Form-Giver, Plague-Surveyor: Building Codes and Plague Knowledge in Colonial Hong Kong
As the Third Plague Pandemic ravaged Hong Kong in 1894, medical experts working on the ground uncovered the bacterial mechanics of plague transmission, thereby nudging scientific consensus toward germ-theory understandings of disease. Swiftly in response, British colonial authorities expanded the city’s initiatives of surveys and inspections, mobilizing governmental building codes and their associated civil servants in the fight against these newly clarified microscopic foes. Rather than consider building codes as lowest common denominators or the least extreme, most minimal requirements for construction, I contend that they charted new—even experimental—interventions during this time of epistemological shift.
Recent art and architectural histories have taken various kinds of pedantic minutia as their objects of study: card catalogues and secretarial ephemera (Çelik Alexander), fire insurance policies (Hunter), and tax documents (Abramson). My focus on building codes in plague-era Hong Kong brings together the interactions between bacteria, fleas, rats, and their encountered humans—inhabitants governed along racialized and classed lines within a colonial society. In their claims to comprehensiveness, too, building codes can reveal their indirect and often ineffective engagement with the communities they purportedly oversaw.