“The Controversy of “We are All Chinese”” by Ruth Y.Y. Hung


《無間道-「我想要回身份」》, 磁漆布本   Infernal Affairs, “I want my identity back”, enamel paint on canvas, 100cm(H) x 150cm(W), 2007  [Via.]

Nearly two decades after the Handover of 1997, the PRC and its SAR HK have not come closer though the latter has become increasingly dependent on the booming mainland economy. Early this year, the 34-year-old local star Ella Koon wrote a commentary titled, “Kick Out Hatred and Discrimination,” published in the de circonstance section of Ming Pao 明報, the leading Chinese language local daily. “In the face of inescapable cultural differences, we should have a tolerant heart,” Koon explained, because “we are all Chinese” (Koon). Admittedly, Koon‘s underlying racial generalisation of this call for harmony has its own problems; it attempts to offer neither a representative account of Chinese identity nor an in-depth analysis of HK‘s attitude towards the mainland. It is but an appeal to the city‘s cosmopolitan breadth of mind to host tourists and visitors from Mainland China. She made a significant connection between the present state of HK and its colonial past in terms of experiences of racialism and ethnic resentment. In the colonial era, the British treated Hong Kongers in ways similar to how Hong Kongers have treated mainlanders since the 1980s; the colonial masters laughed at Hong Kongers for being noisy and disorderly, for being “rude” and “uncivilized,” for behaviour similar to that of today‘s mainland travellers in HK and abroad. Referring to her own experience in England, Koon spoke vaguely about how Westerners treated her with contempt because of her cultural background and language skills, emphasising the importance of developing sympathy and consensus in harmonious coexistence. She was appealing to the city‘s natural sympathy and humanity that she thought of as important for the development of HK society as a whole. In her words,

We grow up in different cultures and under different conditions, [we] should not discriminate [mainlanders] from the outset, but rather, should accommodate and assist our compatriots to understand our culture and society…. We should achieve mutual understanding through being together, and build a society in which people from different places and speak differently co-exist. (Koon)

Contrary to her good wishes, the response to Koon’s appeal to HK‘s cosmopolitanism and Hong Kongers’ own experience of discrimination in the colonial era was one-sidedly critical, even unexpectedly antagonistic. In the heat of today‘s anti-PRC, anti-mainlander sentiments, any wavering in the stance about issues related to the mainland produces in HK‘s established discourse of the PRC and mainlanders a crisis of meaning. We should see this crisis as part of HK‘s long-standing, apparently “spontaneous” practice of discrimination and relate it critically to a series of inquiries into this society‘s self-proclaimed enterprise of “civility.” We will see that this enterprise rests on a limited understanding of the historical condition and social function of “cosmopolitan civility,” on, that is, the society‘s unreflective acquisition of what Walter Jackson Bate called “the premises of taste” (Bate).

In the context of post-colonial HK, the limits of understanding and lack of reflection about “cosmopolitan civility” have, in part, complex linkages to colonial modernity. Language, for example, as an instrument for the forging and expression of local identity, is a post-Enlightenment notion that should serve to resist the imperial view of language as universal. Even so, HK people‘s linguistic attachment to not only English as the de facto international language but also British English as the mother tongue of their former master is extraordinary. This attachment to British English is just as much about HK‘s political identity as its linguistic identity. British English has for decades been one of the most effective instruments by which locals distinguish and reinvent themselves socially, economically and politically, even though HK-Cantonese is linguistically a branch and variety of Cantonese, the local dialect of the Guangdong province of China. Whereas HK‘s recent protest against the threat of Putonghua and the subduing of the Cantonese dialect should be fully supported, how was it that in 1998, parents, teachers and school masters in HK engaged in “a storm of protest” against the SAR government‘s mandate to use Chinese (Cantonese) as a medium of instruction in schools (Boyle 77, see also 65-84)? Granted, linguistic imperialism is a cultural and political vice, a masked conquest, and a form of state ambition. Given the same geo-political space, demography and generations of people, how does the practice work for one race against another? More specifically put, how could the linguistic imperialism of British English maintain its position, while its Putonghua counterpart be seen as a deplorable presence?

Koon found herself under a public siege. Within days of the publication of her commentary, her Facebook page was awash with hundreds of abusive and “uncivilised” attacks. Again and again in the comments, netizens bashed Koon as a wicked “traitor” of the city, a “HK bandit” prostituting HK for her own interests and benefit. Thus, for example, these hyperbolical responses to Koon‘s claim that “we are all Chinese”: “the Truth is, Chinese from The Red Soviet-China r intentionally invading us,” (sic) an attack which includes “raping the civilization we built” (Lu). Or, “Go to China to be ‘bought and melted’ [包溶] by the mainlanders since you love China so much” (Observer). In mandarin Chinese, “包溶” and “包容” have the same pinyin; while both are pronounced baorong, the latter means open-mindedness and tolerance, the former – literally meaning “bought and melted” – makes a vulgar remark on the singer‘s sexuality and profession, no doubt intended to insinuate that Koon would have no qualms about conducting illicit affairs in the mainland. In the end, netizens reduced Koon’s imperative injection of sense into HK-mainland relations to a perceived invasion of HK; the supposed “invader” backed down in tears only days after the post. Under “the pressure of public opinion” (Observer), Koon explained in a public appearance, apologetically, that she wrote the article for reasons unrelated to the current HK-mainland conflict.

Increasingly in recent years, one witnesses similar expressions and sentiments of resentment that puncture the thin layer of HK‘s cosmopolitan civility. These voices range from politically organised groups to spontaneous social and individual groups. The well-funded societies of “pan-democrat” liberalism and their far-right variant, loosely grouped around the Party of “People Power” 人民力量 and its followers, called “Civic Passion” 熱血公民, occasionally, though not infrequently or inconsequentially, have led the public into the heat of some sizable anti-mainland campaigns. More spontaneous antimainland groups surge towards social media like Facebook, where “interest pages” of a similar kind, such as “PassionTimes” 熱血時報 (211,094 likes), “HK Golden” 香港高登 (96,446 likes), “HK Golden Undercovers” 高登起底組 (76,525 likes), “Talk HK” 港人自講 (3,627 likes), and “Criminal Records of Mainlanders in HK” 中國人在香港犯罪記錄 (3,953 likes), abound. The print newspaper Apple Daily is among the more locally invested platforms that would contain, record, circulate and reproduce the discourse of anti-mainland sentiments. The online blog Real Hong Kong News, which seeks to “tell the world” “the REAL NEWS that the English-language media are not telling you,” is one more example of anti-mainland fora. Indeed, the blog has a ready category for anyone who, like Koon, attempts to engage in talk about cultural tolerance in view of HK‘s anti-mainland sentiments: “a gang of bandits [who] forces the people of HK to be saints” (gangzei 港賊) (Real Hong Kong News). Last but not least, the website Hong Kong Golden 香港高登, active since 2011, has a complementary discussion forum that is open in structure and topics, creating a virtual “community of critics” in which citizens discuss “all manner of local topics” (Wikipedia). Given its openness to ordinary citizens, it is also a hot bed of local slang and neologisms, which “would quickly pass virally into colloquial usage” (Wikipedia).

How could one community hate another when they have such close historical connections, linguistic identity and geographical proximity? After all, the case of mainlanders in HK is not the same as that of Russians in Ukraine, or American citizens in Iraq. Xenophobia, though often evoked in critical comments on Hong Kongers’ reaction to mainlanders, falls short of explaining the issue. The difference between the two territories is manifestly not one of ethnic division, given especially HK’s historical connection with the mainland, especially its southern region; nonetheless, the division is as unbridgeable as ethnic difference, perplexed and perforated on a daily basis by mutual mistrust, rejection and humiliation. When Koon attempted to defuse the habit of criticism to a public marked by regional hatred and indignations, she was perceived as betraying this public. She opened the Pandora’s Box containing discourses and institutions that produced new realities that demand careful analysis. The forces that produced these conjoined new realities are “cosmopolitan civility,” racialism of a sort, HK‘s colonial history and identity and Chinese statism.

[The above is excerpted from the essay “What Melts in the “Melting Pot” of Hong Kong?”, first published in the December 2014 issue of Asiatic. Read the full article here.]


RuthRuth Y.Y. Hung is Assistant Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Steve says:

    British English is not the default or standard used by many Hong Kongers, who instead use a mix of British and US English (e.g. bring it home, not take it home, and US dates 2/12/15 not 12/2/15) with their own unique version (e.g. I back to Hong Kong). What is conspicuous is how a British English accent is still seen as a status symbol by a minority of older wealthy people. It’s archaic and out of touch with the identity of the majority.

    1. Someone from Hong Kong says:

      Steve: I disagree, it is the language of academia, politics and business in HK, it is also used by many Hong Kongers of the younger generation that identify with HK and is more or less the standard HK English accent. There are many ABCs and CBCs that may use different accents and spelling, but that’s because of their background, British English is still the standard bearer in HK. Mind you, the use of US euphemisms is prevalent everywhere, including the UK. And a British accent is considered a status symbol everywhere, not just HK!

  2. Someone from Hong Kong says:

    Taking a view of the microcosm of online debate and the fiery opinion of Passion Times and the comments left on HKGolden is to miss some important points:

    Anonymous online comments should be taken with a pinch of salt, especially in HK where vulgar hyperbole is part of, not only HK vernacular, but also ‘Chinese’ vernacular. They do not represent what people actually do or believe in real life, but rather demonstrate a lazy sense of self-righteousness that people often express anonymously and with little thought. It does, however, give a good indication of sentiment. And where does this sentiment come from? This brings us to point two.

    There are larger structural issues concerning people’s livelihood, a wholly artificial widening in the wealth gap which China’s policies enhance if not are responsible for, diminishing freedoms and the very real threat that HK will cease to exist as it has of decades (if not centuries) and retrograde to a mainland city as a matter of policy by the Central People’s Government. The comment by Ms. Koon, and others, that mistake’s the alienation of the Hong Kong people and it’s early expression as a ‘close mindedness’ makes light of the real issues and, indeed, antagonises people by completely and deliberately missing the overwhelming point, which is our survival. If you live in HK you know our sensitivity to any changes in our liberties, it is because we fear for our very survival as a people. This is no exaggeration. While I sympathise with Ms. Koon’s cosmopolitan message, it is grossly out of touch with the heightened tension and suspicion in a frustrated and frightened society that is under siege. It should be mentioned that the expression of our rage as seen in Tuen Mun, Tai Po (our periphery, if you like), and indeed online, is uncoordinated, nascent and without leadership, something that is critically needed or this rage could follow the path of the extreme right. But Civic Passion or similar concern groups is not the BNP or NPD by a long shot and fills a void left by mainstream pan-dem parties. An interesting observation; is the evolution of OC a mix of ‘Eastern’ vitriolic hyperbole and ‘western’ political protest, but devoid of a HK ‘cosmopolitan civility’ that doesn’t stand up well to the rage brought about by a bloody minded naivety, at best, or a deliberate political condescension at worst?

    Another thing Ms. Koon mentions is the re-imagining of history as a typically colonial one, this is false. We were not the yellow horde, herded and spat upon by our white masters (individual cases notwithstanding). We built one of the world’s greatest cities and prospered more and were freer then compared to now. We were not Kenya, Ireland or even Malaysia, rather HK was ours, Britain, through it’s leadership (or China’s failings, likely both) won legitimacy in HK and the Chinese lost through their terrorism, only we, the HK people, could make this choice. This has been the case since the late 60s. British English became a symbol of the synergy of ‘East meets West’, culturally we remain a worldly and outward looking version of the culture found in southern China with western characteristics (perhaps more authentically ‘Chinese’ – whatever that means – than ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics), like our dong lai cha (HK’s own version of British milk tea) and the ‘European’ restaurants in our British designed (and pitifully small) housing estates, we drink (or eat) bovril and Lea & Perrins Worcester sauce, our laws, architecture, accent and values represent this synergy. British English is a symbol of this and why not? Indeed it makes us more authentically who we are, it is our history and not one we should be ashamed of, indeed, our history is international. After all, no one admonishes the Singaporeans for this. Hence imposed Putonghau (in schools and elsewhere) is seen as the ‘deplorable presence’ whereas British English (perhaps more accurately Hong Kong English – not ‘Chinglish’) is more authentically ours.

    The re-imagined history is one that appeals to the petulant hurt feelings of mainland apologists, the Chinese central government, the guilt ridden Britons or anti-colonialists the world over, all of whom know nothing about HK and prefer to see the era of Chinese colonial rule through an ethnic lens, as if race were the only issue. Ignorantly congratulating us on our return to the ‘motherland’, something we had no say in. To do so is racist in the supreme, for it abandons us, the HK people, to a despotic and ruthless regime whose only qualification is that they look like around 80% us, share the same neighbourhood, have similar linguistic roots. Our experience is utterly different, indeed HK didn’t practically exist during the Qing dynasty as they (or at least a professor on state television) condemn us as ‘British dogs’ for acknowledging our history, while their government, business people and ordinary citizens (for reasons legitimate or otherwise) take advantage of HK as they desire. Indeed we share more in common with the average Briton than the average mainlander, at least this generation does, and that is a critical issue.

    Our generation (born mid 70s and later) is the one that was the first who were majority HK born. The generation before that were not just laughed at by the ‘colonial masters’ as Ms. Koon claims, but others as well. Our reputation amongst other Asian nations and even the mainland was legendary as obscenity spouting spitters, litterers, and money grubbers. If you were in HK in the 70s and 80s you know this reputation was not undeserved, we even had public service ads on how not to thrown rubbish from high rise buildings, run across busy roads or walk on train tracks! This was probably because the majority of HK people then were 1st generation mainland migrants and quite distinct from HK born HKers, But now that we are majority HK born we do not dream of China, we do not visit the relatives ‘back home’, we do not live in ethnic terms and curse the ‘gwai lo’, ‘bun mui’ (who raised half of us) or ‘hak gwai’ (offensive terms that are becoming increasingly less acceptable), but rather our experience is here, and our identity is that which we’ve inherited and defend. Also, one cannot deny the international influence the internet and travel has brought. Ironically, the economic and political ‘convergence’ imagined by the previous generation failed to occur and completely disregarded the notion of social ‘convergence’ (ironically, political convergence has converged distinctly towards China and economic parity is causing social disruption). All of the above has contributed towards HK’s social ‘convergence’ to overseas and the traditional places we usually look (Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, etc) or where Hong Kongers in diaspora live (US, Canada, Australia and, of course, the UK where around 1 million of us hold passports to, not including BNO passports).

    There are other issues, and seminal moments, that have cause Hong Konger’s to become more introspective and strengthen a local identity, but this would take too long to describe.

    Where we are is wholly organic and multifaceted, in knowing this as all HK people should, it brings us back to the article. The commentary is a single dimension of a long history, social, economic and political pressures that have forced HKers, who have long avoided fighting for a cause, to choose a side. The dichotomy of this choice is stark and, as the author pointed out, is lacking from Ms. Koon’s article as well as general discourse in the territory. Case in point: Ms. Koon says ‘we are all Chinese’. And just what does it mean to be ‘Chinese’? This has yet to be adequately answered by anyone. But to the author’s contention that it is difficult to understand the division between China and HK is to have ignored the historical context and look at things through an extremely reductionist view that considers only ‘historical connections, linguistic identity and geographical proximity’, however, given what I said above, only ‘geographical proximity’ really applies. Given that this article was written in a linguistic journal, this makes sense, but the belief that there are new ‘discourses’ and ‘institutions’ that were not set in motion decades ago demonstrates a lack of insight and a blindness to large geo-political and social issues in HK. Ethnic tensions (the term ‘ethnic’ as appropriate is debatable, but I will use it for simplicity’s sake) is one aspect of a larger battle for HK’s future which will only escalate given China’s intransigence against our desire for self-determination and their desire to see us fully assimilated into the mainland at some point.

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