The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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Research Grants/Awards

Title of Project:
Colonizers and the Beasts: The Place of Animals in British Colonial Governance in Hong Kong, 1842-1941

Total Fund Awarded:
HK$150,600

Principal Investigator:
Professor POON Shuk Wah, Department of History, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Funding Source:
RGC General Research Fund 2019/20

Abstract of Research:
This research aims to elucidate the impact of British governance on the cultural concepts and daily life of the Hong Kong Chinese people from 1842 to 1941 through the lens of human-animal relationships. British attitudes towards animals were strongly influenced by two different and seemingly contradictory ideas that were taking shape in 19th-century Britain, namely public health and animal protection. The concept of public health regarded animals as a potential threat to sanitation and called for a proper distance between animals and humans physically, if not emotionally. Animal protection, however, rested on the idea that animals are capable of feeling pain and the best possible actions should be taken to reduce animal suffering.

These concepts of public health and animal protection were embodied in the Hong Kong government's policies towards the Chinese population. For example, in an 1874 report, colonial surgeon Philip B. C. Ayres expressed dismay that “pigs were kept in houses all over the town, by hundreds, and that pigsties were to be found under the beds and in the kitchen … every bed in these houses had from five to seven large pigs in a sty constructed underneath it.” Ayres called for a more stringent pig licensing system to ensure a proper distance between men and pigs. In 1924, English newspaper China Mail published an article to support legislating against animal cruelty, stating that “[t]he Chinese have handled animals in their own way ... Domination has taught them nothing. If gentle persuasion and teaching are of no avail, then by all means apply the rigora [sic] of the new Bill to the uttermost.” This author saw punishment as a necessary means of teaching the Chinese people the proper way to handle animals.

Animals therefore played a significant role in British colonists’ visions of the civic and moral order and served as catalysts that facilitated the growing intrusion of colonial governance into Hong Kong Chinese people's everyday lives. Nonetheless, how to strike a balance between social stability and the desire to “civilize” the colonized people created constant dilemmas that the British colonists had to grapple with.

This interdisciplinary project weaves together colonial studies, public health and animal studies. It sheds light on the extent to which the dissemination of such colonial knowledge as public health and animal welfare instigated changes in Chinese people's attitudes towards animals and created a new mode of culture among the Hong Kong Chinese population.