Law provides the hard edge of identity, but identity is fluid, ambiguous and ambivalent.
A state defines its citizens by nationality law. In Hong Kong, the most fundamental legal status is that of the Hong Kong Permanent Resident (HKPR). He alone enjoys the right of abode here. The Basic Law sets out an attractive list of rights and freedoms to which he is entitled; it also states in no uncertain terms only a person who falls into one or the other of 6 specified categories has that status. Numerous court cases have been fought to establish whether a person falls inside or outside these categories, some going to the highest court of the land. Even after the highest court had given its judgment, the National People’s Congress saw fit to step in to re-interpret the law in order to give it a narrower meaning and put that beyond challenge.
It is evidence of Hong Kong’s unique history and make-up of its community of long-standing that to be a HKPR a person is not required to be Chinese. A non-Chinese person who has long resided in this City and taken it as his or her home, is every bit a HKPR as a Chinese national born in Hong Kong. It is only right that this is so. From more than a hundred years ago, Parsees, Portuguese, British, Indians, Pakistani, Nepalese and Russian, had been coming here to trade and some eventually to settle. They had helped found the oldest university, build all manners of civil engineering works, grand or everyday, and the multi-culture they had brought with them had enriched the life and culture of Hong Kong, and made it a City like no other city in China.
Even the Chinese here are like no other Chinese. For, many of them came here as refugees from the mainland of China, fleeing from the turmoil of war, hunger, poverty and political oppression. They had brought with them a spirit of endurance as well as a deep love of the Chinese cultural heritage, even as that heritage was being systematically destroyed in the Cultural Revolution which swept the mainland. They value the freedom and the protection of the rule of law that Hong Kong provided.
This multi-culturalism coloured Hong Kong’s identity. One can see it in buildings, in institutions, in the languages of daily communication, in the wide variety of food and fashion, and above all, in the make-up of the identity of the individuals, the “Hongkongers”, an identity which is beyond and above the law and defies and eludes its careful definition. We are neither Chinese nor Westerner, and we are both. One may be HKPR by law but is a Hongkongers only by choice: by choosing to identify oneself with this place, its core values and its destiny, and express oneself in ways which are characteristic of its life and culture.
But a Hongkonger’s identification with Hong Kong is seldom unalloyed. In the colonial days, it was tinged with guilt and ambivalence: the government may be benign but colonialism was indefensible. It was also troubled by a sense of impermanence, and because permanence and reality are inextricably linked, also by a sense of unreality, that one’s real home was elsewhere, some other land, maybe some obscure village, and some other era, recent or remote, from which one’s ancestors issued. Identity is nine parts memory: one’s own, one’s family’s, and the collective memory of the City, and the memory is not all sweet.
And yet, when came under threat, this illusive and ambivalent identity suddenly hardened into the core existence which we must give all to preserve. In the early 1980s, the Sino- British negotiation over of Hong Kong made the post-war generation as well as their parents sit up and examine in their own hearts what were the most valuable characteristics of the City without which life would be intolerable. They asserted that the change of sovereignty should not alter the Hong Kong way of life. And their collective voice was heard all over the globe.
That passionate cry of identity under threat was heard around the world again 17 years after the return of sovereignty, just as the generation born after 1997 is reaching adulthood. China was bewildered and dismayed that “the people’s hearts have not undergone reunification”. Rather than readily accepting their identity as Chinese like the rest of the nation, increasingly there was reaching back into memories of a different Hong Kong. As the conscientious political programme of homogenization and economic connection with the mainland was pursued, the anxiety of people in Hong Kong for their own identity and the uniqueness of their City heightened, until that day in September they cried out in anguish: Let us be masters of our own fate! It is our job to save our City! And the world knew the Umbrella Movement which spilled into the much portrayed streets.
As the ancient ethnic minority communities dwindled and felt squeezed out, a law against racial discrimination was passed, a law so imperfect that its effectiveness was questioned. Yet, in the remarkable time and space of Occupy during the Umbrella Movement, a small band of young people from these communities decided to declare their identification with the fight for Hong Kong’s future by holding a demonstration under the Umbrella banner. Their walk swelled with Chinese and non-Chinese. That gesture spoke louder than the law.
But the central, crucial question remains: Who are we? Who am I? What makes up a “Hongkonger”? Does he or she exist? Does it have a legitimate existence? Does it matter? Can that identity be eluded or denied? In times of comforting ordinariness, one half frivolously points to one’s taste in hot lemon tea, sweet buns and char chaan tang — the tea house in Hong Kong style. But it is the nature of identity that it cannot always be comfortable, and it is in those moments of exquisite anguish that one becomes most acutely aware of one’s identity, that one can neither live with it nor without.