Made in Hong Kong seeks to reframe the city’s role in the modern history of US foreign policy and globalization by focusing on a group of “mobile, pragmatic, and adaptive” Chinese elites author Peter E Hamilton calls kuashang, or “straddling merchants”. An academic study of families whose profitable relationships straddled the US, colonial Hong Kong and China, the book provides another perspective on how this small, crowded city’s economy grew so strong so fast in the decades before the handover.
The lives of tycoons like Gordon Wu, a founder of Hopewell Holdings, and Tung Chee-hwa, the first post-handover Chief Executive, feature in this scholarly work as examples of very successful kuashang. Their biographies and others’ show how privileged access to top US institutions, political power and money were passed down and put to use to help refashion business empires as well as develop the economies of Hong Kong and China.
Hamilton points out that these individuals do not refer to themselves as kuashang, a novel Mandarin Chinese term used liberally throughout the work. It is also not intended to be an identity. Instead, he writes, the term is intended to draw out “a spectrum of individualized strategies toward international power” derived from experiences with European imperialism in China and Southeast Asia.
The work, subtitled “Transpacific Networks and a New History of Globalization”, is no primer on Hong Kong or Asia. Hamilton positions it as something of a response to previous analyses of this city’s economic rise and global importance that may have been incomplete or wrong. Hailing postwar Hong Kong as an “archetype of free competition”—as many have—misses a “crucial other half of the story,” Hamilton argues. Grouping Hong Kong’s performance as a model Asian tiger economy along with South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan also ignores the city’s unique position in the world.
What’s often overlooked in this story of economic growth and inequality, Hamilton says, is the size of the role the US had in the development postwar Hong Kong. While the British government did tax and spend with a light hand, earning the praise of free-market thinkers, the book argues, funds directly and indirectly from the US government often made up for London’s apparent restraint. And those Hamilton calls kuashang—most of whom were not tycoons—were well placed to benefit from and steer these resources.
The relationship between the US and Hong Kong grew so strong that the author calls it a kind of informal decolonization. “By the 1970s,” he writes, the colony “was both the world’s largest sender of foreign students to the United States and the largest exporter of textiles and apparel to the US market.”
The book sometimes belabors the point that American outreach in postwar Hong Kong, such as providing education or vocational training, was not exactly benevolence. Despite the benefits denizens may have obtained, Hamilton says, the “outreach was not charity but rather an imperial project that aimed to reorient the world’s best and brightest toward US influence and leadership.”
While the book’s insistence that some of these seemingly benign US-backed institutions were part of this “imperial project” can be distracting, the general idea that American aid is guided by self-interest (and can have poor results) is nonetheless worth repeating in a work on a city so entwined with communist China.
Made in Hong Kong is the product of a lot of work. It touches on the early textile merchant families that arrived in the city around the Chinese civil war and American missionaries who were often responsible for developing the initial connections between the two cultures.
The book also turns over some assumptions about mainland Chinese development. It illustrates that China started opening up to capitalism well before Deng Xiaoping “cemented power in December 1978”, a commonly accepted inflection point. Even amid the Cultural Revolution, the book shows, “an overlapping flurry of ideologically incompatible, Cantonese-dominated dabbles with capitalism were underway.”
These kuashang were champions of American ideals and knowhow—to a point. Hamilton recounts how wildly successful supply-chain manager Li & Fung was transformed by business practices the Fung brothers learned at Harvard Business School. Lots of institutions in the book are similarly transformed by ideas and connections picked up in the US. At the same time, democracy for Hong Kong was not really on the agenda for this group. Politics and business aren’t the same thing, yet many of the businessmen featured in the book were very active in politics. One even became Chief Executive.
Hamilton, an assistant professor in modern Chinese history at Trinity College Dublin, thankfully doesn’t celebrate the subjects of this work. Certain readers, however, still may see the business practices of the (mostly) men described here as savvy and worthy of emulation. Yet, if the book shows anything, it’s that the conditions that made their business successes possible were unique to Hong Kong and a different era.