《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.]
Ruth Y.Y. Hung is Assistant Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature.