By James Fellows and Vivian Kong |

Something a bit different this week, with James and Vivian discussing their similar but opposite PhD trajectories: to and from Hong Kong.

James: Hong Kong is perhaps most well-known as a commercial and financial hub in Asia, and possibly for being Britain’s “last real colony”, so it probably isn’t the first place most people in the UK would consider for doing a PhD in history. As my research deals with both these aspects of Hong Kong history, it actually made it quite a logical choice. In addition to the sources available here, I’ve found it very beneficial to work with other students and academics working on similar topics. Just as importantly however, as someone who hadn’t done much travelling previously, I saw it as a good opportunity to leave my comfort zone whilst still continuing in education.

Vivian: I still sometimes find it unbelievable that I am in the UK, even though my research focuses on the British Empire. Because of my preference for the American curriculum, I had always planned to do my PhD in the US. Alongside several American institutions, the University of Bristol was the only British university that I was interested in. While I intended to apply for PhDs after finishing my MPhil thesis, in my last semester a studentship was established at Bristol focusing on Hong Kong history and I thought, why not give it a try? Not having high expectations, I applied only to Bristol, and luckily I got the studentship! As well as a generous studentship, the program at Bristol also gives me the opportunity to work with a leading scholar with similar research interests. As I knew the exact topic I wanted to work on, it was more sensible to choose a British program, which I can finish within four years. I therefore decided to take up the scholarship and move to a city of which I had little knowledge.

HK2University of Bristol

James: I think I adjusted fairly quickly to life in Hong Kong. In many ways it’s not too different from doing a PhD in the UK, given that the primary language at university level is English, and the PhD model is British (though for undergraduates Lingnan employs a hybrid British-American model which I have yet to decipher). The funding is quite generous and, unlike in the UK, international students are not charged more. In addition to funded research trips back to the UK and to the US, I also received a government grant to hold a conference of my own.

Vivian: With hindsight, I think I made the right decision coming to Bristol, instead of to the US. As James points out, Hong Kong universities adapt British models, which certainly made it easier for me to adjust. The history department at Bristol University has a relatively large graduate community – my supervisor has around ten students focusing on colonialism in China! I’m sure everyone is well aware of how doing a PhD is a very marginal and often lonely experience, and how having such a community with similar research interests really helps keep us sane (hey, this is important!). Research-wise, being in the UK works so much better for my project. As someone whose work relies a great deal on archives in the British archives, I take advantage of Bristol’s proximity to cities like London and Oxford. I can always take spontaneous trips to the National Archives, the Rhodes Library, or the War Memorial Museum, without having to worry about the expenses and time taken for these trips.

James: This is a particularly interesting time to study Hong Kong history. Since my arrival, the student protests and occupy movements made international news. Many young Hong Kongers in particular seem pessimistic about its future in the face of an apparent erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and its civil freedoms – the widely reported disappearance of another worker from a bookshop known to sell works banned in mainland China is only the latest example. Though I’m not sure it would influence my decision whether to remain in Hong Kong just yet (if the opportunity were to arise of course), it’s certainly a far from reassuring omen about Hong Kong’s political and social future.

HK3A bus covered in protest messages during Hong Kong’s occupy movement

Vivian: Recent controversies at HKU, where I did my BA and MPhil, makes me appreciate the freedom I enjoy being in a British university. If the unapproved censorship of his political remarks in my MPhil supervisor’s translated book had not made me worry about academic freedom in Hong Kong, the recent controversy of the HKU Council certainly did. The Council’s unwillingness to appoint Prof. Johannes Chan as the Pro-Vice Chancellor – despite the selection committee’s unanimous recommendation of Chan for the post –had aroused fear for the academic freedom in Hong Kong. Rumors had it that it was a consequence of Chan’s support of the Occupy Central Movement. The political pressure faced by the University’s Vice Chancellor Prof. Peter Mathieson – which I now read about from the campus where he used to work – makes me realise how lucky I am to study in a university that is free from political pressures.

James: Hong Kong is a fantastic city to live in: its infrastructure, food, the cityscape and its surprisingly green fringes all make it a great place to live, as does the opportunity to travel to mainland China or elsewhere in Asia fairly easily. On the downside, Hong Kong is not cheap. Rent in particular is sky-high so I have opted for university-owned student accommodation, which is not ideal. Until there’s a Hong Kong equivalent of Wetherspoons, going out for a beer is also rarely cheap (unless you buy it from a shop and drink it in the street – a privilege not granted to the public in the UK).

HK4Hong Kong is surprisingly rural in places

Vivian: Much to everyone’s (including my own) surprise, my adjustment to living in Bristol was fairly smooth. Having good friends – of course including James – from England to give me advice on where to live, how to travel, which grocery stores to shop at, and what to bring from Hong Kong certainly helped. I am very lucky that I moved to Bristol, a beautiful city that is also fun, convenient and quite affordable with cultural events going on every weekend. Apart from my family, friends and the food, I have yet to miss Hong Kong.

Nevertheless, being an international student in the UK can sometimes be tricky. Getting and renewing visas remain a constant source of frustration and expense (£300 just to apply for the visa!). The government’s tighter immigration policy is likely to make the whole process more troublesome. While I appreciate the UK is a diverse country that generally welcomes people from different cultures, I sometimes receive comments and questions that can be rather bizarre and culturally insensitive. These can make studying abroad a stressful experience. Luckily, all the amazing West Country cider helps me relieve all this stress.

James Fellows is a third-year PhD student at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. He has a forthcoming article in Historical Research titled ‘Colonial autonomy and Cold War diplomacy: Hong Kong and the case of Anthony Grey, 1967–9’. Vivian Kong just started her PhD at the University of Bristol in September 2015. On her blog she shares the findings of her MPhil research on the evacuation of British families from Hong Kong to Australia before WWII, and in the future, her PhD research on the British community in pre-war Hong Kong.

(Cover image and Images 2 and 3 (c) James Fellows, Image 1 (c)