Knowingly or not, anyone who has spent much time at all on what used to be called the “China Coast” will surely have come across the paintings of the George Chinnery, an English artist active in Macau in the second quarter of the 19th century. Whatever profile Chinnery may have in the broader painterly pantheon, in Hong Kong and Macau he is the closest to an artistic native son that the Western colonial tradition has.
In 1900 Mirza Kalich Beg, celebrated as the first Sindhi novelist, translated a 13th-century Persian text called Chachnama into English. Ali Kufi, the author of Chachnama, in turn, claimed his work was a translation of an 8th-century work in Arabic. The English-language Chachnama is thus apparently twice removed from the ever-elusive original text, a rumoured book that deals with the conquest of Hindustan by Muhammad bin Qasim.
Arabia Felix: Happy Arabia. Who wouldn’t want to go there and find out why it was such a happy place? In fact, in 1761 not that many Europeans were going there, which left an opening for the culturally and scientifically minded king of Denmark, Frederik V, to make a name for himself and his country by supporting a Danish expedition to that fortunate land. New scientific discoveries could be there for the making and new accurate maps drawn, as well as a chance to prove some of the stories told about Moses and the Israelites; could they have left inscriptions as they fled from Egyptian persecution, writings which might be transcribed by a competent philologist?
The prolific British historian Niall Ferguson contends that the Second World War began in July 1937, when, after an “incident” at the Marco Polo Bridge on the outskirts of Beijing, Japan sent five divisions to Northern and coastal China. By the end of the year, more than 800,000 Japanese troops occupied 150,000 square miles of Chinese territory, and the Chinese capital of Nanking had been literally raped and pillaged by Japanese forces.
MacArthur hardly appears. The spies were rank amateurs. But once you get past the misleading title, MacArthur’s Spies is a well-written piece of work with a lot to say about life in occupied Manila during World War II.
All too many places have the form of democracy—elections—without the substance. Hong Kong, just about uniquely, has the opposite: most of the substance—a free press, independent courts, rule of law, privacy protections, etc.—without the form. The territory suffers having a significant democratic deficit, a situation that Christopher Patten, the “last governor”, famously called “liberty without democracy”.
Ronald McCrum is a retired British army officer, and in his prologue he sets out his conviction that in previous accounts of the fall of Singapore too much blame has been attributed to the military and not enough to the “seriously flawed” civil administration.