Book review: Pacific Crossing, by Elizabeth Sinn

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 March, 2013, 4:42pm

Pacific Crossing: California Gold, Chinese Migration and the Making of Hong Kong

by Elizabeth Sinn

HKU Press

As the old adage maintains, a book should never be judged by its cover. And that is certainly the case with this superb new contribution to our understanding of 19th-century Hong Kong and its role in the broader regional and world history: a pedestrian image of a 19th-century steamship conceals extraordinarily rich information and many years of meticulous scholarship.

Elizabeth Sinn, the former deputy director of the now-defunct Centre of Asian Studies at the University of Hong Kong, has researched aspects of Hong Kong's history for decades. Power and Charity, her doctoral thesis on the evolution of the Tung Wah Hospital and its role in the development of early Chinese Hong Kong (which was published in 2003), remains the standard work on the subject.

Her latest work details the themes in the title in astonishing detail. Extensive gold rushes in California and Australia in the late 1840s and early 1850s, Sinn writes, occurred at one of those critical turning-point periods in history, when wide-ranging political changes, combined with rapid economic and technological development, all coalesced into a sudden forward movement that took place on several fronts at once.

In explaining and further consolidating this concept, Sinn extensively contradicts the commonly held notion that 19th-century emigrant traffic between South China and California were almost all - or only - coolie labour destined for manual work on the railways, mines, laundries and elsewhere. Many were not coolies. The vast majority of migrants were men, but more than a few were women. As most males already had established families back in their ancestral villages, and did not expect to remain in California for their entire lifetimes, female company (mostly for sexual purposes) was required, and entrepreneurial women crossed the Pacific to work in the sex industry. While many vanished into history without trace, others achieved a significant measure of economic success and personal independence.

The ways in which Chinese migrants to "Gold Mountain" - as California was known - skilfully and with great attention to detail managed their lives (and their deaths and after-lives) are vividly recreated. With a wealth of insight and detail, Sinn fits the story of early Hong Kong into broader patterns of sojourner-settlement, trans-Pacific migration and eventual repatriation (including, movingly, the repatriation of bones to ancestral villages in China, via Hong Kong.)

The sheer range of products shipped to and from California to Hong Kong during this period was staggering. Granite quarried in Hong Kong was used to build San Francisco's more substantial early buildings; while it is widely known that local stone was extensively exported around the Pearl River Delta, few know that granite was exported across the Pacific. Most went in ballast on passenger vessels at a very low freight charge. Flour was a common import from California to Hong Kong, with processed sugar going back the other way. Sugar refining was Hong Kong's most significant early industry, and Sinn convincingly speculates that the California trade may well have provided some impetus for its early beginnings.

Much contemporary Hong Kong scholarship suffers from over-specialisation and a tiresome level of microscopic introspection; in recent years, the exponential growth in local academic opportunities has led - in many cases - to a reductio ad absurdum approach to research; more and more has been written about less and less.

Pacific Crossing, however, magnificently reverses that wearying trend. Densely rich with superb information, extensive footnotes and references it provides a wealth of ancillary material. Just don't let the cover deter you.