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Economist Reads | Hong Kong
The seven books that best explain Hong Kong’s history
Our Asia digital editor reads up on the city’s colourful tale
Nathan Road is one of the busiest and most important shopping areas in Hong Kong (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)
Jun 17th 2022 (Updated Jul 1st 2022)


This article is part of our Summer reads series. Visit our collection to discover “The Economist reads” guides, guest essays and more seasonal distractions.

In the space of three years, Hong Kong has gone from being Asia’s world city to a repressive one. It is a place where opposition figures and journalists are now thrown in jail, along with thousands of locals whose crime was to demand greater democracy. The dizzying speed at which a vibrant and free-spirited city has been brought to China’s heel is depressing. But it is also undeniably fascinating. Here, our Asia digital editor selects seven books that tell Hong Kong’s colourful tale.

A Modern History of Hong Kong. By Steve Tsang. Bloomsbury Academic; 352 pages; $25 and £18.99

This extensive history covers the period from 1841, the year before Hong Kong was ceded to Britain, to 1997, when China retook control. Hanging over the narrative is Britain’s gradual realisation that it had a “Hong Kong problem”. While Hong Kong island and the Kowloon peninsula were awarded to Britain in perpetuity, under “unequal treaties” signed after the opium wars, the far larger New Territories, stretching from Kowloon to the Shenzhen river, were only given on a 99-year lease in 1898. For many years, writes Mr Tsang, politicians in Westminster considered Britain too powerful (and China too backward) to make handing back its crown dependency conceivable. But the Japanese conquering of Hong Kong in 1941 dispelled hubristic ideas of British invincibility. Throughout the book Mr Tsang dispenses history with even-handedness, acknowledging that Britain’s colonial years brought prosperity, an efficient administration and concepts such as due process, while never neglecting the second-class treatment of ethnic Chinese. The book’s misfortune, as its author accepts, is that it ends in 1997, and thus lacks a post-colonial perspective. But as a primer on Hong Kong under British rule, it sets the standard.

The Gate to China. By Michael Sheridan. Oxford University Press; 450 pages; $29.95. HarperCollins; £25

Another history of Hong Kong looks at the territory through its importance to China. Mr Sheridan’s chapters on the years leading up to the handover are particularly impressive. Here, he takes the reader into the smoke filled rooms where tetchy talks and endless muscle-flexing take place. The pages are filled with fascinating sketches of the main protagonists: of Deng Xiaoping comprehensively outmanoeuvring Margaret Thatcher, who thought she could persuade China’s paramount leader to allow Britain to continue its administration of Hong Kong beyond 1997. Of Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last colonial governor, who, to China’s fury, introduced democratic reforms shortly before the handover (of a kind that had been conspicuously lacking before under British rule). And of Sir Percy Cradock, an ambassador to China, who went on to be Thatcher’s chief adviser on the country, and had negotiated the handover deal under which Sir Chris had to operate—which, he would insist, was the best that could be achieved in the circumstances, given the weakness of Britain’s position.

Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World. By Mark L. Clifford. St Martin’s Press; 306 pages; $29.99. The History Press; £20

Here is a contribution from our Banyan columnist, who thinks this book a powerful account of Hong Kong’s slide into autocracy. Mr Clifford is a former journalist notable for having edited both of the territory’s main English-language newspapers. While he joined a stream of Hong Kong exiles, his acquaintance with many of the central characters enriches the story. His account of the persecution of the stubborn democracy campaigner and newspaper owner Jimmy Lai, who faces years in jail on outrageous charges, is especially poignant. Back on the mainland Mr Lai’s kin even excised his name from ancestral records that date back 28 generations. The author is strong on the history of the territory’s largely peaceful protests—support for China’s Tiananmen Square democracy movement, mown down in June 1989, was the first cause to bring huge numbers onto Hong Kong’s streets. But Mr Clifford also helpfully reminds readers of earlier aspirations, notably after the second world war under one enlightened governor, for political participation—attempts frustrated not only by Hong Kong’s local elites, but also by the Chinese Communist Party itself.

More Summer reads
• What if the Ottoman Empire had not collapsed?
•Mindfulness is useless in a pandemic, suggests 1843 magazine
• Our Free Exchange columnist considers just how Dickensian China is
•Six guides to biology as seen at different scales
• What’s at stake in Ukraine is the direction of human history, writes Yuval Noah Harari

Indelible City. By Louisa Lim. Riverhead Books; 293 pages; $28
The Impossible City. By Karen Cheung. Random House; 319 pages; $28 and £23

These memoirs, both released in 2022, offer more personal accounts of Hong Kong’s post-handover times. Ms Lim’s book more squarely deals with the protests of the past decade. In 2019 she decided that she could not in good faith both report on the protests and join them. And so she ditched her job at a local TV station. Hers is the story of an ordinary Hong Konger who feels driven to take to the streets. Laced throughout her tale is another: that of the “King of Kowloon”, a street calligrapher over whom Ms Lim obsesses. This troubled man, who believed himself the peninsula’s rightful heir, went on a nightly quest over decades, daubing the city’s walls with his diatribes in scratchy Chinese characters. In time, those graffiti that were not scrubbed off became sought after artworks. Ms Cheung’s book, meanwhile, is the more intimate of the pair. In it she lays out a personal map of a city shaped not only by protest, but also by her own battles with mental illness and with her parents, whose insistence on filial devotion proves stifling. Read our review of both books.

City of Darkness. By Greg Girard and Ian Lambot. Watermark Publications; 216 pages; £58.50

One of the oddities of the treaty that handed Kowloon to the British was that China was allowed to keep a fort on the peninsula, overlooking British positions on Hong Kong island. This dot of Chinese-sovereign land eventually morphed into Kowloon Walled City, a high-rise shantytown outside of British jurisdiction. At its most bulging, 35,000 people lived in an area measuring just 100m x 200m, purportedly making it the most densely populated place on Earth. Despite its reputation for vice and danger, not to mention its lack of basic amenities, a thriving community of people called Kowloon Walled City home. During the 1980s—it was finally razed in 1994—Mr Girard and Mr Lambot documented the city’s maze of dark alleys and haphazard staircases, as well as its colourful inhabitants, and published their work in this mesmerising book of photos and interviews. Original copies of the book are hard to come by, but a “revisited” edition was released in 2014.

The Honourable Schoolboy. By John le Carré. Penguin; 624 pages; $28 and £7.99

Set in the 1970s and part of the Smiley series of spy thrillers, this is surely the most famous novel to be set in Hong Kong. To this writer, it can conjure a mirage of nostalgia for a city he never knew—especially while swigging a Martini in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (fcc), the boozy hack-den that is itself a central character in the book. (Journalism has always been a handy cover for spies.) But the Hong Kong that le Carré paints in “The Honourable Schoolboy” has long-since vanished. British spooks no longer lord it in the city, which was an intelligence centre in a region over which they once held some sway. Also gone is the idea that Hong Kong is a haven of freedom, where journalists might let off steam after tours of duties covering repressive Asian regimes. Now the territory has its own autocratic government, which expels foreign journalists and locks up critical local newspaper editors. Even the fcc—which long ago moved from the harbourview site that le Carré evokes—is now thought to be in the government’s crosshairs.■

Do you have your own recommendations? Send them to with the subject line “Hong Kong history” and your name, city and country. We will publish a selection of readers’ suggestions.

弥敦道是香港最繁忙和最重要的购物区之一 (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

这篇文章是我们夏季阅读系列的一部分。请访问我们的收藏,以发现 "经济学人读物 "指南、特邀文章和更多季节性的干扰。


香港现代史》。作者:Steve Tsang。Bloomsbury Academic;352页;25美元和18.99英镑

这部内容广泛的历史涵盖了从1841年香港割让给英国的前一年到1997年中国重新夺回控制权这段时间。悬在叙述中的是英国逐渐意识到它有一个 "香港问题"。根据鸦片战争后签署的 "不平等条约",香港岛和九龙半岛被永久地授予英国,而从九龙到深圳河的更大的新界,只是在1898年以99年的租约被授予。曾先生写道,多年来,威斯敏斯特的政治家们认为英国太强大了(中国太落后了),不可能将其皇家属地交还。但日本人在1941年征服了香港,打消了英国不可战胜的傲慢想法。在整本书中,曾先生以公平的态度对待历史,承认英国的殖民时代带来了繁荣、高效的行政管理和正当程序等概念,同时从未忽视华裔的二等待遇。这本书的不幸之处在于,正如其作者所承认的,它在1997年结束,因此缺乏后殖民时代的视角。但作为英国统治下的香港的入门读物,它树立了一个标准。

通往中国的大门。作者:Michael Sheridan。牛津大学出版社;450页;29.95美元。HarperCollins;25英镑


今天的香港,明天的世界。作者:Mark L. Clifford。圣马丁出版社;306页;29.99美元。历史出版社;20英镑


- 如果奥斯曼帝国没有崩溃会怎样?
- 我们的自由交流专栏作家认为中国有多大的狄更斯风格
- 尤瓦尔-诺亚-哈拉里写道,乌克兰的关键是人类历史的方向

不可磨灭的城市。作者:Louisa Lim。河口书局;293页;28美元
不可能的城市》。作者:Karen Cheung。兰登书屋;319页;28美元和23英镑

这两本回忆录均于2022年出版,对香港回归后的时代进行了更多的个人描述。林女士的书更正视过去十年的抗议活动。2019年,她决定,她不能真诚地既报道抗议活动,又参加抗议活动。于是,她放弃了在一家地方电视台的工作。她的故事是一个普通的香港人感到被驱使上街的故事。在她的故事中还夹杂着另一个故事:"九龙王 "的故事,林女士对这个街头书法家非常着迷。这个麻烦的人认为自己是半岛的合法继承人,几十年来,他每晚都在寻找,在城市的墙壁上涂满了他用粗糙的中国字写的言论。随着时间的推移,那些没有被擦掉的涂鸦成了人们追捧的艺术品。同时,张女士的书是这两本书中比较私密的一本。在书中,她为这个城市绘制了一张个人地图,它不仅由抗议活动塑造,还由她自己与精神疾病的斗争以及与她父母的斗争塑造,而她父母对孝道的坚持证明是令人窒息的。阅读我们对这两本书的评论。


将九龙交给英国的条约中的一个奇怪之处在于,中国被允许在半岛上保留一个堡垒,俯瞰香港岛上的英国阵地。这片中国主权的土地最终演变成了九龙城寨,一个不属于英国管辖的高楼大厦的棚户区。在它最膨大的时候,35,000人居住在一个只有100米x200米的区域,据说这使它成为地球上人口最密集的地方。尽管它以罪恶和危险而闻名,更不用说它缺乏基本的生活设施,但仍有一个繁荣的社区将九龙城寨作为家园。在20世纪80年代--它最终于1994年被夷为平地--吉拉德先生和兰博特先生记录了这座城市的黑暗小巷和杂乱无章的楼梯迷宫,以及它丰富多彩的居民,并在这本令人着迷的照片和访谈书中发表了他们的作品。这本书的原版很难买到,但在2014年发行了 "重访 "版。



你有自己的建议吗?请将它们发送至,标题为 "香港历史",并注明您的姓名、城市和国家。我们将公布读者建议的精选。
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