Tolerant, diverse, multicultural: People are at the heart of the Hong Kong story

Evan reflects on The Hong Kong Story, a documentary produced just before the 1997 handover. It documents a different city, one not defined by the flag but by its people. It was a city that recognised its diverse ethnic, cultural and national identities, not only among western immigrants but also among its Chinese community. This was the Hong Kong that Evan remembers.

編按: Evan 於本文回顧於 1997 年回歸前拍攝的「香江故事」。該片記錄了一個與現在截然不同的城市,一個不是由旗幟而由其人民定義的城市。這個城市不僅承認其來自西方的移民,也承認了華人社區中的民族多樣性、文化和民族特色。 Evan 認為這才是香港。

*  *  *

The Hong Kong Story is an hour long documentary made in 1997 to coincide with the territories return to Chinese sovereignty. Produced by Elaine Forsgate Marden, it is also a memoir to a city, both in the story it chose to tell and in style, that had become home to a diverse community of people.

It was the first televised documentary on the history of Hong Kong I would watch. At the time of its first airing I was a teenager, preparing with a degree of trepidation to go abroad for university. I was also, like everyone I knew, acutely aware that we lived on the cusp of a historic moment. 1997 represented to Britain the end of empire, and to China the end of a century of humiliation. But this Hong Kong was also a home — and to those of us for whom Hong Kong was all we knew, me and my family included, The Hong Kong Story helped us reflect on a distinct history, culture and way of life that was uniquely our own.

The Hong Kong Story features interviews with several members of Hong Kong’s most prominent and influential families. These included the Li’s and Choa’s; the Hotungs and Lobos; the Kadoories and Harilelas; and the Forsgates and Jardines — all families that have helped shape Hong Kong’s history, and names that today continue to resonant, in trade, property and finance, and in numerous schools and charitable associations.

These families are representatives of genuinely international community. This Hong Kong was dominated by Scots, Jews, Parsees and Indians, as well as the Chinese. Americans and Europeans were from the colonies beginnings well represented, as were other Asians within a generation of the city’s establishment. Americans were, after the British, the second largest importers of opium, and substantial fortunes were made by families such as the Bennett-Forbes.

It was through co-operation, often across cultural and racial lines, that many of Hong Kong’s most important social and educational institutions were founded.

The University of Hong Kong was founded on the close friendship of Fiona Shaw, the wife of governor Frederick Lugard, whose wish was to establish an institution of higher education for Hong Kong people, and the Parsi financier and businessman Sir Hormusjee Modi.

Equally as significant was the founding in 1870 of the Tung Wah Group, the oldest and largest charitable organisation in Hong Kong. A permanent exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Science charts the history of the organisation, with a particular focus on the Chinese magnates that have supported it over the years. What is sadly not mentioned is its roots: it was founded with government as well as community support to be a distinctly Chinese organisation not because it represented Hong Kong, but to represent a Chinese community within a multi-racial and multi-cultural city.

In our museums today, and in the political discourse in both establishment and localist circles, pervades a Chinese-centric view of Hong Kong. It is a shame, as a more complete and honest picture would also be one of tolerance and inclusion, that embraces diversity of a truly multi-cultural society.

Hong Kong was a city built on immigration, and by immigrants. The values of the immigrant pervades each first generation, that are driven more by opportunity than by any sense of connection with the land or community. The ethics of the China trade was set by profit, and many a family fortune was spirited away from the city to a homeland left behind. The Keswick family, of Swire, epitomised this relationship with their great estates in Scotland.

What is less often remembered is that such immigrant motivations and practice applied equally to the majority of Chinese families who were themselves new to this city. For many, the promise of work no more alluring as the hope of a stable and orderly society that British administration was perceived to represent.

A few years ago an old Hong Kong Chinese family shared with me photographs of their family shrine in Shandong Province. The ornate and luxuriously decorated shrine was part of a large complex of courtyard dwellings built on ancestral lands. It was clearly built to make a statement.

“When we left we were peasant farmers,” I was told by the family patriarch. “This was all built with Hong Kong money.”

What he did not say was that the money was made through the distribution of sale of opium, which was left in Chinese hands.

The old man continued. “The Communists destroyed everything. They killed my cousins. All our family were killed,” he said, with barely a sign of emotion. “We survived because we came to Hong Kong.”

Today the family has spread further, to North America. This is their security. “Never trust the Communists,” I am told. “But never say I told you that.”

The family has also returned to the Mainland. Much of their ancestral lands have returned into family ownership, and their ancestral shrine is again being constructed. In this way not only did Hong Kong money help build, and now rebuild China; but also, and for me more importantly, it has been the Hong Kong Chinese who in many important ways have reseeded the barren cultural soils of a Peoples Republic, reconnecting modern China with its Chinese roots.

Indeed, it was in the streets and settlements of Hong Kong that the true diversity of what it meant to be Chinese could be seen: between the Cantonese speaking Punti, with their deep sense of pride in their connection to their perceived Sung ancestry, and the great Hakka families with their distinct dark clothing and broad hats. As my late grandmother would remind me, the Hakka were only ”guest families” with whom our ancestors, the Sung, merely tolerated on their land.

The Hokla, who welcomed the British and from whose language the name Hong Kong is derived, were looked down upon and distrusted by all Chinese. I was raised with stories of the Hokla as semi-barbaric “big feet people” who lived on boats. And yet it is among the Hokla that the lineage of many of Hong Kong’s great Eurasian families can be traced, for it was because of their status as outsiders that bonded them to the first Europeans. And it was into an Eurasian family that my grandmother, for all her prejudice, had married.

As a child I could walk in innocence and security between squatter settlements draped in Nationalists and Communist flags. I bought dried fish from Hokla grandmothers who in broken Cantonese spoke to my mother in pride of husbands lost fighting the Nationalist cause, and of their grandchildren in Taiwan. In private function rooms around dark wood mahjong tables I sat as men loudly proclaimed the coming Communist tide and the end of Western imperialism, in hotels owned by Indians and Jews that served tea to the bourgeoisie.

Even today, one may ascend the lifts to Jardine Houses more rarified heights, where Cheong Sam wearing hostesses serve drinks to an English speaking multi-ethnic trading aristocracy under a Union flag. For some in the room, this flag, which that had once flown in Stanley prison during the Second World War, remains a potent reminder of a shared experience of belonging.

Far more than opium, Britain’s legacy in South China is a city that successfully embraced the complex and diverse ethnic, cultural and national identities of its people. From a bad and unequal treaty sprang an international port city that would represent both security and order, and the promise of a better life, on the doorstep of an intolerant and turbulent ancient empire.

Hong Kong’s identity is shaped by the history of its people; its values those that have allowed complex and diverse people to live and work together, first in an age of racial politics and empire, and then in an age of cold war national and political ideologies. What defines Hong Kong is not Confucian or Western values, nor a Chinese or foreign community, nor in such a small territory is it the land or the flag that flies. Tolerant, diverse and multicultural, Hong Kong was far more than just a British or Chinese city.

“Hong Kong’s essence has always been its people.” The words of Chan Siu Jeung, whose family’s fortunes fluctuated with those of Hong Kong for much of the 20th century, ring as true to me know as they did those 20 years ago. The Hong Kong Story is the story of the Hong Kong people.

These words were then said with cautious optimism. “If China sincerely want to let Hong Kong govern itself as part of One Country, Two Systems, we will be in for a wonderful next century,” said Andrew Choa. I wonder what he would think today?

The Hong Kong Story may be viewed here:

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