Growing up with Hong Kong: a rumination on the anti-extradition bill protests from Australia
Words by Jocelin Chan
I stopped calling myself Chinese in 2014.
That year, I turned seventeen. So did postcolonial Hong Kong. My life as a seventeen-year-old consisted mostly of school and studying and petty drama, but Hong Kong was experiencing one of its biggest protests in postcolonial history. For seventy-nine days people packed the streets that were usually the stomping grounds of buses, trams, and red taxis. As police brutality escalated, protesting citizens defended themselves from tear gas with umbrellas. What had once been the ubiquitous accessory of an aunty shielding herself from the sun became the symbol of democratic liberation and defiance. This was the Umbrella Revolution.
The UK handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997, agreeing that Hong Kong’s administration would operate under a “one country two systems” model: that is, Hong Kong would maintain political autonomy and democracy until 2047. By then, the UK undoubtedly hoped, China itself would become democratic—Hong Kong’s decolonisation model was decided during Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of the 80s. But in 1989 the Tiananmen Square massacre happened. The following mass exodus of emigrants from Hong Kong, my parents included, signalled the city’s fear of the encroaching Handover.
But for a while, everything seemed OK. Hong Kong in the 90s was an economic powerhouse: it was inviolable. My parents moved back to Hong Kong. The Handover was conducted two months after my birth, and we got a sweet new flag out of it: five white bauhinia petals unfurling over a red background. The Hong Kong where I grew up was free and confident, an Asian power in its own right, proudly Chinese but also proudly distinct. We spoke Cantonese, but were also happy to learn Mandarin at school and sing “March of the Volunteers,” the Chinese national anthem.
Hongkongers, or East Asians in general, are stereotyped for their political apathy. The Umbrella Revolution upended that notion.
By then, I was an outsider to Hong Kong. I’d been living in Australia for ten years. But the enormity of the Beijing White Paper (the Chinese Communist Party’s declaration of complete jurisdiction over Hong Kong, violating the “one country two systems” model) that catalysed Umbrella Revolution was so immense. Like a homing pigeon, I was drawn back.
Identity was the first thing to be politicised: we weren’t Chinese, we weren’t British, we were Hongkongers. We had our own history, culture, values, language, and politics. Since 2014, the hallmarks of this reimagined Hong Kong identity have manifested tangibly within the city: Ben Sir’s concerted study in Yue language and its distinctive grammar and vocabulary. TVB documentaries on colonial Hong Kong’s history. Lucullus’ cha chaan teng flavoured butter cookies, a celebration of traditional Hong Kong cuisine. Washi tape with nostalgic prints of 1960s bus tickets, which even my now-pro-China parents enjoyed. On my part, I began to indulge in a copious dose of Wong Kar Wai and Stephen Chow films.
But these assertions of Hong Kong’s individuality do not come from a vacuum. The CCP asserts China’s imperial entitlement on the premise that those that China wants to subsume are already Chinese. Taiwan and Tibet are classic examples. What’s more, after the Umbrella Revolution, Beijing doubled down. In 2015, five people who had staffed a bookstore that sold anti-CCP material disappeared, only for a few to reappear on Chinese state media offering contrived confessions for unrelated crimes. In 2017, candidates who had been voted into Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) who professed democratic leanings under false pretences. Just this year, several leaders of the Umbrella Revolution were finally imprisoned.
It is from this haze of increasing anti-mainland tension within Hong Kong that the extradition bill protests emerge. The bill’s critics feared for the human rights of prisoners being extradited to China, the fate of political prisoners, and the potential impact it could have on international visitors. But the anger over the extradition bill is also the culmination of other frustrations with the mainland. 1.03 million people protested on 9 June. Nearly 2 million protested a week later. Hong Kong’s population is 7.4 million. However futile the fight against a corrupt, oppressive government with a penchant for imprisoning its citizens in “re-education camps” seems, there’s a growing sentiment among Hongkongers living within and without the city that it is the principle that counts. For every act of aggression from Beijing, Hongkongers will defy them. If we are to be dragged to our deaths, we will kick and scream all the way.
Amid the pride I have felt to call myself a Hongkonger for the last two weeks, I also share the fear pulsing from those who have been driven to occupy the roads outside the LegCo building, braving the onslaught of rubber bullets and tear gas. For five years, I have wished that the media outside of Hong Kong would pick up on and broadcast our fight. We’re finally at the centre of international attention, but it’s bittersweet—so many see this as a last-ditch fight for Hong Kong’s autonomy. As someone living in Australia, perhaps I have little to fear. Though our system is problematic, we are far from being Xi Jinping’s next target. I have the privilege to live apart from the mess and condemn it from a safe distance. But Hong Kong is also my home. We… grew up together. There’s a bond that no distance can sever. The history of postcolonial Hong Kong is intertwined with my own. So it scares me to think that when we’re fifty, I might not be allowed back to my birthplace without a visa—by then, my HKID card will be defunct. But that visa that may not be granted to me given my fairly public stance on China. How will I visit my aunt’s mouldy flat again? How will I visit my grandparents’ ashes, tucked into the wall of a Taoist monastery, again? How will I eat another bowl of macaroni soup, which no Sydney cha chaan teng has replicated with success?
I don’t know what Hong Kong will look like in ten, twenty years. As far as the trends are concerned, the future seems dark. My entire extended family is there. I have friends there. What kind of rights and freedoms will they have then? What kind of place will Hong Kong be after Beijing sweeps over us, washing out the language, food, and aesthetics that define us? Where can we find a place for our Cantonese, our egg waffles, and our red market lamps? Will they change our name to Xianggang?
As long as we resist now, we can still delay the oncoming tidal wave of China. We can still, as long as we hold out, be Hong Kong.