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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: June 2019

Chapter 5 - Hong Kong versus Singapore: The Dawn of Mass Migration


His Majesty the Emperor of China agrees that British Subjects shall be allowed to reside … at the Cities and Towns of Canton, Amoy, Foochow-fu, Ningpo, and Shanghai … the Island of Hong-Kong [is] to be possessed in perpetuity by her Britannic Majesty.

The Treaty of Nanking was the ‘opening’ of China that British merchants and commentators had so vehemently lobbied for throughout the 1830s. Historians have identified the treaty as the start of a new age in Anglo-Chinese economic, political and military relations. It is known in Chinese history as the start of China's ‘century of humiliation’ at the hands of foreign imperialism. In terms of emigration too, the newly opened ports and acquired territory listed in the treaty provided new opportunities for Chinese workers seeking to circumvent the Qing ban on emigration. Historians of Chinese emigration have taken 1842 as the start of a new era and have emphasised changes from, rather than continuities with, the pre-Opium War era. This chapter will situate Chinese emigration in the wake of the Treaty of Nanking as connected to systems and perceptions of Chinese migrants developed in Singapore from 1819. Additionally, with the security of Hong Kong and the Chinese treaty ports, British merchants established new systems of Chinese migration from different departure points and to new, global destinations. British colonies in the Caribbean, which required a replacement for recently abolished African slave labour, were a key destination.

First, this chapter examines the role of Hong Kong as an Anglo- Chinese contact zone, as well as a destination and departure point for migrants. Colonial authority in Hong Kong, much like Singapore previously, was simultaneously reliant on Chinese elites and intermediaries, whilst being threatened by the size and organisation of the Chinese labour force. Second, Hong Kong was also important as it provided a base from which British firms could facilitate onward migration to destinations beyond Southeast Asia. The establishment of British judicial hegemony on the China coast, combined with extensive shipping connections that had developed with the growth of Anglo-Chinese trade post-1842, facilitated mass migrations to the goldfields of Australia and California as well as indentured labourers as a cheap alternative to African slave labour in the West Indies.

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