Hong Kong 2004

by AFP/Mark McCord, Oct 10, 2004 | Destinations: Hong Kong / China

From Victoria Peak to Stanley bay, the names of Hong Kong's most famous sites resonate with its 150-year history as a British colony. But seven years after its handover to China, and on the eve of a first official visit by a French president, Hong Kong's identity is changing in a number of ways. The city is becoming more international and more Chinese.

Tuesday's visit by President Jacques Chirac is a milestone in Hong Kong's history: French presidents had shunned the city in the past for its colonial links to Britain, according to French consulate sources. Chirac's arrival highlights the waning influence, both politically and culturally, of the southern Chinese territory's former colonial masters.

For proof, just check out the Lan Kwai Fong entertainment area. Established about 15 years ago in downtown Hong Kong, it quickly became a neon-lit carnival of bars, clubs and restaurants. Until its handover in 1997 it was the preserve of rich, mostly white, expatriate Britons. Since then, however, not only has the scene become culturally diversified but the "chuppies" -- Chinese yuppies -- have made the place their own too. "The gweilos have gone, and the Chinese drink here now," the manager of The Fong, one of the newer bars in the neighbourhood, told AFP, using the local slang term for white foreigner. "The Chinese are here because the gweilos have all left."

In fact, Immigration Department statistics suggest the numbers of Westerners living and working here has remained fairly constant over the past 10 years. In December 1996 the number of expats from Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia stood at 194,900, department figures show. The figure for last year was 186,100. The greatest drop, unsurprisingly, was in the number of British people here, but even then the department's figures show the registered Britons only fell by about 6,000 -- not a great deal in a city of 6.8 million.

The figures hide some fascinating details. According to the British consulate there are in fact 200,000 Brits here, many of them permanent residents. Interestingly, a huge and growing proportion are returning overseas-born Chinese or emigres. "Technically there may be as many Britons here as there were years ago, but ethnically, it doesn't look like it," a consulate source said.

The greatest change to perceptions of the city, however, has come as result of China's growing strength in global trade, said Maggie Cheung, a Chinese University professor of geography who is doing a research project on the subject. "The handover played only a very small part in shaping the way people see Hong Kong -- the British thing was exaggerated anyway," said Cheung. "It is China's growing role in world trade that has made the difference. People know China because it is an economic giant. Hong Kong is bound in that." That, she believes, also accounts for Hong Kong residents' changing perceptions of their home.

If local newspapers are to be believed, Hong Kong is a patriotic, proud part of greater China. The mostly pro-Beijing media here has dined out on a series of splashy chest-thumping events put on by China to boost nationalistic fervour.

But Cheung, and many angry letterwriters in the less conservative media, have slammed the patriotic overkill, saying it has had the opposite effect and is making locals feel less nationalistic. "The problem is, we were never taught to be patriotic under British rule," said Cheung. "It was ingrained into us that we were part of a successful economic machine with no sentimental ties to Britain or China." The result, according to Cheung and others like her -- especially younger residents, is a city with little sense of national being. People feel little attachment to China but cannot claim any national loyalty to a city that has never been granted self-determination. "Our loyalties are to the city, not to any nation or system," said Cheung.

Undoubtedly, Hong Kongers' cultural identity has at least been influenced by China's resumption of sovereignty over the city. "The Chinese customers here are so bossy because they now feel like they own the place," said The Fong's manager, a Chinese woman who did not want to be identified.

But the depth of nationalist feeling is hard to gauge, especially in the arts: seven years into Chinese rule, and there's little evidence of a sea change, said movie critic and Chinese-language TV script-writer Gary Pollard. "I wouldn't say Chinese movie makers are grappling with cultural identity," Pollard told AFP. "What I do see, however, is a disaffected younger generation who do not claim to be Chinese, and this is obvious by the films they watch -- films by 'internationalised' Chinese. "They are watching people like Wong Ka-wai, Ang Lee and John Woo, Chinese directors who live in the West or at least deal with issues that are not strictly Chinese."

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