“I am Hongkongese, not Chinese” : Hong Kong postcolonial memory and ambivalence to China
“I am Chinese, not Hongkongese”
It was summer in 1978, Dongguan (one of cities in south China) had just been through the Cultural Revolution, the city has not climbed out of shadow of torment of famine and poverty. The faces on people were skinniness, paleness and fatigue from social unrest. It seemed that nobody cared about what future ambitions would be realized or whether or not their clothes were fashionable. People just cared about if they could fill their stomach and if they could harvest enough grains to support the whole families.
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The entire city was haunted by desolation and bewilderment. So some family started to discuss about the plans of stowaway to Hong Kong, hoping to get rid of the hopelessness the place left to them. One of these people was a twenty-two years old boy. It was the pushing hand of destiny as well as personal will. He was also the oldest kid of the family. Except his parents, he had six siblings whose futures counted on him. Like this, one day early morning, he departed to the harbor with many people like him, standing alongside the coast waiting rubber dinghies like refugees. Yes, they were indeed refugees, they were seeking hope and chances of survival. However, It was not that lucky for the first time, he was caught by police on the way and put into Dongguan’s local jail for two nights. The police shaved all his hair that night and released the following morning. He didn’t go back to his home. Instead, he headed to a nearby river and had a shower to wash all his misfortunes away. His sister got a message from the jail and rode a bike to pick him up. When she saw him, she tried to see him through the mist of tears but barely recognized this man standing in front of her with skinhead and pale face. With dim eyes, he said, “let’s go home.”
The second time of stowaway was a success, the boy finally arrived in Hong Kong. However, as an illegal migrant, he couldn’t do anything but stay in relative’s for the first couple weeks. After many twists and turns, he finally got a jobs and legal identity card and settled down. It’s been 40 years, just like the movie “Comrades: Almost a Love Story”, he had to start from scratch and went through difficulties all by himself then married a Hong Kong girl.
Now, he is 62 years old and still living in Hong Kong. He sometimes goes back to his hometown to visit his parents and relatives. Hong Kong is still a well-developed and wealthy city, however Dongguan is no longer boundless fields and hopeless small town but a populous industrial city with well-developed infrastructure. Also, in order to keep in touch with his siblings in mainland, he learned to use Chinese social media app. However, despite spending more than half of his life living in Hong Kong, he gained no sense of belonging as if he is standing in the grey area between mainland China and Hong Kong. Sometimes he still feel confused if he is Chinese in Hong Kong or Hongkonger in China, but none of these identities can precisely describe who he is. He has every welfare and civil rights as any other Hong Kong people does, he almost recognizes every roads in Hong Kong but he never regards himself as “Hong Kong people”. Nevertheless, when he sees news about China on TV, the prosperous and bustling cityscapes and revolutionary songs, he feels nothing but unfamiliarity. He thinks he is still Chinese as always, but he is getting unsure of so-called “national identity” as if he has missed the upbringing of a child. This man is my uncle, and the sister is my mother.
The ambiguity of “national memory”
Since the handover in 1997, Hong Kong, as Special Administration Region(SAR), has become a part of China’s territory again. However, Hong Kong ,a British colony for 150 years and it became an international metropolis and politically disputing area simultaneously. The word “identity” became ambiguous since Hong Kong people have mixed sentiment to their home country. On the one hand, Hong Kong people have adopted the British the legal, judicatory system for a long time, which kept reminding them of the distance they have from China. On the other hand, the shared ancestral roots and ethnic culture also have embedded in Hong Kong people’s mind, which still are the main connection of Hong Kong with China. In other words, for most people in the world, they take their national identity for granted and thus cannot easily examine it critically; they may disagree with their country’s policies, but they still have subliminal felling of attachment to their homeland. But national identity, for Hong Kong people, is something they need to “learn” and “practice” after the resumption. Besides, the ambiguity of “identity” refers not only to the transition from colony to part of China, but also is the embodiment of ambivalence to postcolonial “Chineseness” and governance of People’s Republic of China (PRC). In this way, it seems like the more postcolonial Hong Kong government and Communism advocated the sense of belonging to their nation, the more Hong Kong people feel resistant to their country.
According to the poll conducted annually by The University of Hong Kong, 40% of people consider themselves as “Hongkonger” (Hongkongese) which has increased nearly 20% from 2007(the first post-handover decade) while only 15.1% respondents call themselves “Chinese” which has declined from 27.2% in 2007. Besides, some people have mixed identities like “Hongkonger in China”(26.3%) and “Chinese in Hong Kong”(16.9%). That is to say, people in Hong Kong have difficulty in articulating their identities even after the reversion. In addition, more and more people consider themselves as “Hongkongese” rather than Chinese which means China are continuously losing the new generation of the city.
Obviously, issues between Hong Kong and China have several dimensions. Vertically, “national identity” and “local and national memory” vary between generations. For generation of those who, like my uncle, were originally from mainland China and moved to Hong Kong before the retrocession, they still have strong bond with China and national identity. And some Hong Kong residents also grew their pride because of the remarkable economic growth in China. On the contrary, some of the offspring from mainlanders or new generation of Hong Kong people have different view of China. They regard Chinese as “others” and feel no connection with China because of the regimes of Communist and the dark side of Chinese politics such as crackdown on the pro-democratic movement in 1989. Horizontally, Hong Kong people have different opinions towards China. Some think China’s vast development provides lots of opportunities for business and working while some have antipathy to China because more and more mainlanders come to Hong Kong and lead to shortage of necessities such as milk powder.What’s more, Hong Kong people also accuse mainlanders’ negative influences like “uncivilized” behaviors, which became one of the factors that Hong Kong people have resentful feelings and reject to claim themselves as one of these Chinese. The third dimension is Hong Kong people have different views and emotion towards different aspects of China. People in Hong Kong have more affinity and pride with “cultural-economic” China due to the shared ethnic roots and history but they also distanced themselves from “political China” because of the Chinese regime.
Nowadays, “national identity” is getting ambiguous and disputing in Hong Kong. This complex phenomenon can be attributed to local culture as well as side effects from renationalization under the rule of the PRC. And all these factors invisibly formed Hong Kong people’s memories in various ways. In this way, people in Hong Kong and their mainland counterparts have different memories of experiencing post-1997 times and it caused series of and different levels of conflicts.
“Learning” to “renationalize” memory
To quote Lebel’s words in Exile from national identity: memory exclusion as political, “National memory are not social institutions that formed spontaneously, democratically or pluralistically, but rational projects featuring power relationships, shaped by actors promoting political interests through it and legitimizing their preferential political dominance.” In the first postcolonial decade in Hong Kong, both PRC and Hong Kong government were trying to emphasize national identity and patriotism of citizen since Hong Kong people had lived under colony for decades. Education, as one of the most ubiquitous soft power, became political apparatus to teach young generations about patriotism.
Schooling is one of the most obvious and important societal institutions shaping senses of national identity. Therefore, after the handover, the urgent task for the government was to inculcate patriotism to the new generation of Hong Kong and increase the sense of belonging in order to promote the integration. To execute this task, one of the policies was reconstructing the education curriculum. From 1945 to 1965, the civic education in Hong Kong had been largely kept curriculum away from politics. And between 1966 to 1984( the year when the resumption to China was settled), civic education still remained depoliticized but tended to promote sense of belonging and national values. After the handover, according to Morris(2002) and Tse(2004), Tung Chee-hwa, as Hong Kong’s executive, advocated “Chineseness” and tried to raise the national pride as Chinese of young generation. He believed that “teaching Hong Kong’s younger generation to recognize and identify with the culture of the Chinese nation is the most important task of education in Hong Kong”(quoted in Edward Vickers, Flora Kan and Paul Morris,2003). Since then, the school curriculum has changed gradually by some policies, for instance, pedagogic approaches have involved emphasis of national identity as well as patriotism both in primary schools and secondary schools, Mandarin has been taught in schools more widely. What’s more, flag hoisting and the singing of the national anthem in schools became more prevalent. Apparently, Hongkong post-colonial government had emphasized the national history and introduced patriotic education in planned ways in order to foster students’ ethnic sentiments with the nation. In this way, it could reconstruct citizens’ national memory profoundly.
Of course, patriotic education has not bred full loyalty to China. Rather, it has triggered increasing skepticism over the years. Instead, the pedagogic approaches triggered Hong Kong people’s skepticism as well as antipathy to Chinese government. For example, according to Angelina Y. Chin, many ‘post-80s’( those who born in 1980s in Hong Kong) become activists who are concerned with autonomy in Hong Kong and are critical of the PRC’s incremental interference in Hong Kong politics. Besides, Hong Kong education still remains its scope of freedom compared to national education in mainland China. “ Whilst the textbooks used in mainland China rationalize why a market economy works in a Communist country and try to reconcile the earlier ideology of Communism and capitalist reform, the textbooks in Hong Kong do not have to bear this burden because they have no history of praising Communism and Mao.” This educative difference allows Hong Kong people shape their more critical and skeptical memory than their mainland counterparts, namely, it to some extent raises social conflicts and confrontation of Hong Kong young generation,For example, an anti-national education movement occurred in September 2012. Hong kong activists gathered together and tried to stop the introduction of compulsory classes that critics say is brainwashing education by the Chinese government. The curriculum,which consists of general civic education and controversial lessons on praising mainland China, is due to be introduced in primary schools in September and secondary schools in 2013. Finally, Hong Kong people successfully pushed the government to suspend introduction of a new curriculum in this regard.
However, from government perspectives, national education is rather natural thing than controversial because people around the world need to learn history in their country. Americans learn American history, British learn a great deal about their loyal family, thus it is not “brainwashing” if Chinese learn their own national history. But for Hong Kong people, they had hard time believing in national history that they are excluded from because of being colonized by Britain. Also, some people criticized that, “In fact, those who oppose it are likely to be more ‘brainwashed’ by Western ideology, as Hong Kong used to be a British colony.” What Hong Kong activists called for was freedom and the new curriculum that can expend their horizon and enable them to adapt more smoothly to the national environment. In the case of Hong Kong, national education doesn’t work as easily as other countries, and as pivotal apparatus, it can be effective shaping people’s national attachment and intensifies unrest simultaneously.
To recapitulate, renationalizing the local’s memory of “national identity” or “nationalism” didn’t turn out a good way in Hong Kong. According to Zaretsky(1994), “The process of renationalization can be regarded as rationalization of domination vis à vis social actor. How the local reacts to this is the identity politics that in turn defines their cultural identity”. It is worth noting that after undergoing the intensified patriotic education and series of Chinese cultural propagation, Hong Kong people’s cultural identity has already been hybridized. On the one hand, they were taught about Chinese ethos and established their national memories consciously. On the other hand, they still remained the local cultural identity because of Hong Kong local media and culture cultivation ,which differentiates them and the mainlanders. This hybridized memory has put Hong Kong people into a dilemma that they lost sense of belonging of their motherland but also, they have already been baptized by renationalization.
The Hong Kong spirit
As mentioned earlier, ambivalence and resistance of Hong Kong people are the result of hybridization of postcolonial memory-making, Chinese political authority and their local identity of being “Hongkongese”. “When Hong Kong was still under British colonial rule, Hong Kong was modernized and formed a distinct cultural identity despite its longstanding historical, cultural, and ethnic ties with China. Consequently, Hong Kong citizens regard Chinese identity as culturally acceptable but politically controversial.”(E. K. W. Ma & Fung, 2007; Mathews et al., 2008; Sinn, 1995 cited in Fung and Chan). Therefore, Hong Kong identity embodies and manifests both cultural attachment with and resistance to “Chineseness”. This ambivalence was further complicated in the transition period from the 1990s to the early years after the handover because of the increasing socio-economic integration of China and Hong Kong, and the cross-border experience of Hong Kong citizens living in Mainland China. In this process, Hong Kong people have already formed their postcolonial memory with their “Hong Kong ethos” and in turn, China are losing the new generation of the city as a result of, ironically, its post-handover renationalization and interference in Hong Kong’s autonomy.
I was born in Shenzhen, China, which is the major city that connects Hong Kong and mainland China. Somehow I always feel mentally close to Hong Kong because we both speak Cantonese, I spent my holidays in my uncle’s in Hong Kong. For me, Hong Kong is more than a city, it contained my childhood memory and kinship. In 2017, I was obsessed with one Hong Kong indie band called “My little airport” whose music depicts the perplexity and sense of hopelessness of young generation in Hong Kong so subtly. Their music appealed to me so much until I saw a video that they were playing British national anthem in a musical event . I felt complexed because I, as Chinese, couldn’t agree what they were doing because playing British anthem doesn’t help change the situation of Hong Kong but on the other hand, it was the reflection of how Hong Kong people feel under the rule of PRC. I was not surprised that Chinese government banned the band after that. Apart from large-scale counter-movements such as “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” which aimed to fight for Hong Kong’s autonomy and true democracy, conflicts between “Hongkongese” and “Chinese” escalated. Hong Kong young generation keeps fighting for democracy and even resist mainlander’s tourism while China state media show how Hong Kong people embrace China and how intimate “Hongkongese” and “Chinese” are. While prevailing media narratives about relationship between these two areas are quite positive and hopeful, China indeed is losing the trust and affinity of the city both politically and culturally.
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