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Actually, what the hell is a Hong Konger?


Hi, how are you? This is Tara. I wrote this essay back in the winter of 2018, for Race, Empire and Nation module led by Akanksha Mehta a part of my BA Media and Communications degree at Goldsmiths, UOL. I guess it seems strange for me to be suddenly posting an almost two-year old essay now. I’ve been sitting on this essay for a while, and I’ve been quite apprehensive about showing it to others because it scares me how very real this essay has become, especially with all that has been happening in Hong Kong for the past year. It’s not that I feel like I’m some all-knowing fortune teller being able to tell the future, but its that everyone knew it was going to happen at some point in time. A sense of an impending deadline supposedly in the near future now cutting closer than ever. This essay was meant to be a response to “Critically assess Paul Gilroy’s (1987) argument that conceptions of national belonging ‘blur the distinction’ between race and nation”. But I guess unless you are a Paul Gilroy stan this essay could also be interpreted as an exploration of how and why Hong Kong never wanted to be defined by its governing bodies. Hong Kong’s longstanding resistance against colonialism as well as its community’s intense camaraderie and protection for each other at a time like this feels so bittersweet. This essay meant a lot to me during the writing process, it allowed me to free my insecurities surrounding whatever the hell a ‘real Hong Konger’ even means. Whether you consider yourself a Hong Konger or not, I hope this essay provides some different perspectives and experiences you may not know or remember.

Hong Kong is no longer a British colony, nor is it willing to return into the hands of the Chinese government. It is a bizarre case of national belonging that has allowed ‘new racism’ to flow freely in and out of institutions and people. This new racism works in more subtle manners than its predecessors but remains just as poisonous and potent. First, I will be comparing the construction of attitudes towards the Indian and Filipino diasporas in Hong Kong. I will be assessing cases of media attention, notably the Manila bus hostage crisis of 2010 against Gilroy’s argument. As a born and bred Hong Konger, my own subjectivities become a standard that others will chose to criticise. In reflecting on my heritage and past memories of Hong Kong, I hope to expand on the complexities of belonging in a country that has chosen not be defined by its governments.

Ethnic minorities (EM) in Hong Kong make up 8.0% of Hong Kong’s population (Census and Statistics Department Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, 2016, p.7), yet they are rarely explicitly considered in the becoming of Hong Kong-ness. Firstly, I personally disagree on the use of the seemingly clinical term “ethnic minorities” as it seems to group all others that don’t fit the ethnic standard. This is quite similar to the ways western discourses use ‘people of colour’ as a way to conveniently group everyone that does not adhere to a racialized norm. The very use of the term ethnic minorities exposes how the Hong Kong government participates in “new racism” (Barker, 1981) and simultaneously Others these populations. By focusing on the Indian and Filipino diasporas in Hong Kong, I want to address how these communities have been constructed, and why these communities are left out of Hong Kong’s discussions of national identities.

Contemporary Sino-Indian relations in Hong Kong can be understood through its colonial ties to the British empire. The British government heavily relied on the recruitment of Indians into their police force (Emi & Leung, 2014, p.25). The multicultural labour was a result of the “distrust of the Chinese constables…because of the language barrier and who were notorious for being corrupt” (Crisswell and Watson, 1990, p.47 in Emi & Leung, 2014. P.19). To the colonial government, these racial hierarchies are crucial to how order and security in Hong Kong was justified. Since the Indian taskforce received British training and spent its time under colonial rule for longer, they were perceived as more competent than the legal systems already set in Hong Kong. The “production of the crisis” (Ahmed, 2004, p.132) caused a fraction between the two communities; the Chinese felt mistrusted and the Indians became the empire’s scapegoat. Slang terms emerged out of these occupations, such as  差人 (Chai Yan) and啊三 (Ah Sam). Ah Sam is more malicious, and translated to English would have the same effect as “A Third”. The phrase mimics a calling out, like a drill sergeant to a member of a troop. Language immortalises the perspective of the Chinese, who saw the Indian police as docile members of the colonial empire. The colonial knowledge that was reproduced would come to have lasting effects on the Indian diaspora in Hong Kong.  

More and more Indian families moved to Hong Kong for commerce and trade, yet they were accused of not interacting with the Chinese outside of their businesses (Emi & Leung, 2014, p.25). The notion of the unwilling and ungrateful Indian migrant only works to distance these communities from any possible sense of national belonging. Amongst these prejudices, Hari Harilela emerged as a ‘model immigrant’ which would further reinforce expectations for those who did not attain his level of success. Harilela built a formidable legacy of hotels across the world (Sautman & Kneehans, 2002, p.25) and was dubbed “the richest Indian in the city” (Chan, 2014). Racialized bodies are racialized in relation to other socio-economical standings, and in the case of the Harilela family, class and wealth. I am not writing to discredit Harilela’s rags-to-riches story but rather to reveal Hong Kong’s fetish for it. It is as if acknowledging Harilela’s legacy eradicates any other forms of racism that exists towards the Indian community. This is what Robin J. DiAngelo describes as “aversive racism” (2018, p.43). It allows the racist to “maintain a positive self-image” (DiAngelo, 2018, p.43) under a disguise of neutrality. A great example DiAngelo uses is the saying “I have lots of friends of color” (2018, p.43). People use this saying often, to absolve the ’guilt’ of whiteness.  Although it is typically used to describe white attitudes, it is still applicable to Hong Kongers. The Harilela family are highly honoured, much like DiAngelo’s “friends of colour” (2018, p.43) but what happens to the stories of working class Indian families that are marginalised and eventually forgotten? Indian domestic workers who spend their days working for affluent families like the Harilela do not experience the same level of awe or even acceptance. Over half of these workers are paid less than the legal minimum wage, and continue work over public holidays and supposed rest days (Sautman & Kneehans, 2002, p.26). If Hong Kong were to truly accept the Indian community, extending the definition of acceptability beyond the diaspora’s richest 1% would be a great first step.

Do bodies belong to Hong Kong if they are just ‘temporary migrants’?  Specifically, I would like to examine the construction and treatment of Filipino domestic workers and how this reveals a gendered and racialized form of labour. Also colloquially known as the helper, they are responsible for the invisible “feminized” (Constable, 2014 p.59) labour of a household. From preparing dinner each night to dedicating their Saturdays to bringing their employer’s children around the city for extra-curricular classes, these domestic workers are an integral part of Hong Kong families. As Xyza Cruz Bacani describes, “we are like air…invisible but essential” (Caralvaho, 2018). However, this invisibility has enabled countless cases of domestic abuse. 58% of foreign domestic workers that experienced verbal abuse (criticisms of work, threats and accusations), 18% experienced physical abuse (hair pulling, slapping, kicking) and 6% experienced sexual abuse (ranging from sexual innuendos to rape) (Mission For Migrant Workers Limited, 2014, p.1). Many of these cases go unreported in fears of the unpredictability of a pending court case, unemployment and an inability to provide for their families back in the Philippines.

Hong Kong’s predisposed bias towards the Chinese阿嬤 (Amah) meant that Filipino domestic workers were already disadvantaged from the start. Nicole Constable sees the bond between the Amah as “professional but as pseudofamilial” (2007, p.58). Whereas the Filipino domestic worker pursues this job based on a contract without any expectations of “a lasting obligation or commitment” (2007, p.59).  These contracts were seen as stepping stones for Filipino workers to climb up the financial ladder, with the final goal of returning to their hometown to get married and settled down with their newfound financial stabilities (2007, p.58). Therefore, the Hong Konger rationalises the unjust treatment of these domestic workers under a disguise of temporality.

Furthermore, the wellbeing of the Filipino domestic workers was threatened by the moral panics set in motion by the Manila hostage crisis in 23 August 2010. I recall being on summer break, sitting in the living room with my eyes glued to the live broadcast. The image of a large Hong Thai Travel coach in an ominously empty carpark is forever burned into my mind. At first, I did not understand why TVB Jade (Hong Kong’s free-to-air Cantonese-spoken television channel) was live broadcasting a hostage incident in the Philippines. I soon learnt that out of the 25 hostages in the travel coach; more than 20 of them were Hong Kong tourists.  By revisiting the live broadcasts and news reports via Youtube, I notice that many of the comments mock the inefficiency of the local SWAT team, most notably the sounding refrain, “SWAT = Sorry We Aren’t Trained” (Rauhala, 2010). The messy aftermath of this media frenzy unleashed a wave of discrimination towards Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong. Laarni, a 32 year-old helper revealed an altercation she had with her employer (Ladengaard, 2017, p.123):

Laarni: just like also my employer, after the incident happened she got angry with me because she saw a cloth inside the toilet and she asked me ‘what is the cloth for?.’ And I told her, ‘ma’am I don’t know also, I just only saw the cloth here the other day and I washed it’ […] and she said, ‘you’re so stupid, no wonder your police man did like that’ [general laughter] ‘because it’s your culture,’ like that right.

Migrants also have to assume the collective identities of their motherland’s government and subsequent taskforce. Sara Ahmed calls out the construction of these divides, “the individual subject comes into being through its very alignment with the collective” (2004, p.128). There are two sets of individual subjects in practice; there is a collective mentality towards the ethnic Filipino domestic workers, and another one maintained about Hong Kongers. The perceived uselessness of the local SWAT team during the hostage crisis transforms into the perceived uselessness of the country as a whole and the people who live in it. These unwarranted burdens on the diaspora as shown in the Ladengaard quote becomes an extremely discouraging reality for Filipino domestic workers. For the Hong Kongers, this is a narrative of reparation over the traumas felt and experienced on that day. Who is allowed to say whether they belong to Hong Kong; is it from the will of the Other or the approval of the locals? Later in this paper, I would like to address just how narrow the definition of a Hong Konger really is, even if it is discernibly ‘not about’ ethnicity or race.

I have used Hong Konger and Chinese quite interchangeably so far, but there are a few key distinctions that differentiates these levels of national belonging. Even in self-proclaimed “open-minded” (Goldsmiths University of London, 2018) environments, I find myself having to explain the subtleties in these two terms to peers and staff time and time again. As an example, I once was asked where I was from. I responded with Hong Kong. The other person in the conversation then blurted “Oh, so China.”. At this point, I have conditioned myself to just change the conversation topic to something else. But even in these supposedly strong affiliations I have to being a Hong Konger, I still tick ‘Chinese’ in the ethnicity box for government related documents and institutionalised surveys. So, for myself, the supposed pride I have to being a Hong Konger over being Chinese is a selective process mediated by what this information means to the other.

Hong Kong’s national identity works in relation to its colonial past, but also its reintroduction to the Chinese government with the 1997 Handover. Not to say that it is solely determined by these counterparts but these developments definitely helped evolve the definition and value of being a Hong Konger. Tracing the mainland ethnic Chinese’s tumultuous relationship with Hong Kong, I hope to extend Paul Gilroy’s argument. Race and nation are not the only distinctions blurred to reproduce ideas of national belonging, we also have to consider the effects of empire. Gilroy’s critiques of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983), who claims “anyone can in theory learn the language of the nation they seek to join and through the process of naturalisation become a citizen enjoying formal equality under its laws” (2013, p.44). He does not see this idealism in the British, citing phrases like ‘the Island race’ as both biological and cultural views to exclude immigrants (2013, p.44). As a former colony, the involvement of the British empire in Hong Kong’s own naturalisation must be investigated. The tensions of WWII brought an influx of mainlanders to Hong Kong who took refuge under British rule, the population doubling in five years by 1950 (Census and Statistics Department, 1969, cited in Mathews, Ma & Tai, 2008, p.25). Even though Hong Kong was ethnically a Chinese dominated city, the mainland immigrants struggled a “cultural” and “social dislocation” (Mathews, Ma & Tai, 2008, p.27) under colonial rule. As these post-war mainlanders settled down with spouses and children of their own, a new construct of the Hong Konger started to emerge. The children of these settlers would become naturalised by the rituals of commodification and consumption.

To gauge how recent this situation really is, this my parent’s generation. My mother was a middle child to two mainland Han Chinese immigrants from Guangzhou. Academics like Allen Chun believed that there was a “strict separation between official culture, which was carried out in the medium of English, and indigenous culture, which was rooted in Chinese tradition (1996, p.120)”. But the term indigenous becomes redundant when one considers the multitudes of Chinese ethnic groups that had to coexist in this colonised space. And whatever filled the space of this indigenous culture was not Chinese but Japanese. Popular department stores like Jusco and Sogo became the preferred places to shop for premium lifestyle goods (Chan, 2000, p.45). Despite Hong Kong’s painful history with the Japanese Army’s occupation in World War II, the youth seem pretty nonchalant about the traumas that were so recently experienced in favour of new gadgets and fancy clothes (Chan, 2000, p.44). Even as a kid I would visit the huge Sogo store in Causeway Bay with my mother and we would browse every imaginable section: we would oogle the pretty Shu Uemura makeup, I would fawn over a Hello Kitty pencil case in the Sanrio store, and then we would eat some freshly prepared udon. These commodities weren’t just simply objects but opportunities for family kinships to exist. Hong Kong’s acceptance and openness to Japanese commerce reveals a nuance to a rightful national belonging. It isn’t strictly about Chinese cultures but rather adaptations of cultures between the tired binary of the mainland and the British governments. Annie Hau-nung Chan interestingly explains the sustained popularity of Japanese conglomerates in Hong Kong as a rejection of its ““biological” (mainland China) and “adoptive” (Britain) parents” (2000, p.53). In her assumption, these two nations are fixed in its relationship to Hong Kong. However, now that the mainland has ‘readopted’ us from the British government, it shows that these relationships are not going to remain the same forever.

My father was born to a Hakka family. Funnily enough, the Hakka Chinese are known as the nomads (Jaya Gopan, Li & Zhuang, 2012, p.6). Yet this particular lineage, chose to settle down in a part of Hong Kong nowadays known as Sha Tau Kok long before British colonisation. My father’s family has spent a much longer time cultivating its traditions and generations, even before the influence of British colonialism. These were empires in their own right, with legislative committees and social hierarchies that dictated the lives of the villagers. And these structures exist to this day, my father’s family still choose to adopt patriarchal rules, such as “only men are allowed to own village land”. These shamelessly offensive rules are normalised as a tradition. We have to recognise non-Western structures of empire, to understand how colonial rule is another manifestation of the empire. I cannot help but problematise these traditions in terms of my own subjectivity as a female. If it means becoming a feminist killjoy (Ahmed, 2010, p.65), I will wholeheartedly take that name in solidarity to those who have suffered in the past, present and future.

Even in these self-reflections, I find myself guilty of idealising the homeland (Ang,2001, p. 25). Although Ien Ang describes this as a desire and pressure to discover his own diasporic identity, those who are born and bred to the ‘motherland’ are equally capable to experiencing this. Therefore, to once again expand on Paul Gilroy’s ideas of national belongings, we need include the subtleties of psychoanalysis and emotional experiences.

The very act of me being able to idealise Hong Kong and be from the city is a privilege because of the tangible spaces and histories I have lived through and can remember. But this is a double-edged sword, my idealisation also comes from “a place of injury’ (Cheng, 2000, p.52). This injury could be explained as a melancholia for experiences that are understood to be in the past but still contain very real effects to this point in time. Built on Sigmund Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia (2001), melancholia is best understood as “a profoundly painful dejection…that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-reviling, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment” (2001, p.244). The cyclical process of melancholia is the reason why it is so hard to ‘get over’, its persistence and intensities reinforce the “remembrance of loss that that remembrance becomes part of the self” (Cheng, 2000, p.50). Appropriated by post-colonial scholars like Ahmed and Gilroy, the melancholia becomes racialized and politicised. “”To let go” becomes a healthy relation, and “to hold on” becomes a pathology”, Ahmed’s interpretation critiques the construction and implications of melancholia. This reminds me of Chan’s frustration over Hong Kong’s youth and their disregard for the atrocities of the Japanese military (2000, p.44). Gilroy cites the loss of the British empire and its “additional loss of certainty about the limits of national and racial identity” (2004, p.116) as the rise of post-imperial melancholia. I never experienced colonial Hong Kong in a legislative sense, but I argue that the empire has not been lost but merely transformed and institutionalised.

Despite being born in Hong Kong by two ethnically Chinese parents, it is still not enough for me to fully assume the identity of a Hong Konger. Despite being a part of the dominant ethnic group, to the locals, I am just a mimicry of the colonial present. My referral to the locals, or ‘lokes’ as casually used amongst international students, describes those who have been educated via the local school system. The divide between local and international systems, and subsequently their students reveals the intricacies of how a post-colonial Hong Kong has absorbed the values the British empire in the guise of a ‘better education’. 

Homi Bhabha’s ideas of the colonial mimicry challenged my understanding of how the construction of ‘international’ education systems affected my own subjectivities. In turn, my education path would be the colonial weights placed on me as an indicator of my differences and betrayals. Bhabha proclaims that the “colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite.” (1984, p.122), He also flips the quote ever so slightly to “almost the same but not white” (1984, p.128). Bhabha’s article described exactly what I had been trying to articulate during my school years in Hong Kong. I was subjected to a British educational system.

Students and staff wore poppies for Remembrance Day, without remembering the perverse origins of British influence in the Opium War (Hans Derks, 2012, p.607). Most of the staff were either British or from Commonwealth countries like Canada and New Zealand. The education I received was comparable to a typical private sixth form college in the United Kingdom. However, there was one discernible difference: I am not white. Just by looking at the name of my secondary school, King George V (KGV), its imperialist reverence still freaks me out.  I remember making a history project based on the history of the school and looking through old yearbooks. I noticed that everyone in the class photos were white people. I dismissed it as an assumption, but reflecting on it now, I realised that these educational spaces were exclusively for the children of British expatriates that could afford a private education. Bhabha’s the sinister ambivalence of the colonial mimicry is reproduced in their promotional content. The histories of segregation are now replaced with “diversity” (ESF 2018) and their whiteness becomes “international” (ESF, 2018). Bhabha calls this an inter dicta, “a discourse at the crossroads of what is known and permissible and what which though known must be kept concealed” (1984, p.128). Not to say that institutions are not allowed to change, if anything that is what I want to encourage. But this silencing of the institution’s colonial history does nothing but expose the ties it wants to pretend to sever.

Analysing the positionality of the local student and international school student in Hong Kong reveals a lot about the younger generation’s attitudes and conceptions towards national belonging in Hong Kong. Most local and international students don’t have the opportunity to mingle in an academic setting until they reach university level education. This lack of interaction, in return produces myths about the other groups understood to be cultural truths. To local students, a key distinction between their authenticity as a Hong Konger stems from class differences. Elaine, a local school student declared that international students “haven’t suffered like us” (Chun, 2009, p. 32) and have been “pampered all their lives” (Chun, 2009, p.28). What are the reproductive powers of Elaine’s words? Lauren Berlant also questions these types of rhetoric, “If one determines that an event or a relation is shameful, must it produce shame in the subject it impacts?” (2010, p.229). Should international students experience shame in their supposed class privileges like Elaine and Berlant may have suggested? Not necessarily, it would have to depend on their individual upbringings and circumstances for them to be able to position themselves into Elaine’s desired shame. Personally, I find it quite damaging to equate a culture of suffering as a worthiness to exist as a Hong Konger. Elaine’s words seem to alienate class as the sole factor that liberates international school kids from ever suffering. That clearly is not the case, as we have to consider the “stickiness” (Ahmed, 2004, p.14) of emotions. Ultimately, it can be disheartening to see how distant and hostile the youth of Hong Kong can potentially be to each other. Anne Anlin Cheng provides a more positive model of hope in this bitterness, “If we are willing to listen, the histories of disarticulated grief is still speaking through the living, and the future of social transformation depends on how open we are to facing the intricacies and paradoxes of that grief and the passions that it bequeaths” (2000 p.29).

The ways in which Hong Kong’s ideas of national belonging are conceived and reproduced, go beyond Gilroy’s original considerations. The blurred distinctions between race and nation is further complicated by the impact of British colonialism and the empire. These three factors serve as a basis to understanding how contemporary discourse, disguise themselves in seemingly neutral language to reveal the perverse past that will constantly be relived. Bhabha’s Of Mimicry Men allowed me to come to terms with my subjectivity as a post-colonial individual, understanding that the ideologies and traditions in my education serve as a normalised present of the colonial empire. Once again, my subjectivity was put into perspective by Chun’s (2009) anthropological study of local and international students. The questions of authenticity from students like Elaine let me consider my own agency. If I believe that I am a Hong Konger, then why should I care if other people think otherwise? I understand that I may not be the local’s idea of a Hong Konger but there are countless multitudes to national belonging. Beyond my own subjectivities as a ethnic Han Chinese, acknowledging and honouring the Indian and Filipino communities in Hong Kong is a definite priority. This paper, was in no way an extensive list of subjectivities nor diasporas to be discussed and I want to encourage a greater intersectionality in academia by consistently honouring those who are silenced.


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