Friday, 24 May 2013

Life as a Foreigner in Taiwan - Of High School Students Interviewing Foreigners

In my post about my first impressions after coming back to Taipei from Hong Kong, I mentioned that sometimes Taiwanese high school students interview "foreigners" (meaning, I guess, Westerners) on the street. This is a kind of school assignment in Taiwan which is apparently very popular.

Well, today it happened to me again. I was sitting at Yamazaki, on the campus of National Taiwan University. I was studying Chinese; two days ago I bought a silly book at 7-11, called "這次是我愛上妳" (This time it's me who's fallen in love with you). I chose it because the books from regular bookstores are too difficult to read, and the other books from 7-11 are manga or horror books, which I don't like. So I simply picked this one.  As a man, I feel pretty ashamed to read this sort of stuff which is obviously made for a female audience; but anyway, back to the topic.

I was studying Chinese, when suddenly I saw three people, a guy and two girls, coming towards me with bright smiles on their faces. It took me a few seconds to understand what they were up to. When I saw that the  guy was holding a piece of paper, a pen and a camera, I realized they wanted to interview me. "Excuse me, can you help us with a project? Do you have time?" the guy asked. 

Actually, they had already 'invaded' my table, so how could I have said no? Had they talked to me on the street I could have said I had no time for an interview; but in the cafe', I was basically trapped and had no way to escape. 

As I already explained in my previous post, when I first came to Taiwan I did not mind being interviewed by students. But now, this just makes me feel as though I were something totally different from the rest of the people around me. In Hong Kong, I felt just like a normal person among other persons, but here in Taiwan I am a 外國人, a foreigner; a curiosity, if you will. Some people may like to be different, others not; I guess it depends on your character. 

So, there I was, sitting at a table surrounded by a group of Taiwanese students. The guy asked me to write my name and my home country on a piece of paper. 

"Where do you come from?" he asked.

"I come from Italy."

All of them said "Oooh!" (I don't know what this "oooh" meant, though).
Then he asked me the usual question, which is exactly the one I'd like to avoid: "Why did you come to Taiwan?"

I have two options; I can either lie and invent some plausible story, or just tell the truth. Well, I didn't really have the time to come up with a story. Besides, when I lie my face turns red and I get very nervous. So, I just told them that I had come to Taiwan for love. Then one of the girls, a very cute one with a sweet smile, asked me: "Did you two get married?"

Well, would I be sitting in a cafe' in the afternoon reading a Chinese book if I had married her? Hopefully not. Anyhow, they already understood from my expression what the answer was, and they laughed. And so did I. 

"What do you think of Taiwanese people?" was the next question.

I said: "Taiwanese people are very nice"; they smiled. I paused, and then added: "At the beginning". They looked pretty surprised, but still smiled. 


"Everyone in Taiwan is nice when you first meet them", I said. "But when you become good friends, they change. For example, if I am wearing ugly shoes when I first meet someone, he or she will never say 'Your shoes are ugly'. But if you get close to each other, they will just say this sort of things. My European friends are usually the opposite; the closer we get, the nicer we become. But in Taiwan, I often made the experience that people who at the beginning were sweet and friendly, afterwards changed and showed me their 'real self' which they didn't show at the beginning; some of them even turned out to have a pretty bad temper and get angry very easily." 

Please don't misunderstand; I am not suggesting everyone in Taiwan has a bad temper. I shall explain in a future post what I mean exactly.

They asked me another question that I can't remember, and then the interview was over. We took the customary picture together (which will be part of their presentation, I assume), then they thanked me and left.

I went back to studying Chinese, but a few minutes later, I saw another group of people approaching. This time there were two guys and two girls. The girls were in charge of the interview, and the guys of filming. 

I have to say that this group was completely different from the previous one. They were much more talkative, and they seemed more interested in what I had to say. The interview also lasted longer and, to be honest, this time I truly enjoyed it because they were really nice, funny and curious (I wanted to use the word 'passionate', but perhaps that would be too much).

The first questions were, of course, what is my name and where I come from. The most interesting thing about them was the focus of their interview. The third question was: "What do you think about Taiwanese boys and girls?" 

I didn't really understand what they meant; they explained they wanted to know if there is any difference in men-women relationships between Taiwan and Europe. I said that, in my opinion, Taiwanese tend to accept gender roles more than Europeans. For instance, some girls want their boyfriends to pay everything for them, they want their husband to be the main 'bread earner', or they expect their boyfriends to carry their bags, spoil them etc. (again, I am oversimplifying and basing what I say on some of my experiences).

Then they asked me a really funny question: "How do you think Taiwanese girls look like?"

That was totally unexpected. I can't imagine they're going to show this kind of interview to their classmates and teachers! Anyway, I looked at the girl who was sitting next to me, and I must admit, she was absolutely beautiful and cute (fairly enough, the other one was pretty, too, but that's a matter of taste). So, the words came out of my mouth almost automatically: "I think Taiwanese girls are cute ... and pretty." I wasn't sure if I should go on, but, well, I just said it: "and sexy." When I said sexy, they laughed out loud. 

We chatted for a while. They asked me, of course, why I came to Taiwan. They also wanted to know if I can speak Chinese. At that point, I showed them my book full of notes to prove that my Chinese still needs a lot of improvement. But they were very impressed I was reading a book at all. 

"This is a stupid book," I said. "Look!" I showed them the cover, and they laughed. "I feel so ashamed to read this kind of stuff in public that I always put my hand on the cover when I'm on the MRT."

They also asked me a few questions about Italy: what places they should visit if they go travelling there, and so on. I think the interview lasted for around fifteen minutes, or even more. They were very friendly, and also relaxed. Most students usually seem in a hurry, as if they wanted to finish the interview as quickly as possible. But they weren't. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask them to send me the picture.   

As I said, I did enjoy this last interview. But this experience somehow also confirmed the feeling I had when I came back from Hong Kong around a week ago. I wonder if there is any other country in the world where high school students walk around on a campus interviewing foreigners. Apparently, 'we' foreigners are seen as something different, something locals are curious about, but also very distant from. Interviews are one of the funny parts of the love-hate relationship between Taiwan and the West. I just can't help thinking that foreigners are often seen as 'status symbol objects', a sort of cool decoration. 

I remember that when I came to Taiwan the first time I had a very interesting experience. One of my Taiwanese friends asked me to go to her university for a presentation. Students had to talk about their experiences with language exchange partners or pen pals. Most of her classmates only corresponded with their foreign friends, but I was in Taiwan and she could bring to her class the real me instead of a mere picture. So, I agreed to help her. My friend gave the presentation, and afterwards the other students gathered around us and asked me questions. 

To be fair, they were all very nice and friendly, no doubt. But honestly, I felt as if I was an animal in a zoo; a very special animal, for sure, who can talk and wears clothes, but still... 

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Taipei's Umbrella Thieves

Taiwan is a very rainy place. Downpours can be heavy and last not only for a whole day, but for several days without interruption. 

Many shops and public places have at their entrance umbrella holders. It is a common habit in Taiwan to put one's umbrella into the holder before entering a store or other indoor areas. The purpose of these umbrella holders is - I presume - to prevent the floor from getting dirty and slippery. This might be a rational idea, but this habit has a very annoying side effect: Umbrella thefts.

Apparently, there are nice people who, having forgotten their own umbrella, believe that they have the right to take others'. It has already happened to me three times that my umbrella was stolen ... Okay, umbrellas are not expensive, so this is definitely not going to ruin me financially. Nevertheless, I find it extremely irritating. First of all, it is a matter of principle: This is my umbrella and I don't want anyone to take it from me without my permission. Second, if your umbrella is stolen you will, of course, get drenched, unless you decide to steal someone else's umbrella and so create a domino effect of umbrella thefts.

During my stay in Hong Kong, where this habit is not widespread, I had completely forgotten about this Taiwanese phenomenon. But I was gently reminded today by a nice guy.

It's a hot rainy day in Taipei, with a heavy downpour (I don't think Europeans can imagine how heavy rain can be here). I went to the NTU library, where there was a big umbrella holder at the entrance. I put my umbrella there and was about to go inside, when I noticed a guy 'examining' various umbrellas. He took one out, looked at it, then put it inside again, and repeated the same process several times. I thought he didn't remember which umbrella was his, but the colours and shapes of the ones he took out were so different that I became suspicious. I hid behind the door and kept looking at him. 

Then, he finally chose an umbrella and was about to go away. At that moment I came out and stared at him. I am absolutely sure he saw me, but he, nonchalantly, simply put back the umbrella and took another one. When he opened it, I saw that it was broken. I assume that he wanted to quietly replace his broken umbrella with an intact one.    

It's not the end of the world if my umbrella gets stolen, but I wonder why I have to leave my umbrella outside of shops or libraries that do not guarantee it will still be there when I go out. One day I even left a shop, because the owner insisted I put the umbrella outside. My old umbrella had been stolen that very day, and I did not want the same thing to happen again.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Two Months in Hong Kong - And Back to Taipei

After spending two months in Hong Kong, on Saturday I came back to Taipei. Since I had already lived in Taiwan for more than a year, I decided that it was about time to try out something else, and I chose Hong Kong. Some friends of mine asked me why Hong Kong. "There is not much to see," one of them said. "I spent there a day and visited everything. You will get bored", said another. Still, I do not regret 

The Feeling of Coming Back To Taipei

After living in the bustling, supermodern, vibrant Hong Kong, coming back to Taipei felt like going from a big city to a town. Not that Taipei is small, but it just feels like that when compared to the gigantic cosmopolitan financial centre that is Hong Kong.

Interestingly enough, Hong Kong, despite being part of China, feels far away from it. You hardly hear any Mandarin on the street, and, as I explained in my previous post, Hong Kong has a local identity distinct from mainland China's. Until 1997, Hong Kong was a culturally and ethnically Chinese city under British rule, and it remained somewhat isolated from the political development in the PRC and from national or social ideologies.

Hong Kong is a very international metropolis, at least when compared to Taipei. In Hong Kong, I feel quite comfortable, because I am just a person like anyone else, nothing special. In Taiwan, I feel I am perceived above all as a foreigner. Being 'different' has its good and bad sides. But I personally prefer when people relate to me as an individual rather than as the member of a group (in this case, a person coming from a Western country).

Hong Kong not only has a lot of tourists from around the world, but it also has a big expatriate community which seems to be quite heterogeneous. I can't cite figures, but I saw a lot of Westerners in Central district, many of them elegantly dressed, and I believe that there is a large number of foreigners working in banks and in the service sector in general. Taiwan does not have as many foreigners - at least you don't see as many on the streets; but it also does not have many tourists coming from outside of Asia. Hong Kong's tourist spots such as the Peak, the waterfront, or Lan Kwai Fong, brim with tourists from all over the world. In Taipei, the major tourists spots are relatively 'tourist-free'.

Though Taiwan is politically independent from the PRC, this place feels really Chinese. I noticed this huge difference immediately after I arrived at Taoyuan Airport. Suddenly, everybody spoke Mandarin, I could understand what people around me were talking about, while in Hong Kong I only heard the incomprehensible sounds of Cantonese. In Hong Kong, I always spoke English. And when I went to places where people didn't speak English but only Cantonese, well, that was pretty much the end of the conversation.

In Taipei the architecture is less ultramodern than Hong Kong, which somehow gives the streets with old buildings and signboards everywhere a more Chinese appearance. The flair, the atmosphere of these two cities is truly different. 

My Hong Kong Myth

I don't know if there is any such thing as a 'Hong Kong Myth', and if there is, it is likely to be related to Kung Fu stars such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, to Suzie Wong or to British colonialism and laissez-faire.

Anyway, I had my own Hong Kong myth. Many years ago I watched a short documentary about Hong Kong, and I was so fascinated by it that I wished it could have lasted for hours and hours. I lived in Italy back then, and the internet was not widespread. I was - I think - 14 or 15 years old. I clearly remember how, as an adolescent, I craved for news and information from the rest of the world which the internet has now made easily accessible. Italy was and still is quite backward when compared to other developed nations, which explains why it took longer for every household to get an internet connection. Besides, until today there is a sort of oligopoly in Italy that makes the internet way more expensive than elsewhere.

Back to the topic. I watched that documentary, and I was captivated by Hong Kong: the throbbing streets, the neon slights, the skyscrapers, the atmosphere, and all those fashionable girls did not leave me entirely unimpressed, either. It is interesting to notice how for my generation of Europeans, Asian metropolises appear modern and futuristic, while in my parents' generation it was probably the reverse. Europe has no real modern skylines (with some exceptions in London, Paris and Frankfurt, but nothing compared to Hong Kong, Shanghai or American cities) and our cities seem to have stood still after the booming years of the post-war era. 

There was also something special about Hong Kong, an 'oriental', exotic flair, something mysterious, alien, that attracted me. I really wanted to visit Hong Kong and experience that amazing city myself, but it seemed to me so far away that I didn't seriously believe I'd have the chance to go any time soon.

Living In Hong Kong

As it often happens, myths are a mix of reality, imagination and wishful thinking. Typically, when one is dissatisfied with the place one lives in, other countries seem a way to have a better life, to find what one is looking for. But dreaming of, visiting and living in a place a three very different things.

In 2012 I finally had the opportunity to visit Hong Kong. I went there twice, the first time in April to apply for my Taiwan visa, and the second time around six months later, shortly before my visa expired. Both times I stayed for about a week. 

During those two weeks I had an amazing time and a full schedule. I met a lot of friends, who were all very nice to me, showed me around, and I had a wonderful time with them. There is nothing better than visiting a place accompanied by nice local people.

However, living in Hong Kong has proved to be a quite different experience.   I'd like to explain briefly the positive and the negative aspects of my two-month-long stay.

As to the positive sides: 

1) I think that Hong Kong has such an energy and a vitality that it is impossible not to feel thrilled and electrified by it. You just take a walk and there is something going on. There are endless places to go, and, as I will show in my next post about Lan Kwai Fong, there is also a great nightlife. Well, I am definitely not a club person, but I do enjoy that kind of atmosphere on the streets. Taipei is in comparison way more sluggish, and I think that the clubbing scene in Taiwan is oftentimes way too much about 'foreigners' meeting locals etc. In Hong Kong, while 'yellow' and 'white' fever does exist, the clubbing scene seemed to me more international and open. Besides, one good thing about Hong Kong is the 24-hour bus service. In Taipei, you have to take a taxi.

2) Hong Kong has more things to see than I had ever imagined. First of all there are the amazing modern districts, which I love so much perhaps because there is nothing like that where I come from. However, there is also a historic heritage. Surprisingly, many colonial and precolonial buildings still exist today, hidden among the skyscrapers. In the New Territories there are also numerous old Chinese buildings: walled villages, ancestral halls, temples etc. To be honest, I thought that Taipei had more interesting places to visit than Hong Kong, but now I've changed my mind.

3) My flatmate was very nice and she saved several of my evenings which would have been quite boring if she had not invited me to join her and her friends. She is an artist, which also gave me the opportunity to meet people who are part of the international or internationally-connected community of Hong Kong. For instance, I met a French actor who came to our flat for dinner, and two French photographers who came to Hong Kong for a project.

4) I think that the history of Hong Kong is extremely fascinating, and staying there for two months definitely allowed me to know more about it. I often went to the library to read books, but I also tried to meet local people. In my opinion, reading and meeting people are both essential ways to understand a place better. I have to say that I knew very little about Hong Kong before these two months. When I compare the knowledge I had before and after living in Hong Kong, I can say that there is a huge difference.

Now let me talk about the bad sides. 

1) The first one is definitely the fact that it's very hard to make new friends and meet new people in Hong Kong. Fortunately, I had a Hong Kong flatmate, so my situation wasn't that bad. But I had planned to do some interviews with local people for posts I wanted to write, and it proved very difficult. I got the impression that Hong Kongers are even busier than Taiwanese. This means that working life is fast, but social life is slow. I think that some Europeans would be surprised at the pace of social life in Asia. Because, of course, if you have to work long you have much less time for socializing. But it's also a question of priorities. I think that Asian upbringing teaches children to value work and family more than friendships. So, this amazing, bustling city can actually be boring if you live there for a few months. 

2) The second point is that Hong Kong is very expensive. Flats are tiny and rents high, and the phenomenon of cage homes and subdivided flats is so common that some time ago I saw a government ad on a bus that said something like "Subdividing flats is illegal". Not only flats, but also supermarkets are very expensive. I think that food usually costs more than in Germany or Taiwan. The reason why I find high prices for houses and food particularly annoying is that they are the result of an oligopoly that doesn't allow freer competition. Hong Kong is a city dominated by business tycoons, the most famous of whom is Li Ka-shing. He is the owner of Wellcome, which is one of the two supermarket chains in Hong Kong. Yes, there are only two supermarket chains in a city that has more than 7 million people! That's because business tycoons dominate property markets and other economic activities. As a comparison, when I lived in Berlin I had five supermarkets close to my home. I could reach four of them on foot (Lidl, Kaiser's, Netto and Rewe) and two others (Kaufhof and Aldi) were a few minutes away by bus or tram. And I did not live in the city centre, but in the suburbs. This is a typical situation for neighbourhoods in Berlin, and the competition among these supermarkets keep prices low.

3) The third thing I didn't like about Hong Kong was the air pollution. During my first week there I got headache almost every day, and I assume it was because my body could not get used to the smog. Sometimes, the smog is so thick one can hardly breathe. Hong Kong's climate can be extremely humid (just imagine how 97% humidity feels like, if you can!); on such days, a huge cloud of humidity descends from the sky and mixes with the smog, creating a suffocating veil covering the city. However, fortunately Hong Kong's weather changes very often, and there are many days that are not humid, but rather cool, and the smog is less intense. You rarely have to endure bad weather for more than a few days. But I don't know how it is going to become in the summer. I heard it is hellishly hot and humid.  

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Hong Kong After 1997 - The 'Hong Kong Identity'

"How has Hong Kong changed after 1997?" - this is a question that many foreigners who come to Hong Kong ask local people. The transition from British colony to Chinese Special Administrative Region (SAR) was one of the most symbolic events of the last century and a major historical change witnessed by millions of people all around the world through the media.

Until 1997, Hong Kong's history was deeply entangled with the history of the British Empire. One may say that without the British Empire, Hong Kong as we know it might never have existed. Hong Kong has been one of the most astonishing and successful colonial experiments, and one of the most amazing blends of different traditions and cultures the world has ever seen.

I shall argue that 1997 did not simply mark the end of British colonial rule. It rather signified the shift of Hong Kong from a unique place that had been built upon the mix of different elements and outside of nationalist, economic or political ideologies, to a new role as a Chinese city among many others.

Under British rule, Hong Kong grew naturally and pragmatically from the circumstances of the time and from the interests and needs of business. It was a city whose identity was hard, if not impossible to define, mostly because there was no government trying to create such an identity. Hong Kong's 'indefiniteness' was perhaps its major strength. With the handover to China this experiment ended, and Hong Kong began to be incorporated into a Chinese state that had been built upon nationalism and political ideology. These 'two systems' were not only different; they were diametrically opposed.

When talking with local Hong Kongers, I got the impression that they were far from having a common collective identity. Some of them still refuse to accept that Hong Kong is now part of China and spoke as though Hong Kong was some sort of de facto independent country 'neighbouring' mainland China. Others were nostalgic of British rule. Others felt Chinese, but disliked the Communist party. Others again had a pro-Beijing stance. Among the older Hong Kongers who experienced the epoch of strong racial discrimination (when the Peak was still an exclusive 'white settler' area) resentment towards the British seems not to be uncommon. Among younger Hong Kongers who did not experience British rule, the allegiance to China may be somewhat stronger. Hong Kong's identity is a mix of different elements.

Hong Kong's Hybrid Identity

Although Hong Kong belonged to Britain for one and a half centuries, in the West there is a general lack of knowledge about Hong Kong's society and identity. In a typical complacent manner that derives from the era of colonialism, Westerners believed to have 'blessed' Hong Kong with a superior system and civilization, of which the staggering economic growth of the city-state appeared to be a proof. But how deep was the impact of the British on the Hong Kong population really? Did Hong Kong become a 'British Chinese city'?

Some indicators seem to show that the identification of the Hong Kongers with Britain was strong. In a survey made before the handover, 68.6 % of the participants said that they were satisfied or very satisfied with the British administration and 63% said they trusted the British administration (Yee 2011, p. 65). However, it would be absolutely erroneous to think that Hong Kongers saw themselves as 'British'. Despite having been subjected to British rule for a century and a half, Hong Kong has always been in its majority a Chinese city.

Hong Kong's 'Chineseness'

The great majority of the population of Hong Kong has been ethnically Chinese from the very foundation of the British colony. The Europeans living in Hong Kong were always clearly outnumbered by a Chinese population that kept on growing through immigration, mainly from China's Guangdong Province.

Hong Kong’s population grew from about 600,000 in 1945 to over 2 million in 1950, and to 2.5 million in 1955 (Tsang 2011, p. 167). Even up to the early 1960s, 33% of the workforce had arrived in Hong Kong after 1949 (ibid.). The positive demographic development never halted. In 1981 the city had 5 183 400 inhabitants, and in 2011 the number had risen to 7 071 600 (see Hong Kong demographic trends).

A large number of Hong Kongers in the first decades following World War II and the Civil War that ended in 1949 were actually born and had lived in mainland China. It is thus not surprising that the first generations of mainland Hong Kongers usually saw themselves as Chinese and felt loyal to China. This was reflected in post-war British policy towards the colony.

The cultural affinity between the Chinese in Hong Kong and in the mainland was one of the main reasons why Sir Alexander Grantham (1899–1978), Governor of Hong Kong from 1947 to 1958, opposed the idea of self-government for the colony. He believed that the majority of the population lacked a local Hong Kong identity, let alone loyalty to the British Empire, and it would inevitably become part of China if it were left free to govern itself (Tsang 2011, p. 148).

Hong Kong's relationship with Chinese nationalism has always been complex. Hong Kong had been conquered by the British during a period of weakness of the Chinese empire, and the colony became a symbol of national humiliation. This humiliation prompted a strong nationalistic reaction in China, which affected the population of Hong Kong, as well. 

Hong Kong actually became one of the most important centres of Chinese nationalism. For instance, Kai Ho Kai, who was the only Chinese faculty member at the Hong Kong College of Medicine, publicly declared his sympathy for China. One of Ho Kai's students was Sun Yat-sen, who was educated in Hong Kong and whose political agenda was deeply influenced by his contact with the Western experience in Hong Kong. The father of modern Chinese jurisprudence, Wu Tingfang, also lived in Hong Kong (Carroll 2007, pp. 6; 117).

One of the most famous episodes showing the power of Chinese nationalism among Hong Kong's ethnic Chinese is the so-called "bread-poisoning incident". In the course of the Second Anglo-Chinese War (1856 - 1860) during which the city of Canton was bombed by the British, the Viceroy of Canton called the Chinese in Hong Kong to leave the colony in protest. Against this backdrop, on January 15 1857 an attempt was made to exterminate the entire European community in Hong Kong. 

Around 300 European settlers, among them the Governor's wife, suddenly fell ill after eating bread supplied by a bakery owned by the Chinese Cheong Ahlum (Zhang Alin) (see Chan 1997, pp. 13-14). The bread had been poisoned with arsenic, but there was so much of it that it only caused stomach pains and it was easily detected. No casualties resulted, but the expatriate community was furious. Cheong Ahlum, who had fled to Macau on the same day of the incident, was considered the main suspect.

He was arrested and put on trial in 1857. However, this episode also reveals the extent to which British administration managed to win over the Chinese. In fact, despite the fact that the Chief Justice, the Attorney General and the jury had all been victims of the bread poisoning, Cheong Ahlum was acquitted for lack of evidence. The Chinese got a first-hand experience of British justice and rule of law at work. In the following years, the Chinese learnt to appreciate the predictability and relative fairness of the British judicial system (Tsang 2011, p. 53).

The Rise of the Hong Kongers

Chinese nationalism in Hong Kong began to weaken after the 1960s. In 1949, China became a Communist regime that was economically way less successful than Hong Kong. For many Hong Kong Chinese, China was politically not a model to follow, and many migrants loathed the Communist government from which they had fled. The economic take-off of Hong Kong, the improvement of the standard of living and the political isolation of the PRC made the mainland appear more and more distant and backward. Besides, in the 1960s and 70s  a new generation of locally-born Hong Kongers, who had never lived in mainland China, began to see Hong Kong, and not China, as their home, and were proud of the economic achievements of their birthplace.

However, the ethically Chinese population of Hong Kong did not see being British as an alternative identity. Britain herself never encouraged such development. Chinese and other ethnic groups born in Hong were not issued British passports, but British Dependent Territory Citizen (BDTC) passports, "which did not even give them the right to entry to the United Kingdom, let alone the right of abode" (Lau 1997, p. 3).

Teach English AbroadMost Hong Kongers' mother tongue was Cantonese, and English, despite being an official language and enjoying social prestige, never replaced Cantonese as the vernacular of the ethnically Chinese population. The way of life, customs and values of the Hong Kongers remained Chinese/Cantonese. In a survey from 1990, 58.3% of the participants identified themselves as Hong Kongers, 26.2% as Chinese and 14.3% as both (Wong 2007, pp. 240-241). This shows that by the 1990s, the Hong Kongers had developed a local identity. They saw both Britain and China as something different from Hong Kong. Ironically, it were the British and the Chinese that decided the destiny of Hong Kong, without even consulting those whose fate they were determining. 

The geographical and psychological distance separating Britain and Hong Kong was, except for the colonial and the business elites, huge. For most Hong Kongers, the Queen of England was nothing but a far-away figure with whom they had no emotional connection. Even the Governor of Hong Kong seemed remote. When Chris Patten, the last Governor of Hong Kong, started a charm offensive and went among the people to show he cared about them, he had to use an interpreter because he couldn't speak Cantonese.

We in Europe complain so much about the 'remote' European government. But just imagine we had a governor sent from Beijing who could only speak Chinese!

The British Legacy in Hong Kong

I argue that the legacy of British rule in Hong Kong consists of three elements:

1) an efficient and economy-oriented administration;

2) the lack of a nationalistic ideology;

3) broad autonomy; 

1) As historian Steve Tsang put it, the British established in Hong Kong the "best possible government in the Chinese tradition". Such a government must fulfill the following conditions: "efficiency, fairness, honesty, benevolent paternalism, and non-intrusion into the lives of ordinary people" (Tsang 2011, p. 197). The British did not create such a government because they planned it; in fact, they did not even know what good governance meant for the Chinese. Rather, the successful symbiosis of British and Chinese was born by chance, out of the historical situation peculiar to the colony.

The main interest of the British in Hong Kong was to promote trade and business - this was the reason why the British had acquired the colony. In order to achieve this, they needed a small administration that was cost-effective and guaranteed order and the rule of law. The Governor did not have much resources at his disposal. Until 1941 the colony had only 35 administrative officers, "which meant merely 26 officers were available for running the administration at any one time after taking account of training and long home leaves in the era before the jet airliner" (ibid., pp. 198-199). 

Other than all major empires in history, which were founded on military power, the British Empire had been created by business people, and its core interests were of economic nature. A colony that depended on the Treasury in London for survival was not considered useful. That is why the British administration always tried to make Hong Kong self-sufficient and did not demand more personnel or funds from Britain. The creation of a "big" colonial government was therefore out of the question from the outset.

What the Chinese population wanted was not the government's major concern. However, for pragmatic reasons the British tended to listen to the voice of the Chinese community, both because the Chinese, and most especially Chinese business people, were the main source of revenue for the colony, and also because the government feared social unrest.

The business-oriented and unintrusive nature of the British colonial government suited very well the Chinese spirit. Most Chinese are traditionally more concerned with their family, 'face', a stable and wealthy life, rather than with political issues. The political apathy of the Chinese that seems so incomprehensible to Westerners nowadays, had already been noted long time ago. This is what the British missionary John MacGowan said about the Chinese at the beginning of the 20th century:

Some writers have predicted that a day may come when, inspired by a spirit of war, they [the Chinese] will flash their swords in a wild conquest of the West. This is a dream that will never be realized. Both by instinct and by ages of training, the Chinese are essentially a peace-loving people. The glory of war is something that does not appeal to them. Trade, and commerce, and money-making, and peaceful lives are the ideals of the race (see Sidelights On Chinese Life, chapter I).

And indeed, the same attitude that keeps the CCP in power allowed the British to govern Hong Kong. British colonial administration was an autocratic, oligarchic government with little democratic elements, but it delivered good economic results and left the people alone, and that was enough to prevent any major unrest. When Hong Kongers criticize the PRC's management of Hong Kong's affairs, it is mostly because of the widening wealth gap and the excessive power of business elites backed by Beijing, or because the government is too intrusive. From these two points of view, the British government indeed delivered better results, though it is an open question whether these results were really only the merit of the colonial administration.

2) What makes Hong Kong really different from the two Chinese states in Beijing (PRC) and Taipei (ROC) is the complete lack of a government-sponsored national ideology. Hong Kong is culturally Chinese, but there was never a state teaching and propagating nationalism and patriotism among the population. In the PRC and the ROC, on the contrary, the school system and other government or government-controlled organs, including the media, 'taught' their citizens nationalism, setting the standards for what it means to 'love the country'. 

The British government in Hong Kong never had any interest whatsoever in propagating nationalist ideologies. To the British, nationalism was a danger to their colonial rule. Nationalism would have divided the various ethnic groups; we shouldn't forget that Hong Kong had small European, Indian, Nepalese and other communities, some of which did not leave after 1997. The British feared the rise of Chinese national feelings as a destabilizing force that could delegitimize their colonial administration. 

As we have already seen, Chinese nationalism did develop in Hong Kong. But it was not a nationalism codified and directed by the government, as it is the case in the PRC and as it used to be the case in the ROC under Chiang Kai-shek. Hong Kong's Chinese nationalism was spontaneous, it came from the bottom and it was a private matter. And because it was spontaneous, it never became a majority view or a definite ideology. That is why Hong Kongers are more relaxed about their identity than mainland Chinese or other nations (like Italy, Greece etc.) where nationalism was taught in school and became state ideology. 

Most Hong Kongers rather developed a mixed identity, with the local allegiance to Hong Kong coexisting with other elements, such as their Chinese cultural roots and Western influence (see Carroll 2007, p. 111). 

This explains why the people of Hong Kong reacted so apathetically to the handover, behaving like a crowd watching a big show that did not concern them. Many Hong Kongers, most especially those in the lower strata of society, did not feel personal connection either to China or Britain. They were politically neutral, saw Hong Kong as an economic colony and wanted it to maintain its character. They cared about their own economic achievements and had a simple 'business-as-usual' attitude. Some Hong Kongers were glad the British were leaving and the Hong Kongers could rule themselves (see Chan 1997, pp. 161-162). 

3) In British Hong Kong, the power to govern did not belong to the people, but to the colonial administration and the Governor appointed by London (Lau 1997, p. 27). In a speech made in 1969, Governor David Trench justified Hong Kong's lack of democracy in the following way:

There is no one brand of politics, or one line of policies, which is right for all places at all stages of development. And whenever you are and whenever you are there, you must select the best course of action for that time and place ... (ibid.p. 31).

These words could have come from the mouth of a Communist leader today. Hong Kong's colonial government was in fact autocratic. It was an executive-led government, a colonial system with powers concentrated in the hands of the Governor and with commercial and popular needs partially represented by appointed and elected members in the Executive and Legislative Councils. It was an elite system of consultation strongly dependent on a professional civil service loyal to the sovereign.

The autocratic and economy-oriented nature of the British colonial government suited Beijing's political orientation. The Communist Party wanted to continue the existing undemocratic political structure. The PRC sought to maintain this system by allying with the business elites who did not want democratization because they feared that, if representatives of the working classes took part in the government, they would push for more welfare spending and neglect the needs of Hong Kong as a trade and financial centre (ibid., pp. 38-39). Paradoxically, the British had created a system that was so undemocratic that the PRC wanted to keep it as it was. That is why Chinese politicians were outraged when the last Governor pushed for more democracy just a few months before the handover. 

However, the British system in Hong Kong also had two elements that caused major frictions between Beijing and Hong Kong after 1997: ample autonomy and lack of nationalism.

The old colonial system was based on the principle of "maximum autonomy for the colony and minimum intervention from London" as the metropolitan centre of the empire. This system worked well for Hong Kong and guaranteed the development of the city in a natural and somewhat free way. It was a consequence both of the weakness of Britain as a declining colonial power, and of the tradition of local autonomy and 'small colonial government' that already existed in Hong Kong prior to 1945 (see Wong 2007, pp. 238-239).

Chinese Nationalism and The Tycoon Connection

What were the biggest changes in Hong Kong after the handover? I will argue that there were three major changes regarding the following three aspects:

1) nationalism

2) autonomy

3) economy

1) As we have seen above, the British colonial government had downplayed the role of nationalism and nationality. The neutral stance of the Hong Kongers towards nationality, however, was not welcomed by the Chinese leaders in the PRC.

Nationalism has been one of the pillars of Communist rule in China. The party cadres that founded the PRC were those who had experienced a poor, divided China marred by wars and economic weakness, and they fought for liberation from foreign aggressors and for national renewal. The recovery of Hong Kong and Macau was to them a matter of national pride. These leaders were so imbued with nationalism that they wished to instill in the people of Hong Kong a sense of 'national identity' (see Lau 1997, p. 15).

As early as in 1984 Xu Jiatun, director of the Hong Kong Branch of the New China News Agency (Xinhua), which was at that time the de facto Chinese embassy in Hong Kong, stated that an "important spirit which underpins patriotic tradition is merging one's destiny with that of the nation and the people. One truly has a destiny only if he binds his own future with the future of the nation and the people."

Ironically, during the Tiananmen incident Xu Jiatun supported the 'wrong' side and in 1990 he had to flee to the US (ibid., p. 16). This is another example of how fictional national ideologies are.

Nevertheless, one of the major objectives of Beijing remains that of spreading a 'Chinese national consciousness' among the Hong Kongers. One of the most powerful tools to propagate national ideology has always been education. Italian nationalist leader Mazzini said that "without National education, from which alone a national conscience can issue, a Nation has no moral existence" (Lu / Ma 2007, p. 78)

In a recent survey, Hong Kong university students were asked if they loved their country; half of them responded positively, while the other half responded negatively. Most participants who said they loved their country stated that they loved Chinese culture or the Chinese people, but only a meagre 14 percent claimed love for the Chinese government and only 3 percent for the Communist Party (ibid. p. 81).

After the handover, the central Chinese government and pro-Beijing groups within Hong Kong have exerted increasing pressure on the Hong Kong institutions to change the school curriculum so as to emphasize Chinese nationalism. For example, before 1997 Hong Kong school textbooks used the terms 'mainland China' and 'Taiwan'. After 1997, publishers began to use 'Inland China' and 'Taiwan Province' (ibid., p. 85). 

Other sensitive issues, such as the colony status of Hong Kong or the Tiananmen Incident of 1989 are downplayed, if not actually distorted. For instance, the word 'colony' is now mostly used only in quotation marks. National education also comprises the singing of the national anthem and flag-raising ceremonies which start from kindergarten, in order to instill love and respect for the flag and the anthems as symbols of national pride and unity. A kindergarten teacher stated that she explains the relationship between China and Hong Kong as that between a mother and her baby: "The baby needs to go back to its mother. That's why Hong Kong is part of China" (ibid., pp. 86-87). It is thus clear that after 1997 the government has been trying to create allegiance to the PRC and Chinese nationalism as codified by the CCP.

The issue of nationalism is a very sensitive one. It reemerged recently during the pro-democracy campaigns in Hong Kong. Qiao Xiaoyang, chairman of the National People’s Congress Law Committee, stated that any chief executive candidate must “love the country and love Hong Kong” (note). Nationalism is used by the Beijing government to set the standards of loyalty and treason.
Government-sponsored nationalism, which was alien to Hong Kong before 1997, is without doubt one of the major changes of the post-handover era. And, in my opinion, it is a change for the worst. 

2) The old equilibrium between London and Hong Kong has proved hard to repeat in the new context of Hong Kong as a SAR of the People's Republic of China. Beijing has been more assertive in insisting on its prerogatives than London was, and it has shown its willingness to control Hong Kong when it deems necessary.

Two episodes highlight the complex balance of power between Beijing and Hong Kong. The first was the right of abode issue of 1999, when a decision of the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong was overruled by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress in Beijing. The second was the attempt of the Hong Kong SAR's government to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law by passing anti-secession laws. Many believed that the initiative of the SAR's government was prompted by pressure from Beijing (Wong 2007, p. 239).  

However, it is a paradox that the Beijing government is often viewed as more  autocratic than the old colonial regime. In British Hong Kong, the Governor was appointed by London, and in the whole history of the colony all Governors were white people born outside of Hong Kong. It is true that once the Governor was appointed, London did not interfere much. But there was not much democracy in those days, either. I would argue that the perception of the Beijing government meddling too much in Hong Kong's affairs is due to the fact that many Hong Kongers don't trust the Communist Party. Besides, many Hong Kongers are not happy with the widening wealth gap and with the alliance between Beijing and local business elites. Media independence has also become a major issue after 1997.

3) The take-off and economic boom in Hong Kong happened under British rule. Many people think back on that period as an era of opportunities, growth and rising living standards. After the handover, however, Hong Kong experienced not only a recession due to the financial crisis of 1997, but also a widening wealth gap and a sharp rise in property market prices that have undermined social harmony.

In explaining Hong Kong’s entrenched wealth gap, analysts cite the economy’s overwhelming reliance on the services sector, particularly finance, which has created wealth for some but failed to provide significant numbers of well-paying jobs across the board. While income grew 60% among the city’s top 10% of earners between 2001-2010, it dropped by 20% among those in the bottom 10% (note).

While it is hard to say whether the widening wealth gap is a consequence of the new political landscape, it is clear that the connection between Beijing and Hong Kong's business tycoons is. The Communist government saw in the business elites of the city a safe pool for support, while the business sector was eager to win over Beijing to have smooth access to the Chinese market, and to prevent the "masses" from obtaining more power and compromising business interests.

The alliance between Beijing and business elites is a major reason for discontent among the population. A poll from 2006 shows that 82.4% of Hong Kongers believe that collusion between government and business exists. To the question whether business leaders can be trusted, 25.3% gave a negative, 19.9% a positive answer, while 54.8% were unsure (Wong 2007, p. 239).

Collusion between government and business had already existed under British rule; indeed, it was one of its main characteristics. However, this collusion was not so extensive as to create widespread resentment. Against the backdrop of the widening wealth gap, the close relationship between business and government is met with increasing suspicion. 

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Hong Kong's Skyline, Tsim Sha Tsui and Kowloon Clock Tower

One thing that every tourist should do before leaving Hong Kong is to cross Victoria Harbour by ferry. Ferries go regularly from Central Pier to Tsim Sha Tsui, in Kowloon peninsula. Tsim Sha Tsui (often called TST by locals) is one of the most densely populated commercial districts in Hong Kong, a major traffic hub and a popular tourist destination thanks to its shopping boulevards - whose luxury boutiques are mostly frequented by mainland Chinese nowadays -  old colonial buildings, high-class hotels, museums and exhibition centres.

However, the landmark of Tsim Sha Tsui and Kowloon is without doubt its characteristic waterfront promenade, which not only features an old clock tower - the last remnant of a demolished railway station - and the Avenue of Stars, but also boasts a wonderful view of the impressive skyline of Hong Kong Island, the city's financial and business centre.


Tsim Sha Tsui

Tsim Sha Tsui can be reached both by MTR (change at Admiralty and take the red line) or by ferry from the Starferry pier near Central MTR Station.

The ferry is, of course, the best way to get there, because one can enjoy the amazing view of Victoria Harbour and the skyline. Tickets are very cheap, ranging from HK$2.50 to HK$3.40 (just around 0,25-0,34 euros respectively). It's possible to pay either with cash or with your Octopus Card.

Kowloon-Canton Railway Clock Tower

The clock tower of the former
Kowloon-Canton Railway Station
The first thing you will notice after getting off the ferry station at Tsim Sha Tsui is a 44-metre neoclassical, red-brick Victorian clock tower that seems out of place among the surrounding modern buildings. This clock tower is the last remainder of the former Kowloon-Canton Railway Station, which was built in 1915 and opened to the public in 1916. It was sadly torn down in 1978 despite citizens' protests. After the demolition of the station, public outcry moved the Governor to save at least the clock tower.

In the old age of 'slow travelling' the Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR) was the terminus of the gigantic Trans-Siberian Railway line that crossed the entire Eurasian continent. In those days the railway was the 'fast' alternative to the ship. Departing from Hong Kong, one could reach Paris via Guangzhou (=Canton), Hangzhou, Beijing, Mukden, Moscow and Berlin in 'just' three weeks, while ships took twice as long.

The demolition of the railway station was an example of short-sighted urban planning. Not only did the site remain empty and desolate for a decade, until the construction of the modern Hong Kong Cultural Centre began, but around thirty years later an MTR station had to be build and the old railway station was not there any more to serve this purpose. It could have been used as an MTR station and a place for shops, restaurants and cafes, as well as a tourist attraction. 

The old Kowloon Canton Railway Station prior to demolition

(sources: Ingham 2007, p. 167; Rodwell 1991, p. 119; Wordie, pp. 22-23; Lung 1999, p. 53).

The clock tower with the Hong Kong Cultural Centre on the background

Ultramodern streets

Canton Road with the typical luxury boutiques

The clock tower as viewed from Canton Road
Central Pier
Hong Kong's skyline as seen from the ferry

The 1881 Heritage (Former Marine Police Headquarters)

The 1881 Heritage is one of the most conspicuous buildings in the area, located at the crossroads of Canton Road and Salisbury Road, behind the Hong Kong Cultural Centre (see map). The structure was built on a small hill in 1883 (or 1881, or 1884 - strangely enough, different sources give different construction dates) to serve as the headquarters of the Marine Police. 

In 1996 the Marine Police moved to Sai Wan Ho and the building remained unused. It was declared by the government a historic site and could (fortunately) not be demolished. In 2009 extensive renovation was completed. The building now houses an upscale hotel, luxury shops and fancy bars and restaurants (Wordie, pp. 23-24; note).

Front facade of the 1881 Heritage

The 1881 Heritage by night

The Peninsula Hotel

The Peninsula Hotel (often simply called "The Pen") is Hong Kong's oldest still operating hotel, and one of the most glamorous. Frequented by tycoons and well-to-do travellers, it retains its past colonial, upper-class flair and exclusiveness.

Built in 1928, the Pen belonged to the Kadoorie family, a dynasty of Sephardi Jewish entrepreneurs originally from Baghdad. It was located in an area that in those days was not densely populated. The site was cleverly chosen in order to take advantage of the growing tourist business of the "Roaring Twenties", and of the proximity of the harbour, the waterfront promenade, and most especially of the newly constructed Kowloon-Canton Railway Station which brought to Hong Kong wealthy visitors from Europe, Russia and China. In 1994 a new tower block was added to the hotel as a modern extension to the old building (Wordie, p. 26; Vines 2002, pp. 99-100).

The Peninsula Hotel by night

Shanghai Tang Boutique 

(Former Tsim Sha Tsui Fire Station)

Until a few years ago this old colonial, red-brick building stood unused in the middle of skyscrapers and bustling streets. Constructed in 1904, it served as a fire station. As in many other cases, it was business that saved this chapter of colonial history from neglect. It is now occupied by the Chinese luxury brand Shanghai Tang.

Hong Kong's Skyline

I took this video to show you Hong Kong's amazing skyline, which is one of the most impressive and distinctive in the world. It is the symbol of the energy, the modernity and the relentless spirit of this city. Unfortunately, it was a foggy day, but there are so many foggy days in Hong Kong that it's not so easy to find the right moment to go and take a video. Anyway, I hope this will still give to those who have never been here a general idea of the harbour and the skyline.