First of all, I greatly enjoyed this classic. Jan Morris is one of the English world's greatest travel writers and this book is a tour de force. It really gives one a sense of what colonial Hong Kong was like for the British, despite the somewhat disjointed approach obliged by its single volume format.
However, as I read the book I grew more and more concerned about its balance and what had been left out. For its first hundred years, Hong Kong basically survived on the opium trade, and what was known as the "pig trade," the trans-shipment of Chinese peasant workers to other areas of the British Empire. I kept waiting to hear about these activities that were so basic to the life of the colony, and its great companies, Jadines, Swires, etc., but Morris hardly touches on them. There was no mention of the "pig trade" at all, and as for opium, it basically revolved around descriptions of beautiful, highly polished, opium clippers racing off to somewhere on the China coast. Such analytical holes automatically bias any balanced analysis of the Hong Kong's history, and tend to confirm that Morris is regarded in many academic circles as "Urban History Lite."
As well, there is her description of Hong Kong's two basic cultures. Morris does a good job of describing the British in the colony with their inherent greed, conceit, and racism. I have studied colonialism in detail here in Canada, and also in the Caribbean, and the variety of racism found in the Far East seems to have been the worst. However, the Chinese which made up 96% of the population, remain throughout the book a mysterious, superstitious mass, stereotyped repeatedly as being cheerful, energetic, and ingenious. There is something suspicious about these repetitions, and my first thought was does Morris speak Chinese. I have always felt that anyone who did not speak the local language should not get involved in writing about the culture. The links are just too vague to get it right.
Finally after all this meandering, Morris makes some pretty strong judgments about Hong Kong's history and the British contribution to it. She feels that Hong Kong was not a parasite as many have characterized it, but rather, gave as much to China as it got. This may be true, but she certainly hasn't proven it with this book. As well, she feels that the British, in spite of their many faults, basically governed the colony well, and ultimately, left Hong Kong honorably, even though they waited till the very last minute, before offering it any form of democratic alternative to their authoritarian rule. This argument also seems terribly weak to me, and rather underlines that the British, right up to the very last minute, were busy feathering their nest with this golden egg.
No this is not the definitive book on Hong Kong, but rather the beginning of the end of a very old, and very self serving British colonial genre. Will the sun every set on this British Empire? Not likely, not for another 1,000 years!