Research

The "Glocality" of "Local" History

For some years, Professor CHING May-bo's various lines of research have been focusing on one major question: in what way have the daily lives of people in South China been affected by the global transformations that took place between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries. Here, "South China" is selected because of its unique position as part of "Lingnan" (the south of the mountains) and of "Nanhai" (South Seas). Moreover, South China extends from the southernmost part of China to the northernmost tip of "Nanyang" (lit., "South Ocean", i.e., Southeast Asia), and is the interlocking point between China and the West and between the "north" and the "south" in a transnational sense. It is against such a temporal-spatial framework that Professor Ching's studies of more specific subjects have been conducted. This problématique is an extension of the themes in her first Chinese book, entitled Regional Culture and National Identity: The shaping of the notion of "Guangdong Culture" since the late Qing, which discusses how the literati from Guangdong defined their regional identity, and how such narratives changed at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when the Chinese empire was being replaced by a Chinese Republic. Professor Ching argues that, paradoxically, expressions of regional identity in China have always been concurrent with expressions of national identity. Her book also challenges the essentialist definition of regional cultures and suggests that any definition should be considered part of a historical process that requires critical examination.

Professor Ching was not content with her first book when it was published. She realised that studying "narratives" always implies merely studying the literate and that studying "local" cultures is bound to be linked to the "national". Reflecting on her daily experiences, she began to understand that although people's expressions of local identity are often associated with their everyday lifestyles and sensual preferences, which they find to be "of their own", their activities and identities are always transregional and transnational. Hence, she began to focus on the daily lives of her historical subjects. She asked what they liked to eat, to watch and to listen to, and how and under what circumstances they were involved in the creation of such preferences and senses of identity. Using a more fashionable term, one may refer to these topics as studies of "material culture". Professor Ching realised that to better appreciate the changes in people's material and sensual lives, she needed to situate the local against the wider context of global transformation. She now understands that once she follows the tracks of the people she studies, the regionally bound and essentialised definitions of "local cultures" will be subject to scrutiny. Moreover, she is also trying her best to determine in what way the illiterate may have been involved in such a process,by making use of a variety of source materials such as visual and audio records along with written texts.

In recent years, Professor Ching has followed this problématique in writing a series of research articles on subject matters that have a more material, physical and sensual nature, that is, sounds, colours and tastes. She hopes that she can ultimately derive an analytical framework for tackling her question on the basis of evidential research. Her latest published article, entitled "The Flow of Turtle Soup from the Caribbean via Europe to Canton, and Its Modern American Fate", (Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1) is one such example. Tracing a transnational history of turtle soup through the flow of species, tastes, culinary techniques and food technologies across three continents over more than three centuries, she wants to show her readers, especially young people, that history as a discipline can be fun, that studies of so-called "local history", including that of Hong Kong, have to be contextualised against a wider temporal-spatial setting and that everywhere in the present one can find the presence of history and its consequences.