Breathing as Politics and Generational Transmission: Respiratory Legacies of War, Empire and Chinese Patriarchy in Colonial Hong Kong

In: Public Anthropologist
Nichola Khan , Reader in Anthropology and Psychology, Director of Centre for Research in Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics, University of Brighton, England, United Kingdom,

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The article draws on biographical, autoethnographic and experimental forms of writing in order to reflect on the intergenerational transmission of war and displacement in the late colonial period of British rule in Hong Kong, and Japanese occupation. Intimate histories across three generations reveal experiences typically neglected by customary Chinese or colonial readings of the period. Specifically, the article privileges breathing as a site for analysing the interplay between body and home, dwelling and displacement, and the corporeal and psychic transmission of Chinese patriarchy and Anglo-Chinese intra-familial relations. It links the body as a dwelling for assaults on the ability to breathe—through tuberculosis, opium smoking, asthma and panic—with the physical home that is, in turn, assaulted by bombs, killing, intimate betrayals and fatal illness. Aptly, the Covid-19 “pandemic of breathlessness,” during which the research was conducted, serves as a mnemonic for the reprisal of fears of suffocation and dying.

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