The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
Contact Us

British Colonialism and the Making of Littoral Society: The Chinese Waterborne Population and Watercraft in the Colonial Archive of Hong Kong, 1841–1898

Principal Investigator

LUK Chi Hung Gary

Total Fund Awarded


Funding Source

RGC Early Career Scheme

Abstract of Project

A land-centered approach has long dominated scholarship on the history of colonial Hong Kong. This project is the first systematic application of a focus on littoral fringes—watery zones adjoining the land—to study the relationship between the British colonizers and Chinese society and features of British colonial rule in nineteenth-century Hong Kong. Examining censuses, population and watercraft registrations, administrative reports, and other writings by officials, the project demonstrates how the British authorities identified, classified, and described the Chinese people living afloat and the Chinese ships and boats of various types in the colony of Hong Kong. Focusing on the period from the beginning of British rule in 1841 to the eve of the lease of the New Territories in 1898, it charts the formation in the nineteenth-century colonial archive of a simplified yet increasingly well-categorized version of Chinese littoral society. In the archive, the “Tanka” or “boat people” surrounding Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula paradoxically constituted both an unassimilable “race,” “outcast,” or “tribe” descending from the boat-dwelling Dan of South China and communities of waterborne residents incorporable into the mainstream Chinese society of the colony. Not only the representation of the waterborne people and watercraft but also the corresponding colonial policies were a function of the backgrounds of the colonial officials, their knowledge of China and its people, their visions and local concerns, and the major events and developments in early colonial Hong Kong. This project shows how the British colonial authorities contributed to contemporary understanding of the Hong Kong boat communities. It argues that rather than replicating the Mainland counterpart, the structure of Hong Kong Chinese society during the colonial era was an evolving process in which the British authorities played indispensable roles.

In a comparative perspective, this project uses the case of Hong Kong to illustrate the transregional power of British colonialism in conceptualizing and transforming Asian littoral societies. It links the experience of colonial Hong Kong with other British possessions in South and Southeast Asia, by looking at the colonizers’ efforts to construct and conquer “indigenous” societies through methods such as census operations and registration mechanisms. Finally, this project is the first inquiry into the roles of the Hong Kong colonial officials in the making of China’s ethnic landscape. It reveals the similarities and differences between the British authorities in Hong Kong and Qing authorities in China in shaping Chinese littoral ethnicity in their respective realms.

Back to top