Hong-Kong: A city governed by the British for over one hundred years?
Hassan Daoud - 23/01/2006
With the exception of the crowds on Women's Market Street a visitor to Hong Kong is inclined to think of them as the European's of Asia, or otherwise, as a people who have inherited the desire to imitate European habits and lifestyles from a previous generation. For instance, a young man walking around looking like a student from Oxford University isn't necessarily a member of the elite: he could be anyone. The numerous schools in Hong Kong's quieter neighborhoods devote themselves with peculiar diligence to the city's students, something that is reflected in the huge advertisements which call on citizens to look after their students. The Baptist and City universities are both found in a neighborhood that reminds one of Harvard University , the only difference being that the student body here is less diverse that its American counterpart. They are all from Hong Kong, with the short stature characteristic of Far Easterners. Their features show no signs of racial intermingling. Most of the English population of Hong Kong left the city when it returned to Chinese control in 1997. Black or Middle Eastern features are likewise absent. Although many immigrants have come to Hong Kong, most originated in China, Indonesia, the Philippines and other Asian countries. We tried to tell these different Asian peoples apart from one another as we stood in Women's Market Street. This was another Hong Kong altogether. Indeed, it was hard to believe that this bustling market and the modern mall with its global fashion brands were part of the same country. The prices in the mall were sometimes 100 times greater than those found in the market. The very existence of this spending gap is in itself hard to believe. We would go down to the market together, not just to buy things, but to look at the goods on offer from a multitude of different times and places. There was the trader who would stop you to show you pictures of her wares. It gave you the impression that she was selling contraband, though she was showing the pictures as openly as others touted their imitation handbags and watches. In shops beside the market they sold imitations of the imitations, so those selling the "original" imitations would shout "Copy!" to set themselves apart from their competitors. One salesman took me to the fourth floor of a building to show me an "original" Gucci imitation suitcase for 280 Hong Kong dollars (equal to 32 US dollars), although after the briefest of negotiations the price was reduced by half. Downstairs in the crowded market, the same case could be got for a fifth of the price, with salesmen asking for 100 dollars and being perfectly content with 20.
Women's Market is just another facet of Hong Kong's pioneering financial and trading spirit. The imitation goods on offer here do not just enjoy a limited local market but have become internationally renowned. Hong Kong's industry and trading culture gives the lie to the city's superficially impressive social and urban planning. Smoking in public places incurs a fine of 5000 dollars (a little less than 600 US dollars), and our guide felt compelled to warn us repeatedly against littering. Yet the market traders have only the minimum respect for such cosmetic regulations, and as I climbed the four stories to see my handbag I got the feeling that the whole performance was theatrical in its caution. A first time visitor to Hong Kong is bewildered to find that speaking English is of almost no use in a city that was governed by the British for over one hundred years. I'm not talking about university students and those employed in the financial sector, but those you might meet in the course of your daily life. For instance, you have to use sign language with taxi drivers or get someone else to write your address in Chinese before you get in. Shopkeepers speak no more English than they need for the basics of bargaining, and even that most basic of processes can easily become a confusion of scribbled notes and numbers. In a village not more than 35 miles outside of central Hong Kong myself and a shopkeeper wrote offers and counteroffers on a piece of paper that we passed backwards and forwards between us.
This shopkeeper was no recent immigrant to the area; he had probably lived there for the duration of the British occupation. But why is English so slow, so reluctant to spread in Hong Kong, when it is spoken in environments far less accessible or suitable than this great city. It occurred to me that one reason may be that speakers of Chinese, which is vocalized in the throat rather than the mouth and tongue, may have trouble pronouncing English. One has to listen very closely to make out words spoken by the local residents, even those who are otherwise fluent in English. It is hard to shake the impression that the language of their colonizers requires a muscular apparatus that they simply do not possess.
As I tried to understand this process I thought back to the old men of my village who had lived most of their lives under the British Protectorate. Despite this, most of the loan words they used were Turkish, and dated from the days of the Ottoman Empire. The point is that, eight years after its departure, the precise nature of Britain's legacy to Hong Kong is obscure. It is equally hard to fathom the feelings of Hong Kong residents towards the change in their circumstances and their return to the "home country". One young student who accompanied us around the university campus artfully sidestepped our question--aimed at her and her generation--by saying that her parents had no love for the English. A professor seemed reluctant to give a decisive answer to our question, no matter how hard we pressed him. It was impossible to tell which era they preferred, the British or the Chinese? In fact, they seemed so unconcerned that the 1997 handover appeared to us to resemble a company changing its board of directors. Were they happy or sad? We could not tell. The handover was accompanied by none of the usual changes that take place when a country is liberated from its colonizer. Street names still had English names and an American professor of philosophy who sat in on a number of meetings with us, told us that 20 dollar stamps bearing the profile of Elizabeth I were still in circulation. Nearly everything on display, whether street signs or public notices, were written in both Chinese and English. It is as though they are standing in the middle, reluctant to go forward or back. Is this the effect of the past? Our guide Jennifer mentioned this effect when she said that the tourist railway that took passengers to the summit of the mountain was a legacy of the British. Perhaps it is not so much the past which holds them to this middle ground, but a vision of the future in which Hong Kong expands beyond its geographical limits. But one cannot discount the importance of the present as well, in which Hong Kong is safe and stable despite being fought over by competing interests. As he explained the various Chinese dishes that were placed before us, the American professor said that he preferred living in Hong Kong as it was the only place he felt completely safe.
That Hong Kong has remained a land of peace is a rare example of wisdom on the part of the international community, or maybe its just the great powers looking after their interests. Maybe this small patch of territory--neither burdened by its present nor cut off from its past--can serve as an example of what happens when interests become more important than creeds. "How do you see Hong Kong?" the professor asked me. "What do you think of it?" In all likelihood she wasn't expecting an answer, and I reserved my answer for another meeting, convened for writers from a variety of Asian countries. I said that the longer you stay in a place, the harder it is to understand. Hassan Daoud