Saturday, June 16, 2018
“So which Hong Kong do you prefer? Before 97 or after 97?”
It’s an increasingly common question for people like me, asked by Westerners who are a little more “woke” about Asian issues. In this case, it was a nurse whose son is dating a woman from Hong Kong.
Those of you who are familiar with English colonialism will know that 1997 is the year England handed ownership of Hong Kong back to China after 150 years of rule, effectively marking the end of the British empire. That ownership was the product of the Opium Wars, which began in 1839 when England insisted on its right to sell illicit drugs to Chinese citizens despite being asked by the local authorities to leave.
It sounds like a relatively simple transaction, but something unexpected happened in 1945: the Chinese Revolution, which lead to the rise of the Communist government. In the years that followed, many people fled to the relative safety of Hong Kong, which remained under British rule. That’s why 1997 is such a significant year to so many Hong Kongers: that was the deadline to get out, assuming you believed the Communists would ruin the relative prosperity being enjoyed on the island.
Many people did indeed leave prior to 1997. They went to Canada. The USA. Australia. The Dominican Republic. The UK. Those who were otherwise comfortable with the way things were going on the mainland chose to stay.
When the handover was complete, China committed to a 50-year transition plan. It would initially be “one country, two systems” in which Hong Kong would keep all of its capitalist freedoms while being eventually made wholly part of China. England tried to pressure China into a firm legal commitment of maintaining a democracy, but they were politely declined… a final courtesy to spare the English what was really on the minds of those who stayed: kindly fuck off already.
When people ask me whether I prefer Hong Kong before or after 97, it’s as though we have a choice; like at any given moment, Hong Kong can just return to British rule. There are occasional political flare-ups about freedom and democracy from the Communist government, but let me assure you that a return to British rule isn’t bloody likely to happen.
We are 21 years into a 50-year plan that was put into motion to correct a grievous injustice committed nearly 180 years ago. This is all part of a much longer game than most people realise.
People also seem to have a tendency to romanticise that period of British rule; that it was more prosperous and that there were more freedoms. Perhaps these people have forgotten, or are too young to remember the classist social structures and overtly white supremacist attitudes of the English expats – which I saw for myself in the 1980s. I will also never forget the stories handed down to me by my parents, my grandparents, and even my great-grandmother, about the brutality of the English colonists and the way they drove villagers from their homes to set up their military fortifications.
That, to me, is a more accurate picture of pre-97 Hong Kong.
But who’s got time to listen to all of that?
That’s why my answer to the nurse’s question is basically “I’m pretty happy with the way things are going.”
The ABCs of ABCs is a light-hearted attempt to explain the ins and outs of Australian-Born Chinese culture for Caucasians who can’t make any sense of it. There’s a lot of idiosyncratic behaviour I get asked the same questions about, so I’m doing my best to answer them. Call it my way of bridging the gap between cultures.
About today’s photo: I’m shooting and editing 5 videos at once. I don’t even have time to give a considered response for, well, anything.