Just Because

Hong Kong – So familiar yet so alien

A short time ago I had the opportunity to visit Hong Kong for the first time. As a Cantonese speaker and Chinese from Singapore, I’ve always felt a strong affinity for Hong Kong. Its music, drama and cuisine informed a large part of my childhood and TVB, Maggie Cheung and Sam Hui were amongst my favourites, mixed in with Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Flashdance.

I’d imagined a certain level of homecoming in my experience. After all, I still speak Cantonese (not as well or frequently) and I still enjoy Cantonese music and eat Cantonese-style food almost every day. But here’s what I found: everything seemed somewhat familiar and I was constantly grinning to myself at finding scenes recalled from the countless videos of television dramas my family followed slavishly. The food was expectedly delicious and surprisingly affordable. Every evening I enjoyed an old favourite and returned to the hotel happily satisfied.

When I got to the classroom (the real purpose of my visit), things felt fairly comfortable too. Space is tight in Hong Kong so inches were measured and classrooms are compact. Not very different from Singapore in that sense but I realized a number of factors separated the two city-states. Whilst both are cosmopolitan business centres, Hong Kong remains largely monocultural and Singapore has always been multiethnic. Sure, the Chinese dominate in both but Singapore has slightly more shades of colour in its composition whereas few other races, apart from foreign business people, are visible in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s homogeneity has greater impact than is properly understood. The average person on the street in Hong Kong speaks, reads and communicates almost entirely in Cantonese. English is taught at some schools and many are learning how to use Mandarin/Putonghua/Guoyu (China’s national language).

I’m not sure if it is an advantage or a disadvantage. After all, the line between heterogeneity and fragmentation is not all that thick. However, I will stay such dominance admits less room for difference. Homogeneous societies place expectations on its members and exerts pressure on them to conform to its norms. So people who are different, odd, unusual and mavericks tend to have a hard time in these societies.

Anyway, I have been trying to understand why things felt strangely alien in Hong Kong and at this point I think it is because I had fallen for the arguments I had read in my own work about ‘Greater China’. I had half persuaded myself this elusive pan-Chinese space within which common ethnic understandings dwelt would allow me, in my Australian-influenced Cantonese way to call Hong Kong, if not home, at least a cousin’s home. I don’t think it can be so.

I left Hong Kong with very mixed feelings. It is sweetly reminiscent of childhood’s delights but its reality today is much different. There is a heavy tension in the air over the overwhelming presence of mainland Chinese. Hong Kongers are tired of being overcrowded by their mainland cousins, who flock there to avail themselves of the city-state’s better hospitalization and luxury stores. And it was impossible to avoid the numbers who were visiting Hong Kong. At every point, from the hotel and streets to the MTR trains, there were more mainland Chinese than one could imagine. Don’t ask me how I could differentiate one group of Chinese from another, it was obvious for the most part even without speaking. Maybe one day I will write about but not now.

At present every one of the minute distinctions that separate mainland Chinese and Hong Kong Chinese are the subject of much debate. While Hong Kongers argue those from the mainland do not know how to behave, have little respect for the rule of law and flash their money around, the mainland Chinese are happy to enjoy themselves in what they think of as one of China’s outpost. Hong Kongers feel genuine disdain and deep resentment for the nouveau riche mainlanders.

The tension moves just below the surface and I suspect it won’t be long before Hong Kong decides to legislate to protect themselves from the ‘invasion’. They have already since my return to Australia, put in place some rules about how many cans of baby milk formula can be bought and carried back to China. Of course, many of those who continue to do such bulk buying are responding to fears of food contamination that have already proven fatal.

So the question remains: what does this mean for the notion of a ‘Greater China’? I have no real answers but I am troubled by this absence of amicability between people who do share many cultural traits. I’d imagined the gap between a Hong Konger and a mainland Chinese to be a manageable one. I’d imagined that at the street level, not the state level, there would sufficient sense of a common origin for people to open themselves to each other. I hadn’t bargained on the 100 years or so under the British to make that much difference. After all, Singapore experienced British colonization too and there are sufficient familial resemblances for people in Singapore and across East Asia to want to consume media content from Hong Kong.

Maybe the notion of Greater China is bunkum. Something dreamt up by media industries desperate to expand markets for their products.

Or maybe it is a case of wanting to see and hear people who are sufficiently similar undergoing experiences that are different because they take place in a different part of the world.


I'm a research fellow at an Australian university where I work on a number of projects. These include projects to do with new media and migration and the Chinese diaspora in Australia, projects on the Malaysian internet, ethno-religious issues in Singapore and Malaysia. And, before I forget many of the photos I use on this site were taken by my sister, Jessie and myself. All rights are reserved.