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Book Talk Series

Book talk #16 features Christopher Cowell discussing his latest book, ‘Form Follows Fever: Malaria and the Construction of Hong Kong, 1841–1849‘.

(The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2024)

Book Abstract

Form Follows Fever is the first in-depth account of the turbulent early years of settlement and growth of colonial Hong Kong across the 1840s. During this period, the island gained a terrible reputation as a diseased and deadly location. Malaria, then perceived as a mysterious vapour or miasma, intermittently carried off settlers by the hundreds. Various attempts to arrest its effects acted as a catalyst, reconfiguring both the city’s physical and political landscape, though not necessarily for the better.

Caught in a frenzy to rebuild the city in the devastating aftermath, this book charts the complex interplay between a cast of figures, from military surveyors, naval doctors, Indian sepoys, and corrupt and paranoid officials to opium traders, arsonists, Chinese contractors, and sojourner architects and artists. However, Hong Kong’s ‘construction’ was not just physical but also imagined. Architecture, cartography, epidemiology, and urban infrastructure offer a critical forensic lens through which to examine the shifting ideologies of public health and space, race and place-making, and commerce and politics, all set against the radical alteration of the settlement—from shore-hugging to climbing city—in response to miasma theory, a pre-bacteriological belief in gaseous emanations from a sickly environment.

This kaleidoscopic study draws upon many unpublished textual sources, including medical reports, personal diaries and letters, government records, journal accounts, newspaper articles, and advertisements. As this history is set a decade before the introduction of photography to the colony, the book relies upon a variety of alternate visual evidence—from previously lost watercolour illustrations of the city to maps, plans, and drawings— that individually and in combination provide trace material enabling the reconstruction of this strange and rapidly evolving society. Form Follows Fever sheds new light on a period often considered the colonial Dark Ages in the territory’s history.

Christopher Cowell, London South Bank University

Christopher Cowell received a PhD in architecture (history and theory) from Columbia University. He has taught worldwide, including in Hong Kong, New York, and more recently in Dublin, where he was assistant professor of modern and contemporary architectural history at Trinity College. He now lectures in architectural history and theory at London South Bank University. His longstanding historical research focuses on both southern China and northern India, exploring the entanglement of modernity within European imperialism and its participation in architecture and urbanism.

Cowell’s writing examines the relationship between the practice and theory of architecture against the cultural complexity of colonialism. This intersection draws upon the study of urban militarism, spatial security, hinterland ecologies, cartography, property, climate, disease, and race, among others.

Moderator: Catherine S. Chan, Research Assistant Professor of History at Lingnan University

To obtain a physical copy of the book, please visit the following website:

For in-person attendees, you can enjoy 𝐦𝐨𝐫𝐞 𝐭𝐡𝐚𝐧 𝟐𝟎% 𝐨𝐟𝐟 the book – originally $390, now just $300 at the book talk!

Should you have any questions about this event, please feel free to email us at [email protected].

Book Talk #16 –
Date: July 11, 2024 (Thursday)
Time: 5:00p.m. – 6:30p.m. Hong Kong time
Format: Hybrid
Language: English

Preview of the book talk series:

#16 Form Follows Fever: Malaria and the Construction of Hong Kong, 1841–1849 with Christopher Cowell on July 11, 2024 (Thursday) at 5:00p.m. GMT+8; Hybrid

Past book talks:

#1 Hong Kong Takes Flight: Commercial Aviation and the Making of a Global Hub, 1930s–1998 by John D. Wong (HKU) on October 7, 2022 (Friday) at 5:00p.m. GMT+8; In-person

#2 Hong Kong Visual Culture: The M+ Guide by Tina Pang (M+) on November 4, 2022 (Friday) at 5:00p.m. GMT+8; In-person

#3 英國檔案中的香港前途問題 by Gary Cheung (CityU) on November 18, 2022 (Friday) at 5:00p.m. GMT+8; In-person

#4 Building Colonial Hong Kong: Speculative Development and Segregation in the City by Cecilia L. Chu (HKU) on November 25, 2022 (Friday) at 5:00p.m. GMT+8; Hybrid

#5 Political Censorship in British Hong Kong: Freedom of Expression and the Law (1842–1997) by Michael Ng (HKU) on December 9, 2022 (Friday) at 17:00HKT; Hybrid

#6 Hong Kong Foodways (Hong Kong Matters) by Sidney Cheung (CUHK) on January 13, 2023 (Friday) at 17:00HKT; In-person

#7 New Territories 界 by Justin Hui on February 3, 2023 (Friday) at 9:00p.m. GMT+8; Online

#8 Hilton Cheong-Leen ( 張有興 ): First Chinese ‘Mayor’ of Hong Kong by Gary Cheung & Oliver Chou on April 28, 2023 (Friday) at 5:00p.m. GMT+8; Hybrid

#9 Unsettling Exiles: Chinese Migrants in Hong Kong and the Southern Periphery During the Cold War by Angelina Chin (Pomona College) on 12 May 2023 (Friday) at 1:00p.m. GMT+8; Online

#10 Covert colonialism: Governance, surveillance and political culture in British Hong Kong, c. 1966-97 with Florence Mok (Nanyang Technological University) on September 15, 2023 (Friday) at 5:00p.m. GMT+8; Hybrid

#11 Hongkongers in the British Armed Forces, 1860-1997 with Chi Man Kwong (HKBU) on November 14, 2023 (Tuesday) at 5:00p.m. GMT+8; Hybrid

#12 Accomplice to Memory with Q.M. Zhang on November 17, 2023 (Friday) at 09:00a.m. GMT+8; Online

#13 香江佳城——香港華人古墓兩千年史 with 梁基永 on January 11, 2024 (Thursday) at 5:00p.m. GMT+8; Hybrid

#14 Hong Kong Pop Culture in the 1980s with Chu Yiu-Wai Stephen on April 18, 2024 (Thursday) at 5:00p.m. GMT+8; Hybrid

#15 Multiracial Britishness: Global Networks in Hong Kong, 1910-45 with Vivian Kong on June 19, 2024 (Wednesday) at 5:00p.m. GMT+8; Hybrid

Christopher Cowell
Date & Time
Talk #16 - July 11, 2024 (Thursday) 5:00 - 6:30 pm HKT