The Management and Emotions of Death in British Colonial Hong Kong.

Bobby Tam is a PhD student in the University of Warwick's history department. His previous MPhil study in the University of Hong Kong explores the management of death in early colonial Hong Kong. Expanding his interests in history of death and history of emotions, he is currently researching emotions of death in 19th century British colonial China. 

Death is a fact that every individual, family, community and city needs to deal with. In our modern times of ‘Invisible Death’, as termed by French historian Philippe Aries, death has been hidden from us.[1] The dying are confined to hospitals; the dead are stored in mortuaries and destroyed through cremation. Death is separated from our daily lives; the overflow of grief is suppressed; mourning largely takes place privately; funerary rituals have gradually disappeared from the public. All above is true for the highly developed and densely populated city of Hong Kong. The picture was however very different a century ago. In nineteenth-century Hong Kong, death was an everyday issue to be managed for both the European colonists and the Chinese.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Mr. Ko Tim-keung.

My MPhil thesis provides a history of how death was managed in colonial Hong Kong from 1841 to 1913. It explores how bodies were dealt with, from the creation and organisation of burial spaces, to the transportation and sanitisation of corpses and the development of state regulations concerning the dead. This seven-decade-long story - beginning when British colonists first arrived and perished in this ‘white man’s grave’, through years of epidemics and plague, up till the creation of the first permanent Chinese cemetery - sheds much light on our understanding of colonialism itself. The management of death is tied with the issue of racial differences, notions of sacredness and developments in Western medicine, etc. Colonial state papers, documents from religious and philanthropic organisations, newspapers, travel diaries, as well as maps and photographs reveal this often neglected history.

In Hong Kong, the management of death was seen as a marker of civilisation, differentiating the ‘civilised’ from the ‘uncivilised’. Western scientific approaches to death management developed in contrast to the purportedly ‘backward’ Chinese practices. Western norms of mourning promoted by the colonial state dominated public spaces as well as discourse, marginalising traditional death practices that were deemed superstitious or ingenuine. Towards the end of the century, a class of Chinese elites, with increasing wealth and status, sought to emulate the colonists in the realm of death. They portrayed themselves as ‘civilised’ and ‘modern’ in order to attain the same privileges in burial. 

Image Credit: Courtesy of Mr. Ko Tim-keung.

While Western histories of death have tended to theorise death from the starting point of Western European and North American experiences, scholarship on non-European cultures, particularly ‘Chinese death practices’, has often taken a relativist approach, portraying such death practices as static over time, and as separated from the global picture. Through studying Chinese death management against the backdrop of British imperialism and modernising impulses, my research shows that Chinese managed the dead as part of their day-to-day realities and in response to social changes and external challenges. Death management by the Chinese in this city was more flexible, diverse and open to outside influences than might be expected.

Building on this previous work, my current PhD research looks deeper into emotions of death in nineteenth-century British colonial China beyond Hong Kong into other treaty ports and areas of informal British imperial influence. While emotions of death in the past might sound too elusive to study, this research specifically explore how emotions of death were expressed and discussed in a context where cultural norms were actively contended. Just like the management of bodies, the emotions of death and how they were expressed were an indication of being ‘civilised’. Whether particular ‘fears’ were justifiable, whether the manifested ‘grief’ was authentic, and whether ‘affection’ to the deceased existed became the centre of debate in the matter of death. 

Additionally, I explore the relation between emotional expressions and communities and regimes.[2] Political regimes, both the British imperial state and Chinese imperial state, tried to dictate the mode of emotional expressions by promoting certain forms of commemorating the dead. How did individuals respond to such dominant modes? Did they express emotions about death differently in public than in private? The relation between death and community is even more interesting. People in a community normally value same emotions and adhered to the same modes of expression. As expressions and practices to death transformed under the influence of British imperialism, communities may also have transformed. This organic understanding of communities sheds new light on the conventional narrative of colonists versus the colonised in colonial history. 

[1] Philippe Aries periodised the Western history of death into four eras, illustrating the changing attitude to death in the Western world. Philippe Ari├Ęs, The Hour of Our Death, trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Knopf, 1980).
[2] ‘Emotional regimes’ and ‘emotional communities’ are termed by William Reddy and Barbara Rosenwein respectively. ‘Emotional regime’ refers to the dominant dictating mode of emotional expression in a particular context, and such regimes normally coincide political regimes. ‘Emotional communities’ refer to ‘groups in which people adhere to the same norms of expression and value – or devalue – the same or related emotions.’ Barbara Rosenwein, Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).