UBC Undergraduate Research

The Glass Fortress of Anglo-China : 1898-1911 Wong, Daryl Y.C.


Hong Kong was a British colony between 1842 and 1996. In the early periods of the colony’s existence, the colonial government and judiciary were unable to successfully establish British values of law and order, primarily because of inexperience in governing a predominantly Chinese society. Consequently, British leaders in Hong Kong had to learn to adapt their governance to accommodate, but also control, the population of their territory. For the colonial British government and judiciary, Hong Kong’s safety quickly became a point of grave concern. One response to this apparent lack of safety, for instance, was an even more stringent application of colonial law. This thesis examines the period in Hong Kong’s history between 1898 and 1911 as not just a continuation, but evolution, of earlier colonial governance. We center on judicial case studies as the primary source of evidence for this evolution. Colonial attitudes and actions in Hong Kong were, by the turn of the century, highly conservative and utilitarian. These attitudes and reactions are best represented in the metaphor of a “glass fortress.” British leaders intended to portray a sense of strength, safety, and control, both to foreigners as well as those living within the colony, hence the grandiose and domineering appearance of the “glass fortress.” However, British leaders were limited by the realities in the colony, such as its geographic size, social makeup, and insufficient military strength. Additionally, the actions of these leaders were occasionally too aggressive and overbearing. The failure of British leaders to successfully substantiate their approach suggests that the “glass fortress” was, in fact, structurally flawed. In our analysis of the “glass fortress,” we investigate three types of actions, or reactions to developments in Hong Kong, which characterized colonial governance from 1898 to 1911. The first was colonial restraint, in which colonial leaders adopted a seemingly lax approach to governance that was, in fact, meant to prevent the colonial government from overreacting and making serious mistakes. The second type of reaction was colonial discrimination, in which colonial leaders shared an ambivalent relationship with Hong Kong’s Chinese elite, which betrayed the government’s prejudice against the Chinese in the colony. Lastly, we look at the reaction of colonial tyranny, in which the colonial government used disproportionate repression and violent punishment, especially when it feared the possibility of insurrection in Hong Kong.

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