Mitigating Environmental Crises and Epidemics in British Hong Kong, c. 1945-1980

Photo source: HKPRO website gallery

(History Department, funded by the Nanyang Assistant Professorship Scheme.)
Principal investigator: Florence Mok
Co-investigators: David Clayton, Jack Greatrex, Siu-hei Lai and Kaman Ho

This study will make an original contribution to the political, social and environmental history of modern China and British colonialism by exploring how the colonial government and the Chinese society in Hong Kong mitigated environmental crises from 1945 to 1980, a period with growing policy initiatives, increased economic affluence and rising political and social consciousness. It will focus on the state and popular responses to Hong Kong’s four most common natural crises under the subtropical climate: typhoon, water shortages, flooding and seasonal epidemics. The proposed study will use a traditional historical approach of examining published sources and archival manuscripts in Hong Kong and London. The main objective is to investigate investment in new technologies and infrastructures, the alternation of landscapes, socio-political mobilisations such as mutual-aid committees and state propaganda; Hong Kong was a Cold War pivot in Asia. Many measures taken by the state therefore were influenced by geopolitics and Cold War dynamics, in particular Britain’s relations with China and the United States.

This timely and innovative study will shed light on the current global crises of climate change and epidemics by tracing past practices used to alleviate emergencies in a densely populated and newly-urbanised environment which had an under-developed welfare system, supported by a narrow tax base: these are conditions that are found in many parts of the world today. Historicising natural disasters will enrich the academic discourse on environmental changes and urbanisation. Studying Hong Kong will identify similarities and differences in responses between the East and the West, complementing on-going studies of crisis management in science, medicine, sociology and public policy. 

1. Visualising Water Usage in Colonial Hong Kong: Separate Water Metering in 1965 and Consumer Citizenship

Water troubled both administrators of the colonial regime and residents in Hong Kong during the first three decades of the post-war period. The colonial regime attempted to remedy water shortages by excavating additional water supplies and by improving its administration of water usage. Using archival records in Hong Kong and London, and unofficial sources such as Chinese newspapers, this research studies an under-explored demand-side manoeuvre, separate water metering, introduced by the colonial government in Hong Kong in 1965, and its sociohistorical role in managing water usage. With an improved visibility of water usage for both the Chinese residents and the government, separate metering informed residents to use water wisely and economically, and involved them in water management. This research demonstrates that the separate water metering expanded the state’s capacity in scrutinizing water usage amongst Chinese residents. The combination of technology, financial incentives and persuasion facilitated residents who were largely driven by instrumentalism to self-learn how to use water wisely and carefully. This technological reform in water responded to the growing civic concerns over the unfair water payment system and the consequential water wastage. It led people to believe that they were accountable for the water that they consumed and would be charged fairly. This transformed the public perception of water consumption in the long run and fostered the emergence of consumer citizenship over water in Hong Kong. 

2. Hong Kong’s Water Shortages and Local Resilience in 1960s and 70s

Three Love Affairs (工廠皇后) (Image courtesy of Hong Kong Film Archive)

Water shortages were intrinsic to the life of people in Hong Kong – whether they were residents or tourists, workers or executives, small proprietors or large corporations. Measures imposed by the government in alleviating the water shortages – mainly restrictive means – caused disturbances to daily routines of all walks of life in the city. Drawing on unofficial records in Chinese and English newspapers, this study explores ordinary people’s responses to the lack of water anthropologically and historically. Instead of examining innovative or groundbreaking attempts in dealing with the challenges attributed to water restrictions, it manifests their resilience in the everyday context. Apart from demonstrating the robustness of ordinary people – their capability in bearing disturbances during the water restrictions, the paper exemplifies how they made the hard time fun and even profited from chances provoked by the water restriction. In other words, the paper showcases not only the “get around” but also the “turn around”. It broadens what means by resilience. It uses water crises as a lens to discern social, cultural and political formation of post-war Hong Kong, unfolding the inextricable connections between critical events and social and cultural changes.

3. A Reconfigured Inspectability? A Self-governing Technique? Or What Else? Separate Water Metering in Hong Kong, c. 1960s-1980s

The 1965 sperate water metering in Hong Kong, a demand-side maneuverer remedying the water shortages, required all units in private tenements built since then must install individual water meters, thereby water usage of households were billed separately. In combination with water pricing revisions and other persuasive means devised by the colonial government, separate water meters prompted local residents to self-learn how to use water wisely and carefully, cultivating civic pride amongst the Hong Kong residents in the post-war period. Separate water meters – the technological devices for measuring water usage – permeated the Hong Kong water supplies network to individual households, constituting a network-device assemblage. The implementation of the scheme and swift installation of separate water meters in Hong Kong did not rely on cohesion, nor the system was a limitless architecture scrutinizing daily water usage of residents forcefully. Rather, the separate water metering pertains to Chris Otter’s reconfigured form of inspection – i.e., inspectability, overtly but unintrusively monitoring and measuring water consumption. Conceptualizing separate water metering as inspectability defies the impression of technological devices of public utilities networks as Foucauldian panoptic form of surveillance that operated at a distance. However, the sperate water metering could be considered as a self-governing technique in Foucault’s late-liberal governmentality framework, of which the scrutinization effect of separate water metres operated via forms of freedom. Attributes of market were intrinsic to the operation of separate meter system. This research attempts to demonstrate what about if sperate water metering both as an inspectability and as a self-governing technology. As such, it makes a theoretical contribution to sociohistorical analysis of water usage mensuration technology by bridging the existing conceptual gap in examining the inextricabilities of technological devices and urban governance. It provides a new alternative to conceptualize other parallels in technological devises of urban utilities networks.

4. Biopolitics in the Cold War: Water Emergency and the 1967 Riots in Hong Kong

Photo courtesy of HKU Library Special Collection

Ever since the end of the Second World War, Hong Kong, a British colony, was a battleground for competing ideologies: communism and capitalism. As an alien administration that ruled four million Chinese residents, the colonial government’s legitimacy was constantly questioned. And the government’s legitimacy partly rested on its ability to supply clean water to Hong Kong residents, which however was interrupted during the 1967 riots. Using under-exploited archives evidence from London and Hong Kong, this research examines how the PRC and leftist utilised biopolitics during the leftist-inspired 1967 riots, when a Water Emergency happened concurrently. China has been providing water to Hong Kong via the Dongshen-Hong Kong Water Scheme to mobilise popular support. This study also investigates how the colonial government countered this water crisis. Existing literature on the water history in Hong Kong focused on the Hong Kong-China trade in water but has not explored how water was utilised as biopolitical strategy in 1967 thoroughly. As such, the study makes an important contribution to the histories of water, Hong Kong, modern China and British colonialism during the Cold War.

5. Catchwater Colonialism: Reshaping Hong Kong’s Hydrology, Reshaping Hong Kong’s Hydrology, Infrastructure, Metabolism and Landscape, 1937 to 1968

This article explores the development of hydrological infrastructure in colonial Hong Kong between the early 1930s and the late 1960s. Utilising under-explored archival sources in Hong Kong and London, it shows how this infrastructure fundamentally reshaped Hong Kong’s geography. By way of concrete catchwaters and metal pipes, both ‘green’ and ‘urban’ Hong Kong became counter-intuitively interconnected. This interconnection created both unintended consequences and novel opportunities for colonial governance, driving forward natural conservation, state intervention into rural society, and the development of new carceral institutions. Exploring these developments provides pivotal insight into the urban history of Hong Kong, with implications for global studies of historical urban political ecology.

Photograph by Jack Greatrex. 

6. The Promises and Perils of Petro-Hydrology: Hong Kong, the Persian Gulf, and the Lok On Pai Desalter, 1963 to 1990

This article traces the network linking Hong Kong with flows of oil from the Middle East via Singapore, as Hong Kong attempted in the 1960s and 1970s to sidestep geopolitical risk by producing water through carbon-intensive desalination through the Lok On Pai plant. Alongside an important body of literature which has traced the entwined history of water across the Guangdong border, this article takes an alternative route: showing how the entanglements of oil importation and water production in Hong Kong substituted one vulnerable supply chain for one from a different part of the world.  

7. Watering the Roots of Industrial Development: Evidence from Colonial Hong Kong, 1945-1982

This article investigates the relationship between the rapid growth of industries, the surge in population, and water supply under limited water resources in post-war Hong Kong. Throughout the Cold War era, Hong Kong transitioned from an entrepot to an industrial city. From the 1950s to the 1980s, Hong Kong was viewed as a laboratory for Milton Friedman’s concepts of a free market. Contrary to the hypothesis of a free market, government intervention in water and industry contributed to Hong Kong’s industrial growth. Viewing Hong Kong as a firm, the transition to an industrial city was constrained by high transaction costs— stemming from severe water resource scarcity, rapid population growth, and geopolitical risks posed by neighboring communist China. Using spatial techniques and time-series models, this study analyses water, factory, and sector-specific industrial data, including sectors like textiles, clothing, and plastics, to unravel the association between the state’s water provisioning capacity and the economic progress of post-war Hong Kong. The British Hong Kong government’s ability to secure a stable water supply played a significant role in shaping both the physical and socioeconomic landscape of Hong Kong, while simultaneously fostering economic advancement, contrary to the relatively hands-off economic approach advocated by the government during this period.

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