Form Follows Fever: Malaria and the Construction of Hong Kong, 1841–1849 (Introduction)


Cowell, C. (2024). Form Follows Fever: Malaria and the Construction of Hong Kong, 1841–1849 (Introduction). Hong Kong Chinese University of Hong Kong Press.
AuthorsCowell, C.

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 re-build the city in the devastating aftermath, the 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 placemaking, 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This kaleidoscopic study draws upon many unpublished textual sources, including medical reports, personal diaries and letters, government records, journal accounts, newspaper articles, and advertisements.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.

KeywordsArchitecture, Urbanism, Malaria, Disease, Colonialism, Military, Medical, Cartography, China, Hong Kong
PublisherChinese University of Hong Kong Press
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Publication dates
PrintMar 2024
Publication process dates
AcceptedJul 2022
Deposited05 Jun 2024
Place of publicationHong Kong
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Additional information

Received permission from publisher to share via institutional repository

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