Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore, three Asian city states

Sometimes events can seem rather unique, but historians have been trained to be wary of this claim. Since weeks the city state Hong Kong is in the grip of political turmoil. The legal and political status and future of this special administrative region in China is at the core of the disputes and actions. It is not a new idea to look at the law of both Hong Kong and Macau together, but I decided to add a third town in South East Asia to the comparison in this post. What have these city states in common apart from their geographical situation around a harbor? In this post I will look at a number of digital archives and libraries which bring you to important resources for the legal and cultural history of these interesting Asian cities.

Three of a kind?

It is tempting to start here with the colonial period of the three harbors. Macau was the oldest European colonial town in China, founded by the Portuguese in 1557. In and around Hong Kong people have lived already some 5000 years. For Singapore on the Malaysian peninsula there is a reference from the second century BCE. From the fourteenth century onwards there is more continuity for Singapore, but it is also clear the Portuguese destroyed the city in 1613. I prefer to treat the three towns here at first separately.

Startsscreen "Memória de Macau"

With currently some 600,000 inhabitants Macau is the smallest of the three cities. They live on a territory of just 30 square kilometer, making Macau the most densely populated spot on earth. Macau’s fortunes depended initially strongly on the position of the Portuguese commercial empire. Even though the Portuguese influence became weaker, Macau became attractive as a pivotal point in intra-Asiatic commerce. Since 1999 Macau is a special administrative region of China. The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, actually a tunnel and a bridge with a length of 42 kilometer, connects since 2018 Hong Kong with Macau.

A search for digital resources concerning Macau yielded quickly some important results. The portal Memória de Macau was only launched in April 2019. It brings you to digitized books, archival records, maps, audiovisual materials and images of museal objects in Macau. The portal offers also a chronology of Macau’s history which you can even filter for events in politics and law, and there are of course sections on the arts and culture. Memória de Macau is accessible in Portuguese and Chinese. For searching the legal history of Macau the Base de Dados de Legislação de Macau (LEGISMAC) brings you not only to current law in Macau, but also to laws and other legislative acts since 1855. At Fontes Macau-China, sécs. XVI-XIX, part of the Observatório da China you will find a digital library with Early Modern books, its contents are viewable with a Portuguese, Chinese and English interface. The Biblioteca Digital da Fundação Jorge Álvares in Lissabon is a small digital library with digitized books about Macau and China. In the UM Digital Library Portal of the Wu Yee Sun Library, Universidade de Macau you can consult among other things Chinese worksWestern books on China and rare Western books. For Macau the digital library at the portal on Portuguese colonial history Memórias de Africa et do Oriente contains only nine titles.

The Arquivo de Macau has digitized the official gazette, the Boletim do Goberno / Boletim official de Macau, for the period 1850-1999, you can view the issues with a Portuguese, Chinese or English interface. In 1993 the Chinese government announced the legal framework for Macau from 1999 onwards. It is referred to as the Basic Law (here the English translation).

Hong Kong’s long history

Start screen Historical laws of Hong Kong Online

A similar search for digital collections concerning the (legal) history of Hong Kong took me much more time. Only the Hong Kong Legal Information Institute came immediately into view. This branch of the WorldLII contains not only modern legislation and jurisprudence, but also Privy Council Judgments (1861-1997), historical laws (1890-1964), and also first instance and appeal judgments since 1946. The University of Hong Kong Libraries offer access to Historical Laws of Hong Kong Online as a part of the Hong Kong University Library Digital Initiatives, a portal to several digital collections, including sections for rare books, legislation and war crime trials. I should have spotted at Historical Laws of Hong Kong Online the link to a page with several other online resources, for example Hong Kong Government Reports Online (1842-1941). The Hong Kong Public Libraries have among its digital collections a general Hong Kong Collection and for example old newspapers since 1853. The Run Run Shaw Lbrary of the City University of Hong Kong has a portal for its Digital Special Collections. Hong Kong Memory is a portal for digitized cultural heritage, mainly for the arts, geography, audiovisual collections and oral history. You can consult a number of historical maps at HK Maps. For Chinese rare books there are a digital collection of the Chinese University of Hong Kong Library and the Hok Hoi Collection of the Hong Kong Public Libraries with classic Chinese literature.

Two archives founded by the government of Hong Kong preserve archival records, the Government Records Service, with three digital collections and three virtual exhibits, and the Legislative Council Archives, founded in 2012. Within The Hong Kong Heritage Project you find the archive of the Kadoorie family and much more. A number of digitized archival collection for Hong Kong has been digitized by libraries. The Hong Kong Public libraries have digitized some 48,000 digitized archival records of the city council between 1965 and 2000 in their collection Municipal Council Archives. The Chinese University of Hong Kong Library, too, offers digitized archival records. In the Land Deeds Collection there are 160 land deeds and six volumes of fish-scale registers, from the mid-seventeenth to the twentieth century. In the Sheng Xuanhei Archive you will find digitized documents and transcriptions concerning a very influential merchant and politician (1844-1916) who initiated many projects. At Open Public Records of the UK National Archives this university gives you access to dozens of digitized documents from various series held at Kew. With the Elsie Tu Digital Collection (Hong Kong Baptist University) we come closer to this century. This collection contains speeches and publications of a scholar who followed closely political and legal developments in Hong Kong during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Her university presents also the HKBU Corpora, two linguistic corpora, the Corpus of Political Speeches (1789-2015) and The Chinese/English Political Interpreting Corpus (1997-2017), with in both corpora speeches from the USA, Hong Kong and China.

In Hong Kong some 7,5 million people live on an area of 1,100 square kilometer, which brings this city a rank lower than Macau but still very high in the list of most densely populated places of our planet. The British took over power in 1841, formally stabilized in the 1842 Treaty of Nanking. The extension of Hong Kong’s territory came about in 1898 with the treaty concerning the 99 year-period of British rule over Hong Kong. During the Second World War the Japanese army occupied Hong Kong. In 1997 British sovereignty was transferred to China, entering the current period of fifty years until 2047 as a special administrative region within China.

A look at Singapore’s history and its digital presence

Heading "Straits Settlements Gazette", 1890Government

Heading of the “Straits Settlements Gazette”, 1890 – image source: Books SG, http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/printheritage/index.htm

With Singapore we go from China to the most southern point of the Malaysian peninsula, close to the Indonesian archipelago. The destruction of this town in 1613 is a clear break in its history. In 1819 a British trading post was established which gained in 1824 the status of a British colony. In 1824 an Anglo-Dutch treaty created a clear separation between Dutch and British territories in Malaysia and the islands of the Dutch East Indies. From 1826 onwards Singapore was a part of the Straits Settlements, governed from British India. From 1867 to 1942 Singapore was a Crown Colony. The harbor became in the twentieth century known for its facilities for the British fleet. Although it was deemed to be unassailable for enemies, the Japanese could take over Singapore in 1942 very quickly.  After the Second World War a turbulent period followed from which Singapore eventually emerged in 1965 as an independent republic. Singapore has currently some 5,6 million inhabitants on a territory of 7,800 square kilometer leading to a ranking for population density between Macau and Hong Kong. One of the things I realized while looking at Singapore is the major role of Chinese people in its history.

When you look at digital libraries in South East Asia it is good to start perhaps with the Asean Digital Library, a portal hosted by the National Library Board, Singapore and founded by the Association of South East Asian Nations. For Singapore this digital library contains some 26,000 items. The National Library Board of Singapore presents digitized old books and manuscripts in several subcollections at Books SG. Among the books labelled Politics and government you will find a number of issues of the Straits Settlements government gazette. Among the digitizwed titles I would like to mention two recent guides, The rare materials collection : selections from the National Library Singapore (2017), readable online, and the volume 50 records from history : highlights from the National Archives of Singapore (2019), downloadable as a PDF (264 MB), with in the latter a number of important documents for Singapore’s legal history.

The NLB has also created a section Newspapers SG with some Malaysian newspapers. The educational portal Roots created by the National Heritage Board looks at Singapore’s history and cultural heritage since 1819. At Legal Heritage the Singapore Academy of Law brings you not a digital library, but a guide to Singapore’s legal history. Lee Su-Lin, a librarian at the National University of Singapore created with Historical sources of Singapore Law a guide to (digitized) materials for researching Singapore’s legal history. You can benefit also from the guide to Singapore Primary Sources by her colleague Nur Diyana. The National University of Singapore offers digitized historical maps of Singapore (from 1846 onwards), a HISGIS for Singapore and the Singapore Biographical Database dealing with Chinese personalities in Singapore’s history The NUS Libraries have a large section with digitized Chinese materials pertaining to Singapore, including historical newspapers. At Singapore Statutes Online you can find three constitutional documents and a few acts from the colonial period.

The holdings of archives, libraries, museums and galleries in Singapore can be searched conveniently using the One Search portal. Thus you can look at inventories of the National Archives of Singapore. At its digital portal Archives Online you can look for example at a section for government records with also parliamentary papers – and at the Straits Settlements Records (1826-1946), Overseas and Private Records. The Singapore Policy History Project of the NAS is also worth your attention.

Of course important collections relevant to the subjects of this post can be found elsewhere. In the Cambridge Digital Library you can find the collection Voices of civilian internment: WWII Singapore. Among digitized items of the vast collections of the Royal Commonwealth Society you find can some panoramic photographs of Hong Kong, Macau and Kanton (Guangzhou) made in the early twentieth century.

Three or four harbors?

When you look at old maps of Macau and Hong Kong the latter is often difficult to spot, but yet another harbor to the north in the Pearl River Delta is quite visible, Guangzhou, to the Western world long known as Canton. Guangzhou is situated some 145 kilometer north of Hong Kong. To mention just one characteristic about Guangzhou, Cantonese is one of the major forms of the Chinese language. Singapore and Guangzhou figure in the top ten of largest harbors of the world. It would have been interesting to look here also at Guangzhou, for example at the Guangzhou National Archives, but it is perhaps better to admit I spotted it rather late.

While preparing this post on the history of three Asian ports another thing became very visible for me. In the Human Development Index of the United Nations, a quite detailed overview with several sections, you will find in the main HDI list just behind the top on place 7 Hong Kong, and on place 9 Singapore. Macau is not included in the HDI, but it would rank around number 17. China currently figures at place 88 of the HDI main list. The three city states of this post simply belong to the richest countries and areas of our world. Two of these three ports hold a stable place among the world’s busiest harbors.

Inevitably there are some clear lacunae in my post. It would be most useful to know about digital versions of the historical gazette(s) for Hong Kong, not just for Macau and Singapore. I referred only briefly to the historical and current constitutions which can be swiftly found using one or more of the portals for constitutions worldwide. Incidentally, I have listed a dozen relevant portals for constitutions at the digital libraries page of my legal history portal Rechtshistorie, where you will also see the archives I mention here. The page for digital libraries brings you also to the major portals for official gazettes and treaties. I have not looked closely at the development of the legal systems in the three city states, but this calls for more space, time and knowledge – both of the legal systems involved and of Portuguese, Malay and Chinese! – to engage with them here in real depth and width. The selection of resources for their cultural and legal heritage shows at the very least the need to use multiple perspectives. Perhaps the largest deficit here is the lack of references to (legal) sources in and about China and its history, and the omission of a perspective from China. On my website I mention a number of digital libraries with Chinese books and also a number of archives in China, but I point only to a small number of resources on China’s legal history. Finding digital resources with digitized old books  for Malaysia is an even greater challenge, but it is also advisable to turn to bibliographical research.

Whatever the outcome of the current conflicts in Hong Kong, it is surely influenced by the fact people live here literally packed on the shores of a thriving harbor and an important Asian economy. The people of Hong Kong are acutely aware of the legal, economical and political differences with China. These differences stand both for the success of Hong Kong and the challenges it faces. All over the world major towns have to deal with problems national governments find difficult to address. A number of cities worldwide cooperate in networks such as Metropolis and United Cities and Local Governments. The city states of this post stand out as not just remarkable legal cases for doing comparative law and comparative legal history, but as communities in densely inhabitated towns at pivotal points in the world economy and at the frontiers of major countries which have and show their own interests in them. The mixed legal systems of Hong Kong and Macau are a mixed blessing. All three towns in this post have a long history of great changes which will encourage them to face current problems, too.

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