Who Belongs in the Empire? Culture, Race, and Malleable Identities in East and Southeast Asian Port Cities, 1840-1900
1: 'Whiteness,' Racism, and the Consolidation of an Anglo-American Elite in Nineteenth-Century Hong Kong
Saturday, March 26, 2022
12:30pm – 2:00pm EST
Virtual Paper Presenter(s)
Thomas M. Larkin
University of Bristol, United Kingdom
Americans living in Hong Kong and China’s treaty ports in the nineteenth century encountered a contradiction. The British dominated elite Western society in these ports, their political, social, and cultural agendas setting pace for life within the foreign community. But as citizens of a country that had had recently wrested its independence from its one-time imperial overlord, those Americans arriving in China were ostensibly averse to imperialism and the culture of Empire. They carried with them a belief that their country was a benevolent republic that championed international amity and self-determination. Still, as Elisa Tamarkin has noted, if Americans were wary of the British Empire, many found the spectacle of it appealing – a tendency especially evident in Hong Kong and the foreign enclaves along China’s coast. There, Americans eager to enter elite Western society proclaimed newfound sympathies for British belligerence in China. Those Americans living and working in China in turn recorded increasingly racist opinions about their Chinese neighbours and staff, their derisive expressions of racial difference reinforcing their efforts to reconcile Anglo-American cultural incongruities.
Examining American accounts of life within British colonial society, I explore how adaptation to colonial culture and the development of racist attitudes towards the Chinese were entangled parts of a complex process whereby extraimperial groups such as the Americans fashioned themselves as members of the colonial or foreign elite. I argue that through such processes, the British and Americans subordinated national rivalry in the interest of entrenching racial divisions between White and non-White communities.