When I was a child growing up in Mainland China and visiting Hong Kong, I was always perplexed by the names of roads and places in this city which apparently belonged to China — names like Chatham, Nathan, Prince Edward. I always wondered why these foreign-sounding names were to be found in what I was taught in school was a city that belonged to China. Sure, it was a British colony, but why hadn’t they changed the names now that Hong Kong was a part of China?
Many years later, after my childhood visits and with the entire Western world continuously and mono-maniacally obsessed with race, colour and the negative legacies of colonialism, I have realised that in East Asia, particularly in the Chinese-speaking world, the legacy of colonialism and how people view it, is a whole lot more complicated than what many in the West, particularly on the globalist left, view them to be.
That is because, love it or hate it, colonialism, including the British Empire, actually changed the lives of millions for the better and saved the lives of millions in East Asia. It can be said that perhaps the most positive legacies of colonialism anywhere in the world can be found in the Sinosphere. Yes, positive, not negative.
Hong Kong today
As China cracks down on Hong Kong’s democracy movement and becomes increasingly unchallenged in its rule through the harsh National Security Law, hundreds of thousands if not millions of Hong Kongers are looking for a way out, with many looking towards their old colonial master, Britain. A recent survey found that as many as 600,000 Hong Kongers wish to take up the resettlement program allowing Hong Kongers with the colonial British Nationals Overseas status to move to Britain and that the Government has grossly underestimated the demand.
Many of the youngest, brightest Hong Kongers want to come to the old colonial nation. Some are already in political exile in the UK.
Now the world is very familiar with the Hong Kong story and how it became the Pearl of the Orient, I do not need to repeat any of that. But here are some extreme contrasts for those who do not understand the Hong Konger’s nostalgia for British rule, something that makes Chinese nationalists both furious and confused.
Hong Kongers fled from a society in which poverty, famine and political persecution was everywhere. It is worth remembering that in the 1960s and 1970s Hong Kong was also rife with social upheaval (partially related to the turmoil in China at the time) but it was also an age of fundamental change and unprecedented development thanks to its unique role as a British colony at the doorstep of China.
It was becoming the economic hub and the modern city that it would become known for around the world, and a local Hong Kong identity was beginning to form and grow, cultivated partially by the British to reduce the political tensions boiling in the city between the Nationalist Kuomintang supporters and Communist supporters.
This was happening while less than a couple of hundred kilometres away, people were being murdered en masse for belonging to the wrong political class, and in some extreme cases, subject to politically motivated cannibalism. The contrast cannot be more stark: while people were starving and busy eating each other on the mainland, due to both starvation and political hatred, those who made it to the British colony found a job in a factory, found upward social mobility and also found freedom of speech. How could they not find colonial rule better?
British Hong Kong was an efficient, confident and unique place never found in East Asian history. People from all walks of life could go there and thrive. All kinds of speech, literature and cinematic expression was allowed. Hong Kong cinema during British rule featured everything from Chinese traditional opera to gangster movies to slapstick comedy to martial arts classics to historically themed erotica. It was the most freewheeling and diverse city in East Asian history, before and after.
This was only possible because of its unique position and the ingenuity of the people who called Hong Kong home. But, undeniably, it was also only possible because of British colonial rule. Here, colonial rule did not usher in genocide but instead saved the lives of millions who risked it all to flee to Hong Kong. It brought about a golden age and an astonishing amount of creativity never seen before in East Asia.
In many ways, Hong Kong is also a classic example of how a former colony went awry after colonial rule ended. The colonial masters left many colonies in haste and turmoil. The Radcliffe Line in the Indian partition can be one prime example. But the British departure from Hong Kong was well negotiated and carefully thought through. And yet, it still went haywire eventually.
Britain did not leave Hong Kong to tinpot dictators or leave a power vacuum which got exploited by fanatics. But it left Hong Kong to a cunning, tyrannical regime that was exceptionally good at disguising itself as a reforming party focused on the economic development of China.
It is now only 23 years after that presumably well thought-out autonomy arrangement, with Hong Kong now a place where a pro-democracy news tycoon appears in court in chains and probably will be sent to China to be tried for treason. It is also a place where a church and a former lawmaker have had bank accounts frozen by the Government.
Hong Kong is finished. It will never be able to regain the glory of its British-ruled days. It is now a city plundered by cowardly officials unleashing a malevolent police force acting as Beijing’s lapdogs, ruled with an iron fist by the ultimate Big Brother from the north.
In Hong Kong, colonialism was and is not something to resent. It is something cherished by Hong Kongers, and as more and more Hong Kongers go into exile, perhaps a collective memory and a golden age that many would wish to return. No wonder many of the protesters, young and old, waved the old colonial Hong Kong flag during the protests that had the world fixated in 2019, unthinkable in today’s West where colonial flags are symbols of oppression.
Japanese rule is not remembered fondly in many parts of Asia. Incredibly cruel and powered by a brutal war machine, the colonial regime massacred millions and sent millions more into manual, and sometimes sexual, slavery. But in Taiwan, the sentiment is very different. Japanese colonial rule is overwhelmingly favoured and even celebrated.
Legacies of Japanese colonial rule are everywhere in Taiwan. The presidential palace used by the current president is the Japanese governor’s residence. Taiwan’s railways, its first university and its first bank came to be under Japanese rule. Baseball became Taiwan’s favourite sport due to the Japanese. Since it was the first colony acquired by the Japanese Empire, it was built as a model colony and thus Taiwan benefited thoroughly from Japanese rule, in stark contrast to the exploitative and brutal nature of Japanese rule in other parts of Asia.
A Japanese engineer, Yoichi Hatta, is revered in southern Taiwan for creating the largest irrigation system in Taiwan and turning it into a fertile breadbasket. When his statue was vandalised by pro-China activists, it was quickly repaired and the Taiwanese government apologised — a stunning contrast to the current trend of vandalism of colonial era figures in the West.
Make no mistake, the Japanese committed atrocities in Taiwan too, including genocides against Taiwanese aborigines and the scourge of comfort women (i.e. sex slaves). But to many Taiwanese, the Japanese were benign rulers and today Taiwan is the most Japanophilic nation in the world.
Shanghai has some of the world’s most famous colonial architecture. The Bund, which straddles the Huangpu River, is an astonishing collection of Western architecture and the symbol of Shanghai’s “belle epoque” in the early 1900s. Even the founding of the Chinese Communist Party occurred in a building on 106 rue Wantz in the French Concession — a sign of just how diverse and important Shanghai was, to both the Western businessman and the Chinese political radical alike.
Like Hong Kong after it, Shanghai benefited from Western rule as concessions were carved up from what was a fishing dominated small town on the banks of the Huangpu River, a tributary of the Yangtze. Shanghai’s fate is oh so similar to Hong Kong in so many ways. A city which was a Western enclave in an impoverished and chaotic country, where trade and creative freedoms flourished, and where many Chinese people came to find upward social mobility and flee from the political turmoil which engulfed everywhere outside the prosperous Western concessions.
Like Hong Kong, Shanghai had a thriving film industry representing another golden age of Chinese cinema. Like Hong Kong, Shanghai was a financial and economic hub and boomed under Western rule. Like Hong Kong, Shanghai was ruined by Communist rule and faded from its former glory in the era after 1949 as Communist political persecution and blatant disregard for the rule of law blighted the Paris of the East for decades, leading to Hong Kong’s takeover and ascendancy after Shanghai was ruined. In fact, many Shanghainese who fled Communist rule came to aid the rise of Hong Kong.
The legacy of colonialism is complicated and difficult. But like every part of history, it had both benefits and detriments. East Asia is a good example of how colonial rule in some cases can be benevolent and benign, and even something to celebrate. Other cases of colonial history, such as King Leopold’s Congo and the Partition of India, are clearly polar opposites to what happened in East Asia.
East Asians sometimes are nostalgic about colonialism, not because they like being ruled over, but because in these instances, colonial rule was genuinely better and benefited the population. Their real life experiences proved that sometimes the anti-colonial rhetoric that colonialism is pure evil is not necessarily true. Does it justify colonialism? Probably not. But does it justify nostalgia for colonialism? It most certainly does.
Maybe the West should both apologise for what it has done wrong with colonialism and at the same time celebrate the good it did. But in today’s self-hating and increasingly decaying West, that is perhaps no longer possible.