Mobility ‧ Masters


Helen Clara Chan

An expired passport brought back a heated discussion I shared with friends a few months ago about renewing their British National (Overseas), or “BNO”, passports. In an immigrant city like Hong Kong, where, since the 1940s, have the hearts and minds of Hongkongers, the mainland Chinese, colonial subjects, second-class citizens, new immigrants—what you may call it—truly belonged?

Prior to the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, Hong Kong was a port-city filled with colonial flavor—the Tanka and the Hakka peoples made up most of its original inhabitants, until the period preceding 1949 and after, when some 1.3 million intellectuals and members of the mainland Chinese upper-class arrived in Hong Kong. Their yearnings for stability, freedom and opportunity laid the groundwork for Hong Kong’s economy to take flight. Between 1950 to 1980, at least 1 million of Hong Kong’s population of 4 million were “escapees” from mainland China.

The movement of Hong Kong’s population is propelled by wave upon wave of migrants. The city is fueled by the skills, capital and diverse culture brought in by immigrants, among whom were our grandparents, who fought hard for better lives on the very ground beneath our feet. Together they embodied the “Lion Rock Spirit”—magnanimous, diligent and industrious in the face of hardship. Over the decades, they moulded Hong Kong into a promised land of global significance.

The first time Hongkongers “escaped” from the city followed the 1967 riots: many migrated to Nanyang to become the region’s first generation of Chinese migrants. The second exodus was during the end of the 1980s to the 1990s. At the time, although the British colonial flag had yet to give way to its HKSAR counterpart, a number of Hongkongers had begun worrying over the future of the city. According to statistics from the HKSAR government, from 1992 to 1997, 300,000 Hongkongers immigrated to places such as Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.

Regardless of when or why one arrives or leaves, moving away from familiar territory to a foreign place is a significant shift: one must surrender all that one has and re-establish life in a strange place. All who have experienced the process would understand the hardship and struggle. A recurrent theme in stories away from home is homesickness. Foreigners are seldom accepted by mainstream society, and their voices, drowned out.

Many close classmates of mine migrated to foreign places with their families before 1997. Their letters always sounded nostalgic. With less advanced technology, the only source of comfort when one thought of home was letter-writing. It took two weeks in between letters. One of my classmates moved with her family to an English county with very few Hongkongers. Barely anyone there spoke Chinese. Even though my classmates and their families spoke and wrote pretty decent English in Hong Kong, they had to start from square one in foreign countries, speaking in their tongue, and adjusting to their job culture and learning patterns. In her letters, she repeatedly queried how much time and adjustment it would take for her to find the key to survival away from home. A decade after Hong Kong’s handover to China, the Chinese mainland became the backbone of Hong Kong’s economy, and a lot of my classmates and other Hongkongers who had earlier gone overseas came back. Even though she had been away for many years, said my classmate, Hong Kong was her only home.

Along with the expansion of the mainland Chinese economy, China’s Open Door policy meant the generous flow of capital into Hong Kong’s economy. New immigrants from the Chinese mainland ceased to be second-class citizens, but VIP consumers. In 2014, Hong Kong fell out of the top three in the World Competitiveness Yearbook. The city’s GDP went from accounting for 50% of that of the nation to some 3%, overtaken by other Chinese cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. However, following China’s economic slowdown, the latest yearbook revealed Hong Kong to be home to the world’s most competitive economy. But does a perfect economy equate to a livability? According to The Washington Posts’ report on the 2013 World Values Survey, 26.8% of Hongkongers would likely reject a racially diverse neighbor, placing it on par with Malaysia, the Philippines and France.

In recent years, amid a tense political atmosphere, new immigrants who have fought their way into Hong Kong find themselves marginalised and discriminated against by the rest of Hong Kong society, singled out for their accents or language, the environment in which they grew up and their educational backgrounds.

On the other hand, as the result of one-sided pressure, “harmony” is an oft-used catchphrase by the government, who has been working to secure Hong Kong’s economy. Beijing’s interpretation of “One Country, Two Systems” in the Basic Law went beyond the experience and comprehension of Hongkongers, drawing much backlash from them; and the case of the missing booksellers in Causeway Bay had Hongkongers worrying over their personal rights and safety. Political slogans along the lines of “occupy”, “reclaiming space”, “self-determination” and “protecting one’s home” have thus surfaced, giving rise to social discord.

This has triggered yet another wave of migration among Hongkongers in their 30s to mid-40s. A number of friends have described how they have been unable to see eye to eye with their friends and colleagues over “Occupy”. Some have even fallen out with their families and spouses. The majority of the Hongkongers who wish to have minimal political involvement have retracted further into silence. They feel as though there is nothing they can do to change the circumstances—but is leaving really the answer?

When one compares between humanity and systems, it is clear that the former takes precedence over the latter. Over the past decades, people from different countries and cities, wearing different skin colours and speaking different tongues, have gathered in Hong Kong to build Hong Kong’s system and define its features and role worldwide, grooming it into a city of global significance. Hong Kong’s inclusiveness and acceptance towards different types of people—the very features that have contradicted the idea of Hongkongers’ “hearts beating as one”—have been the pride of its people and the reason why both the mainland Chinese and foreigners alike are drawn to it. A new meaning to the “Lion Rock Spirit” unfurled with the Occupy banner on Lion Rock.

Hongkongers possess both the Chinese values of humility and perseverance, and the broad vision and transparency of international citizens. But regardless of location or nationality, one thing is for sure: the Hong Kong spirit will remain firmly rooted in their souls.