This talk explores Hong Kong’s co-constitution with a larger Nanyang world, arguing for its merit for historical analysis. Much of the scholarship about colonial Hong Kong has situated it in relation to China, the British empire, and a U.S.-centered Pacific frame. As for overseas Chinese studies, native place approaches have been central, but the role of Hong Kong, historically not a native place, is underexplored. The Hong Kong-based “north-south trade” speaks to this possibility. Handled by the Nam Pak Hong Association (est. 1868), the trading of north-south goods between China and the Nanyang was dominated by Teochiu (Chaozhou) traders, celebrated today as pioneering Chinese merchants (huashang) who held their own against Western counterparts. Yet, their success was not only locally made, but came from being a trade diaspora scattered across Bangkok, Saigon, and Singapore. This suggests a forgotten significance of the Nanyang to Hong Kong’s rise as an entrepot and, in turn, Hong Kong’s role in the Nanyang’s fortunes. Their intimacies were most apparent during a double crisis in the 1950s, brought along by a U.S.-led UN embargo on Communist China in the Korean War and stringent import-export controls imposed by new Southeast Asian states. Abruptly cut off from Nanyang goods and markets, Teochiu merchants pivoted to building ties with the newly founded People’s Republic of China. They became the chief promoter of “national products” in Hong Kong and the diaspora, while also assuming an informal presence of the PRC state in the colony. With such broad consequences, the restructuring of the Nanyang world and Hong Kong’s place in it deserve attention as a critical chapter of regional history and politics.
Shelly Chan is a historian of modern and transnational China and Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of Diaspora’s Homeland: Modern China in the Age of Global Migration (Duke 2018). Her current research examines the disappearance of the Nanyang as a sea-based borderland in the twentieth century. Chan received her Ph.D. from UCSC. Before returning to join its faculty in 2020, she has taught at the University of Victoria and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.