“Fortune’s Bazaar: The Making of Hong Kong” by Vaudine England

Detail from US edition cover

There is nothing, really, in the title of Fortune’s Bazaar: The Making of Hong Kong to indicate that Vaudine England’s new history centers neither the British colonialists nor the (to a greater or less extent) native Chinese, but rather everyone else—Parsis, Armenians, Baghdadi Jews, Portuguese and Macanese and, in particular, “Eurasians” (a term which merits the inverted commas)—who, she writes, “through their lives have accidentally created the place.”


Given Hong Kong’s proximity to the vast Chinese mainland, the vast majority of its people are ethnically Chinese. But some explanation of that gap between the few thousand of 1841 and the 7.5 million of 2019 is necessary. At least up until the 1960s, virtually everyone in Hong Kong came from somewhere else.


Fortune's Bazaar: The Making of Hong Kong, Vaudine England (Scribner, Corsair, May 2023)
Fortune’s Bazaar: The Making of Hong Kong, Vaudine England (Scribner, Corsair, May 2023)

To call a history “rollicking” may indicate that it isn’t serious, but Fortune’s Bazaar—filled with footnotes as well as brothels, mistresses, rogues, multiple wives, builders of institutions and businesspeople of both sexes, philanthropy, fortunes won and lost—is both. Here she lays out her thesis with typical panache:


What of all the perfectly ordinary people who staffed the businesses, ran the taverns, stocked the ships’ chandleries, and placed bets on the horses? What of all those multicolored peoples who lived, worked, loved, and died in the steep streets up from the central business district? … Behind the grand facades of the first court building, church, and barracks, and the nouveau riche splendor of the taipan’s (big boss’s) homes and office, was a busy catch-as-catch-can world of coolie laborers, moneylenders, shipowners, shopkeepers, commission brokers, bar owners, and working women. The ships could not dock, the trades neither recorded nor paid for, the food and drink and laundry and more intimate needs of the traders could not be provided, without a rapidly growing society of people drawn from much more than a purely British or Chinese pool. The city was seeded by its Asian trades, and so needed its Asian traders…
      Hong Kong’s few streets would soon be ringing to the sounds of Farsi, Gujarati, English, China coast pidgin, German, French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and more. The most numerous people were Chinese sampan and bumboat crews, followed by Lascars, an umbrella term that sometimes referred specifically to Indians but usually to Asiatic seafarers in general. The ships could not sail without sailors who understood Western-style rigging—thus, these men were not initially Chinese but Malay, Filipino, and Indian. Hindu and Muslim merchants had been active in the Persian Gulf since at least the ninth century; those networks not only survived the rise of European companies but helped fuel them.


A long quote, but this is one of those books best described through the author’s own words. And so she runs through them, the “D’Almada Remédios clan”, Hotungs, Ruttonjees, Kotewalls, Kadoories, Cohens—names which still adorn Hong Kong buildings, streets and institutions.

Some of this is inside baseball, or whatever the cricket equivalent may be: stories and names recognizable to those who have sojourned in Hong Kong but perhaps somewhat obscure to those that haven’t. And the mixture of people and ethnicities England describes so vividly only sounds surprising—if it does—from the perspective of the two largely ethnically homogeneous societies, Britain and China, that came into political contact via colonial Hong Kong. For those hailing from immigrant societies in the Americas or Australasia, this is, and would have been, a more normal state of affairs—not that it seems, in England’s telling, to have bothered anyone in Hong Kong very much either.


England devotes considerable attention to the mixed nature of many of these people:


A significant body of people often called “Eurasian” were in fact a product of other mixtures. Parsis are the tribal group tracing their roots back to Persia, bound by the Zoroastrian religion, and they intermarried with Indians through their many generations of life in India, based in Gujarat and particularly Bombay. As Parsis moved eastwards with their ship-owning and other trades, they met and married others, producing families such as the Kotewalls in Hong Kong, who were a mix of Parsi and Chinese blood and generally identified as Eurasian. Or what about unions that were not east-west or north-south, but between, say, Indian men and Burmese women. Again, the essence is in the mixing, never mind who is doing it.


Fortune’s Bazaar is not, of course, a definitive history of Hong Kong, if there could be such a thing. While Hong Kong cannot be understood without understanding its people, nor can it be understood without also understanding the politics, geopolitics and economics of the last two centuries. Vaudine England’s take on the historical record is likely to delight anyone who loves Hong Kong: she elucidates what is common knowledge, if not always acknowledged.

Hong Kong was always just one city among many; it has nevertheless often had a global role that far exceeded its geographical and economic size. Vaudine’s granular discussion of the people that grew Hong Kong and grew with it a (thankfully well-written) reminder that success over the decades—flexibility and robustness in the face of war, change and dislocation—is surely as much due to “human capital” as the other kind, location and infrastructure.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.