top of page

The Uncertain Rise of Hong Kong and Historical Determinism in Alternate History

By 'Bonniecanuck'

Flag of Hong Kong

Anyone who knows me will probably have learned fairly quickly that I consider myself a proud Hongkonger. Although I have not set foot there in nearly four years, I spent nearly all of my youth there, grew up in a Cantonese-speaking household, and have made no bones of taking part in the diaspora’s demonstrations in support of the 2019 anti-extradition law protests. It’s an identity I can't help but question given my questionable fluency in Cantonese, which I partly attribute to having attended an international school where it was not used in the classroom in favour of English and Mandarin, but few if any have shared those same doubts.

I think it naturally figures that I have an interest in Hong Kong’s history, something that’s more important than ever to many people given China’s ongoing rewriting of the history curriculum to promote a sanitised nationalistic narrative that, among other things, erases Hong Kong’s status as a British colony and removes an indeterminate number of books from library and bookstore shelves, ranging from anti-authoritarian classics like 1984 to more recent publications about the 2019 protests and the Tiananmen Square massacre. A particularly insulting instance is the barricading of the Red House, a former Hsing Chung Hui (Revive China Society) safehouse where Sun Yat-sen plotted his revolutionary uprisings, by police and security guards to prevent people from commemorating the anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution - stupefyingly ironic given Sun remains venerated by the People’s Republic in addition to Taiwan. A lot of the grassroots interest in local history comes as a result of the government’s lack of regard for historical preservation and censorship to write a more politically correct history (to use the phrase as it was originally intended), and topics like the Opium Wars, the Battle of Hong Kong, and the various workers’ movements and activist campaigns have become more widely discussed.

Still, even before this Hong Kong has been a source of fascination across the world for being a unique place in the post-colonial East Asian milieu. It was one of the Four Asian Tigers and remains a global hub for finance and capital, it was the place Milton Friedman considered the shining example of his vision of free market economics (a laughable proposition given how involved the government would have to become to ameliorate the negative effects of the free market), it was the only part of China where discourse surrounding Tiananmen Square and criticism of the Communist regime was acceptable until recently, and it was where Bruce Lee and the martial arts flick made their worldwide impact in film and television.

Naturally the territory comes up a fair bit in alternate history - in 19th century scenarios as a forward operating base for British imperial adventures, in early 20th century timelines as a frontline in conflict against a resurgent China and/or Japan, and in more contemporary timelines usually dealing with the contention that comes with being the last holdout of the British Empire against the global tide of decolonisation. SLP is no stranger to this - in You’ve Always Had It This Good, Hong Kong is (spoilers!) the centrepiece of the final act of Harold Macmillan’s premiership, and the forum does enjoy dabbling with the territory’s politics every now and then.

But there are common threads in all this that are hard to ignore. It seems inevitable that in every scenario, Hong Kong will be a British colony, it will face the looming threat of East Asia’s imperial ascendancy, or it will be a major financial and cultural hub. While some scenarios have gone out of their way to depict the territory in a different light than what we recognise, they don’t tend to be particularly adventurous in diverging from these established tropes, with neighbouring Macau being treated the same, and that’s if it gets mentioned at all given its relative obscurity. But there’s a lot of history that’s worth unpacking in order to highlight the flaws in how Hong Kong is depicted and what many paths not taken shaped the territory into what we recognise today, and whilst I can’t broach every single topic I hope this serves to inform both veteran and newer writers alike what rich possibilities await from just digging a little deeper.

Let’s start with the beginnings of the colony of Hong Kong itself. When the First Opium War broke out, the superintendent for British trade interests in China, Sir Charles Elliot, attempted to put an early end to the conflict, and in January 1841 negotiated an agreement to cede Hong Kong Island to Britain. Far from being welcomed in London, though, then-Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston was furious and had Elliot dismissed. Why? Because Elliot had singlehandedly denied Britain the real prize it’d had its eyes on. In acquiring Hong Kong, Elliot evacuated the islands of Zhoushan, an archipelago at the mouth of the Yangtze that was coveted by the British for its advantageous port that could serve as a gateway to northern China, bypassing the Canton system through which all foreign trade was routed. In fact Elliot had agreed to receive Hong Kong not so much as a demand but as a concession to the Chinese in his effort to end the war early on relatively lenient terms.

So furious was Palmerston, who referred to the future capital of global finance and shipping as “A barren island with hardly a house on it” with no chance of becoming “a mart of trade”, that he dismissed Elliot and replaced him with the more aggressive Sir Henry Pottinger, and the similar indignation at this agreement by their Chinese counterparts led the war to drag on another year before the Treaty of Nanking finalised British acquisition of Hong Kong and extraterritorial access to five treaty ports. Included in these ports were Ningbo and Shanghai, whose positions in the proximity of the Yangtze Delta left Zhoushan entirely redundant. Indeed Pottinger, who after the war became the first colonial Governor of Hong Kong, would appraise the island as a suitable foothold to protect and expand British interests in the region, signalling that the British would be in Hong Kong to stay.

So we’re barely a year into British Hong Kong being a thing and we run into a slew of what-ifs concerning its very unlikely existence. Of course Hong Kong isn’t particularly unique in that - the Mayflower being blown off course to New England or Stamford Raffles and the founding of modern Singapore come to mind - but it’s probably too convergent to interpret Hong Kong as the first place where the Union Jack would fly on land conquered from China, irrespective of the Foreign Office and East India Company’s actual objectives.

Turning the clock ahead a bit brings us to a different aspect - language and culture. While Hong Kong’s lingua franca today is overwhelmingly Cantonese, the dialect of the Yue language family spoken in and around the Pearl River Delta, historically the linguistic landscape was more diverse. Hakka, Hoklo, and Tanka people all established towns and villages across Hong Kong well before the British arrived, and these groups coexisted and warred with one another over time. While elsewhere in Guangdong the Hakka, historically an underclass in Chinese society, faced a series of genocidal clan wars with the indigenous Yue-speaking Punti villages in the mid-19th century that nearly wiped them out of the province, Hakka villages in Hong Kong survived in a vassal relationship to their more numerous Punti counterparts. After Hong Kong began to urbanise, Hoklo and Teochew migrants from Fujian and eastern Guangdong respectively settled and formed diasporas, with the Fujianese settling in North Point, while wealthy merchants and labouring coolies of Teochew extraction dominated the Western District.

The influence of these different groups on Hong Kong society can still be seen. Some more visible and recognisable examples include romanisation of place names like Fo Tan and Tsuen Wan sometimes stemming from Hakka rather than Cantonese, Tanka fishing villages on isolated islands like Tai O and Cheung Chau that are popular day-trip getaways, and Chiu Chow restaurants being as much a fixture in the culinary scene as dim sum. The Hakka also fought alongside the Punti in defence of their autonomy, successfully forcing the colonial government to recognise their traditional rights after the Six Day War of 1899 and helping to co-found the hegemonic Heung Yee Kuk statutory council to protect and advance their interests. Meanwhile the Hoklo and Teochew community’s influence in their respective districts lingers through the presence of benevolent associations and commercial societies - organisations that stuck around in relative obscurity for decades before being thrust into the spotlight in 2019 after Fujianese gangsters tied to these pro-Beijing patriotic organisations assaulted demonstrators in North Point.

But you often won’t hear their languages and dialects being spoken in the streets nowadays, and their cultural relevance nowadays is minimal when compared to adjacent communities in the Southeast Asian diaspora. Over time, Cantonese would predominant as the language of trade in the urban area due to the thousands of merchants and labourers regularly crossing the border with Mainland China looking for work and markets, and the Hoklo and Tanka communities, already speaking local Yue dialects related to Cantonese, assimilated into the urban dialect over time. These trends alone would not displace these other languages until the Chinese Civil War saw the migration of millions of people, many from the Guangzhou area, fleeing the Communist tide as it swallowed what had once been the revolutionary bastion of the Kuomintang, and from then on Cantonese would predominate, as it still does today. Only Hakka still retains a presence, but one largely confined to the isolated New Territories villages where they continue resisting integration into urban society. I think it’s taken for granted how diverse Hong Kong used to be, and while it’s a difficult subject to approach, I hope that the nuance and tact taken by alternate history works and discussions dealing with indigenous societies in the colonial world in recent years sets a good precedent to put a spotlight on Hong Kong.

And since the topic of the Chinese Civil War has come up, let’s move on to its more dramatic ramifications. It’s not unfair to assert that the Chinese Civil War was the war that made modern Hong Kong, as the nearly 2 million new arrivals to Hong Kong shaped the city’s urban landscape. For some years after the Civil War, many of Hong Kong’s poor were housed in shantytowns that were crowded and dangerous. A fire in one such slum in Shek Kip Mei in 1953 displaced over 50,000 residents, and in response the colonial government began the first of many public housing projects made up of ubiquitous “commie block” style prefabricated apartments. Further population growth spurred the expansion of the urban sprawl into the New Territories, as New Towns like Yuen Long and Sha Tin arose from rural settlements to house hundreds of thousands of residents commuting into the city, taking advantage of the prior British experience in developing New Towns along with new policies of transit-oriented development.

But these effects extend further across different aspects of civil society. In discussion of culture, I avoided highlighting one additional demographic that is best introduced now - the Shanghainese. This term, in addition to people from Shanghai, includes residents of cities and regions across the Lower Yangtze like Ningbo, Hangzhou, and Suzhou, cities that historically served as the primary entrepôts of foreign trade and business in China. Until the Civil War, Hong Kong played second fiddle to Shanghai as a centre of finance, business, and trade. Governed by a series of extraterritorial concessions owned by Britain, America, France, and Japan, Shanghai was home to many Western companies doing business in China and many residents formed the basis of an emergent Chinese bourgeois middle class. It would also be these residents who would flee Shanghai to Hong Kong in the thousands when the Communists took over in 1949, while banks and corporations like HSBC overwhelmingly moved their operations in fear of nationalisation and expropriation. This marked the culmination of a trend of capital flight caused by the turbulence China experienced in the first half of the 20th century, as Hong Kong had also been the destination of thousands of Chinese fleeing warlord-driven instability and the Second Sino-Japanese War. The economic ramifications of this influx of Chinese and foreign capital would set the stage for Hong Kong’s rise as a centre of world finance.

Shanghainese émigrés also heavily shaped mass media and pop culture that would come to be associated with Hong Kong. Under the Kuomintang, Shanghai became a hub for China’s nascent film and recording industries, with the wuxia genre and Mandopop music tracing their origins to the city in the Nanjing Decade. The demise of these industries following Japanese occupation and Communist takeover led to entertainers joining the flight of Shanghainese to Hong Kong, where they flourished as they adapted to local conditions. The Shaw Brothers film studio, which helped popularise kung fu action flicks worldwide and spawned the rival Golden Harvest studio that catapulted Bruce Lee to global fame, traces its origins to Shanghai, and the re-establishment of the Mandopop industry in Hong Kong set the stage for the incorporation of Western and Cantonese influences to give birth to Cantopop, and subsequently the rise of legends like Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung.

The Second Year of Jianfeng

If you are familiar with published alternate history, you might recognise a similar thesis from not one but two past works. The Limpid Stream by SLP co-founder Jack Tindale was inspired by the fact that many Western intellectuals from the Russian diaspora came from households of émigrés with noble or political backgrounds who fled the October Revolution, and subsequently explored a possibility where those backgrounds brought them to steer the levers of government in a world where that revolution never occurred. A more obscure work, however, brings this theme much closer to home. The 2016 book The Second Year of Jianfeng, written by Chan Koonchung of The Fat Years fame, is an alternate history novel presenting a vision of a Nationalist China that triumphed in the Civil War, set in 1979 with Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek, in his early years ruling as President. Presenting an allegory comparing the Mao-era PRC and Taiwan under martial law and the White Terror, most of the novel is written in a Turtledove-esque style of notable figures in politics, arts, and entertainment reflecting on events since the war, for better and for worse, but the final chapter takes a major genre shift as it focuses on a mentally challenged young adult from Hong Kong obsessed with film and television. The name of the chapter’s protagonist alludes to McDull, a beloved cartoon pig and unofficial mascot of Hong Kong, with the theme of the chapter highlighting how significantly the Civil War shaped Hong Kong’s contributions to pop culture. Celebrated cultural output like the timeless Old Master Q manhua, penned by Tianjin-born Alfonso Wong, and the novels of Zhejiang native Louis Cha would not emerge to fame in Hong Kong, and names such as Andy Lau and Chow Yun-fat would never be catapulted to global prominence, their place taken by actors who historically wound up as victims of the Cultural Revolution. Chinese cinema, literature, and manhua would flourish globally, but at the expense of any chance of Hong Kong achieving the name it made in film and television.

The Second Year of Jianfeng is to my knowledge the only published work that seriously deals with the ramifications of a Nationalist victory in the Chinese Civil War on Hong Kong, however brief it is, and I really hope it can be translated and re-published in English to make it accessible to a wider global audience. While it focuses on just one facet of Hong Kong’s civil society, I think the questions it poses regarding Hong Kong are pertinent in order to appreciate the difficult path the city faced to achieve the status it holds in the global consciousness today, and I hope that going forward we can see more creativity in how the territory is approached beyond the usual tropes.

It seems hard to imagine a Hong Kong without skyscrapers, but the cruel reality is that the biggest reason Hong Kong enjoyed this degree of development was because China couldn’t until relatively recently. When events closed the border and drove foreign business out of China, Hong Kong became the next best place to make your home. That’s not to say that Hong Kong didn’t already possess a substantial base of resources to attain similar levels of riches, but it would’ve been an uphill battle, especially if it still had to compete with more established centres of labour, capital, and culture. And who’s to say there would even be a Hong Kong to build up in the first place? Again, there’s a lot I’ve failed to cover in this article, but perhaps this will provide some inspiration and help to open the door for more creative interpretations of this uncertain period in history, and perhaps even allow others to explore other locales and push boundaries in how we currently approach them in alternate history.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page