Hong Kong was never a monolith, always a mosaic. This is the message of Fortune’s Bazaar, a scholarly history of what began as a den of opium smugglers in 1841 and became, during the century or so that the book covers, the last link in the chain of naval and commercial strongholds binding the British Empire together. Hong Kong was a ‘floating world’ of mixed and shifting identities. Its deep harbour and strategic location attracted traders, pirates, sailors, labourers, artisans, entrepreneurs, clerks, missionaries, prostitutes, gamblers, bankers, brokers, lawyers and others, who brought energy and enterprise from the ends of the earth. The port city contained a gallimaufry of different races, cultures, languages and religions. As the historian Ackbar Abbas has said, it was not so much a nation as ‘a hyphenation’.
To Victorian visitors, its cosmopolitan character was vividly apparent in the streets. These were thronged with ragged coolies carrying heavy loads on bamboo poles, Chinese shopkeepers dressed in brown cotton, Calcuttan importers in crimson turbans, Sikhs in Madras muslin, Malays in red sarongs, frock-coated Portuguese in sola topis, jewelled and chimney-hatted Parsees, skull-capped Jews, blue-clad Japanese courtesans in wooden shoes, Celestials in brocaded robes waving their fans and uniformed European soldiers seeking oriental curios. The bazaars overflowed into the thoroughfares and pedestrians encountered a scurrying medley of rickshaws, gigs, phaetons and sedan chairs. No city in the world, wrote an American traveller in 1866, could present a more diverse, fantastic and raucous scene. The air was resonant with the babble of many tongues, ‘the twang of the banjo, the song of the minstrel, the indescribable plaint and whoop of burden bearers, the cries of men hawking their wares, the din of countless rattle-boxes, and the rush of wheels – sounds mellifluous, discordant and ear-splitting’.
Vaudine England argues that Hong Kong owed its vitality to its variety. The different races mixed in the marketplace and the godown, and they also met in bed. The resulting caste of Eurasians included many ‘in-betweeners’, hybrid figures who transcended their origins. Protean and multilingual, they bridged cultural