China's often forgotten SAR

When I was in Hong Kong a year ago, there was a great art exhibit called "Made in Hong Kong." The introduction began by debunking a common assumption: "Made in Hong Kong" always refers to Hong Kong's important economic status as a deep water port and the center of production for the Pearl River Delta, but is often considered a "cultural wasteland." Still today, I hear many people (often from the mainland) refer to Hong Kong as a cultural wasteland. The preface to this exhibit claimed that this assumption is false, and that in many ways, Hong Kong is a very unique place with a very unique local culture. It is Asia's most "international city" but in some ways is "more Chinese" than mainland China itself since it managed to escape the Communists' assault on all things traditional. The exhibit included sculptures, paintings, photos, and installation art inspired by living in Hong Kong. This included sculptures of all the people one would meet on the subway (including children with backpacks with Japanese characters, or the stereotypical salesman going to and from Shenzhen with the giant red plaid bags), photos of people who still live in those 10 square meter apartments, and traditional Chinese paintings about local Hong Kong news, such as the alligator swimming about the pearl river that no foreigner could catch. My personal favorite was a series of paintings in which the author had copied scenes from movies that he thought represented Hong Kong culture; one scene he painted was a Jackie Chan movie where a bunch of men were playing cards, and the subtitles read "all I know is that I have six passports."

For the past few years, ever since I lived in Hong Kong, I have always been fascinated with Hong Kong identity, especially in relation to mainland China. I've read a few books and articles, but more than anything, I've made my own observations about how Hong Kongers see themselves based upon conversations with locals. I once read a theory (I can't remember where) that Hong Kong is a unique place because they "missed out" on nationalism; while the rest of the world was solidifying their own national identity, Hong Kong was solidifying its place in the global market. This is where Hong Kong remains today: the center of the market but outside the world of national politics. Yet there is more to Hong Kong identity than just its place in the world economy. A recent speech I heard in Hong Kong at a conference addressed this issue. The speaker, a local Hong Konger, asserted that Hong Kong became what it was because of the failure of the mainland in the past half century, and therefore their own sense of identity is centered around how they are not like mainland China (mainland China is the "other" if you will). We can even see this in the way that Hong Kong people approach public health: we don't want another SARS scare like we saw in the 1990s due to the failure of the Communist government. I was actually surprised at the blunt way the speaker called the mainland "backwards" multiple times throughout the speech as he made distinctions between the mainland and Hong Kong.

The next day at the conference, however, we set off for Macao. While its gambling institutions have made it world famous, still oftentimes we forget about Macao, lost in Hong Kong's shadow. At the conference, we were given a "crash course" about Macao's history, economics and politics. One of the presenting professors said, in passing, that Macao has often had closer ties with the mainland, both culturally and politically, than Hong Kong had ever been. In a private conversation afterward, the professor elaborated on this point. He explained that because of Hong Kong and Macao's diverging history, their relative connection to the mainland has manifested quite differently. While Hong Kong had their great migration from the mainland in the 1960s, mostly people escaping the Cultural Revolution, Macao didn't see its large Mainland migration until the 1980s, thus making Macao's new immigrant population much closer to the mainland. And furthermore, since these immigrants were not escaping political persecution, they did not have the same desire to stay as removed as possible from politics like those escaping to Hong Kong in the 1960s.

Another reason for these digressing trajectories is their relative colonial histories. Both were European colonies well into the end of the 20th century, some of the last territories to gain their independence from Europe. However, while Britain took a very large interest in the general welfare of Hong Kong (such as health care and education) especially throughout the last half century, political turmoil in Portugal left Macao largely forgotten. Hong Kong found their identity in their own burgeoning economy and status as a world economic hub, Macao had to find their own way without the help of their colonizer, and naturally they looked to the mainland.

Obviously, this is an incredibly short and inchoate explanation as to why Hong Kong stays politically alienated (purposefully so) from the mainland, embracing their national identity only when it is positive for them (for example: "Oh we are so proud of being Chinese during the Olympics" but "Oh that habit is so dirty, must be those mainlanders) and why those in Macao seem to feel a closer tie to their now "nation." But as the 2003 protests show (and various conversations with local Hong Kongers) Hong Kong people are quite opinionated when it comes to fear of political domination from their neighbor. I think this would be a fascinating topic to address. Perhaps a comparison would be too ambitious, but a deep analysis of the history of the relations of Hong Kong, Macao, and mainland China throughout the last half of the 20th century could tell a lot about their populations today. I have always wanted to explore Hong Kong identity, as I find it a unique place due to its economic development but loss of national identity. But the truth is, Hong Kong is not unique, as Macao followed a similar history. If I don't get the chance to explore these ideas, someone should.

1 comment:

  1. I was absolutely not surprised that the HK speaker spoke lowly of the mainland and mainlanders, which represents a general and persistent views of the majority of HK people. For more than a century, they have always been the others of HK people. On the one hand, we are Chinese, in some way more Chinese; on the other, we are not quite Chinese, and some are even proud of being illiterate in Chinese (definitely not native in any other languages). You may call these people unspoken self-claimed Upper Chinese but not many people might agree. They prefer Hong Kongers. After all, HK is just a floating conception (more or less like a hugh 'but packed' shopping mall, see below), HKers even worse, flexible to the extreme.

    After the SARS, tens of millions of mainlanders have been travelling to HK. They have been consistently described as shoppers, super rich shopaholics, to the extent that they have largely outnumbered wealthy locals and expats to be pure shopping kings and queens. Shop assistants nowadays speak better Mandarin than Cantonese. (What a joke!) Furthermore, they are never considered to appreciate the hybrid cultures and colonial landscape in the same way we do. In fact, the majority of HKers traveling aboard are also crazy shoppers looking for designer brands and bargains. The way we look down on mainlanders is in par with the way Parisians see us.

    Indeed, mainlanders have boosted the post-SARS economy. But since mainlanders are still regarded as shoppers and nothing more, thanks to the media, and behave almost exactly the same as we expected (littering and spitting) and we see uncivilized 'others', no wonder the speaker used 'backward' to describe the mainland and mainlanders. It is equally important to point out that HKers travelled to the mainland to buy cheap / pirated stuff but mainlanders came to bought up LV and Chanel. By and large, HK is a hugh shopping mall. People come and go in every single min.

    HKers have been benefited from cheap food and water from the mainland (expensive as in the mainland but a lot cheaper compared to import food). In other words, it seems to me that HKers refuse to acknowledge the fact that we are brought up by Britain, but we are fed up by Mainland. These are the problems of HKers. Yes, I am a genuine HKer.