Cultural Amnesia – Where does Hong Kong belong?

Cultural amnesia: a condition where one loses a sense of one’s past. A summer visit to the Hong Kong History museum provoked this idea: it presented a strikingly different view of Hong Kong-China relations from what I had known before. The island’s history was painted as a series of events that saw its destiny as being reunited with its motherland. The exhibition ended with the glorious 1997 handover to mainland China that saw ‘falling leaves return to their roots’ (luo ye gui gen). The black and white footage playing in another section of the museum showed the fear and sense of helplessness local people felt as Japanese troops took control of the island. Hong Kong had been conquered by Japan in the bitter winter of 1941 and remained under its rule for three years and eight months. It was a politically turbulent time in which Hong Kong felt like a vulnerable child forcefully separated from its mother. Most shocking were protests for help from locals who wished to be reunified with mainland China, emphasising its shared destiny. It was a powerful moment in history.

The mother and child were no longer one; the umbilical cord was cut and a new individual was formed. Is there an innate sense of longing for motherly love, and desire to be at one again?

This version of history contests the opinions of many Hong Kong locals I spoke to about Hong Kong- China relations. Most expressed their dislike of the influx of mainlanders settling on the island; the increasing number of mainlander mothers-to-be taking up hospital beds has burdened state resources, and the milk power incident, for example, has infuriated local people. Shocking statistics feature in Shanghaiist’s recent article: ‘a recent survey conducted in November by the Hong Kong University showed that 31.8 percent of Hong Kong residents harbour ‘negative’ feelings towards people from mainland China, while sentiment about Japanese people remains relatively warm in comparison.’ The anti-China sentiment is growing; Alex Lo from South China Morning Post writes:

‘Across the border, it is bad land. And it is leaking badness and contaminating Hong Kong with corrupt officials and “locust” visitors, sometimes literally, urinating and defecating in public, or spreading a potential flu pandemic.’

There appears to be a simple solution: remove the mainlanders and Hong Kong will be a better place. Undeniably there is a problem: the island is small, crowded, and unable to sustain a high population of migrants. But what stands out is the extreme contempt that some Hong Kong people feel towards mainlanders. This paranoia is growing rapidly and infesting the minds of some Hong Kong people, and a clear divide is forming between locals and mainlanders. Locals see mainlanders as rude and ‘uncivilised’, from a place where politics is corrupt and ‘totalitarian’. Hong Kong, on the other hand, is a wealthy, progressive, and liberal democratic society; its people benefit from a high standard of living on average.  It was hailed as the jewel of Asia, was one of the four East Asian Tiger economies in the 1980s, along with South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan, and became one of the world’s most important financial capitals.

The topic of Hong Kong-China relations is complex. Hong Kong is going through an important and pressing phase of identity politics; as mainland China’s economy is growing at a rapid rate it faces increasing pressure to submit to Beijing. It holds an ambivalent attitude towards the mainland, on the one hand viewing it as backward and inferior, and on the other as a place of investment and growth. This is not surprising; Hong Kong island was adopted by another mother, Britain, in 1842 as a prize in the Opium Wars. Though it is surprising it did not form a stronger attachment towards mainland China after its long separation. It was in fact only recently, in 1997, that it was returned to mainland China. It currently falls under the ‘One CountryTwo Systems’ policy as a SAR (Special Administrative Region), like its neighbour Macau. Its political position is like no other, which makes the situation more complex than it appears.

It formed its distinctive identity during the time of British rule. A positively-viewed period, this was a time of growing economic stability, in which living standards and employment rose. It was an exciting time for Hong Kong and the start of its global success story. The manufacturing industry expanded. A glimpse of this is shown in the museum’s 1960s section, in which a display of iconic items such as Camel flasks, watches, and crockery are showcased – items which were mass produced and sold across the world as Hong Kong products. The famous, upbeat, ‘We Love Hong Kong’ song played repeatedly in the background, symbolising a time in which Hong Kong was lifting itself out of poverty, a sign that the ‘good times’ were approaching. This economic success partly was due to the mass cheap labour available; ironically this is how mainland China has since made its riches – take a look at the number of items that have a ‘Made in China’ label, for example.

An influx of mainlanders arrived in Hong Kong in the 1980s to find work; many swam across the sea illegally to reach the island. The journeys these migrants took have shaped the island’s fate; they form an important part of Hong Kong today. A high number of Hong Kong people are descended from mainland China, and have relatives across the border whom they frequently visit. Even many famous celebrities who have made their names in Hong Kong are from the mainland, for example Carina Lau and Siu Fong Fong. Hong Kong and mainland China’s pasts and destinies are interwoven, and are inseparable in many ways. The contempt towards mainlanders is clearly contradictory, as many locals have strong blood connections with the mainland. As Hong Kong and mainland China forge closer relations, there will be an increasing need to recognise their shared pasts. Why can’t their pasts be celebrated?

A cultural amnesia has pervaded the island, obscuring its long-lost connection with its motherland. Local screenwriter Ivy Ho commented at a Hong Kong’s International Literary Festival debate that ‘Hong Kong people have not looked back; there has been a loss of Hong Kong heritage, and local people do not fetishise memory or sentiment. People only look forward to the constantly moving narrative of wealth.’ This overemphasis on wealth has brought a lack of appreciation for arts and local history, which is sad and detrimental for the creation of future creative talent. The economic success of the island has masked its once-vulnerable past, and produced a new identity. Although there has been a recent attempt to revive its artistic heritage, with the West Kowloon arts centre and its aim to make arts for all, it falls short as there is little local interest. So has cultural amnesia severed the link between Hong Kong and mainland China?

As a child grows, it becomes independent, develops its own voice, and begins to stand on its own two feet.

The language of democracy, rights, and law is used by Hong Kong people as a way to distinguish themselves from their motherland. ‘Hong Kong has never been a democracy in the traditional sense’ (Slate); it was Chris Patten, the last British governor, who brought democracy to the island. It is currently working towards its 2017 goal for universal suffrage, and is at a critical point in discussing the future of its political system. It is more important to ask what exactly democracy means to Hong Kong. To Anson Chan, a former member of Legco (Legislative Council of Hong Kong), its rights and freedoms are its distinctive edge. It does not want to become another Chinese city, follow a Communist regime, and be swallowed by Beijing. Democracy here is clearly a weapon to defend Hong Kong in its power-with the mainland. Would Hong Kong be able to maintain its strengths if it were no longer democratic, but rather under the rule of Beijing? It is at present not fully democratic; its niche is its laissez-faire economy, and this is what attracts global investment. Chan adds that the island cannot compete with the mainland in terms of resources; therefore it needs to find a way to maintain its ‘unique’ identity in the future for it to continue to play a significant role in the world. If something else other than democracy allowed the island to keep this uniqueness, would it still be so insistent on democracy?

It is clear the issue is not as simple as it appears to be. There is an actual problem with the mainlander population flooding into Hong Kong, and there are practical solutions to resolve this if the island is to sustain itself. There is an obvious paranoia that some Hong Kong people are attached to, but the bigger picture is that Hong Kong and China share an interwoven and complicated past. Hong Kong is not simply a fountain of goodness and mainlanders are not just polluting the island.

Memory is a powerful thing. The past serves to remind us of why things are the way they are. Cultural amnesia has constructed a brick wall between Hong Kong and mainland China. It has taken over the minds of many, washing away the island’s fragile past.

 Mother and child reunited, both express different opinions, but both care about the same thing.

Can both take a step back, in the presence of each other, to remember the past they once shared? Can Hong Kong and mainland China find ways to move beyond this brick wall?

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