Sample Book Review Paper on The Great Difference: Hong Kong’s New Territories

Hayes, J. (2012). The Great Difference: Hong Kong’s New Territories and It’s People 1898-2004. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

James Hayes is a scholar who has studied widely about Hong Kong’s New Territories and has shown much interest in the region’s people, as can be seen in some of his other works such as; Friends and Teachers: Hong Kong and Its People 1953–87 (Hong Kong University Press, 1996).

In this book, James Hayes brilliantly captures and documents the period between 1898-2004 in which Great Britain acquired and ruled over ‘the new territories’ of Hong Kong. He explores the notion of ‘the great difference’ and the historical consequence that came with the colonialist government style of governing that largely ignored the ever-widening gap caused by segregation and unfair land laws. Overall, this book provides an intimate account of the era of British occupation in Hong Kong, the gradual mechanization from rural to urban and its impact on the indigenous people of this region, including but not limited to, lack of harmony between the natives and settlers, property conflicts and identity crisis. Being one of the first to explore this subject; it becomes an important starting point for other researchers.

Haye’s book is a first of its kind, bringing the history of Hong Kong from the pre-colonial period to present-day Chinese rule, especially in a world where, according to (Carroll 2007), historical documentation of the British colonialism have mainly centered on Africa. In the first chapter, Hayes begins with a detailed account of the British travelers’ descriptions of the region as a place to behold. This quickly evolves to the ‘other side of the great Difference’ in the second chapter. It becomes clear that these travelers only described the urbanized region that was already under British rule. On the other side extending to the West of the Victorian city, the situation was mostly different from more densely populated areas and the natives living in what a British legislator describes as “very much like a rabbit warren.”

In explaining the reasons for such a living situation, Hayes gives a glimpse of these inhabitants’ social and economic lives. A male-dominated community of hawkers, artisans, and shopkeepers who were only happy with this life far from their rural norm. While when James Stewart Lockhart inspects the region that would become the New Territory, he uncovers a wide rift between the social and economic differences of the indigenous people of this region and the rest of the colony. Surprisingly, in his 1898 report, Lockhart proposes that the region’s way of life is maintained even under British rule.

Through the chapters, the author documents the dramatic change into modernization, the social and economic transitions, as well as the political contours that followed the first, the British rule and later, the Chinese communists’ takeover. Hayes concludes with a strategic account of convergence. He reveals that though there have been strides made towards bridging the gap, there are still underlying issues that must be straightened in his view. These long-standing issues have derailed any efforts for harmony in the new territories between the natives (descendants of the inhabitants of the new territories long before the lease to Britain) and the Chinese settlers from the rest of the colony. To further this subject of divergence, the chapter dips into the contentious matter of land property laws that have been the subject of contention since the colonial period.

The level of passion with which the author approaches this subject is certainly unrivaled. I agree with Hayes’s sentiments that the governing style of the British colonialists of segregation and discrimination is the root of many socio-political problems facing present-day Hong Kong. The author effectively brings out his argument, painting a vivid picture of ‘the great difference’ by systematically describing, from the onset of the ‘New Territories,’ the goodness of Hong Kong that the British colonialists fell in love with and the ugly side that the colonialists abhorred. The crowdedness and the illnesses that haunted the indigenous populations leading to segregation and discriminatory laws by the British colonialists who perceived the people living in the territories as low class humans. The colonialists’ style that created a wealthy few so that they could reap from their compliance.

To make his argument even clearer, Hayes, in the first chapter, illustrates how the people of the territory valued their ‘village culture’ with its inevitable presence in every aspect of their lives, including education and future generations’ upbringing. In a twist of things, the subsequent chapters give harrowing accounts, to say the least, of the removal of villages to pave the way for better settlement in a compensation scheme that could not be fully proofed. Similarly, the traditional subsistent rice farming that the people of the territory had practiced for decades ended during this period in favor of urbanization.

Besides raising the pertinent issues of discriminatory colonial laws and the insistence of modernization at the expense of the indigenous culture of the people in the territory; Hayes brings back the discourse of conservative land property practices that have been in existence since the British colonization and resists to conform to change many years after colonization. While Hayes does not delve much into the issue, he cites various instances where such unjust laws have been contested and seemingly leaving this subject open for exploration.

On the downside, Hayes’ book keeps away from discussing ‘the handover’ as a contributing factor to the woes that capitalist Hong Kong finds itself. Chu (2010) argues that the main point of divergence in land property issues in today’s Chinese governed Hong Kong arises from the fact that the people of the new territory continue to observe their age-long land property laws, which the British colonialist did not change. These laws differ from those of mainland Chinese.

Inevitably, Hayes’ book provided a fascinating account of Hong Kong people’s history and culture and brought out a pertinent point of view that can form a basis for many theses. The detailed and exciting developments of Hong Kong from the period leading to British rule in the new territories to the handover gives History lovers something new to binge on while setting a new agenda for historical researchers to explore.

 

References

Carroll, J. M. (2007). A Concise History of Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Chu, C. Y. (2010). Chinese Communists and Hong Kong Capitalists: 1937- 1997. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hayes, J. (2012). The Great Difference: Hong Kong’s New Territories and It’s People 1898-2004. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.