Published: 01:08, January 2, 2024 | Updated: 09:48, January 2, 2024
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'Truffle-hunting' reveals history's heroes
By David Cottam

The pioneering French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie died on Nov 22, 2023, aged 94. To most people in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the world, his death, and indeed his very existence, will have gone unnoticed. This is a great pity, as his life’s work has bequeathed an important message. 

Ladurie was a leading exponent of the “annales” school, which focused on social rather than political themes in history. His “history from below” sought to understand the past from the bottom up, examining the lives and experiences of ordinary people rather than the exploits of great kings, politicians or generals. This pioneering approach was exemplified in his two best-known works, The Peasants of Languedoc (1966), and Montaillou (1975); the latter painstakingly reconstructed peasant life in a 14th century French village of the same name.

My favorite Ladurie quotation is: “All historians are either truffle-hunters, their noses buried in the details, or parachutists, hanging high in the air and looking for general patterns in the countryside far below them.” Historians falling into the parachutist camp concentrate on great historical events and personalities and their role in the grand sweep of history. Ladurie, however, was very much a truffle-hunter, preferring to focus on the micro-histories of common people to illuminate the realities of their time and place in the world.

Unlike Ladurie, the vast majority of historians around the world have adopted the parachutist approach. Consequently, in every country’s mainstream history, national heroes are firmly placed center stage. Even if you have no interest in history, you can see the echoes of this mainstream approach all around you. National heroes are remembered and glorified through statues, portraits, biographies and documentaries. Streets, buildings and airports are named after them. Invariably, these heroes are from the elite of society: statesmen, monarchs, generals and business tycoons. Admiral Horatio Nelson’s statue atop his column in London’s Trafalgar Square, Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, the Washington Monument in the United States and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong in Beijing are all good examples. 

In Hong Kong, there are reminders everywhere of the names of prominent figures who contributed directly or indirectly to its mainstream history over the past two centuries. Many pay tribute to British royalty despite their contribution to Hong Kong being merely symbolic. Victoria Harbour and Queen’s Road in Central were, of course, both named after the monarch who happened to be on the throne when Britain occupied Hong Kong in 1842. Prince’s Building was named after Queen Victoria’s son, Edward, Prince of Wales, who later succeeded her to the British throne as Edward VII in 1901. King George V School in Kowloon was named after Edward VII’s successor. Prince Edward Road in Kowloon was named after George V’s son, Prince Edward, later to become King Edward VIII until he famously abdicated to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson in 1936. The only contribution made to Hong Kong by Edward seems to have been a fleeting visit to the road’s construction site in 1922. Even so, this was deemed to be sufficient for his name to live on in one of Hong Kong’s major routes.

Whereas Britain’s royals’ contribution to Hong Kong’s history was purely symbolic, the contribution of British governors was more concrete, although whether they qualify as Hong Kong heroes is more debatable. Nevertheless, whether you see them as the heroes or villains of Hong Kong’s colonial history, their names are still honored throughout the city. Pottinger Street was named after the first British governor, Sir Henry Pottinger. Mount Davis Road was named after the second governor, Sir John Davis. Other famous examples include: Bonham Road (Sir George Bonham), Robinson Road (Sir Hercules Robinson), Kennedy Town (Sir Arthur Kennedy), Hennessy Road (Sir John Pope Hennessy), Des Voeux Road (Sir George William Des Voeux), Nathan Road (Sir Matthew Nathan), and Stubbs Road (Sir Reginald Stubbs). Hong Kong's hikers should also know that the MacLehose Trail was named after Sir Murray MacLehose (governor from 1971 to 1982). Similarly, the contribution of business tycoons to Hong Kong’s history is recognized in familiar place names. Several streets, for example, are named after the 19th century business giant, Jardine, Matheson and Company, notably Jardine’s Bazaar and Jardine’s Crescent in Causeway Bay.

All of these Hong Kong place names are a reflection of the role played by the privileged and the powerful in its mainstream history. They are the product of what Ladurie termed the parachutist approach, focusing on the broad sweep of history with progress measured through the political accomplishments of the ruling elite. Indeed, the vast majority of historians who have written about Hong Kong have adopted this approach, focusing on the broad-brush political, geopolitical and economic story rather than the social. While this approach is clearly important in understanding Hong Kong’s development, it needs to be supplemented with Ladurie’s bottom-up, truffle-hunting approach in order to gain a fuller understanding of Hong Kong’s heritage. By focusing not on the famous names but on the social micro-history of ordinary Hong Kong residents, we can find the alternative heroes of Hong Kong — including the entrepreneurs, farmers, factory workers and laborers who provided the workforce on which business and political reputations were built. 

An excellent contribution to this truffle-hunting approach has already been made by the journalist Vaudine England, in her remarkable book published earlier this year: Fortune’s Bazaar: The Making of Hong Kong. This focuses not on the usual political story of the British Hong Kong government and a rapidly evolving China, but on the diverse ordinary people from around the world who molded Hong Kong. In the author’s own words, these included: “people who staffed the businesses, ran the taverns, stocked the ships’ chandleries, and placed bets on the horses … coolie laborers, moneylenders, shipowners, shopkeepers, commission brokers, bar owners, and working women.”

Without this vast army of ordinary people, hailing not just from the Chinese mainland but from all around Asia and the world, Hong Kong’s governors and taipans could not have functioned. 

The contribution of these ordinary Chinese, Asian, European and, as time progressed, increasingly Eurasian Hong Kong residents was immense. You can still see these alternative Hong Kong heroes everywhere today — the street cleaners, domestic helpers, bus and taxi drivers, teachers, nurses, laborers, builders and the rest of the army of ordinary people whose hard work makes Hong Kong tick. Without them and their predecessors, there would be no Hong Kong, and none of the buildings and roads named after royalty and governors would even exist.

The author is a British historian and former principal of Sha Tin College, Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.