From bustling wet markets or traditional fishing villages to gleaming skyscrapers and glittering malls, these are some of the imageries provoked when one thinks about Hong Kong. However, many often overlooked a particular feature that the city has maintained throughout its long colonial history: the expatriate community
Despite ethnic Chinese constitutes over 90% of the city’s population, Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan flair is reflected by its mixture of ethnicities. From the descendants of British civil servants and South Asian soldiers to businessmen from Japan and the Americas, the expatriate community has played a pivotal role in the city’s economic and political development. Differences in culture and ethnicity meant they lived in separate districts and communities. Areas such as Discovery Bay, Mid-Levels and Quarry Bay are examples which activities are revolved around the lifestyle of these ‘foreigners’. Furthermore, “International” Schools were set-up to teach nationally distinct curricula, creating a whole new generation of youth deeply embedded with local culture but steeped in Western education. Living abroad from their home countries, these ‘third culture’ people often struggled in terms with defining their own cultural identity
“To define a real ‘Hong Konger’ is difficult”, answers Ryosuke, a second-year New York University student that has lived in Hong Kong since birth. A Japanese national, he often finds it difficult to explain his cultural identity. Descendants of expatriates who had lived in the city for their whole lives are technically ‘locals’, but are ostracized from mainstream Chinese society due to differences in ethnicity and social environment. “There is a strong independent presence between the expats and locals.” He claims, which is “bad in a way” because it will always maintain an aura of strong separation between locals and expatriates, but that “good in a way” since they can “find a home amongst those who share similar problems as them”.
Jeremy, a second-year McGill University student, agrees with him. Born and raised in a French-American family, he is often seen as a “gwailo” by locals despite living in the city since birth. His fondest memories, which consisted of “happily receiving lai see from acquaintances” and “watching Hong Kong’s famous CNY firework display from the top of my building” is not much different than any ethnic Chinese child. He claims that, being “absent from American and French culture” since birth “has separated me from my “original” nationalities” since the city is the “closest thing to home”.
Alternatively, there are a significant number of ethnic Chinese youth that had studied in Western education since primary school. They draw similarities with third culture youth because their social environment and upbringing is similar with the former. Henry, a second-year student studying at the University of St. Andrews, admires the city for its “uniqueness and openness” because it “accepts western influences” whilst balancing with the “deep sense of tradition and culture of China”. Like many other students, going abroad for University made him “love” Hong Kong more, but instead of reinforcing his Hong Kong identity, studying in Scotland has led to a “cultivation of a new sense of shared identity between his home city and the host county”.
In turn, some of the ethnic Chinese students growing up in expatriate communities have fully embraced Western culture. Larissa, a grade-12 student, does not see herself as a full ‘Hong Konger’ because her upbringing with expatriates meant that she “[has not] adopted a lot of the local cultures that a person from a local school might have”, and that she feels as “more like a westerner”. However, she does feel a sense of attachment with the identity as a Hong Konger following the “Occupy Movement”, as it was “eye opening” and “touching” for her but at the same time distraught by the government’s handling of the situation.
Ultimately, the issue of cultural identity in Hong Kong does not only apply to expatriate youth. As more ethnic Chinese students are enrolled in International schools, a new sub-branch emerges where perceptions of Chinese tradition and Western modernity are set in confrontation. Being a western educated ethnic Chinese ‘Hong Konger’ myself, Hong Kong’s expatriate population has played an important role in cultivating my values and education at the cost of lacking an insight in local culture and affairs. Following the future trends of this community would be vital in understanding Hong Kong’s society itself as interactions between locals and expats are one of the essential elements that classify the city as an international metropolis.
– reporting and writing by Arnold Yung, a second year student double majoring in contemporary Asian studies and history at the University of Toronto.