Hong Kong’s Generational Divide

A week ago my father asked me whether I would consider leaving Hong Kong if this city became a place I could no longer call home. I told him that Hong Kong is my home, not only as a place but also as I feel a sense of belonging to the community. If I were forced to leave it would be as a refugee. It was a perspective my father accepts, but does not comprehend.

Much has been made of the generational divide within this city. The young, we are told, relate to life differently. They are insensitive to many of those values, such as pragmatism and respect, that are the bedrock on which their parents have built their lives. We are told that the young are radical, idealistic, lazy and irresponsible; and that they are spoilt and unappreciative. Of course, I’ve heard this all before, from my late grandmother. But there is a generational divide in this city, and it is far more complex than this common intergenerational moan.

Let me begin by cautioning against an overarching generalization. Hong Kong is a city of such diverse communities that it would be wrong to categorize the post-80s generation by one stereotype. This is worth stressing more as this city becomes increasingly divided, both socially and economically. The varied lifestyles this city supports have only become more distinct, and the gaps between the communities grown. There is the young politically active “troublemaker” and the materialistic corporate ingenue, both of whom represent differing realities of this city. However, if these differences are increasingly pronounced, there remain a few common threads that unite this generation.

Regardless of background, there is almost always a deep respect for family. It is a respect that pushes many young people to allow their careers to be defined by their parents. Personal happiness is so tied up with familial happiness that many are prepared to sacrifice their own wishes to please the family; to block their own sense of value and individual identity to play the role of the good son or daughter.

One of the most revealing experiences I have had has been at the homes of young political activists. The scene will be familiar to those who have watched the classic comedy series ’Til Death Do Us Part – a staunchly conservative patrician presides over a household, whose politics are based on headlines and a disinterest in details happening; his sons and daughters, liberal, educated and more world wise, tolerate his ignorance. But where the show would find fizzle and spark from these political differences, in Hong Kong politics is avoided. Often parents either do not know the political leaning of their children, or are too ignorant to understand or too apathetic to care.

The generational divide is not grounded on disrespect. Hong Kong’s youth are not all spoilt, and those who are are no more spoilt than others brought up in similar privilege across the border. Most are not lazy, but work exceptionally hard at schools and find themselves having to compete in an economy that no longer provides the same opportunities for advancement that were available a generation before.

Though there are obvious differences between the generations as global values move towards placing a greater emphasis on social justice, how the post-80s generation differ is not so much in what they value as to how they understand these values. It is here that we see a stark generational divide.

Immigrant parents, struggling to survive in a new place and among new people, define temporary or transitional homes. But their children, raised knowing only the one, define their sense of home and self by this city alone. Pragmatic communities thrown together a generation ago have with a new generation evolved to become more rooted local communities. Between the generations the bonds that tie people to a place and to its people have changed.

It is not politics that is driving the Post-80s to increasingly identify with a Hong Kong identity over a Chinese one, but a growing realisation that their identity as Chinese is itself locally defined. They are a generation for whom the Chinese identity has itself been defined to them within the context of Hong Kong. They are not radical anarchists but patriots to what they understand.

My father can not comprehend how I relate to Hong Kong. It is not merely a people and a place, or a scene in my life – I am these people and this is our place. Hong Kong shapes my understanding of myself, it gives context to all that I know and motivation to all that I do. I may share my father’s concerns, but I relate to these concerns differently. I am, after all, of another generation.

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