Which country are you from? I’m from Hong Kong. So you’re Chinese. No, I’m not. But isn’t Hong Kong in China? Yes, but they’re separate too. But you do have a Chinese passport? I don’t actually. I have a British passport. Got it. You’re British. Technically yes, but I definitely wouldn’t call myself British. Hold on. So you’re Chinese but not really Chinese, British but not really British.
Yes, that’s exactly right.
The three main allegiances that people from Hong Kong typically lay claim to are British, Chinese and Hong Konger. In recent years, the old British colonial flag of Hong Kong has increased in appearances at pro-democracy, anti-Beijing protests around the city – a development that has incensed mainlanders and Chinese officials. When protestors have been asked why they brandish flags which, for many, symbolise years of foreign occupation and oppression, they would often answer by pointing out that Hong Kong is still being subject to the control of a foreign power – the only thing that has changed is the country doing it. At least the British acknowledged that they were ruling us, they say.
Though my parents would never go so far as to publicly declare allegiance to the British, they, like many Hong Kongers, retain some level of nostalgia for the days of British rule. I recall the time when the last British Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, returned to the city after the handover for a book tour. My parents, serious civil servants rarely flustered by any celebrity news or happenings, made sure that our entire family were first in line at the signing event – an occasion captured by picture and frame which still hangs prominently on our living room wall. In fact, the former Governor is invariably swarmed by reverent crowds armed with colonial flags whenever he returns to the city, typically to cries of adoration and pleas for help.
Being born in Hong Kong in 1996 means that I was born into the twilight months of British rule of my birthplace, before it was handed back to China twenty years ago to this day – a day many consider to also mark the end of the British Empire when the sun did finally set on it for good. Though those months now lay beyond the reach of memory, the spectre of the British has followed me ever since in the form of the British passport I hold.
The benefits of possessing one of the most powerful passports are obvious, but it presents some difficulties as well – specifically, difficulties to do with identity, a problem which has in recent years come into sharp relief. I acutely remember the first time I was acquainted with the British national anthem after moving to the UK, and the discomfort I felt as I contemplated whether or not to sing along. Though I am technically British, calling myself British was as alien a thought as calling myself Rwandan. And so I didn’t sing along. But that experience got me thinking: which country do I associate with? Which national anthem should I sing?
Anyone from Hong Kong will tell you that every night, the major television networks are all required to blare out the March of the Volunteers – China and therefore Hong Kong’s national anthem – along with slick video promoting the country and the national spirit. But in an ironic twist of familiarity breeding contempt, the daily dose of propaganda has perhaps inculcated a deep disdain for a Mandarin song which isn’t even sung in the same language that Hong Kongers mostly speak. Last year, the Hong Kong Football Association was fined by FIFA because its fans have consistently booed its own national anthem before games. Fans have even turned their backs when the song is played, preferring instead to sing local Cantonese songs. This should be unsurprising given that only 3% of young Hong Kongers today identify as Chinese or broadly Chinese, a historic low that runs counter to the prevailing belief two decades ago that Hong Kong will grow closer to China with the passing of time. What has happened is the exact opposite.
Does this suggest that Hong Kongers want to become independent from China? Recent polling would suggest otherwise, with just one in six supporting outright independence, and even fewer who think that it will actually happen. However, the city’s pro-independence movement is stronger than it has ever been, particularly amongst the youth, as demonstrated by the stunning election victories of several radical pro-independence activists, the youngest of whom is just 23 years old, in the most recent legislative council elections – so much so that Beijing was impelled to quickly intervene and strip them of their seats.
For many of the city’s youth, independence is the obvious path to take to detach itself from the oppressive grip of Beijing. But for just as many Hong Kongers, not only is seeking independence a fool’s errand but also a near-treasonous act of turning their backs on fellow countrymen. The generational divide on this issue is clearly demarcated. The older generations are more likely to have been born and raised in the mainland and relocated to Hong Kong later in their lives, or perhaps have parents who deeply identify as Chinese. That is not the case with many young Hong Kongers, who often do not have significant ties to the mainland and maybe even, like me, hold a passport not of the “motherland”.
The division and polarisation in Hong Kong’s society today can be viewed as a fervent debate over the identity of the city, not dissimilar to revolutions of the past and present. In October later this year, Catalonia will be holding a referendum on independence from Spain, a region like Hong Kong in that both have different cultures, histories and languages than their respective mainland. Singapore is another example which many pro-independence Hong Kongers like to highlight. The two cities’ similarities in size as well as the comparative size of their undesirable neighbours (Malaysia in Singapore’s case) makes Singapore a beacon of hope for many pro-independence activists.
The question of what country to identify with is not an easy one to answer, not for me and not for Hong Kong either. A complicated history of decades of British colonial rule and now the spectre of perpetual Chinese oversight means that the city is seemingly irrevocably pitted into opposing camps: those who see themselves as Chinese and those for whom such a title represents the antithesis of their deepest values. For many years, Hong Kong’s tourism board has proudly declared the city to be “Where East Meets West”, encapsulating it’s melting pot of Western influences and Eastern sensibilities. With that in mind, it is perhaps not so surprising that such an eclectic place is finding it difficult to come to an agreement about which side the scales tip when it comes to its identity.