Research Overview

History is a permanent debate. [. . .] Historians, like everyone else, are prisoners of their own experience. Their priorities are shaped by the pressures of their time. Each new generation of historians has its distinctive preoccupations in the present, and, consequently, its distinctive demands on the past. The result is chronic fluctuation in historical verdicts.
— Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Foreword to the 2002 Edition of Thousand Days

“Scholars in the United States have been too absorbed with examining every wrinkled brow of mainland Chinese leaders,” the late Georgetown historian Nancy Bernkopf Tucker lamented back in 1994, “to pay adequate attention to developments affecting the interests of the United States in Hong Kong.” Save a handful of sporadic monographs that had appeared since then, Tucker’s two-decade-old observation remained all in all just as accurate when I initially decided as an N.Y.U. student in 2014 to write about the history of my hometown: It was always told as a mere footnote to the more important tale, which was either about sunset on the British Empire, the triumph of Chinese territorial ambitions, or East Asia’s postwar economic miracle. It was in hopes of filling this crucial void in the historical literature that inspired me to embark on all three of my major research projects so far, taking me from New York to Toronto and onward to Georgetown.

Hong Kong is the place I love most. As an entrepôt that morphed into an international financial hub, a center of cultural and knowledge production, and the “Berlin of the East” bridging China and the world, it’s also an intellectually stimulating place to study. I’ve never viewed it as a self-contained colonial or postcolonial entity. Much of my research, therefore, is about tackling two interrelated questions: How have transnational networks of people, capital, and culture, of which Hong Kong has been an indispensable part, operated across Asia and the world? Beyond the irresistible Chinese influence on its historical trajectory, how has Hong Kong — too often in China’s shadow like Macau, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet, Manchuria, and Mongolia — been an independent actor in shaping regional and global currents across the long sweep of history?

My multinational archival work has taken me to invaluable collections around the world. The Central Library, the Basic Law Library, and the Public Records Building are the primary sites of research in Hong Kong. On top of that, I’ve benefited enormously from files stored in the British National Archives on the outskirts of London, the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Md., both the Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon Presidential Libraries and Museums in Greater Los Angeles, the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library’s United Nations and International Documents Collection at my alma mater, New York University, as well as the Richard Charles Lee Canada-Hong Kong Library at the University of Toronto, where I’m based in the 2017–18 academic year. In the near future, I hope to be doing primary research in Vietnamese, which I’ve recently begun learning, for my latest project on Hong Kong-Vietnam relations. Untapped documents in Geneva, Ottawa, and Paris are also next on my list.