intelligence agencies, colonial government departments, and recently arrived migrants from the Mainland who were most active in attempting to steer and control the unfolding chaos. In peacetime, Hong Kong never had its very existence threatened to the extent that the events of 1967 did. Although today’s geo-political context is vastly different, an analysis of 1967 reveals some of the eternal currents of conflict and co-operation at the heart of East Asia’s status quo.

City on Fire: the Fight for Hong Kong

by Antony Dapiran

Dapiran is a lawyer, writer and long-term resident of Hong Kong. City on Fire is the first book-length account of the protests of the summer of 2019, when large-scale protests against a proposed extradition bill threatened to shut down the entire city. Dapiran uses his long experience of observing and studying disparate protest movements in the city to weave together a lucid, coherent narrative of the protests whose famous lack of centralized leadership and dispersed, spontaneous methods of organization posed a new and significant challenge to the city’s police force. At the protests’ height, the movement’s momentum seemed to be on the verge of forcing Beijing to permit the intervention of the People’s Liberation Army; a move which would have escalated the city’s disorder to the level of full-blown international crisis. Dapiran brings the reader into close contact with the citizens who took part in the demonstrations, and the officials tasked with preventing further escalation of the already tense stand-off.

Opium and Empire: The Lives and Careers of William Jardine and James Matheson

by Richard J. Grace

Hong Kong’s founding, and initial growth story, is intimately bound together with the story of opium and the clipper trade from India which formed the economic basis of the British Empire in South and East Asia throughout the 19th century. The firm Jardine & Matheson, which still operates to this day (although no longer with drug trafficking as the foundation of their business), played a central role in this story. As a result, the lives and careers of the firm’s charismatic founders are inseparable from the history of early Hong Kong. The city’s origins as the base from which British opium merchants pushed their merchandise into the Chinese interior laid the foundation for the city’s on-going reputation as a place of free-wheeling bootlegging and unrestrained commerce. Grace’s account of two “gentleman merchants” engaged in most ungentlemanly business will engross readers, and leave them with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the hard-headed business which underpinned the establishment of one of the world’s great entrepots.

Unfree Speech: The Threat to Global Democracy and Why We Must Act, Now

by Joshua Wong, Jason Y. Ng

Wong’s name has become synonymous with the Umbrella movement ever since he cut his teeth at the age of just fourteen protesting, and defeating, an education reform bill in the city’s legislature. Since then he has continued to play a central role in the movement, while enduring two separate spells in prison for his activism and being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Unfree Speech is divided into 3 sections; the first describes Wong’s journey to the frontlines of resistance activism; the second contains a selection of letters written during his two spells in prison; and the final section is devoted to a wide-ranging call to global activism against encroaching authoritarianism and a defense of democratic values. Wong’s youth, energy and passion for his cause radiates from every page, and readers will find themselves captivated by his account of Hong Kong’s resistance written from the frontlines.

The Last Governor: Chris Patten and the Handover of Hong Kong

by Jonathan Dimbleby

From Patten’s arrival in Hong Kong in 1992, to his teary-eyed farewell next to the Prince of Wales in 1997, Jonathan Dimbleby had unparalleled access to the last Governor of the Crown Colony of Hong Kong. The book shadows Patten through the last years of British rule, providing great insight to the lengths to which the Governor went to ensure greater democratic participation by the city’s citizens, most notably in the city’s first direct elections in 1995. In hindsight, the book, which was intended as a celebration of British rule, and honorable return of the colony to its prior rulers, instead reads as a rather embarrassing document of the numerous basic freedoms that Britain happily kept from the people of Hong Kong during the years of colonial rule. The recent years of unrest in the city have led some to have an overly nostalgic view of the colonial period; this book makes quite clear the zero-sum machinations that were behind a lot of decisions made, both in Hong Kong and London, to keep the city firmly at bay.

And that’s a wrap! Our top ten books on Hong Kong’s past, present and future. Do you think we missed an excellent work off of our list? Any entries you were surprised at? Let us know in the comments section below.

Alternatively, remember to check out our Current Events page for even more curated recommendations for the best books on unfolding headline news in the global media.

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