James Hayes is a scholar who has studied widely about Hong Kong's New Territories and
has shown much interest in the region's people, as can be seen in some of his other works such
as; Friends and Teachers: Hong Kong and Its People 1953–87 (Hong Kong University Press,
In this book, James Hayes brilliantly captures and documents the period between 1898-
2004 in which Great Britain acquired and ruled over 'the new territories' of Hong Kong. He
explores the notion of 'the great difference' and the historical consequence that came with the
colonialist government style of governing that largely ignored the ever-widening gap caused by
segregation and unfair land laws. Overall, this book provides an intimate account of the era of
British occupation in Hong Kong, the gradual mechanization from rural to urban and its impact
on the indigenous people of this region, including but not limited to, lack of harmony between
the natives and settlers, property conflicts and identity crisis. Being one of the first to explore this
subject; it becomes an important starting point for other researchers.
Haye's book is a first of its kind, bringing the history of Hong Kong from the pre-colonial
period to present-day Chinese rule, especially in a world where, according to (Carroll 2007) ,
historical documentation of the British colonialism have mainly centered on Africa. In the first
chapter, Hayes begins with a detailed account of the British travelers' descriptions of the region
as a place to behold. This quickly evolves to the 'other side of the great Difference' in the second
chapter. It becomes clear that these travelers only described the urbanized region that was
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already under British rule. On the other side extending to the West of the Victorian city, the
situation was mostly different from more densely populated areas and the natives living in what a
British legislator describes as "very much like a rabbit warren."
In explaining the reasons for such a living situation, Hayes gives a glimpse of these
inhabitants' social and economic lives. A male-dominated community of hawkers, artisans, and
shopkeepers who were only happy with this life far from their rural norm. While when James
Stewart Lockhart inspects the region that would become the New Territory, he uncovers a wide
rift between the social and economic differences of the indigenous people of this region and the
rest of the colony. Surprisingly, in his 1898 report, Lockhart proposes that the region's way of
life is maintained even under British rule.
Through the chapters, the author documents the dramatic change into modernization, the
social and economic transitions, as well as the political contours that followed the first, the
British rule and later, the Chinese communists' takeover. Hayes concludes with a strategic
account of convergence. He reveals that though there have been strides made towards bridging
the gap, there are still underlying issues that must be straightened in his view. These long-
standing issues have derailed any efforts for harmony in the new territories between the natives
(descendants of the inhabitants of the new territories long before the lease to Britain) and the
Chinese settlers from the rest of the colony. To further this subject of divergence, the chapter
dips into the contentious matter of land property laws that have been the subject of contention
since the colonial period.
The level of passion with which the author approaches this subject is certainly unrivaled.
I agree with Hayes's sentiments that the governing style of the British colonialists of segregation
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and discrimination is the root of many socio-political problems facing present-day Hong Kong.
The author effectively brings out his argument, painting a vivid picture of ‘the great difference’
by systematically describing, from the onset of the 'New Territories,' the goodness of Hong Kong
that the British colonialists fell in love with and the ugly side that the colonialists abhorred. The
crowdedness and the illnesses that haunted the indigenous populations leading to segregation and
discriminatory laws by the British colonialists who perceived the people living in the territories
as low class humans. The colonialists' style that created a wealthy few so that they could reap
from their compliance.
To make his argument even clearer, Hayes, in the first chapter, illustrates how the people
of the territory valued their 'village culture' with its inevitable presence in every aspect of their
lives, including education and future generations' upbringing. In a twist of things, the subsequent
chapters give harrowing accounts, to say the least, of the removal of villages to pave the way for
better settlement in a compensation scheme that could not be fully proofed. Similarly, the
traditional subsistent rice farming that the people of the territory had practiced for decades ended
during this period in favor of urbanization.
Besides raising the pertinent issues of discriminatory colonial laws and the insistence of
modernization at the expense of the indigenous culture of the people in the territory; Hayes
brings back the discourse of conservative land property practices that have been in existence
since the British colonization and resists to conform to change many years after colonization.
While Hayes does not delve much into the issue, he cites various instances where such unjust
laws have been contested and seemingly leaving this subject open for exploration.
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On the downside, Hayes' book keeps away from discussing 'the handover' as a
contributing factor to the woes that capitalist Hong Kong finds itself . Chu (2010) argues that the
main point of divergence in land property issues in today's Chinese governed Hong Kong arises
from the fact that the people of the new territory continue to observe their age-long land
property laws, which the British colonialist did not change. These laws differ from those of
Inevitably, Hayes' book provided a fascinating account of Hong Kong people's history
and culture and brought out a pertinent point of view that can form a basis for many theses. The
detailed and exciting developments of Hong Kong from the period leading to British rule in the
new territories to the handover gives History lovers something new to binge on while setting a
new agenda for historical researchers to explore.
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Carroll, J. M. (2007). A Concise History of Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University
Chu, C. Y. (2010). Chinese Communists and Hong Kong Capitalists: 1937- 1997. London:
Hayes, J. (2012). The Great Difference: Hong Kong's New Territories and It's People 1898-
2004. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.