A Singular Territory

Fintan O’Toole on the way Hong Kong has come to think of itself

In 1925, Sir Cecil Clementi, the British Governor of Hong Kong, wrote a rapturous ode to the colony at night, evoking the illumined streets, the ships glimmering in the harbour, the threads of light circling the Peak that looms above the city, ‘ending where the roadways touch the mountain-crest’. As soon as he had written the word ‘ending’, however, its utter absurdity struck him:

Ending? No! For human aspiration
Passes here to starry consummation,
Mountain roads into the Milky Way.
Earth is strewn with Danae’s golden dower.
Grandly here the Master Builder’s power
Crowns the work of England in Cathay.

Now that Clementi’s poem has become an Ozymandian folly, and the end of England in Cathay, which he thought unimaginable, has arrived, the urge to snigger is almost irresistible. Hong Kong was created by imperial violence and governed for most of its existence with utter contempt for the political rights of its overwhelmingly Chinese population. Its return to China has a sense of historic justice about it. It belongs to a now familiar narrative of Empire, in which the lowering of the Union Jack may not always be a happy ending, but is at least a satisfyingly inevitable one.

In a recent reply to Clementi, the Hong Kong poet Leung Ping Kwan (in John Minford’s translation) resists the urge to gloat and tempers anger with ruefulness:

That rhapsodic rhetoric of yours
  takes the measure of us,
  trusses us tight in a wire cage of tradition,
  condescends,
  strews a little casual scholar’s ink on us,
  cultural waifs,
  no match for your aspirations,
  for all this fulsome praise.
In all seriousness
  without a snigger,
  we watch silently by your sickbed.

Leung’s suppression of sniggers is in its own way as eloquent as what he actually says about the English dismissal of Hong Kong’s population of ‘Westernised’ Chinese as cultural waifs. Britain condescended to the Hong Kong Chinese, but so does China. Clementi’s sonorous rhetoric of imperial destiny could be matched cliché for cliché in the bombast of the Chinese state. For most of the Hong Kong intelligentsia, the urge to celebrate at the sickbed of one empire is held in check by the knowledge that another is on the way. In truth, there is nothing much to snigger about.

One of Hong Kong’s most profound problems is also one of its greatest achievements. This anomalous place, this odd margin between East and West, has in the last decade acquired a cultural and artistic life of its own. In the ritual exchange of flags and empires, this extraordinary fact may be overlooked. And it is all the easier to overlook because Hong Kong’s culture has emerged in the absence of all the things that are supposed to make cultures happen.

It doesn’t have much of a history – 155 years at most – and what it has is largely invisible: the city is in a state of relentless flux, its historic buildings torn down, its street-scapes altered, so that no accumulation of resonances is possible. Even the map of the physical territory is utterly unstable: small islands have been annexed to the larger one by filling in the harbour; frantic reclamation has remoulded the shape of the surrounding seas. Hong Kong is neither a state nor a nation, and even the word that came closest to defining it – ‘colony’ – was dropped over the last few decades, to be replaced with the more neutral and meaningless ‘territory’. It doesn’t have a stable population: it is, in essence, a society of refugees, with a million people in 1938, over five million by 1990. And it lacks a coherent political tradition – even the refugees were not fleeing for the same reasons – and the imprint of most of China’s 20th-century turbulence can be traced in the fissures within Hong Kong society.

What Hong Kong most powerfully suggests is that it is no longer possible to define a culture by the presence or absence of any or all of these markings. For the first time anywhere a vibrant culture has emerged almost entirely from within the elements of mass consumerism. The vast bulk of Hong Kong’s population may have come from China bringing language, lore and learning with it. But what is going back to China is patently not what was extracted. It is something else altogether – an identity forged through popular culture.

For most of its history Hong Kong was seen by British and Chinese alike as a place beyond civility. For the British, and for the Chinese merchants who linked them to the mainland, it was a commercial arena in which to make as much money as possible in as short a time as possible. For the Chinese state, it was a reminder of humiliation, a physical symbol of the power of the barbarian West. For traditionalists, it was a source of contamination and corruption. For Communists, it was the living image of capitalist decadence. For Western anthropologists, Hong Kong became a substitute for inaccessible China, so that they sought out its most ‘Chinese’ features – the traditional village cultures of the New Territories. Not surprisingly, they found conservatism and political apathy and announced that these were the essential features of Hong Kong. Chinese reflections on Hong Kong, on the other hand, tended to focus on the city as a degenerate, deracinated treaty port. Northern Chinese refugees, already predisposed to see Cantonese culture as backward and inferior, found plenty of squalor, greed and vulgarity to reinforce the stereotypes. And here there was a certain collusion with the British managers of the colony, whose interests were also served by the image of Hong Kong’s people as transitory, displaced and denatured Chinese. After all, how could such people be fit for democracy? How could those who were not a ‘people’ govern themselves?

If you walk around a Chinese cemetery in Hong Kong, you will be struck by two things. One is that none of the graves are very old. Until 1951, when the border between China and Hong Kong was closed, the ashes of the dead were sent back to lie with the ancestors on the mainland. The other is that, at first sight, no one seems to have been born in Hong Kong. When the place of origin is identified on tombstones, it is almost invariably a village on the mainland: where you came from is a matter of ancestry, not of birth. Only very recently has the territory’s majority ethnic Chinese population begun to accept that it might be possible to come from Hong Kong.

There has been, inevitably, an outbreak of nostalgia, an effort to remember what it is that is in danger of being lost. One of the primary ways of remembering is through films. Movies have become a repository of the collective memory. Over the last few years there has been a fad for Hong Kong directors to remake or parody local movies from the Fifties and Sixties. About ten such films have been made in the last three or four years. It is almost as if, with the approach of the handover, directors are trying to fix a cultural history of Hong Kong, to invent a tradition through the only medium that makes sense. ‘These are people in their forties,’ says the sociologist Choi Po King, ‘looking back to their childhood days, the black and white films that they saw in the Sixties. But I think more than that there must be a quest for identity, but which this time is not Chinese identity. This time it’s Hong Kong identity. And the Sixties is the only time this postwar generation could go back to.’ She continues:

You can’t go back earlier. Let’s say there hadn’t been a Communist revolution in China, you probably would be able to go back to your home village on the mainland and find it relatively unchanged for a hundred and twenty years. But you couldn’t now, because it’s a totally different China. You go back and you don’t know it at all. So if we, the postwar generation, wanted to seek our identity, the only tangible things that we can hold on to are the places we grew up in. And even those are mostly pulled down because of urban redevelopment. So we are left with films and reminiscences.

There were, of course, writers and intellectuals among the millions of refugees who poured into Hong Kong during and after the Chinese civil war of the late Forties. But they wrote as exiles, glancing back to Shanghai or Kwangdung, remembering their youth, dreaming of return. Even if they wrote about Hong Kong it was by way of contrast – its flippant, shallow commercialism was set against the ancient solemnities of Chinese culture. The Chinese bookshops in Hong Kong are full of memoirs of the housing estates of the Sixties, of old film posters, of photographic records. Choi Po King is herself compiling a recollection of life in a night school for women workers in the Seventies. ‘We can only explain all this,’ she says, ‘by the fact that this postwar generation has now shifted its loyalty from a vague cultural memory of rural China to an urban industrialised Hong Kong as they know it.’

Hong Kong got a film industry early on, though for a long time it, too, was directed towards the mainland. In the Thirties, with the oncoming Japanese invasion, the Communists used Hong Kong as a safe base from which to make underground films urging resistance. After the Communists came to power on the mainland, the Shanghai movie studios (most notably the Shaw Brothers) were relocated in Hong Kong, but continued to make films in Mandarin rather than the local Cantonese. This split lasted until the Sixties, when television, broadcasting in Cantonese, began to shape a unified Hong Kong culture.

One of the central figures in the TV serials was Ah Charn, a stereotypical Chinese mainlander, depicted as the hick from the sticks, the bumpkin let loose in the big city. Hong Kong is 98 per cent urban and China is 65 or 70 per cent rural: through the Ah Charn image, the one could be construed as quintessentially urban, the other as innately rustic. In Hong Kong culture, the gulf between the colony and the mainland is fundamental. Cantopop – a specific Hong Kong pop music – emerged around the same time. There were few local songwriters and it was almost impossible to translate imported songs directly into Cantonese without changing the music, so a strange hybrid was born: borrowed Japanese, Chinese or Western tunes with original Cantonese lyrics.

This is not to say that Hong Kong culture is un-Chinese. On the contrary, one of the things that makes it distinctive is that it has retained and transformed aspects of the traditional culture that have been all but obliterated on the mainland. Ironically, Hong Kong and Taiwan were the only places where the study of classical Chinese literature or the practice of traditional Daoist worship remained possible. And because its immigrants came from different regions of China, Hong Kong became a melting pot for quite diverse local cultures.

But these elements of tradition have been re-invented for the modern city. Leung Ping Kwan has used the classical Chinese tradition of poems about things to write about a commodified world. The Daoist gods have extended their repertoire; the most popular in Hong Kong is Wong Tai Sin, a very minor deity on the mainland, who is as free with advice on whether to invest in pork belly futures as he is with the portents for a marriage. Their stories have been translated into TV serials which owe their popularity at least partly to the way they evoke an ancient depoliticised China that existed long before the complications of 20th-century politics. The most striking instance of this re-invention is provided by the paper offerings sold in the city. In a Daoist funeral, it is important to burn paper figures of the objects the dead person will need in the after-life – pots, knives, shoes. In Hong Kong shops, however, the packages sold for this purpose now contain perfect paper mobile phones, radios, calculators, computers and cars. An afterlife without the trappings of Nineties consumerism would be sheer hell.

All of this reflects the emergence of a generation which saw Hong Kong as home and China as a place to be imagined. The closing of the border with China in 1951 meant that the children of the postwar refugees grew up with the mainland as a notion, and Hong Kong as reality. Cut off from China, they were free both to imagine it as an ideal and to direct that idealism towards the life of their own city. Paradoxically, the original vehicle for this complex of feelings was the Maoist student movement of the late Sixties and early Seventies. After the fall of the Gang of Four and the evaporation of the spirit of 1968, the young radicals turned towards more practical forms of activism, in community development and housing. They began to claim Hong Kong as a political space, creating in the process the democracy movement which went on to win the elections in 1991 and 1995.

The identity they created for themselves is not a 19th-century nationality but a late 20th-century culture: 53 per cent of Hong Kong people have relatives living overseas; 10 per cent have lived abroad themselves for at least a year; 10 per cent have a foreign passport; between a fifth and a quarter of the population has the right to reside in another country. And it is enmeshed in technology: one of the differences between what it means to be Chinese and what it means to be from Hong Kong is that half of the Chinese population has never made a phone call, while in Hong Kong there are almost two phones for every person – one fixed and one mobile. It is, for all the sense of an ending that now envelops it, a culture of the future, a response to the business of living in a world where nationality is insufficient and the commodity is king.

Cantonese has been critical in all of this, as the language behind the development of distinctive media industries. The dialect in Hong Kong has evolved over the last decade, becoming markedly different from the dialect spoken in Canton. And if it is eroded, many Hong Kong intellectuals believe that the ground for popular opposition to Chinese encroachment on human rights and democratic freedoms will become steadily narrower. That, they suspect, is one of the reasons why, after 30 June, Cantonese will be replaced as the official language of Hong Kong by Mandarin, the standardised dialect of the mainland. Even before the handover, there has been strong pressure to make schools adopt Mandarin. For much of the local business establishment, the logic is obvious: the economy is turning towards China, future prosperity depends on an ability to do business on the mainland.

Besides there is a strain of Chinese nationalism within Hong Kong society itself. Self-definitions are divided. The Hong Kong Transition Project, based at the Baptist University, has been testing public attitudes in the colony at regular intervals since February 1993. One of the responses it has charted is the answer to the question: ‘What do you consider yourself to be?’ When the surveys started, 73 per cent of respondents described themselves as either ‘Hong Kong Chinese’ or ‘Hong Kong people’, with just 19 per cent opting for ‘Chinese’. By February this year, the first two categories were claimed by 64 per cent, but 31 per cent chose ‘Chinese’ (a mere 3 per cent regard themselves as ‘Hong Kong British’).

This is the context in which the question of language is so fraught. The unity of China has long been predicated on the recognition of a single language, and in recent years there have been ominous noises from state sources about the vulgarity and impurity of Cantonese. With the imposition of Mandarin as the official language, Leung Ping Kwan argues, ‘a lot of the popular culture may not survive like it is now. We are not just defending one particular dialect, but a certain lifestyle, a certain attitude, and behind it a certain culture, which is similar to Chinese culture in many ways, but also has its own special characteristics.’

Cantonese is a spoken dialect, and there is little difference between its written forms and those of Mandarin. What there is, however, does have a political significance. Since 1949, the mainland has used a simplified form of Chinese characters. In Hong Kong, as in Taiwan, the older, more complicated pictograms survive. Again, there are fears that after the transition there will be pressure to standardise and simplify, and that thinking as well as writing will be unified.

It suits neither Britain nor China to acknowledge that Hong Kong might have a culture of its own, might constitute as distinctive a society as the era of globalisation can offer. To see the society as simply and purely Chinese, to define it by concepts of race and nationality that do no justice to its recent past, allows Britain to refuse to accept its inhabitants as immigrants (they are, after all, Chinese) and China to refuse to accept them as autonomous citizens (they belong, after all, to the motherland). There is another way to look at it: that China will in time rejoin Hong Kong, that the territory will be appropriated not as revenge for an imperial past but as the beginning of a future in which China finally makes its historic adjustment to modernity. The ‘father of the Revolution’, Sun Yat Sen, founder of the Kuomintang and still a revered figure in present-day China, was educated in Hong Kong and returned there about the same time that Clementi wrote his poem. Speaking to the students of Hong Kong University, he told them that returning to the island after an absence of many years felt like a homecoming.

People have asked me: ‘where did you get your revolutionary ideas?’ To be honest about it, they came from Hong Kong. Although China had a revolution 12 years ago, there was hardly any improvement and people’s suffering deepened. Now, Hong Kong’s 600,000 residents live in relative comfort. This is due to good government. I honestly hope that all of you who pursue studies in Hong Kong will consider the West and Hong Kong as your model in order that when you return to the motherland you can help build a good government.

Such a return, unlike the ceremonial handover of 30 June, might do some justice to the culture that Hong Kong, out of accident and chaos, has made for itself.