Focus on Student Research-Ryan Cheuk Him Sun

Getting to know Hong Kong through History- Ryan Cheuk Him Sun’s Journey in graduate research in UBC’s History Department



For Ryan Cheuk Him Sun, studying history has always had a personal connection. Ryan was born in Hong Kong but grew up in Toronto for most of his life, so he felt unfamiliar with the city where his family held roots. Ryan felt the pull to learn more about his city of birth, and explore untold stories of the city as a way to connect to his culture. Ryan credits his masters work through UBC’s History Department for giving him the opportunity and support to get to know Hong Kong on a deeper level.

Prior to coming to UBC, Ryan completed an Honours Bachelors of Arts Degree in History at the University of Toronto, with a minor in English and German. Ryan was actually quite interested in German history throughout his degree, referencing Doris Bergen’s two Holocaust history courses as his favorite classes during his undergraduate degree. On a summer trip to Hong Kong an interesting question popped into his brain. Did Jewish refugees create a community in Hong Kong during the period of Nazi rise to power? He knew that there had been a small population of Jewish refugees living in Shanghai during this time, so he wondered if the same had happened in Hong Kong.

Ryan found there was, in fact, a little-known Jewish community in Hong Kong and this has inspired his Masters of Arts thesis work at UBC. Ryan started his MA in History at UBC in 2017, and his thesis focuses on Jewish refugees in Hong Kong from 1937 to 1941 and how different communities in Hong Kong viewed their presence in the city. Leo Shin, a cultural historian of China and also the founder of the Hong Kong Initiative at UBC, and Richard Menkis, a professor in Modern Jewish History, are Ryan’s supervisors in the Faculty of History, both bringing valuable support and different cultural angles.

It was Leo Shin who encouraged Ryan in the early stages of his graduate work to take on a side project outside his thesis,with funding from the Public History Initiative. This project would give Ryan the opportunity to learn more about Hong Kong visually. Ryan utilized two collections of photos of Hong Kong from the 1950s and 1960s and his goal was to plot the locations of the photos on Google Maps in order to understand how Hong Kong had grown and changed in 50 years. Ryan was able to locate 46 of the 300 pictures on google maps after analysing each photo for identifiable features such as iconic buildings, street signs and unique infrastructure. Ultimately, Ryan found that Hong Kong has changed rapidly in some ways such as photos taken from the harbour front and the area around it are now filled in with buildings and roads, but that the general layout of the city remains the same from the 1950s.

Another interesting outcome of the Hong Kong in Photographs: Mapping Daily Life in the 1950s and 1960s project was learning about Lawrence Kadoorie, one of the photographers of the photos.  Kadoorie was responsible for half of the photos used by Ryan for this project—photos which are part of the Lord Kadoorie Collection and are housed at the Hong Kong Heritage Project in Hong Kong. Kadoorie enjoyed photography as a hobby and Ryan noted that many of the photos appeared to be taken quite spontaneously. In addition, Kadoorie’s presence in Hong Kong plays an interesting role in Ryan’s thesis work. Kadoorie was a respected Jewish businessman and philanthropist, and had an active role in both the local Jewish and British communities.  Kadoorie came to the aid of Jewish refugees by helping them find work and places to live during the period when they began to arrive in, and transit through, Hong Kong before and after the Second World War (1937-1941;1946-1949) — there are even a few photos of Jewish refugees found in his collection of photos. “One really exciting thing I have found when presenting my research is that people seem to know Lawrence Kadoorie in the Vancouver Jewish Community. He is well known in Israel,” says Ryan. “I have had a few people tell me they knew him personally, that he helped fund a school or that they were employed by him at some point.”

Ryan’s journey in graduate school has been exciting, tying many interests together, including satisfying his initial curiosity about Hong Kong, Jewish History and even photography. Ryan continues to enjoy life on campus and working alongside 13 other supportive students in his history graduate cohort.  He is now puzzling the pieces of his thesis together and is hoping to complete it in 2019. Ryan suggests that other students interested in graduate studies do their research and find supervisors with similar historical interests, but of utmost importance is to keep an open mind in the research process and never be afraid to explore different angles of the story.

To learn more about Ryan's Hong Kong in Photographs project, visit his blog: