Hong Kong 香港
It’s taken me over a decade to focus on my birthplace.
I used to come to Hong Kong every couple of years, back when my grandparents were still alive. Being a rather lazy and petulant kid, I was pretty much dragged kicking and screaming every time, and never really enjoyed the many trips. Outside of seeing family, every trip seemed to involve spending weeks staying at a hotel next to a mall. The few times we left the confines of one of the seemingly thousands of shopping malls never really left an impression on me, and as a result, I never got to know the city or how to get around short of hopping into a taxi and magically teleporting to wherever my family needed to be.
The last time I was in Hong Kong was for a mere eight-hour layover, which I greatly enjoyed — spending it with my good friend Jacqueline, who took me around the city for the first time without it being a family obligation. That was five years ago. The last real time I spent any significant amount of time in the city was 14 years ago.
It’s a strange feeling being here. I look like everyone else, I speak Cantonese like everyone else (although with a pretty noticeable accent and diction of a non-native), I have plenty of extended family that I’m seeing, the food is comprised of many of my favourite dishes, I know the culture since it’s what I grew up with in Vancouver’s large Hong Konger community, and yet… This is my homeland, but it’s not home.
Rather, wandering around seeing the in-your-face neon signs, the crowded masses and crush of both dilapidated and gleaming high rises all consequences of Hong Kong’s status as one of the most densely populated places in the world; taking the 99.9% on-time (this is a statistical fact!) and fully automated MTR all over the city, riding the only remaining double-decker trams in the world with glee rather than traffic-induced frustration, and seeing the breathtaking skyline at night confirms the truth: I’m a tourist in this city.
The way I’m experiencing Hong Kong is definitely unlike my regular travelling style or the namesake of this blog. For one thing, I’m joined by my family for these few weeks and staying in a nice hotel. But I’m visiting a variety of friends and family and everyone in between, and likewise, the less well-off and the more well-off and everything in between: for every meal of street food I’m having with someone, I’m having a multi-Michelin starred-restaurant meal the next. For every minibus or rush-hour train ride I’m taking, I’m being shuttled by a private driver or a taxi. It’s quite schizophrenic, but I appreciate being able to see and appreciate how Hong Kong life is to different groups of people, in a city with one of the largest wealth gaps in the world.
And I admit, the past trips have leaned more to the upper side of things, particularly food-wise. So with Jacqueline again as my guide, I was only happy to get dim sum the classic, chaotic way — rather than only the fine-dining approach all of Vancouver’s dim sum restaurants offer, including my dad’s — carrying stamp cards and pushing through the crowd surrounding a hapless dim sum cart lady fresh out of the kitchen while trying to get our favourite dishes, sharing a cramped table with strangers.
And of course, we had to head out to find any dai pai dong (大排檔, street food vendors) with curry fish balls, dumplings, egg-puff waffles and other good snacks, and any cha chaan teng (茶餐廳, cheap-and-easy restaurant) with Hong Kong-style “French” toast (deep fried white bread and syrup), milk tea, instant noodles with spam and fried egg, pineapple buns (which have nothing to do with actual pineapples, it’s just that the sugary crust kinda resembles one), baked pork chop rice…. These are all the classics I associate with Hong Kong, yet have never experienced with the proper setting — I get them in Hong Kong-style restaurants in Vancouver.
In terms of Hong Kong’s neighbourhoods, day-to-day life, and historic areas, my mind has always been a jumble of names and images I’ve probably just heard from my sister’s Cantonese TV dramas that she watches at home. I’ve never been able to put them together, and it’s pretty cool to experience the narrow markets of Wan Chai sandwiched by the glitzy malls and office towers of Admiralty and Causeway Bay on Hong Kong Island, and to watch the progression of crowded malls and markets aimed at upscale consumers in Tsim Sha Tsui gradually morph into a densely-packed free-for-all in Mongkok and eventually communities of public housing towers, all from a walk up Nathan Street in Kowloon.
I never knew the extent of Hong Kong’s diversity. Sure, the vast majority is Cantonese-speaking Chinese, and there are plenty of Filipinos and Indonesians primarily working as domestic workers, but all over town, you can see Indians doing business, African (not sure which countries) labourers and traders, and plenty of white people usually talking on their phones. While many may be considered workers and not residents, a surprising amount are: Indians speaking Mandarin on the street, a Pakistani TV anchor speaking Cantonese here, a couple white Cantonese-speaking actors there.
There’s religious diversity too. Plenty of Buddhist temples, sure. And there’s the pretty hilarious sight (and sound!) of old ladies smacking paper cutouts of people with their slippers for customers seeking revenge (打小人, “little-person hitting”), a Taoist folk tradition. But here’s also mosques around, churches, and even a synagogue.
I’ve also never realised the true variety of landscapes that are present in Hong Kong since — let’s face it — most Cantonese TV dramas either take place in a cha chaan teng, on the street, in a hospital, a police station, or a courtroom. Sure, I’m familiar with the neon signs that compete for your attention by colour and by sticking further and further into the street, and the vast crowds of people, but I never realised that Hong Kong had beaches. Or islands! Or fishing villages! Or a place without loud traffic! From Stanley on the east to Lamma Island and Lantau on the west, there’s far more than just the city centre. Imagine this!
My family took a daytrip to Cheung Chau Island where we experienced all of that in a few short hours, along with the annual Tuen Ng Festival (端午節, aka the Dragon Boat Festival) which happened to fall on that day. I’ve only seen cleaned-up versions of it in Vancouver and Boston, never the real thing!
Speaking about my family, it’s been eye-opening to see how they perceive Hong Kong, a place they’ve actually lived in and hold more attachment and cultural values from than I admittedly do. (We left when I hadn’t even turned two yet.) They’ve visited far more often than I have, including in the past few years. And yet, as I hear them recounting stories of their old life, my parents marvel at the landmarks that have changed, are no longer accustomed to the crowds or the heat when walking around, and goofed up plenty while taking minibuses and trains. We visited our old apartment (which I’m not old enough to remember). The graves of our ancestors. The old neighbourhoods we used to frequent. The passage of time has never been clearer, and our collective memories of “home” have never been less clear.
My curiosity about where and who I come from has never been so high, either. I’m incredibly appreciative of the opportunity to hear stories about my grandparents, who I either never got to know or have fleeting memories of; of who snuck into Hong Kong from mainland China and who went the legal route, all in the name of economic opportunity; of the class disparity in my family, of how my parents used to live. And as they wax nostalgic about it all, I’m reminded of why I posited this trip in the first place. Of the people who deny my Canadian identity when they’re the ones who ask me where I’m from. Of the people who deny my Chinese identity (ethnically speaking, not nationally) when I stammer in Cantonese or struggle in Mandarin. Of the people who tell me to be more of one and less of the other.
Sure, they have a point and yet they’re still wrong. But I’m thankful for the dialogue, since it brought me to this: “Why did we leave Hong Kong in the first place, and what did we leave behind?”
The simplest answer has to do with the handover of Hong Kong sovereignty from Britain to China, but it’s got to do with more than that. Anyways, long story short, Britain owned Hong Kong for centuries, due to the Opium Wars which they started and did terrible ruin with. But while China went to the direction of communism, Britain took Hong Kong through the path of free speech, and as with their colonies in Africa and elsewhere around the world, decided that imperialism had run its course and that its colonies should either be given independence or returned. So they agreed to return control of Hong Kong in 1997.
You may all be familiar with the Tiananmen Square massacre that happened in Beijing in 1989. Unlike mainland China, Hong Kong certainly was (and still is, even having a small museum dedicated to it), with over 1.5 million people taking to the streets at the time in solidarity with the 3000 students killed merely for protesting peacefully, a right which Hong Kongers have and freely utilise. (My dad and mom, then seven-months pregnant with me, were in that million strong crowd too!) Fearful of the consequences of heavy-handed Chinese state control, an estimated 1 million people emigrated from Hong Kong from 1984 to 1997, including my family. (For reference, the current population of Hong Kong is over 7 million. That’s a huge amount of people).
Things wern’t as bad as people thought, as China maintained a “one country, two systems” policy in conjunction with the Sino-British “Basic Law” that largely kept Hong Kong’s governance to itself, retaining its own currency (Hong Kong dollar versus the Chinese yuan), giving it its own flag, and even a separate passport. China has its Mandarin and simplified characters, while Hong Kong retains its Cantonese and traditional characters along with English as a co-official language. The court system is still based on the British one (with even a few British judges remaining) where everyone wears those ridiculous wigs, people still drive on the left, press and internet censorship is not practiced… the list goes on. Hong Kong is almost, almost another country: you need a permit to enter mainland China, and mainland Chinese need a permit to enter Hong Kong. Flights to and from each other are in the international terminals of their respective airports.
Many people — including plenty of my friends from school in Vancouver who were in the same boat — moved back to Hong Kong. We stayed where we were. But as my parents put it, it wasn’t just about fear, but rather a chance for my sister and me to grow up in an environment where we could explore more opportunity and learn more. In other words, a conscious choice for Canada, rather than against Hong Kong. Who knows if it was the right decision? Perhaps both of them could have been right answers all along, but no matter what, I’m happy and thankful for the upbringing that they gave me and the values that the resulting move has instilled in me, as frequently as we may differ with the inevitable culture gap of first-generation immigrant families. And perhaps I might not be the travel enthusiast I am today if it weren’t for the opportunities and work-life balance culture of Canada!
But what’s the current story in Hong Kong, since we’ve left? While my parents may flip through Hong Kong-centered newspapers every day, it’s not a substitute for living here. Hong Kong has gradually become more economically tied to China, now a significant global power. But the word on the street, whether from friends, relatives, the news, taxi drivers, shop owners, tends to be pretty uncertain at best.
For one thing, while China purports to be hands-off, it really isn’t. The latest news talks about booksellers from Hong Kong who offered books critical of the mainland Chinese government being disappeared, then surfacing on Chinese state television confessing to pretty suspicious-sounding crimes. There’s a sense that the repressive tendencies of the Chinese state are creeping in, with government largely in the hands of pro-China (more specifically, pro-Chinese Communist Party) legislators.
Hong Kong was never a democracy to begin with, but the Basic Law that the British and Chinese signed as Hong Kong’s constitution stipulated universal suffrage to be implemented in the future. China announced their approach to that recently — “we’ll pick two people, and you can vote between them!” — and the result was the “Occupy Central” and “yellow umbrella” (becoming a symbol after its use to protect against police pepper spray on a group of peaceful protestors) movement where 100,000 protestors stayed on the streets for months, leading to some serious soul-searching dialogue between citizens on what direction they want the city to go. The aftermath seems to be a society more divided than ever, with a new and growing faction of young people who want Hong Kong to become an independent nation — a task nigh impossible to achieve — pitting themselves against those who see themselves as keepers of the peace and defenders of Hong Kong’s interests. Allowing the protests to run their course knowing people would get fed up and stop eventually, the mainland Chinese government did not relent, and what happens when the topic of universal suffrage comes up again remains to be seen.
The economy hasn’t been doing all that well either, mostly due to Hong Kong’s status as a world financial center making it vulnerable to fluctuations elsewhere. With fewer and fewer jobs for young graduates, steadily increasing housing costs that make Hong Kong the most expensive place in the world to live in and a public housing scheme (which half the population already utilises) bursting at the seams from demand, and limited government action, public dissatisfaction is high.
I’ve always sort of grasped this concept of “get good grades, go to a good school, graduate, find a good job, marry, buy a house, and have kids, then live happily ever after” sort of culture here, brought along to my community by the many other Hong Kong immigrants. I think that’s why so many Chinese people find my approach to “work a few years, save up money, quit and enjoy life, rinse and repeat” cycle rather unorthodox. But when everything after “graduate” seems impossible here for most regular folk around, what’s the point in working towards it?
I’ve started to encounter more and more backpackers from Hong Kong, many close to my age who have also quit their jobs to travel or go on working holidays, at least for a little while. Over the last few years, when I ask about what their families think, the responses have gone from “are you crazy” to something more like “well, okay”. Meanwhile, the responses in amongst Hong Kongers in Canada whenever I tell them my plans tend to still be a little more bewildered.
With fewer jobs and lower spending power (discounting the large influx of mainland Chinese tourists dragging their suitcases around), high-end stores are facing lower demand, and sprouting from the many recently-shuttered shops in the downtown areas is an urban renewal, focused more on affordable restaurants and local businesses. It’s a new direction from the high-money, high-stakes environment I’ve associated with Hong Kong, and the culture people developed to live in it. Who knows where it’ll go in the coming years?
Hong Kong’s dealt with numerous challenges of monumental scale (and I haven’t even gotten to the whole H5N1 or SARS things) in the 19 short years since the handover that led to so many emigrating. It’s not surprising that Hong Kong’s culture would change to adapt, whether for health crises or cost of living or refugees or political views. At the same time, Hong Kong-Canadians by and large seem to be more affluent than the average person living in Hong Kong — which makes sense, given the costs it takes to emigrate. With a more homogenous and affluent social class, the Hong Kong-Canadian culture grew more conservatively, which is what I grew up wrongly associating as a correct and completely reflective portrayal of Hong Kong’s (and by proxy, Chinese) culture, rather than the facsimile that it actually is: two new branches closely related to its parent.
Try as we might to varying degrees of effort, my family is no longer that of Hong Kong’s current culture. A relative tells me it’s clear when talking to my parents how much time has passed and how much has changed since they’ve left. My parents may certainly have to grapple with this in their own way due to their long attachment to Hong Kong, but for me? I’m genuiunely appreciative of a chance to reconcile and assess my identity, all the while enjoying a fascinating city with plenty to see, experience, and think about.