A Case Study of Misplaced Nostalgia for Colonial Hong Kong

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  • Author Nathan H. Chan
  • Published July 9, 2022
  • Word count 508

A Case Study of Misplaced Nostalgia for Colonial Hong Kong

Nathan H Chan

January 20, 2022

During the recent violent protests in my hometown, Hong Kong, a news article quoted one protester bearing a British flag, “The British colonial time was so good for us.” [1] However, this paper argues that nostalgia for colonial Hong Kong is misplaced.

During the colonial era, ordinary people often had to bribe their way through life: a hospital bedpan, hawking, and squatting all required “tea money.” [2] Non-compliance would often provoke retaliation from public officials. [3] Social justice advocate Elsie Elliot said, "British Justice, of which we once imagined we were so proud, seems here to operate in reverse…its application is only a matter of...wealth.” [4]

Corruption was a direct result of colonialism, with a small group of British expatriates serving as oligarchs; in 1950, 42 expatriates ruled 2.4 million people in Hong Kong. Though this group was largely immune to corruption, language and cultural gaps led to indifference towards the dishonesty of lower-ranking officials. [5] The UK also implemented a free market system, resulting in an administration without the mandate or urgency to curb corruption. [6] The situation was exacerbated by Chinese culture, which normalized certain corrupt behaviors such as influence-peddling through gifts. [7]

In 1973, an expatriate Police Superintendent was exposed for selling “franchises” for police officers to profit from racketeering. Public outcry led the government to establish the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). [8] The government also made legal, administrative, and educational changes to better demarcate legal and illegal practices, and minimize discretionary powers. By 1997, Hong Kong had become a global exemplar of anti-corruption measures. [9]

With the exposure of corruption in the post-1997 Chinese-appointed government, [10] it is understandable that some protestors emphasize the positives of the colonial era. However, it is dangerous to make sweeping generalizations by only looking at the last two decades of a 155-year British administration. [11] It is incomplete to look at any colonial rule without a full reflection of history.


  1. Roantree, Anne Marie. “Flag-Waving Grandma Wong Gives Hong Kong Protesters Lesson in Endurance.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, July 3, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hongkong-extradition-wong/flag-waving-grandma-wong-gives-hong-kong-protesters-lesson-in-endurance-idUSKCN1TY124.

  2. College of Business, CityU. “Fighting Corruption - the Hong Kong Way.” City Business Magazine, College of Business, City University of Hong Kong, 2016. https://www.cb.cityu.edu.hk/CityBusinessMagazine/2016-autumn/en/fighting-corruption-the-hong-kong-way.

  3. Goodstadt, Leo F. Essay. In Uneasy Partners: The Conflict between Public Interest and Private Profit in Hong Kong, 256. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009.

  4. Lee, Rance P. “The Folklore of Corruption in Hong Kong.” Asian Survey 21, no. 3 (1981): 355. https://doi.org/10.1525/as.1981.21.3.01p02592.

  5. Goodstadt, Uneasy Partners, p. 72 to 89.

  6. Goodstadt, Uneasy Partners, p. 254.

  7. Lee, The Folklore, p. 357-358.

  8. Mirsky, Jonathan. “Https://Www.wsj.com/Articles/SB110505446754319409.” WSJ.com, January 7, 2005. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB110505446754319409.

  9. Smart, Alan. “The Unbearable Discretion of Street-Level Bureaucrats : Corruption and Collusion in Hong Kong: Current Anthropology: Vol 59, No S18.” Current Anthropology, April 1, 2018. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1086/695694.

  10. Goodstadt, Uneasy Partners, p. 72 to 89.

  11. Chan, Ming K. “The Legacy of the British Administration of Hong Kong: A View from Hong Kong.” The China Quarterly 151 (1997): 567–67. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0305741000046828.

I am a 12-grade student of law, international relations, and history living in Shanghai, China. An author and researcher, I aspire to become a change-maker who one day will create a meaningful impact in international law and diplomacy. I am also the Founder and Director of an international mock trial tournament: Law Association for Crimes Across History (www.LACAH.net). I host a podcast, History For Two (History 42) that feeds and shares my passion for history at www.history42.com.

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