Deconstructing the myth of the ‘barren rock’: an environmental history of Hong Kong’s British colonization, 1793-1898

19 Oct 2023 04.30 PM - 06.00 PM SHHK Conference Room (05-57) Alumni, Current Students, Industry/Academic Partners, Prospective Students, Public

This talk traces the environmental origin of one of Hong Kong’s most powerful colonial myths, that of the ‘barren rock’ or ‘barren island’. This teleological narrative of progress is often captured by the tale of a miraculous transformation of an island once considered a ‘barren rock’ into a flourishing port and more recently into an international financial hub. Under the influence of post-colonial and subaltern studies, many historians have already deconstructed this colonial myth by contesting its political, social and cultural foundations and exposing the historical realities it obscures. However, above all, the myth says something about the environment of Hong Kong in the mid-nineteenth century. Was the island really a ‘barren rock’? Why did the British use this specific adjective to describe it? My purpose is not to investigate whether or not, before British occupation, the island was barren, but rather to examine how it became a ‘barren rock’. What kind of cultural and scientific understandings, which individual and collective experiences have generated such a powerful tale?

Maxime Decaudin is a Senior Lecturer at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Situated at the intersection of landscape studies and environmental history, his research examines the historical agency of nature in Asian contexts. Originally trained as an architect, he obtained a PhD in Art History from Sorbonne University and has taught landscape architecture at the University of Hong Kong for a decade.