Book review: Clash of Empires in South China, by Franco David Macri

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 March, 2013, 5:46pm

Clash of Empires in South China: The Allied Nations' Proxy War with Japan

by Franco David Macri

University of Kansas Press

Every so often, a work of scholarship completely changes the way we thought we understood the past. This superb new volume details the extensive back-story which led up to the global outbreak of war with Japan in 1941, and Hong Kong's vital but under-recognised connections to this event over several years.

Japan's all-out invasion of China in 1937, after several years of relentless encroachment following the Manchurian crisis in 1931, was the most dramatic Far Eastern symptom of what poet W.H. Auden characterised as the "low, dishonest decade". The Spanish civil war, Adolf Hitler's rise, the Munich crisis and the subsequent European drift towards war all complete the shoddy, tragic picture of massive diplomatic and political dysfunction and failure.

Over time, historical events may become received fact in the popular imagination. Myths surrounding the lead-up to the outbreak of world war in the Far East and Pacific are one key example.

Probably the most prominent popular belief today maintains that pre-war Hong Kong was governed and garrisoned by a clutch of blimpish colonial stereotypes, straw men with no clue about events taking place in the wider world. In tragic consequence of their ignorance and complacency (as we have been led to believe), Hong Kong was caught catastrophically by surprise when the Japanese finally struck. The territory was also seen as a small outpost of British rule, and of insignificant strategic value in terms of broader global strategic objectives.

Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Franco David Macri. Hong Kong's logistics networks, port and railway facilities and overall trade and transport role, in terms of broader imperial strategy for Britain, Japan, the US and rising Pacific nations such as Canada, are comprehensively considered.

Research and serious scholarship aside, Macri deftly manages the unusual: most published works recycled from their authors' initial PhD theses (Macri took a doctorate in history at the University of Hong Kong) are dry and often turgid to the point of indigestibility. This solid work is eminently readable and so merits an essential place in any serious Hong Kong studies collection.

Specialists in the areas of military and diplomatic history or Far Eastern intelligence networks will read it with profit, and lay readers will find most of their previously held assumptions debunked. Clash of Empires in South China is essential reading for anyone who wants to better understand Hong Kong's vital strategic role in China in the late 1930s as the war with Japan steadily gathered pace.