Edward Leung Tin-kei, who was disqualified from the recent Legislative Council elections, in an interview with the South China Morning Post described the late Benedict Anderson’s 1983 book, Imagined Communities: Reflections of the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, as a seminal intellectual influence for his notions of Hong Kong autonomy and independence. A clarion call for those who wish to redefine their sense of national and personal identity away from constraints imposed by geopolitical realities, Anderson’s work enjoys considerable influence in politically unusual, hybrid societies, such as those in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Increasingly in these places, a significant disconnect exists between what many people feel themselves to be and how they are pigeonholed by the wider world.
Curiously, other links exist between Anderson – a specialist on Southeast Asia and, in particular, Indonesia – and Hong Kong’s steadily burgeoning, thoroughly politicised nativist sentiment.
He was born in 1936, in Kunming, Yunnan, where his father, James Carew O’Gorman Anderson, was a commissioner in the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, which he had entered in 1914.
During a posting to Hong Kong in the 1920s, Anderson senior was joined by his first wife, the celebrated British novelist Stella Benson. A genuine cosmopolitan, and one of the few literary originals to have spent any time here, Benson had lived on the fringes of London’s Bloomsbury set before taking off to travel the world in 1920. Her personal friends included Virginia Woolf, whose sister-in-law, Bella Southorn, also lived in Hong Kong at the time, with her husband, colonial secretary W. T. Southorn. Benson was particularly close to authors Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain.
For a short while, Benson was the librarian at the Helena May Institute, in Central – unkindly referred to in those years as “the Virgin’s Retreat”. Like other talented writers, she felt marooned in Hong Kong’s snobbish colonial society.
Serious literary endeavour is not something for which either the crown colony or the special administrative region have been known, with many people who have chosen to live here more interested in claiming association with authors for reasons of status than in getting to know them or reading their books.
Benson’s best-known work, The Little World (1925), has chapters dealing with Hong Kong life, some of which originally appeared as articles in the Post. A subsequent volume of travel writing, Worlds Within Worlds (1928), contains sharply observed vignettes drawn from experiences in China.
While polite enough in her published writing (James Anderson had been officially warned that he was liable for dismissal if he didn’t keep his wife in line), Benson was no admirer of Hong Kong society. Her diaries – far more candid than her published writings – were later deposited by her widower in Cambridge University Library, with instructions that they were not to be read until 50 years after her death. These writings eventually formed an essential part of a well-received scholarly biography.
After Benson’s death from chronic illness in 1933, Anderson married Veronica Bigham, a younger woman who survived her husband by several decades. Two sons – Benedict was the elder one – followed in swift succession. The family left China soon after his birth and eventually settled in Anderson’s native Ireland, where he died when his sons were still young. Benedict’s younger brother, Perry Anderson, is a well-known Marxist historian.