Segregations and Interactions of Chinese and Westerners in British Hong Kong

Segregations and Interactions of Chinese and Westerners in British Hong Kong

In its precolonial days, Hong Kong’s Chinese population numbered about four-thousand (Tsai 18), many of whom were fishermen, farmers, or stone cutters (Smith 38). The arrival of the British fleet and their subsequent occupation of Hong Kong during the First Opium War attracted a number of boat people, laborers, artisans, and adventurers—those considered the lowest class of Chinese society—who, hoping to make money, defied orders of Chinese officials not to interact with the 番鬼 (fankwei, literally meaning “foreign devils”). As more Chinese laborers moved or were sent down to Hong Kong, Chinese settlements began to form. The British victory in the First Opium War also saw more and more Europeans, also hoping to make a fortune, settle in Hong Kong, dislocating the Chinese. As a result, the Chinese quarter was formed, separating the two. That is not to say however, that they did not interact, whether it was through employment, trade facilitations, or anti-foreign retaliations.

Prior to the segregation of Europeans and Chinese, the Chinese made up a considerable portion of Hong Kong’s population. Many early arrivals to Hong Kong had been “coolies” (local unskilled laborers), masons, artisans, boat people, and anyone hoping to make a fortune or hired for site clearance and building construction. The early Chinese settlement, known as the Chinese Bazaar, was split into the Upper, Middle, and Lower Bazaars. The Lower Bazaar, located on a beach, served as the main business center, while the Upper Bazaar, “surrounded by the shacks of the lowest class of the Chinese population,” was on the hillside above the Lower Bazaar (Smith 41). Meanwhile, the population of the Middle Bazaar “was socially somewhere between that of the shopkeepers of the Lower Bazaar and the criminal element of the Upper Bazaar,” where a heavy concentration of brothels and gambling establishments were (Smith 41).

The First Opium War saw an influx of European merchants escaping to Hong Kong from Canton and Macau. As Hong Kong was acquired mainly to promote trade rather than for territorial conquest, the British originally did not have very strict control in Hong Kong and even allowed Chinese inhabitants to be governed for the most part by their own laws and customs (Tsai 38). After acquiring Hong Kong, “British colonizers wanted to reserve the central and eastern parts of the north of the island for their own military, naval and commercial activities, as well as their European-style villas and houses,” thus designating areas west of Central, “the Chinese Quarter” (Ingham 106). This designation called for the eviction of Chinese inhabitants from the Middle Bazaar, which lay between two European settled areas. Despite the inhabitants’ attempts to remain, the presence of brothels, gambling establishments, and squatters made the government unwilling to cede to their demands. By September 1844, the old structures of the Middle Bazaar were removed entirely. Although the area was now a European section, many Europeans employed predominantly male Chinese servants as cooks, gardeners, grooms, or coachmen, to name a few. Chinese women, on the other hand, had relations with Europeans as prostitutes, live-in mistresses, or as “protected women” in a separate establishment (Munn 64). As demonstrated by Cornelius Gold’s visit to the Chinese Quarter, the area was not closed off to Europeans (38). Gold’s vague mention of the visit, compared to his more elaborate descriptions of other locations, could be reflective of the unimpressionable conditions of the Quarter.

As Hong Kong was to serve as a center for trade, among its residents were both aspiring Chinese and European merchants. It was especially necessary for Chinese merchants to cross the divide by forming business connections with the British in order to attain social advancement (Tsai 60). Although some Europeans were able to speak Chinese, much of the communication with the Chinese occurred either mainly in English or in Canton pidgin English—“a composite language…in which crudely pronounced English, Portuguese…Hindi and Malay words were fitted into a Cantonese syntax” (Munn 66).

Not all interactions were beneficial however, as relations between the Chinese and British following the Opium War were hostile. These tensions diffused from the Canton delta, where the majority of Chinese in Hong Kong originated from, over Britain’s insistence on its right to enter Canton. Throughout the 1840s, strong anti-foreign feelings resulted in a high crime rate and a number of murder attempts on the British. By the 1850s, these tensions still had not eased; the hostility from the Taiping Rebellion again bled over to Hong Kong, this time through the Chinese who fled the mainland for security and order in Hong Kong. Many of these rebels banded with pirates, brigands, and the infamous Triad organizations of Hong Kong. The acts of the British during the 1856 Arrow War further flamed anti-British sentiments of both the Taiping rebels and those from Canton. An infamous bread poisoning incident, in which two to three hundred Europeans suffered from arsenic poisoning, led to the arrest of Cheong Ah-lum, the bakery owner, and fifty-one of his workmen, despite lack of concrete evidence. The incident served to highlight both the anticolonial sentiments of the Chinese and the fear in the Europeans, widening the already large gap between both groups.

Although the segregated neighborhoods no longer exist in present-day Hong Kong, some of the formerly Chinese-only neighborhoods still exhibit a strong sense of traditional Chinese culture. It is also interesting to note that in Hong Kong today, many streets retain the same names from colonial times, many of which even allude to this period (i.e. Possession Street) without recalling the resentment and tension of the time.

- Lillian Ngo


Works Cited

Carroll, John M. “Chinese Collaboration in the Making of British Hong Kong.” Ngo, Tak-Wing, ed. Hong Kong’s History: State and Society Under Colonial Rule. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Gold, Cornelius. Journal of a Voyage from New York to Hong Kong. 1861-3. Print.

Ingham, Michael. Hong Kong: A Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Kestell, Judy Lu, and Harold Meinheit. “Hong Kong From Fishing Village to Financial Center.” Library of Congress Information Bulletin 56.13 (1997). Web. 28 Oct. 2015 .

Munn, Christopher. Anglo-China: Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong, 1841-1880. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009. Print.

Perdue, Peter C. Rise and Fall of the Canton Trade System – III. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2009. Web. 28 October 2015.

Smith, Carl T. A Sense of History: Studies in the Social and Urban History of Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Educational Pub. Co, 1995. Print.

Tsai, Jung-Fang. Hong Kong in Chinese History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. Print.

Wordie, Jason. Streets: Exploring Hong Kong Island. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2002. Print.