Coffee Evenings in the Hong Kong MTR

The Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway, or MTR, seems to have been rapidly integrated into the day-to-day life of the city since the opening of the Modified Initial System route in 1979. The MTR Corporation’s Annual Report from 1979 is proof enough of this, giving the impression in no uncertain terms that the Corporation was pleased with how the system had been received by the general public.[1] Since then, the system has continued to expand both in size and popularity, with the Modified Initial System being expanded into the Tsuen Wan and Island lines over the course of the 1980s, and the Tseung Kwan O and Airport Express lines over the course of the 1990s, and so on going into the 21st century. One curious, and underreported element of the MTR’s expansion during this period is their method of gathering customer feedback. Instead of the more conventional approaches to gathering feedback, the MTR made use of so-called ‘Coffee Evenings’ hosted at MTR stations, starting in 1991.[2] These took the format of sit down events, taking part in the early evenings, where members of the public would be able to offer their opinions on the MTR to management staff.[3] The issues described as being commonly raised are not especially surprising or of particular interest – being matters such as air conditioning, cleanliness, and service announcements.[4]

What is of particular interest to me is how these events were specifically conducted – what atmosphere they carried, and how the management of the MTR corporation attempted to present themselves with. Unfortunately, the available information on these events is sparse at best – the only information on them that I could find online is documentation from the MTR Corporation itself, in the form of press releases transcribing announcements relating to the events, and the ‘Staying On Track With Your Views’ series, which are annual reports where the MTR responds to the feedback they have received. The limitations of these sources in finding out what these events looked and felt like are obvious – including especially negative or dramatic experiences would not be in the interest of the MTR Corporation, and positive feedback is likely to be focused on disproportionally. Still, these booklets are still useful in presenting the idealized image of the MTR’s Coffee Evenings.

An example of this image can be found in the 1993 edition of Staying On Track With Your Views, which uses a photo of a Coffee Evening as its front page.[5] The atmosphere presented in the photo is friendly, calm, and approachable – with what appears to be relaxed conversations taking place[6]. Plants are scattered around the area, and people of all ages – from children to businessmen – are present, creating an environment not unlike that of a coffee shop.[7] This relaxed and approachable tone is also conveyed in the letter included in the booklet – it ‘cordially invite(s)’ the public to provide feedback, and even includes a phone number that can be used to this end.[8]

As previously mentioned, any further analysis of the MTR’s Coffee Evenings is unfortunately hampered by the lack of available material, especially with regards to material that provides alternative viewpoints – to put it in short, only half of the story has been told. Further investigation is absolutely warranted – given how quickly the MTR seems to have embedded itself into Hong Kong, a more thorough examination of these feedback sessions would perhaps shine a light on the dynamics and lived experience of the MTR in this period, and how the corporation and the public engaged with each other.

[1] Mass Transit Railway Corporation. Annual Report of the Mass Transit Railway Corporation, 1979. 6.

[2] Mass Transit Railway Corporation. Press Release, 1995. 5.

[3] Press Release, 1995. 2.

[4] Ibid. 6.

[5] Mass Transit Railway Corporation. Staying On Track With Your Views, 1993. 1.

[6] Staying On Track With Your Views, 1993. 1.

[7] Ibid. 1.

[8] Ibid. 22.

The Ideology of Architecture

“The design of urban space was no less than a project to socially engineer humanity: architects and urban planners saw the built environment as an instrument to shape the moral values and practices of the populace.”1 

The idea that architects use physical space to shape habits, values, and ideologies is a powerful claim.  In Vietnam, French colonial architecture and socialist architecture took opposing approaches to this manipulation of space.  From the earliest stages of colonial activity in Vietnam, hygiene went hand in hand with colonial authority.  More than half a century later, in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, East German architects were similarly concerned with health, but their approach to designing built environments was very different.

In colonial Indochina, health was a primary concern for the French.  Early manuals written for French settlers promoted hygiene through housing and “offered systematic rules to tropical living.”2 They not only dictated the orientation, materials, and layout of houses, but insinuated the superiority of western sanitation practices through their pseudo-scientific claims about tropical diseases.  Houses built according to these manuals were not only meant to be physically distanced from the indigenous populace for “hygienic” reasons, but to symbolize their distinctiveness through their outward appearance.  As the population of French colonialists grew, the “hill station” of Dalat was established in the mountains of central Vietnam in order to promote the health of colonial soldiers, officials, and elites.  The justification for this project relied on assumptions about the dangers of “tropicality” (which included the inhabitants of the tropics), and allowed the French to build a segregated European area designed to improve (European) health.3 Segregated facilities existed not only in the mountains, but in the infrastructure of cities as well.  The sewer system of Hanoi, a project spurred by the same prejudiced assumptions about tropical diseases, only served the “European quarter” demonstrating how “colonial sewers were part of a larger urban system in which race dictated access to the blessings of modernism.”4 Sanitation, and assumptions about the superiority of western hygiene practices, became a symbol of colonial power asserted through infrastructure and architecture.  

Paul Doumer, L’Indo-Chine Française, Souvenirs (Paris: 1905),, 70.

Paul Doumer, the Governor-General of French Indochina from 1897 to 1902, published an account of his travels which contrasts the built environment of French areas with other parts of Indochina.  His description of the hospital in Hanoi (a physical monument to modern western medicine) describes its “construction mixte” (mixed construction), neither tropical nor European architecture designed to promote airflow and provide sun protection.5 He includes an image showcasing the the “Palais du Gouvernement” in Saigon which he describes as ideally constructed for “un climat ou il faut pour vivre beaucoup d’air, beaucoup d’espace” (a climate where, in order to live, one needs a lot of air and space).6 His architectural account aligns with assumptions that tropical climates were inherently dangerous to Europeans and that indigenous sanitation practices, infrastructure, and architecture were inferior to western ones.  As a result, colonial houses, hill stations, sewer systems, hospitals, and government buildings physically and symbolically separated French and indigenous forms of hygiene.  The built environment was not only a symbolic assertion of colonial sanitary superiority, but excluded the Vietnamese populace from benefiting from these allegedly superior practices.   

Christina Schwenkel, “Traveling Architecture: East German Urban Designs in Vietnam,” in International Journal for History, Culture and Modernity 2, no. 2: (2014), 164.

In contrast to colonial architecture, in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, “soviet block” architecture dictated hygiene in different way.  In her study of urban Vietnam and East German architecture, Christina Schwenkel compares the the destruction of the Vietnamese city of Vinh to that of Dresden during WWII, and argues that the strategies for rebuilding East Germany were later used in Vietnam.7 In response to vast housing shortages resulting from extensive bombing, complexes like the Quang Trung “Wohnkomplex” in Vinh used the concept of prefabricated housing and Soviet style uniform blocks to provide safe, clean, and modern housing for those whose homes had been destroyed.  In contrast to colonial architecture which was designed to symbolize European superiority, mass housing complexes and “socialist architecture” designed housing in collaboration with Vietnamese architects with the immediate needs of Vietnamese residents in mind.  Despite differences in historical context and approach to design, the goals of socialist German architects reflected those of colonial French architects.  Like the French, German architects saw “modernity” as buildings which “facilitated the flow of air and natural light through the apartments,” and shifted “away from communal living in cramped spaces with shared, outdoor facilities.”8 While complexes like Quang Trung were developed with Vietnamese experts and designed for Vietnamese people, they reflect the same hygiene principles as those emphasized by French colonial architects.  Schwenkel notes that while the project was a collaboration, German architects, “like their colonial predecessors, were the latest in a historical trajectory of non-indigenous architectures and foreign styles of dwelling.”9 Unlike traditional Vietnamese housing which typically separates the “service area” from the “living area,” the layout within the complex followed more Western styles which promoted a more utilitarian use of space.10 

Despite the focus on the immediate needs of Vietnamese citizens and the creation of living spaces designed to promote the health of its residents the Quang Trung “Wohnkomplex,” like French colonial architecture, reflected the agenda of socialist urban planners.  “The state’s social engineering of living space thus focused on the intimate materialities of dwelling to produce new moral and urban socialist citizens.”11 Both the Palais du Gouvernement and the “Wohnkomplex” come with ideological associations built into their very appearance.  

  1. Christina Schwenkel, “Traveling Architecture: East German Urban Designs in Vietnam,” in International Journal for History, Culture and Modernity 2, no. 2: (2014), 159. []
  2. Laura Victoir, “Hygienic Colonial Residences in Hanoi,” in Harbin to Hanoi: The Colonial Built Environment in Asia, 1840-1940 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2014), 234. []
  3. Eric T. Jennings, “Health, Altitude, and Climate,” in Imperial Heights: Dalat and the Making and Undoing of French Indochina (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011). []
  4. Michael G. Vann, “Of Rats, Rice, and Race: The Great Hanoi Rat Massacre, an Episode in French Colonial History,” in French Colonial History 4: (2003), 193. []
  5. Paul Doumer, L’Indo-Chine Française, Souvenirs (Paris: 1905),, 115. []
  6. Doumer, L’Indo-Chine Française, 70. []
  7. Schwenkel, “Traveling Architecture,” 163. []
  8. Ibid., 165-168. []
  9. Ibid,. 166. []
  10. Ibid., 167. []
  11. Ibid., 161. []

Chinese Domestic Spaces: an analysis of how washing machines liberated women and raised living standards

The domestic space within Chinese households has changed drastically because of socialism and communism, but not all credit can be given the to the change of politics. Instead, credit must be given to the washing machine, which significantly reduced the time in which household chores took women in particular to complete. Although the introduction of the washing machine was an economic development created by the government, the extent in which it allowed women to become liberated could arguably not have been a part of the economic plan. However, consumption overpowered the gender dynamic set out within Chinese households and the washing machine and other household products such as the sewing machine and electric cooker succeeded in making households less restrictive.1

These types of changes became more common within East Asia because of the west’s consumerism influencing countries such as Japan, China and even the Philippines. These new inventions were not only taking over the world but also the domestic roles within households.  ‘The daily American newspapers, such as the Manila Daily Bulletin, Manila Times, and Cable news quickly delivered new ideas to Philippine cities through foreign products and lifestyles.’2 Change was beginning to take root within private spaces, a place which had been somewhat difficult to change through colonisation, but western products had unintentionally shifted the foundations of domestic spaces. Through the use of advertisements these western products enabled households to normalise the convenience and necessity of buy washing machines because they were labelled as sanitary and affordable.

‘The pasig river laundry is bound to go out of business. No one can afford to be without the Boss washing machine. It does the work, saves the clothes, is sanitary and economical.3

By the 1980’s washing machines and televisions became an expected gift within wedding ceremonies because they were classed a essential products for a newly weds first home. This meant that even rural communities within China were experiencing the western influence and the extent of which this influence was modernising China. Not only that but by introducing televisions to the household, there would be no escape from advertisements. Newspapers, magazines, and televisions would become an essential product for the government to boost their economy through ensuring that people would be convinced to buy these products. However, as stated, it could be argued that the result of promoting these products was not to influence a change within the domestic space, which would shift the expectations placed on women. The washing machine was intended to benefit women and make their housework less time consuming, but the free time in which it provided enabled women to create lifestyle changes. They became restless and looked for employment and because they were able to watch television, a whole new world opened up to them.

‘The need for increased production and availability of consumer durables has been overtly linked by the political leadership to women’s liberation and to the widespread desire among the Chinese citizenry to raise their standard of living.’4

The issue that China perhaps did not predict by boosting their economy through western products was that by allowing households to purchase and watch television, they were enabling them to observe other lifestyles within different spaces throughout the world. This enabled a new demand for better living conditions and social standards. Therefore, the changes presented within the domestic space caused people to become restless because they wanted the same changes to happen outside the home. Furthermore, was even more predominant during Chinas decollectivization period which resulted in less work for villagers because of their work being mostly farm based. The lack of social activity outside of the home resorted in villagers remaining in the home. ‘Noticeably, Xiajia residents spent their increasingly abundant spare time almost entirely in their homes, either in front of the television or at a mahjong table, because there was so little to do in the community.’5 The lack of activities within communities caused households to become dependent on televisions and therefore, this enabled the influence of consumerism to take hold of households which would change not only the expectations place on gender, but also the traditional layout of Chinese homes. How they cleaned, cooked and socialised shifted because products such as the washing machine, television and electric cooker changed the dynamic of housework.

  1. Jean C. Robinson, Of Women and Washing Machines: Employment, Housework, and the Reproduction of Motherhood in Socialist China (The China Quarterly, 1985) pp.40-43. []
  2. Kiyoko Yamaguchi, The New “American” Houses in the Colonial Philippines and the Rise of the Urban Filipino Elite (Philippine Studies, 2006) p.419. []
  3. The Cablenews (1905) p.3. []
  4. Jean C. Robinson, Of Women and Washing Machines: Employment, Housework, and the Reproduction of Motherhood in Socialist China (The China Quarterly, 1985) p.45. []
  5. Yunxiang Yan, Private life Under Sosialism: Love, intimacy, and family change in a Chinese village 1949-1999 (Stanford University Press, 2003) p.29. []

Denechofu as the Blueprint for the Modern Garden City in Japan: What made it different?

Today it is known as the “Japanese Beverley Hills”, but the city of Denenchofu was originally founded on socialistic principles of Ebenezer Howard and realised through the Japanese perspective of developer Eiichi Shibusawa. The city itself is synonymous with words like modern and high quality but how did it reach this star status? Are there aspects of its planning, construction and birth that set it apart from its peer suburbs such as Sakura Shinmachi (Sakura New Town), Meguro Bunkamura (Meguro Cultural Village)?

Within this blog post, I will explore these questions and attempt to answer how the socialistic notions of Howard’s Garden City invariably heightened the success of the city in addition to the instrumental job that Eiichi Shibusawa, played in its creation. Thus, allowing it to reach champion status. I will begin with a dissection and analysis of unique points of interest within Howard’s notion of a Garden City.

“The Garden City is not a suburb, but the antithesis of a suburb: not a mere rural retreat but a more integrated foundation for an effective urban life.”(1)

Howard’s concept of a garden city came into play in 1898 as a socioeconomic planning strategy with the central aim of combatting the ills of the industrialized city(2) . Within this theory, it is clear that Howard and his theory are heavily indebted to a socialist ideology in which the economic viability of the city comes far behind the social and personal fulfilment that its residents should enjoy. His utopian ideas of the Garden City were heavily inspired by Edward Bellamy and his publication ‘Looking Backway (1888)(3). Thus, the garden city was intended to provide an alternative to the suburbs economic and social homogeneity by representing all classes and values(4) .

In the map below, some noteworthy features of Howard’s Garden City are evident.
Firstly, the ratio of city to greenbelt is rather unique; 1,000 acres at the centre for 5,000 of green space. This shows how highly Howard valued parkland space to a low urban population, similarly this is shown in his estimation of a population of 32,000. Historians can also take note of the concentric circles and wedges that form an economic arrangement between producer and consumer: cow pastures, fruit farms, brickfields and asylums/homes show a balance, rather than an overwhelming commercial city.

Figure 1: Ebenezer Howard, diagram of the garden city with central park and rural belt. From Garden Cities of To-Morrow (1898)

Historian Ken Oshima makes it clear that although Denenchofu’s founders aimed to create a garden suburb as per Howard’s vision, it needed to be adapted to Japan. In many ways, what secured the success of Denenchofu was Shibusawa’s philanthropic intentions and concurrence that the development should not driven by economic forces. Thus, paralleling Howard’s social spirit and civic activism(5). Instead of the city being planned to depend on the economic interests of the land companies, lending institutions, or railways companies, it was dependent on a non-profit development company headed by Shibusawa. It was certainly a risk not to build a city based on its potential economic output, but that’s what made Denenchofu unique.

Shibusawa used his highly regarded reputation to raise capital and eventually support for the development. Moreover, Denenfochu’s success could also be attributed, at least in small weight to bursting population of Tokyo and the natural disasters occurring from 1900-1920s that increased the demand for housing outside the city of Tokyo. Nevertheless, the significance of the design of the city should not be overlooked: the coherent street pattern, and hybridization of Western-Japanese style gave the city a sense of urbanity without feeling like a foreign imposed model.

One may argue that Shibusawa did work against Howard’s vision in some ways. For instance: he sold plots of land rather than it being owned communally, in addition, it was less a mix of classes than a neighbourhood for the rising middle class. By 5th May 1928, the Denentoshi Corporation sold all land parcels, and the corporation slowly abandoned its idealistic values for more capitalistic ones(6). Howard’s original concept of an anti-suburb with a degree of self-sufficiency slowly transformed into an oasis of a capitalist society. Its initial success is what caused the demand to grow, which consequently caused the price of land in the city to rise – and so capitalism sang its song. Nevertheless, we can attribute Howard’s ideas to the early success of Denenfochu as a garden city; and Shibusawa’s success as a developer for making it an oasis that capitalism then transformed into the less pure form of a ’garden city’. At the very least, we can reflect on Denenchofu as an actualized fusion of East and West that is still relevant today.


(1) Lewis Mumford, “The Garden City Idea and Modern Planning,” in Ebeneezer Howard, Garden Cities of To-Morrow (London, 1945) p.35

(2) Ken Tadashi Oshima, Denenchofu: Building the Garden City in Japan p.140


(4) Ken Tadashi Oshima, Denenchofu: Building the Garden City in Japan p.141

(5)Christensen, American Garden City, p.140.

(6) Ken Tadashi Oshima, Denenchofu: Building the Garden City in Japan p.149

Denver’s Chinatown: How Descriptions of Space Condemned a Community

In January of 1890, The Rocky Mountains News, a prominent Colorado newspaper, ran an article on the recent unrest, scheming mobs, and murder plots allegedly unfolding in Denver’s Chinatown.  The story revolved around John Taylor, a Chinese immigrant and the owner of the businesses which comprised Chinatown.  The events had apparently “attracted considerable attention all over the country,” not only for their intrigue, but because Chinatowns, and Chinese immigrants, across the U.S. were under attack by the media.1 Situated in Denver’s central business district, Chinatown covered less than a block, with one report claiming it was only 125×100 feet, and much of it was rebuilt from what had been destroyed in an anti-Chinese riot ten years earlier.2 The reporter from The Rocky Mountain News claims that readers were curious to know what the headquarters of “John Taylor and his murderous band” looked like, and the article recounts the author’s tour of the area.  It reveals how the characterization of space was used not only to reinforce intolerant attitudes towards the Chinese community, but how descriptions of space were employed to control where Chinese people were allowed to live and work.

The article is primarily concerned with criminality and a large portion of it focuses on the prevalence of opium, gambling, and prostitution in Chinatown.  The US Government’s attempts to control opium in the late 19th century — specifically an 1887 law passed by Congress which, “prohibited Chinese from importing opium and allowed only non-Chinese American citizens to manufacture smoking opium” — demonstrates the government’s intolerance of Chinese immigrants and its attempts to control Chinese populations.3 These policies increased opium smuggling, and created strong associations with Chinese immigrants and organized crime.  U.S. media also perpetuated fears of opium corrupting white women, and by extension, Chinese communities corrupting American society.  The reporter for The Rocky Mountain News drew on these fears in the article, claiming that “Many women were ruined by the Chinese in the old quarters,” and proceeds to give a description: “A celestial leads her through the dark hall. She is assigned a bunk, where she cooks her opium, smokes it while the police are outside vainly endeavoring to find them.”4 This account of the interior categorizes Chinatown as a place of corruption: impenetrable to light and the law.

Descriptions of dark hallways are prominent throughout the article and are repeatedly used to create ominous and threatening impressions.  According to the reporter, the very structure of Chinatown is designed for criminality.  He relates that smoking opium is prohibited, but “to elude the law these elevated smoking rooms have been built in such a manner that the front and rear door can be seen. It is so dark there it is impossible for a person coming in from the street to see exactly what is taking place, so that the occupants have ample time to hide their pipes in the event of a police raid on the place.”4 The rest of the buildings are described in a similar way.  False doors and narrow passageways suggest maze-like complexity with the clear objective of classifying space as criminal, dangerous, and impenetrable.  While dark hallways and false doors suggest criminal activity through the built environment, observations about the upkeep and cleanliness of the space are used to cast judgment on its inhabitants.  The reporter uses descriptors like “rickety roof,” “foul air,” “squatty buildings,” and “filth” to characterize it as uninhabitable.5 

All this precedes the reporter’s description of the businesses in West Denver owned by John Taylor’s rival and the object of his supposed murder plots, Chin Poo.  The article reads: “there are no alleys, no passages or dark hallways, the floors are kept clean, are scrubbed daily, and all the houses are well lighted and ventilated… The police permit the Chinese here to gamble and smoke opium, and will allow Taylor’s crowd the same privilege it they move over there, away from the business portion of the city, where no objection is raised against their presence.”5 The author makes no attempt to veil the true purpose of the article, and expresses no concern for Chin Poo despite his insistence that Taylor is a dangerous threat.  Instead, it’s revealed that the location of John Taylor’s businesses was the reporter’s main concern.  

The situation of Chinatown in Denver’s central business district combined with the threat of cheap labor provided by Chinese immigrants led to campaigns against the Chinese community and attempts to undermine their businesses.  The rivalry between Taylor’s “gang of cut-throats” and Chin Poo became an excuse to emphasize associations between Denver’s Chinatown and criminality through descriptions of the physical location.  While another report suggests that Chinatown was also home to three restaurants, fifty policy shops, a morgue, and a butcher shop, these legitimate businesses are conspicuously absent from the article (despite a brief reference to a restaurant which the reporter predictably describes as “filthy”).6 The Rocky Mountain News ran numerous articles arguing that Chinese businesses posed a financial threat to white businesses and warned of the social cost of the projected growth of the Chinese population in such a central part of Denver.  Chinese spaces were transformed by the media into places of corruption, criminality, and unsanitary practices which increased intolerance toward the Chinese community and ultimately led to the eradication of Denver’s Chinatown.

  1. “Three Chinatowns,” The Rocky Mountain News (Denver, Colorado), January 6, 1890, Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. []
  2. “A Home for Plague,” The Rocky Mountain News (Denver, Colorado), July 13, 1889, Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. []
  3. Jeffrey Scott McIllwain, Organizing Crime in Chinatown (Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 1969), 59. []
  4. The Rocky Mountain News, “Three Chinatowns.” [] []
  5. Ibid. [] []
  6. The Rocky Mountain News, “A Home for Plague.” []

The Truth is Duller than Fiction? Theories of Tropicality in the Perception of India in the 1800s

The history of ‘Tropicality’ is a long one, with the first writings dating back to Hippocrates, the ‘father of medicine’. In his Airs, Waters, Places, he outlines the climatic differences in Asian and the supposedly corresponding racial characteristics. Just as Galenic theories on humours were to dominate medicine until well into the early modern period, these perceived links between climate and character were held as fact in Britain and Europe throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and used to justify colonial expansion and control.

These theories are naturally now considered untenable to the modern reader. This does not mean that reading them is not without worth, not least because of the massive contradictions that they contain, and more so that this appears to be completely disregarded within them.

To take one of the greatest examples, look to Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, specifically his ideas on the climate of Asia. His argument was that the ‘strength’ of Europe vs the ‘weakness’ of Asia could be entirely explained by Europe’s temperate climate compared to Asia’s lack of a temperate zone, whereby “the places situated in a very cold climate there are immediately adjacent to those that are in a very warm climate”, and so “the brave and active warrior peoples are immediately adjacent to effeminate, lazy and timid peoples; therefore, one must be the conquered and the other the conqueror.”1 He explains his reasoning as the fact that Asia had been ‘subjugated’ 13 times compared to Europe’s 4, which he gives as Roman, Barbarian, Charlemagne, and Norman2 He then gives the determining factor of Europe’s relative peace and stability as the broadness of the temperate zone, in that while there is a huge difference in temperature between the northern- and southernmost reaches of Europe, the climatic change is so gradual that “there is not a noticeable difference between them.”3. As such, “the strong face the strong”, and so one ‘race’ is unable to subjugate the other4.

This contradiction of temperature and racial characteristics can be further seen in later accounts of the Tropics, particularly with regards to India. In taking writers such as Hippocrates and Montesquieu as undoubted fact, the perception of Asia and India was that of a single and relatively unchanging climate. David Arnold then takes this further in his work Tropics and the Traveling Gaze: India, Landscape and Science, 1800- 1856 by showing how the perception of the Tropics was then muddled even further through the growth of popular fiction. This led to the creation of what he terms “a single impression of colour, light, exuberance, and elegance.”5 Arnold shows that when faced with the reality of India and Asia’s hugely varied climate and areas of seemingly dull, barren plains instead of the rich, Edenic visions made popular through stories such as the Arabian Nights, travellers could find themselves becoming weary and despondent. In particular, he gives the example of Victor Jacquemont, a French naturalist who travelled to India to study botany. Arnold argues that Jacquemont’s previous visits to Haiti, where his brother was a businessman (and possible plantation owner), had given him an idealised view of the Tropics which he then expected to see replicated in India. He was then “bitterly disappointed” to find out that this was not the case.

Rather than admit his own shortcomings or attempt to view India with a more benevolent eye, Jacquemont followed in the same tradition as Hippocrates and Montesquieu. He concluded that “the fault is not in myself: it lies with the things themselves, with the country.”6 Whether this was any consolation to him seems doubtful, but in this at least he was following in the footsteps of his predecessors, and those that followed after him kept his words in mind themselves, just as many travellers no doubt do the same today.

  1. Charles de Secondat Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws ed. Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller and Harold Samuel Stone, (Cambridge, 1989), pg. 280 []
  2. ibid, pg. 281. []
  3. Ibid, pg. 280 []
  4. ibid. []
  5. David Arnold, Tropics and the Traveling Gaze: India, Landscape and Science, 1800- 1856, (Washington, 2006), pg. 112. []
  6. ibid, pg. 132. []

Tackling Tropical Climate: Understanding how diseases became the gateway to artificial climate

Eric Jennings chapter ‘Health Altitude, and Climate’ and his discussion surrounding malaria prevention methods within tropical climates brings forth another conversation regarding how contagious diseases may have been prevented within the same conditions. ‘Finding a viable escape from malaria and other tropical maladies was no trivial matter. Mortality for European soldiers and officials in Indochina remained on the order of 2 to 3 percent at the turn of the twentieth century.1 Victims of malaria were able to be sent back to France or over to Japan, but in terms of contagious diseases other precautions would have needed to be examined. An example of this would be the bubonic plague which was a major concern for the speed in which it could spread. As Jennings argues, hot climates are a major concern for bacteria growth because they thrive within those conditions. However, the difference between these two diseases is malaria becomes a concern when those vulnerable remain within the same environment, but for the bubonic plague and other contagious diseases, the biggest concerns are formed when the infected move away from their previous environment.

Trading ships were a predominant cause of contagious diseases being spread between countries. the close compact environment creates the perfect conditions for spreading diseases. In these cases, the most common precaution was to quarantine ports and to exterminate rats. ‘Southern Metropolis is cleaning up and ridding city of rats since plague scare.’2 Therefore, these instances throughout history give rise to concern regarding enclosed and densely populated spaces, especially when these spaces encounter a lack of sanitation protocols. Exposure to mosquitoes and rats that are contained within an environment in which malaria and the bubonic plague can thrive can become a matter of life and death, therefore, climate and environment as Jennings states was a vital aspect to research in order to understand the basic necessities for being able to remain within a tropical environment.

The new knowledge which enabled us to obtain ideal atmospheric conditions within buildings in tropical lands will have an even more remarkable effect of the transformation of these regions.’3

This coincides with Jennings other argument which centres around artificial climate. This type of climate allowed both the indigenous and Europeans to remain within a monitored space, which enabled them to remain healthy and away from any risks. Although Jennings only focuses on malaria, artificial climate has also proven useful of contained contagious diseases because the colder climate and high altitude created the perfect environment for not only deterring mosquitoes but for pausing bacteria growth.

He observed that children who had never left the plateau appeared healthy, while those who had travelled beyond it were sapped by malaria.4

These findings enabled the tropics to become liveable, while also influencing other forms of artificial climate to take root within public and private environments because of bed nets and air conditioning. ‘Captain Tyler put forward the idea for improving the condition of hot, damp air, which he showed could be done by lowering the temperature of a room below dew point; in effect, providing a hospital ward or sick room with artificial climate.5 Therefore, examples such as this highlight the evolving understanding of tropical climate and how studying altitude and climate can improve the understanding of health and hygiene. However, Jennings also provides a downside to these artificial climates due to the interior of these space being liveable, but once the occupants moved away from these spaces, they immediately became exposed to the raw climate conditions. It meant that space was still limited within the tropic, but it is undeniable that artificial climate still managed to create safe spaces to monitor and research malaria from a distance. Therefore, although diseases delayed progress within the tropics in terms of building settlements and expanding economies, what they did provide was a breakthrough within medicine and environmental control.

  1. Eric T. Jennings, Imperial heights: Dalat and the making and undoing of French Indochina (University of California Press, 2011) p.35. []
  2. The Cable News – American, Iloilo Fighting for Her Health (1912) p.3. []
  3. Hong Kong Telegraph, Artificial climate (1938) p.12. []
  4. Eric T. Jennings, Imperial heights: Dalat and the making and undoing of French Indochina (University of California Press, 2011) p.42. []
  5. Hong Kong Daily Press, Shanghai’s Damp Atmosphere (1912) p.8. []

The Impacts of Montesquieu’s Deterministic Arguments on Colonialism

Montesquieu’s book ‘The Spirit of the Laws’, published in 1750, focused on political theory and comparative law. However, within the book Montesquieu used the theory of environmental determinism (the belief that a region’s climate could affect the behaviour of the cultures living in it), to describe Asian history. The use of this debunked method shows how determinism was used by Europeans to project their power and modernity, and later to justify colonialism in the 19th century. This blog post will give an overview of how Montesquieu used environmental determinism to analyse Asia, and how this reflects European views on determinism.

Montesquieu argues that Asia’s geography is directly consequential for the hegemony and instability of major civilisations on the continent. This claim is ‘evidenced’ by the lack of a mountain range separating the north of the continent from the south, a function Montesquieu argues is served by the mountains of Scandinavia. To Montesquieu, the lack of a dividing range allows ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ regions to directly clash, contrasting with the more even gradient of European climates. The former was proposed to cause strong civilisations to border weak ones, which created unhealthy hegemony on the continent. Montesquieu concludes that ‘this is why liberty never increases in Asia, whereas in Europe it increases or decreases according to the circumstances’.

Montesquieu’s reasoning on this subject has been heavily debunked, but his writing opens a window into how central ideas of environmental determinism were to geographic thought in 18th century Europe. To Montesquieu, the entirety of Asian history could be explained by the dissonance present in the region’s climates – a dissonance which glosses over regional variation and other features present in the region like higher mountains and larger floodplains – both of which would have a greater impact on the mixing of cultures across the continent. Despite this, it was climate that was considered fundamental to the nature of societies, and as a result other factors are non-existent within his characterisation of Asia.

Montesquieu’s argument offers insight into how Europeans would use these ideas to justify colonialism taking place in the two centuries after the book was published. His conclusion that climate made Asia inherently unstable and illiberal would be used to justify colonialism, where a European power would take advantage of regional instability to set up a regime and crush dissent. As a result, the idea that climate meant that these regions would be governed no differently or worse without a European power in control, was central to justifying colonialism. Because of this, it is important to understand how environmental determinism began to be applied on a global scale, and was used to create a hierarchy of civilisations, to ensure that such discourse doesn’t become the norm in the future.

Source: Anne M. Cohler et al. (eds.) Montesquieu The Spirit of the Laws, Book 17 Ch3 – 8, pp. 279-284.

Festina Lente: The Foundation and Early Years of the Royal Hong Kong Golf Club 1888 – 1920

In 1857, on the banks of the Inverclyde River on the west coast of Scotland, a young boy was born who would grow up to be pivotal in the spreading of the Royal and Ancient game of golf to Asia. His name was Gershom Stewart, and the son of Andrew and Margaret would prove pivotal in expanding the game Eastwards. After moving south to the Wirral Peninsula in England and becoming a member of the Royal Liverpool Golf Club at Hoylake, he would take up a role in the East India trade. In 1882, this employment took the young man to Hong Kong. Shortly after, and with a stroke of luck, he encountered the Royal and Sutherland Highlanders, a golfing battalion who had arrived from Ceylon with a desire to ‘keep swinging’. Stewart’s everlasting affinity with Hoylake can be seen in the parallel motifs between the two clubs’ crests.

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In May 1889, Stewart, working at the time for the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank, put out a public notice in the press of the desire to establish a golf club in Hong Kong. The day after, thirteen men gathered at the Hong Kong Club on Queen’s Road, a vote was held and the Club was born into existence.


The early golfing years of the Club were enjoyed, as with many other sporting societies in Hong Kong during this period, at the Racecourse at Happy Valley. The first ball was hit by James Lowson of Forfar, Scotland, in July 1890. A talented sportsman, Lowson enjoyed plenty of success in club competitions during the early years at Happy Valley. From the few photographs that survive from this period of the Club’s history, the Links, situated in the middle of the racecourse appears to have struggled from overcrowding. With only space for 9 holes, and with the land being shared for a number of different sports, the quality of the fairways and greens suffered. This was exacerbated by flooding issues and the building of a large pond which was designed and dug in as a relief mechanism. This resulted in a concerted effort from the Club to try and find a more suitable plot of golfing land.

Three years passed before a piece of land was found at Deep Water Bay and was designed and converted into a Par-30, 8 hole Links. It was a remarkable turnaround as competitions began to be held at the Bay course later that year in 1893. In 1897, a ‘grand plan’ came to fruition. The unassailable Gershom Stewart, with the help of his good friend Sir William Robinson, Governor of Hong Kong, requested as it was the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, for Royal Charter. With celebrations all around the world, Royal Status was approved and 1897 marked the birth of The Royal Hong Kong Golf Club.

The Club would continue to grow in membership over the following years, with golfing life split between the Links at Happy Valley and at Deep Water Bay. In 1911, the Club looked once again outwards for greater space. Fanling Valley, much further north and close to the Chinese border was decided upon as a suitable location. With land carefully and meticulously allocated in the New Territories, getting approval for building a golf course was not an easy task. The Hon. Edwin Richard Halifax ‘an ally inside the Government’ proved to be a prize asset for the Club for his huge role in broking the deal which saw approval of the course’s building at Fanling in 1911. To this day, the Hong Kong Golf Club plays at both Deep Water Bay and Fanling.


In 1918, during the historic Racing Carnival, disaster struck, and a great fire broke out at the Happy Valley Racecourse. Very sadly many people lost their lives and the Golf Clubhouse was destroyed. To this day, the disaster of 1918 remains one of the toughest days in the Club’s history.

However, the clubhouses and buildings at Deep Water Bay and Fanling are of great interest. As golf clubhouses always are, these buildings became active hubs of social life, and home to stories of golfing successes, blunders, mysteries and tales. Learning more about club life, the personalities, customs and practices would be a tremendously interesting project to undertake. Historians of golf in Asia, and in British colonies more widely, have revealed that a far more ‘liberal’ attitude to female members was taken and indeed there is evidence of this in Hong Kong, too. A ladies Putting Club is known of as early as 1904 and any research into RHKGC’s history should endeavour to learn much more about this.5

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  5. The Hong Kong Golf Club, Along the Fairways of History, (2014) []

The Development of the Notion of Tropicality through European Mapping

This blog post will explore how an evaluation of European mappings of the Tropics illustrates the development of Europeans’ concept of tropicality. As David Arnold notes, tropicality has ‘come to signify the conceptualisation and representation of the Tropics in European imagination and experience.1 Early European mappings produced a notion of tropicality associated with marvel and spectacle. However, when I analysed later maps, the Tropics is presented based on increasingly positivist scientific observations illustrating what Arnold notes as a shift toward ‘scientific tropicality’.2 European perspective of the tropical world was almost exclusively maritime, which meant that their original visions of the Tropics were always from the deck of a ship.3 This distant perspective meant that their tropical mappings often centered the coastline and encompassed a conceived exoticism that suggests, as David Arnold explores, ‘the Tropics were invented quite as much as they were encountered’.4

An example of Arnold’s claim that in early Orientalist thought, the Tropics were represented as an exoticised landscape can be seen through Denis Cosgrove’s analysis of the map Terra Brasilis in the Miller Atlas.5 This map was created in 1519, during the second decade of European contact with the Tropics. As Cosgrove notes, the map ‘presents to the European vision a place for witness and wonder, not a place to dwell’.6 The map is entirely pictorial and features scenes of nature and indigenous people. There are varied and exotic trees with many exotic fauna, such as multi-coloured birds, parrots and parakeets.7 The only labels on the map are on the coast, naming ports and bays that could have been areas for colonial conquest. This choice of labelling only potential areas that were relevant for settlement purposes highlights the lack of knowledge early European settlers had towards aspects of the Tropics that were not immediately related to their colonising process illustrating how the European notion of tropicality was based on imagination and a ‘bourgeois vision’.8 As Cosgrove writes, ‘the image is unmistakably tropical’,9 emphasising how it was this pictorial ethnographical type of knowledge that the founded the early European notion of tropicality.


Atlas Miller « Facsimile edition

Terra Brasilis, detail from the Miller Atlas, 1519.

In comparison, Heinrich Berghaus’s map created in 1852 highlights how Europeans’ understanding and the notion of tropicality developed. As Cosgrove explains, Berghaus’s map ‘offers no explicit moral judgements about the various environments and people it represents’.10 It conveys a tropicality based on geographical science rather than pictorial images. The map’s positivist observations highlights how the geographical experiences of Europeans in the Tropics developed the previous imaginative tropicality that was evident in the Miller Atlas. It provides evidence for Arnold’s claim that the notion of tropicality had shifted to involve a more systematic and scientific understanding of the tropics.

Nahrungsweise—Volksdichtigkeit, insert map in Heinrich Berghaus, Geographische Verbreitung der Menschen-Rassen (1852)

Nahrungsweise—Volksdichtigkeit, Heinrich Berghaus, Geographische Verbreitung der Menschen-Rassen (1852)

Comparing these two maps illustrates how Europeans’ visions and understandings of the Tropics developed. Initially, tropical mapping was centered around ‘the romantic constructions of imaginative tropicality’.7 However, as expeditions to the Tropics increased so did knowledge of the Tropics and this was reflected in how mappings and thus the notion of tropicality became more focussed on geographical science.


  1. David Arnold, Tropics and the Traveling Gaze India, Landscape, and Science, 1800-1856 (Seattle (Wash.): University of Washington Press, 2014), 110. []
  2. Ibid., 112. []
  3. Felix Driver, Martins Luciana de Lima, and Denis Cosgrove, “11: Tropic and Tropicality,” in Tropical Visions in an Age of Empire (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), pp. 197-216, 202. []
  4. Arnold, Tropics and the Traveling Gaze, p.5. []
  5. Driver, Luciana de Lima, Cosgrove, “Tropic”, p. 204. []
  6. Ibid., 205. []
  7. Ibid. [] []
  8. Arnold, Tropics and the Traveling Gaze, p. 6. []
  9. Ibid., 204. []
  10. Driver, Luciana de Lima, Cosgrove, “Tropic”, p. 208. []