Jun 28, 2012|
Before the handover, Hong Kong residents were engulfed in fear about the future. Would the values of their city, the ones distinct from those of mainland China, be lost forever? Fifteen years later, the answer is no—but changes are afoot as Hong Kong’s demographics evolve, and with it its collective identity.
A unique Hong Kong identity separate from that of the mainland has remained intact, affirms Gordon Mathews, an anthropologist and professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Ninety-four percent of people in Hong Kong are ethnic Chinese,” Mathews says. “But the most unique thing about Hongkongers is that people in Hong Kong don’t feel a love for [China]. Twenty to 25 percent of Hongkongers do, but the majority of Hongkongers don’t. They might say ‘I love China, but I love the people and not the country.’”
This powerful, deep-seated sense of difference has only heightened given the various tensions of late between Hongkongers and mainland Chinese—from spats about Dolce & Gabbana window display photo-taking to mothers giving birth here. Some of these issues have resulted in overt protests, Mathews says, driving home one sentiment: “We are Chinese, but not like the Chinese across the border.”
Curiously, though, during some special times—like the 2008 Olympics in Beijing—larger proportions of Hong Kong people identified themselves as Chinese. These trends are reflected in the University of Hong Kong's polls on Hong Kong identity, which have been conducted annually since 1997. Dubbing it “situational patriotism,” Mathews explains: “People said that we are Chinese when China won a lot of gold medals. But when the melamine milk scandals hit, people said that we are Hongkongers and not Chinese. It is very opportunist and pragmatic.”
Fearing the handover, in the 1980s and 90s hundreds of thousands of people emigrated to other countries. Today, it is estimated that about 500,000 of those émigrés have returned. According to Nan M. Sussman, a professor and psychologist from the City University of New York who, after 50 in-depth interviews, has written a book about these so-called boomerangs, most returnees have “additive identities.” That means they don’t abandon or lose their identities as Hongkongers after they move away, but rather add a new one from their new country of residence. And when they return, they have to juggle two separate senses of self and value sets—it’s only natural that they start to mesh.
“People [returning to Hong Kong] are bringing western ideas back with them. It is no doubt going to influence Hong Kong society,” says Sussman. “Some of the respondents [I interviewed] said that they are more environmentally conscious… Some respondents said that they are more politically active. They attended a June 4 [Tiananmen Square] rally or a July 1 [protest] rally.”
Besides the boomerangs, over the last 15 years, new groups of people—children born to mainland parents and university students from the mainland who decide to stay on after graduation—have become eligible for Hong Kong identity cards. As is evident from the four Hongkongers we've profiled, first-generation Hongkongers, mainland-born graduates working their way towards permanent resident status and returnees all have different conceptions of themselves in relation to this special SAR—a tangible sense of belonging, or not belonging—and they’re on track to change what it means to be a Hongkonger today.
The flow of people across the Hong Kong-China border has been a constant for decades, and Mathews sees no reason to worry about its continuation. But he thinks Hong Kong should welcome the mainland students (like Zeng Jilin, p.13) who stay on. “They need to learn Cantonese. They need to be able to fit in. But often these kids are the best and brightest,” says Mathews. The key to Hong Kong’s success is openness to talent from all over the world—and that includes our mainland counterparts—even if the risk is that our culture will continue to shift, adjust and make room for these newcomers. After all, what is Hong Kong's identity if not one that is open to change?
HKSAR Establishment Day. Attending the July 1 protest march, which is predicted to be one of the biggest demonstrations yet? Read our web special for what to expect.
This year is my seventh in Hong Kong, and I will apply for permanent residency. But it doesn’t mean that I identify myself as a Hongkonger.
I am from Beijing, and I didn’t plan to move to Hong Kong in the beginning. In 2005, I took the college entrance exam and my results exceeded expectations. Before the exams, I didn’t pick the top schools [you pick schools before you know your scores] and my parents and I thought that it might be a waste to just go to an average school on the mainland. At that time, Hong Kong’s universities weren’t so popular among mainland students. If I applied today, the school would probably reject me.
I graduated two years ago, and I didn’t think of returning to Beijing at that time. I wanted to get a job in Hong Kong. I had already studied here for five years and there were only two more years to go for me to be eligible for permanent residency. Hong Kong passports are a lot more convenient because holders don’t need to apply for visas in a lot of countries—unlike if you hold a Chinese passport.
I go back to Beijing twice a year. I like Beijing a lot, but I wonder if I could live there again. I wouldn’t say that I am from anywhere else, but living there is another matter. In late May, I went back to Beijing and a taxi driver asked me if I came from somewhere else. I don't know exactly why the driver thought I was a foreigner… perhaps now I am a bit different from other Beijing people.
Some mainland students get used to life here and that’s why they do not go back home. I am getting used to some Hong Kong ways, too. I have zero interest in politics. But if I live on the mainland, I can’t get access to some information. You can’t surf foreign websites without a VPN [to circumvent the Chinese internet censors]. I am also getting used to the convenience of Hong Kong. For example, people queue up in the MTR. Back in Beijing, you have to yell at people every time you board the train. It’s very frustrating.
Hong Kong is more international. Say you keep a western diet. If you want to buy good cheese in Beijing, either you cannot find it or it’s very expensive. Hong Kong offers a variety of things from different countries. Let’s say you want to buy beer in a supermarket. You can find one or two beers from every country. It may not be the one you want—but still, it’s there.
The other thing is ambience. I think Beijing has more culture; Hong Kong is famous for the financial industry and business. Every Hongkonger is different, but I think that a higher proportion of people are very money-minded, and other things matter little to them. People often describe Hong Kong as a “cultural desert.” That definitely contains some truth. It is a stereotype that mainland students are hard-working and ambitious. On the mainland, the college entrance exams are so tough that students get used to working very hard. But after some come to Hong Kong to study, they lose their motivation because they were under too much pressure before. Every year, a few mainland students get kicked out of universities in Hong Kong.
Hongkongers don’t understand mainlanders very well. Personally, I have never experienced any discrimination. But some of my friends were scolded by some random people in Central just because they were speaking in Mandarin.
I understand why Hongkongers are unhappy with mainlanders. If I were from Hong Kong, I would be angry, too. How mothers fight for maternity beds and stuff… But Hongkongers should still not take out their anger on mainlanders. They should hold policymakers accountable because they allow such loopholes in the first place. If you blame someone because they speak Mandarin, it’s just pointless and stupid!
After getting a Hong Kong ID, I have to give up my hukou [permanent residency] in Beijing. According to papers and documents, I will be a Hongkonger. But I won't say that I am a Hongkonger—I will say that I am from Beijing but based in Hong Kong. There are also many possibilities… I may stay in Hong Kong, I may move to other cities or I may even go back to Beijing. Who knows about the future?
My parents are from Qingyuan, a town in Guangdong province. Sixteen years ago, my mother was pregnant with me. Since they had already had my sister, they would breach the one-child policy. At that time, if officers found out that women were having second babies, they would force them to have an abortion.
My parents didn’t want to lose me, so they made a risky decision—my mother would go to Hong Kong to give birth. Then, she brought me back home to Qingyuan.
My carefree days didn’t last long. In 2005, my father [a driver] got into a car crash. He lost a leg. We lost our source of income and since then, we have been living off our savings and loans from relatives and friends.
About a year ago, my mom and dad were having a conversation late at night. I was lying in my bed, but I heard every word. They were talking about taking me to Hong Kong because they could not afford to pay my high school tuition. Because I was born in Hong Kong, I don’t have a hukou [residency permit], so I am not entitled to social services from the government. It was a moment of shock: I only then realized I didn’t really belong in Qingyuan. In September 2011, I arrived in Hong Kong. I didn’t know anyone. I knew nothing about the city. I had returned to the land where I was supposed to belong.
I have to study in Form 2 [a 16-year-old should be in Form 4] because of differences in curriculum. My academic performance is good, but English is difficult. From Monday to Friday, I go to school and work extra hard to catch up. On weekends, I work as delivery boy at a cha chaan teng in Kowloon Bay.
Before moving to Hong Kong, I liked the city very much. But after settling down here, I feel differently. It’s truly a bustling place. But the busier the city is, the lonelier I feel. I can’t share my burdens or worries with anyone. I am not saying my classmates here don’t treat me well, but it seems that there is always a huge gap between us. They talk about the latest games, the latest gadgets—things that I know nothing about and cannot afford to buy.
I live in a partitioned room in Sham Shui Po. The space is small, and it feels suffocating [his mom and dad take turns living with him and his sister back in China]. But I don’t want people to look at me with sympathy. I don’t feel ashamed of being born into a poor family, nor do I envy others. I believe I will have a bright future if I work hard.
[Hong Kong's] public services are very reliable—and I once saw ambulances arrive in five minutes to provide medical care to an injured person. Sometimes I wonder: if my dad had had his crash in Hong Kong, would he still have lost his leg?
I understand why some Hongkongers are enraged by the influx of mainland mothers. They fear that these children will compete with the locals for public resources for housing, education and medical care. But I want people to know that there are some parents—like mine—who only come to Hong Kong to give birth to children because they have no choice.
I automatically got an identity card. But I don’t think a document is enough to prove that I am a true Hongkonger. I will make an effort to familiarize myself with local affairs and be open-minded. I will repay my debts to Hong Kong with hard work. Time will tell if I will succeed.
I was born and bred in Hong Kong. In 1986, I went to Toronto to study for a computer science degree. I obtained residency there. I left Toronto in 1993, and during the handover, I was working in Singapore.
I didn’t find it difficult to adapt to life in Canada. I played baseball and ice hockey;
it’s a lot of fun. I thought of settling in Toronto and I liked it there, but I am interested in business. Canada is a very stable market. The government always says that Hong Kong is a vibrant city—and it’s true, Hong Kong really is the happening place for business, with plenty of opportunities.
I wasn’t very worried about 1997 back then. Why should we be afraid? I felt happy with the handover because we finally knew what to fill [in on forms] for nationality. I always traveled because of work, and before 1997, we couldn’t say that we were British because Hong Kong was just a colony. We finally got a nationality and wrote "Chinese" down. I have two passports now—one HKSAR and one Canadian—and I use them under different circumstances. Recently, I went to Mongolia on a business trip. You'll be surprised to hear that a Canadian passport holder needs to apply for a visa while a HKSAR passport holder doesn’t! Before the handover, a Canadian passport was very convenient. If you had a BNO [British National Overseas] passport, [immigration] officers would ask a lot of questions, fearing that you would stay [in their country illegally]. Things are different now.
I identify myself as Chinese. There is nothing special about Hongkongers. Just like the Shanghainese or Beijingers, we feel proud of ourselves. It’s just a way to distinguish which city you are from. From a business point of view, Hong Kong is a top-tier city, just like Shanghai and Beijing. Politically, Hong Kong is unique because there is no rampant corruption and the transparency is higher.
Fifteen years have passed since the handover, but things are worsening. The economic climate isn’t good; the elderly don’t have money for medical care; small-class teaching isn’t implemented in schools. In the colonial days, the Hong Kong government didn’t have freedom in policymaking; it was only good at execution. Government officials are still learning to design and implement policies. The same goes for the lawmakers—what have they done in the past 15 years?
Hong Kong is always filled with this fear of losing to other cities. In the past, we were compared with Singapore. Now it’s Beijing and Shanghai. Do people understand what’s happening in other cities? It’s a fact that Hong Kong has been already bypassed by these other cities. People should wake up to this fact and work harder to catch up.
I no longer feel proud to be a Hongkonger. Fifteen years ago, or even 25 years ago, everyone was very driven and worked hard. But now, instead of counting on themselves [to improve things], people now blame everything on the government. They lose their drive and motivation. The spirit of Hong Kong has long been lost.
My family emigrated to Canada in 1989. I was young when I left, but I do remember we marched in the streets for Tiananmen Square. Our whole family went out, even my little brother, who was three at that time. Even back in Canada, we would go out every June and be a part of the remembrance.
Growing up, I still felt attached to Hong Kong. I have family here, and I came back to visit every year. We watched TVB soap operas at home, and I speak Cantonese. In 2007, I came back [with] a three-month contract. What I didn’t expect was that the stay would turn out to last five years.
Hong Kong is surreal. People are dealing with a lot of money, lights and sounds; it’s easy to lose yourself. Many people I know here who are expats don’t even own Octopus cards. Many of them are young and have access to status and money that you otherwise wouldn’t in America or Europe. They start losing their sense of responsibility to society and their sense of accountability even to themselves.
Hong Kong is a very transient city. People used to think of Hong Kong in two- or three-year terms. They didn’t think Hong Kong was theirs. Because of the global job situation and opportunities in Asia, people are staying longer. We are western-educated; we are brought up with a sense of community and a sense of commitment.
I live in SoHo and I go to the gym at six o’clock in the morning. [At that time of day, there's] just a bunch of elderly women selling trash to people who can’t afford to buy things in a store. When business is up and running, these women are gone. This is the reality. I don’t just see LKF. I see Hong Kong for what it’s worth. I volunteer. It opens your eyes when, once a month, you see someone who lives in a cage. I am not saying I am doing a lot. I live my life. I spend money. But people should have a stronger sense of responsibility.
I wish we could be involved in the voting process and request more from our government. What has gone on in the government over the last six months is unacceptable; it’s a comedy show!
It’s actually ironic—my parents tried so hard to move us out of Hong Kong, but now I have come back to the city. It wasn’t easy for them to emigrate in the 1980s. My dad and mom moved to a foreign country where they had no friends and did not know the language.
Hong Kong is home for now and I am not leaving in the near future. I have thought about raising children in Hong Kong, but who would have children in a city where air pollution is so bad? The government has a lot of money, but it has turned a blind eye to all these environmental issues.
I am worried that I wouldn’t be able to provide a good level of education for my children. I feel that the school system in Hong Kong doesn't create individuals with critical thinking, leadership skills or even life survival skills.
Of course I identify myself as a Hongkonger. I have a Hong Kong identity card. But I am also Canadian, North American and Chinese. In Canada, I emphasize the fact that I am Chinese. In Hong Kong, I tell people I am also North American. All these identities co-exist. It’s just the way it’s perceived, depending on where I am. But I would find it hard to go to another city now that I am embedded here. If I leave now, I would feel like I haven’t made the changes I want to in this city.