Interrogating colonialism: a Hong Kong perspective

After moving to the UK, Ning Sang Jessica Tan describes the experience of living in the world of her colonizers

Ning Sang Jessica Tan

Anna Palma Balint

Often when waiting to cross the road, I recall all the times that I had unthinkingly pushed the same button on the same machines throughout my childhood. My double consciousness reels. “Be grateful for the infrastructure we gave you,” I hear, “Be grateful for the lucky opportunity we gave you to study law at a place like Cambridge.”

I was born in colonial Hong Kong. Yet, I have never felt my (post-)colonial subjectivity more than in these past three months since arriving at Cambridge. By that, I refer to both a general awareness of my status as a (post-)colonial subject and a reference to Du Bois’ double consciousness. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois wrote that being black in America gives black people a “second-sight” that “only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world,”. They are conscious of how they view themselves, as well as being conscious of how the world views them: which gives one no true self-consciousness. Cambridge is my first real encounter with “the other world” relevant to my context. The UK is the world of my colonizers. Given the narrative that colonialism benefited Hong Kong, where is the space to lament how people who look like me are dominated and subordinated by people who look like my lecturers?

“Be grateful for the infrastructure we gave you,” I hear, “Be grateful for the lucky opportunity we gave you to study law at a place like Cambridge”

It is often said that Britain’s legacy to Hong Kong is our civilized society. Yet, “civilized society” is hardly well-defined and the question of who had access to it is rarely posed. It doesn’t mean our political processes, as we cannot vote for our Chief Executive and our legislature’s British-introduced functional constituencies guarantee a pro-Beijing majority. Perhaps it means free market; on that measure, the British overwhelmingly succeeded: Hong Kong is always listed as the freest economy in the world. But what do we have to show for it? One of the world’s worst GINI coefficients, a reputation as an international hub for money launderers, a generation of youth who have given up on social mobility. Perhaps we should also ask: who benefits? Many of the city’s oligarchic corporations still proudly brandish their colonial heritage, i.e. Jardine Matheson, Swire Pacific, Henderson Land. In light of this, it is now appropriate to consider the “jewel” of our British legacy: rule of law and an independent judiciary.

A crown still sits on top of the newly refurbished Supreme Court building South China Morning Post

As I’ve learned after one term of constitutional law, British jurisprudence primarily sees rule of law as a formal mechanism that ensures laws are clearly published and enforced; it cares little about the law’s content. As such, it was easy to pass and enforce racist legislation that prohibited non-white people from inhabiting the city’s most desirous district. It also meant that the British could “justly” imprisoning people who protested against colonialism by applying the same civil disobedience laws that sent student leaders of the Umbrella Movement, marketed as our city’s “first” political prisoners, to jail. What of our rule of law today? Our mini-constitution states, “The power of interpretation of this Law shall be vested in the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress”. In other words, though our judiciary is largely independent from our legislature and executive, its existence is entirely dependent on China’s goodwill. The effect of such an unstable foundation for our legal system is egregious. When the new train station opens, connecting Hong Kong to China’s high-speed railway network, a part of the immigration checkpoint – located in the heart of Hong Kong – will be subject to China’s laws. Though the city’s most influential legal bodies have denounced such a provision as having no legal basis, the government has blithely stated that the checkpoint does not breach the law, helpfully providing no legal citations.

"Let us not be deceived. The “civilized society” left behind by the British was not a “gift”; it is an abandoned toy tossed aside after Christmas day"

Let us not be deceived. The “civilized society” left behind by the British was not a “gift”; it is an abandoned toy tossed aside after Christmas day, something that existed to propagate British interests for 150 years and quickly discarded after use. These dirty seconds that never accorded full freedoms to its subjects, re-branded as the city’s competitive advantage, have been successfully co-opted by an ambitious communist regime that uses the system to further its economic interests: state-owned enterprises publicly listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, using the Hong Kong office of international investment banks, accounting firms and law firms to close business deals. In short, the hopelessness that many Hong Kongers feel is the realization that our city’s beloved “civilized society” has never been anything more than a myth to help the ruling party’s interests, not their own. It is certainly not revolutionary to decry colonialism as unjust, but there are few spaces that give nuanced critiques of British colonialism and contemporary Hong Kong.


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When I came to Cambridge, it was my first time recognizing that this other world substantially mars my journey of self-consciousness, a world with which I had no contact and had never known until very recently. It is the healing process of finally diagnosing some symptoms such as feeling historically and culturally disjointed, respected yet unwanted; but it also the painful process of lamenting the lack of available cure. Moreover, given a troubling trend towards revisionist colonial history such as the recent launching of an Oxford-based research project to study the ethical grounding of colonialism, I invite others experiencing (post-)colonial subjectivity to engage fully with our double consciousness and find voice for our own consciousness. Perhaps together, our intertwining personal and collective stories can help us find our personal and collective healing

Illustrated by Anna Palma Balint