A Crucible of Modern Global Capitalism–A Review of “Made in Hong Kong”

Hamilton, Peter E. Made in Hong Kong: Transpacific Networks and a New History of Globalization. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021.

Reviewed by James Watson-Krips

There are few places in the world quite like Hong Kong. Billed as “Asia’s World City,” it is today celebrated as much for its striking cityscape as its vibrant street life. It has also been a site of constant change, transitioning from smuggler’s haven to colonial entrepot, and from ideological battleground to global financial hub. At once center and periphery, the city has served as a cultural crossroads from its earliest days.

Ironically, however, the very qualities that have made Hong Kong so dynamic have also made it hard to pin down, particularly for historians of modern China. The city has been often viewed as a world apart, somehow part of China’s history but also outside of it. It has also been overlooked as a site of global change. Until now, that is.

In an excellent new book from Columbia University Press, historian Peter Hamilton works to break down these barriers and to re-assess Hong Kong’s place in history as a crucible of modern-day capitalism. Taking the city on its own terms, but with an eye towards large-scale, global forces and flows, he links empire, education, and enterprise to show that we cannot understand our world today without also understanding Hong Kong—both the city itself, and the people who made it possible.  

From the outset, however, it should be noted that Made in Hong Kong, although an excellent and detailed account of a specific city, is not quite an urban history, per se. That is, while Made in Hong Kong does describe the city’s growth and industrialization from the late Qing (1644-1911) to the 1990s, as well as the emergence and expansion of key educational and business institutions, it largely examines these subjects from on high, framing them as part of a larger process by which the city became “the metaphorical center of global history and capitalist globalization after 1945.” Accordingly, the book describes in great detail the transpacific networks that built Hong Kong (and vice versa), but remains largely silent about how these networks in turn impacted life on the ground. Or, put differently, it shows how post-war global capitalism was in part “made in Hong Kong,” and how these processes, in turn, made the city what it is today, but says little as to how these changes were experienced by those living in the shadows of the city’s now-iconic skyline.

But if Made in Hong Kong says little about urban life at street level, that is because its focus is on those inhabiting the city’s famed Peak and Mid-Levels, a group of erstwhile Mainland elites from the Lower Yangtze and coastal Guangdong who used their social and financial resources to both build new lives in a new city, and to build Hong Kong itself into a lynchpin of global trade. Collectively termed kuashang (跨商), or “straddling merchants,” they are individuals who moved between worlds, and thus inhabit an interstitial position reflective of Hong Kong’s own liminal existence. Fleeing the upheaval and uncertainties of war and revolution, particularly the chaos caused by Communist victory in 1949, these transplants found themselves facing an uncertain future in unfamiliar environs. But in contrast to other Mainland refugees, for whom life in Hong Kong was often defined by a lack of employment, housing, and social services, kuashang families such as the Yuens, Tangs, and Lees turned precarity into prosperity thanks to a combination of prescience, pragmatism, and most of all, privilege. Especially important were the advantages accrued through a longstanding commitment to international education, both at home and abroad. And indeed, across eight chapters Hamilton shows how kuashang families strategically sent their children overseas—especially to elite schools in the United States—where they gained firsthand insight into American consumer habits, adopted cultural signifiers, made important connections, and mastered new management techniques. Together, these resources helped kuashang families build new partnerships and networks, take advantage of changes in the market, secure competitive advantages, and elevate family enterprises into both major corporations and upmarket players.

Strikingly, these educational resources also facilitated what Hamilton calls “informal decolonization,” defined as both the rise of local, Chinese actors (relative to their British counterparts), and a de facto pivot away from British colonial power towards American capital, and later, Chinese reform. As Hamilton explains, kuashang families were in fact “rarely invested in the British colonial project,” and instead recognized the benefits of casting one’s lot with an ascendant United States. But such a pivot did not mean challenging the existing colonial establishment. To the contrary, kuashang viewed British rule as a “convenient placeholder,” and thus chose to work within the confines of the colonial establishment to ensure access to the United States market and to protect their livelihoods from potential takeover by hostile forces on the Chinese mainland. In other words, kuashang maintained the colonial status quo as a pragmatic means to an end, and accordingly worked to “exploit British decline in service of personal agendas that often contravened colonial ambitions”—ambitions that included the creation of American-style universities (namely the Chinese University of Hong Kong and its controversial MBA program), increased participation in the city’s American Chamber of Commerce, and extensive cooperation with US-backed religious and educational institutions. These efforts made Hong Kong into the world’s largest sender of foreign students to the United States by the early 1970s, created a skilled labor pool well-versed in American business acumen, and ultimately transformed the city “from a hub of low-cost, export-driven manufacturing aimed at the U.S. market” into “Asia’s leading coordination center for multinational commodity chains.” Driven by pragmatic self-interest—and not a patriotic attachment to any country or culture—kuashang operated at the intersection of colonialism and capital, and used each to their advantage to maintain and expand their wealth, power, and influence.

The founders of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, ca. 1963. The University has served as a conduit for Hong Kong-U.S. relations. Wikimedia Commons.

To some, this conclusion may not seem particularly surprising. Wealth has long begotten wealth, and in China, in particular, the use of personal networks, or guanxi (關係), continues to play a crucial role in both attaining and maintaining one’s social station. But these realities notwithstanding, Hamilton’s book makes several important interventions thanks to its focus on specifically bicultural and transpacific relations. At one level, it complicates prevailing assumptions about the city’s colonial history and its path to development, especially those perpetuating a “mythos of postwar British dominance over Hong Kong’s economy.” Instead, it shows how “a small but expanding set of nominally subaltern colonial subjects” in fact “invert[ed] the marginalized political, geographic, and racialized positions that both contemporaries and scholars today might assume constrained them.” It likewise pushes back against analyses linking Hong Kong’s development to a vaguely Orientalist “East Asian miracle,” particularly notions of a Confucian pre-disposition for hard work and success. In their place, we are instead asked to take seriously the centrality of Chinese kuashang and their ties with the United States in explaining Hong Kong’s rise from impoverished colony to economic powerhouse.

Made in Hong Kong also sheds new light on the city’s place within Sino-US relations. Hamilton explains the ways in which kuashang elites helped broker United States engagement with China throughout the 1970s and beyond, providing China with both the financial and social capital necessary in its quest for reform. It also highlights the ways in which Hong Kong elites began their pivot to the Mainland almost immediately after the restoration of Sino-US trade in 1971, effectively “predicting and preparing for PRC reforms” by signing contracts with state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and engaging in various informal trading arrangements. As a result, Made in Hong Kong forces us to widen our view of Reform and Opening both geographically and temporally.

Finally, Hamilton’s book provides insight into Hong Kong’s present predicament, proving that the kuashang and their strategies remain relevant as ever. Today, of course, Hong Kong finds itself at the mercy of an increasingly assertive Beijing government, one seeking to further consolidate control and crackdown on dissent and opposition.[1] These developments have sparked an outcry from people around the world, as well sanctions from the United States government.[2] But as Hamilton makes clear, we should not expect similar condemnations from the city’s kuashang elite, for whom democratic ideals have long been a means to an end. These individuals have invoked democracy only when convenient, most famously in the wake of June 1989, when American outrage over Tiananmen forced them to promote Hong Kong as “a force for democracy and reform” in order to protect their position as economic middlemen. Now, however, with Hong Kong more firmly anchored to the Mainland than ever before, and with more to gain from cooperation than dissent, one should not expect similar heel turn. Instead, we will likely see continued compliance and acquiescence. In this sense, Hamilton shows us that while Hong Kong’s exact future may be unclear, one thing is for certain: as the city prepares for its next iteration, the city’s elite will undoubtedly land on their feet, making the most of new opportunities and ensuring that their fortunes continue to be made in Hong Kong.

James Watson-Krips is a Ph.D. candidate in East Asian Studies at Princeton University, where he researches the impact and experience of automobility during China’s Republican period (1911-1949). Before starting his Ph.D., James spent nearly a decade in Beijing working in various roles across China’s communications and automotive sectors.

Featured image (at top): Hong Kong, 1986. Leo-setä, “A view from Victoria Peak,” Flicker, CC BY 2.0.

[1] Vivian Wang and Alexander Stevenson, “‘A Form of Brainwashing’: China Remakes Hong Kong,” New York Times, June 29, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/29/world/asia/hong-kong-security-law-anniversary.html.

[2] “US Sanctions 24 Chinese Officials Over Hong Kong Crackdown,” Al Jazeera, March 17, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/17/us-sanctions-24-chinese-officials-over-hong-kong-crackdown.

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