Michael Tsang teaches Asian literatures and cultures at Birkbeck College, University of London. He recently published a book chapter called ‘World-Weaving in Nineteenth-Century East Asia: The Case of Hong Kong’s Earliest Chinese Newspaper, Gems from Near and Afar (Chinese Serial)’, in Literary Capitals in the Long Nineteenth Century (published by Palgrave).

This book section, from the edited volume Literary Capitals in the Long Nineteenth Century, offers a contextualisation of Hong Kong’s first Chinese newspaper, Gems from Near and Afar (遐邇貫珍; Haaji Gwunzan in Jyutping, or Xia’er Guanzhen in pinyin, also known as Chinese Serial; hereafter Gems for short) in a triptych of dimensions between the local (Hong Kong), the regional (East Asia), and the global (British/Western colonial empire). The chapter also critically assesses the newspaper’s offer of what I called ‘world-weaving’ potential to readers in East Asia in the late 19th century. Gems was a monthly periodical published by missionaries of the London Missionary Society (LMS) between 1853-1856. It ran for 33 issues but, while short-lived, pioneered a few practices in the history of journalism in Hong Kong and more broadly in Greater China. For example, its coverage of the Taiping Rebellion was the first Chinese news reportage to include illustrations. For a while it also added an appendage of advertisements, a first in Chinese journalistic practice. Its circulation was confined to Hong Kong, but reached Chinese ports, Japan and even inland China. Scholarship on the newspaper exists in Chinese, English, and Japanese, but has been sporadic and—taking mostly a national approach—does not fully consider its regional remit.

My chapter focuses on recovering Gems’ importance in the region of East Asia at the time. Through a textual reading of Gems through the vectors of both breadth and depth, I argued that readers in Hong Kong and China in the late 19th century could unlock a broader world beyond their immediate context by reading articles published in Gems. In other words, the newspaper served to weave two disparate worlds together—East Asia, and the West. In each issue, Gems supplied a wealth of articles either penned or translated in Chinese, that aimed to introduce Western knowledge: from human biology and travelogues to Britain, to political systems in the US or mechanism of steam engines. It also included a range of news items pertaining to East Asia, from gang fights in Amoy (present-day Xiamen) to the arrival of Russian battleships in Hong Kong. Some issues had an addendum of monthly wholesale prices of common goods imported from East and Southeast Asia, such as tea leaves, rice and sugar. The collage of regional information shows that although the newspaper was published in Hong Kong, readership was targeted beyond Hong Kong and the newspaper had a regional outlook.

But weaving also takes place on another level: colonialism weaved Hong Kong into the imperial trade network. Thus, with a regional readership in mind, Gems’ cascading of non-Eastern knowledge, I argue, effectively acts as a ‘showroom’ for its East Asian readers to see how their world can be broadened by engaging with Western knowledge. This is heavily implicated in the in-depth close reading I conducted on two texts in the launch issue of Gems: the overall preface which explained the purpose of the newspaper, and an article that briefly introduced Hong Kong. Textual analysis shows that the overall preface explained that although ancient China was once a great country, arrogance had led to its technological and cultural downfall, and Gems was created to facilitate the belief that China should engage with Western ideas such as trade and communication more productively. The introduction to Hong Kong, then, subtly showed how Hong Kong (referring to Hong Kong Island at the time) made improvements and developments in living environment and governance systems. Hong Kong was thus presented as the poster example of the West’s solution to China’s problem, and on a narrative level, Gems was also implied to provide the Western knowledge necessary for Hong Kong—and therefore for other East Asian readers—to open a new world of their own.

Studying Gems as Hong Kong’s first newspaper is therefore important in knowing how, in the beginning era of British colonialism, problematic colonial discourse worked: it tempted readers with the idea that a new world awaited. Although not part of the purview of the book section, a recent novel by Hong Kong writer Dung Kai Cheung, called 香港字 (Hong Kong Type) also touched on the activities of the LMS, including the publication of Gems. More attention is needed to holistically evaluate the cultural, social, and political significance of early journalistic activities in Hong Kong history.