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Books on Cities: Jan Morris, Hong Kong (1988/1997)

When Jan Morris died this past November, her fellow writer of place Pico Iyer saluted her on Twitter as “the kindest, shrewdest and most indefatigable master portraitist of cities.” Most of this portraiture she executed in the form of essays: “The Know-How City,” to name just one example, a 1976 Rolling Stone dispatch on Los Angeles from which I’ve been quoting ever since I began writing about the place myself. Though an author of many books, including the imperial-history Pax Britannica trilogy, she treated relatively few individual cities at that length. When she did, she chose subjects with which she already had decades of acquaintance: Oxford, Venice, Trieste, New York. “I have been writing about Hong Kong on and off for thirty years,” she in her eponymous volume on that city, “and I come back to it now primarily as a student of British imperialism.”

Those words come from the 1997 edition of Hong Kong, a publication timed to coincide with the colony’s return to China after more than a century and a half of British rule. The book had first come out nearly a decade earlier, in the wake of Morris’ major works on the Empire. Though not exactly an apologist for imperialism, Morris was hardly among its severest critics. For some of those countrymen who worked to paint the map red she expresses condemnation, but for others she expresses admiration, and that this ambivalence would one day become “problematic” doesn’t seem to have escaped her. “However things go after 1997,” she writes at the very end of the book, “I dare to claim this: that the British are bringing their rule in Hong Kong, and with it the record of their Empire as a whole, to a conclusion that is not ignoble.”

But then British Hong Kong, “the final edition of the last great imperial colony,” was in Morris’ view “only just a British colony at all.” An especially visible aspect of this exceptionality is its famously large and densely packed population, overwhelmingly Chinese and in the main bearing few traces of influence by 156 years of British rule. “On the surface, and in the tourist brochures,” Morris writes, “Chineseness in its most fantastic forms is honored in the everyday life of this British colony.” And below that surface, “in a thousand ways old tastes, habits and techniques resist all challenge.” In multiple senses, China had always loomed at least as large there as Britain, what with the vast Middle Kingdom just over the mountains and the colony’s handover (a consequence of Britain’s limited lease on not Hong Kong Island itself but the later-acquired peninsular territories) long recognized as inevitable.

Read the whole thing at Substack.