Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.91.2: T-SQUARE 2.0?


For an urbanist such as myself the prospect of observing, in 1997, the “handover” of sovereignty of a major world city from one country to another was an unusual opportunity.  Most cities that undergo change in their national hegemony do so through war or some other political force. Hong Kong, as the term implies, was being handed back to its original motherland, from which it was handed to the British in the Opium Wars back in 1841.

In early 1997 I set out for Hong Kong on a sabbatical to study and observe what some called “the great Chinese Take-away.” Maggie Thatcher had met with Deng Xiao-ping in 1984 to reckon with the fact that the Kowloon-New Territory lease would be up in 1997 and Hong Kong Island alone could no longer really function as it had.  As they had in other instances, notably India in 1947, the Brits set a date and would be gone in the morning. In Hong Kong’s case the morning of July 1, 1997.

The British hadn’t been necessarily the most benevolent of overseers.  Typical of their imperial behavior, they ran the Crown Colony pretty much in their own interests, and, with the 99-year lease from of Kowloon and the “New Territories,” gained sufficient room for expansion and hinterland and refugee capitalists from the Communist revolution, developed into a major trading center. Still, Hong Kong people were better off than their mainland cousins and, when the commies took over in 1949, any mainlander with a capitalist gene or a decent bank account headed south.  Many of them became part of the economic success of the Crown Colony.

But the British never spoke of democracy for the people of Hong Kong until the final days of the Crown colony.  Then, incredibly, after a century and a half, they were talking up democracy like those people who once threw their tea in Boston Harbor.  Hadn’t they been paying attention to what happened in Tiananmen Square just eight years before?  Where, I wondered, did they get off giving Hong Kong people the idea that they could have a say in their own public affairs when already, many of them had moved their money into foreign banks, were applying for British passports, or decamping for Canada, Australia and the US. In anticipation of PLA tanks rolling down Nathan Road the day after the handover?

 As the last months of the crown colony ticked off the complexities of political attitudes became more exposed. There were among the local Chinese those who expressed a satisfaction at the prospect of seeing the backs of the Brits. For this cohort, despite the advantages brought by the British style of educational system, the relative lack of corruption, the English language, and positioning of Hong Kong, along with Singapore, as the major east-west trading post, the British were there overlords.

 At the same time, Mother China was experiencing an economic boom encouraged by the embrace of market capitalism that Deng Xiao-ping seemed only able to refer to euphemistically, as did Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore, in terms of “Asian values.”  It had been a couple of generations since many of their parents and grandparents had escaped to Hong Kong from Maoist China, and since their Asian neighbors the Japanese had treated them with bigotry and brutality, that some Hong Kong people were rediscovering their “Asian-ness.”  Many of these were true Hong Kong yan, the indigenous Hong Kong people whose identity I wrote about several years later in my novel set in the colony in the year leading up to the handover. My protagonist declares that:

“In my view, there are actually two Hong Kongs, maybe more.  There is the popular Hong Kong of the Hong Kong Tourist Authority, the internationally recognized city with the postcard skyline of Central from Tsim Sha Tsui or down from the Peak, the Hong Kong that can boast of being the leading financial city of Asia, the Hong Kong of tai-pans and the Hang Seng, the skyline of soaring international-style office buildings—cosmopolitan Hong Kong.  This is the Hong Kong that is, arguably, among the first rank of international cities, at least in some categories of economic activity, and where the international language of commerce, English, is widely spoken.

“But squint your eyes a bit, or remove your myopia-correcting spectacles, and that Hong Kong blurs into an urban ‘Everywhere.’  It joins the emerging universality of Singapore, L.A., Tokyo, K.L., Shanghai, and many other cities with contemporary architectural cliché conformity.

   “Underneath and in between the features of cosmopolitan Hong Kong is another, very different, city.  I like to call it ‘Cantoville’ because it is the local, authentic, Hong Kong, where Cantonese is often the exclusive language spoken, and the culture is closer to that of a village than that of an international metropolis.  Hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers live a rather contained existence in this Hong Kong that is defined by language, culture, political identity, and geography.  These residents of ‘Cantoville’ operate the local markets, shops and restaurants, drive the taxis and buses, repair the streets, construct the buildings, man the workboats and container ports, and dig up and repair city streets that make this city function.  They are born, and they live, procreate and die, not in international, cosmopolitan Hong Kong, but in their local “village.”  They might claim, with some justification, to be the ‘authentic’ Hong Kong.” [From Sebastian Gerard, For Goodness Sake: A Novel of the Afterlife of Suzie Wong, 2008]

That represents my personal view as well.   But what where would the people of Cantoville be in terms of their political identity? For 50 years, according to the agreement between China and Britain, they would be living under “one country, two systems,” a rather inspecific promulgation that would allow Hong Kong to continue to function as it had in the past, and under a sort of Constitution referred to as the “Basic Law.”  That was to be the situation until 2047, when the terms of that arrangement would run out. Then what?  The people of Cantoville, seem always to be living under a ticking clock.

Meanwhile, there was a point of view that saw a process of gradual confluence of the system in mainland China and Hong Kong, brought about by the fact that in many respects the mainland was growing as much or more capitalistic as the erstwhile British colony. This, of course had an internal assumption that, as societies grow a middle class, along with it comes and increasing demand for its political participation via democracy. Thus far, of course, there is scant evidence of that sort of transformation taking place in the PRC after several years of sustained high rates of economic growth. This may be waiting for a train that never arrives.

    In fact, it appears that the single political party of the PRC has every intention that the democracy train never leaves the station. The question that comes to weigh heavily on Hong Kong is a corollary of the one that prevails in the mainland—how long can the “catch a mouse” economic system of the PRC co-exist with its authoritarian political system?  The PRC is not waiting 36 years to provide an answer.  Gradually it has been putting the squeeze on, trying to impose itself through Article 23 of the Basic Law to outlaw any activity that might be subversive or seditious to the PRC; then trying to revamp the education system to indoctrinate students to the Communist Chinese system.  Hongkongers fought both of them off, but the signals were clear as to who wanted to be boss in Hong Kong, right down to the kindergartens. And speaking of bosses, it was “Boss” Tweed of Tammany in New York who claimed that he didn’t care who voted so long as he got to pick the nominees.  And that is precisely what is filling the streets Hong Kong with angry residents of Cantoville.  Beijing will let them vote, but only for candidates that a Beijing-appointed committee chooses for them.  It’s a sham democracy, and Hong Kongers, particularly the students are buying into it.

They already see changes since the handover that concern the quality of their future. Before the handover the mainlanders who visited Hong Kong were often perceived as bumpkins and unsophisticated “countryside people.”  Not only were their Mandarin dialects distinguishable, but their dress could be a subject of ridicule. In particular I recall it being pointed out to me that some mainland men purchased new suits from Hong Kong tailors, but left the cloth tags attached to sleeves, apparently mistaking them for brand identifications and a sure sign of lack of refinement in a city that knows brands.

That soon began to change.  More and more mainland visitors were urbanites, with money.  They could afford suits at Armani, and the tailor would remove the temporary tags.  They could afford the most coveted brands and restaurants and hotels. Some were brash and arrogant nouveau riche of the booming Middle Kingdom who also came to bear their children in Hong Kong, which would convey the “right of abode.”  They stripped market shelves of baby formula to avoid the poisoned stuff produced in the mainland, and before long began arriving in their new cars, expensive, shiny and configured for driving on the right. Before long they were not so welcome.

   Thus there were two intrusions that assaulted the Hong Kong identity: the attack on the right to dissent and upon the education system, and the pressure and prices, jobs and, as is always the case in Hong Kong, space, from the insurgent mainlanders.  As is often the case in such demographic movements it could be good for some Hong Kong people, such as businesses, but not for many of the denizens of Cantoville.*  With the added betrayal that the government of Hong Kong, both in the Chief Executive and the composition of the legislature was a sham masquerading as a democracy Hong Kong was sliding down a slippery chute to being a Beijing satrapy.

These protesting students are supposed to behave themselves, buy their black business suits and be good, quiet corporate coolies for HSBC, Bank of China  and the rest of the investment and trading houses that border the streets they are thronging. It is now a waiting game.  How disruptive can the protesters be before inviting a violent response.  Already, the local police, organizationally in the difficult position of being the Praetorian Guard for the much reviled Beijing-toady Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, have increased support for students by tear gassing and pepper-spraying them.

But There is always a tension between the buck and the vote in Hong Kong and, just like the mainland, the buck often prevails because food and rent come due more often than elections, which often don’t come along at all, or matter much when they do.  So there have not been majorities that support organizations like Occupy Central and The Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS).

But in the contest for hearts and minds (and bucks) the “Special Administrative Region’s” economic prosperity renders it relatively immune to the mainland’s economic promises.  It knew how to make money before Deng rolled back Maoist economic disasterism.  And international visibility, so much greater thanks to social media, and despite PRC internet censoring, makes sending in the PLA for a violent crackdown an international political loser. On the mainland, they squelch thousands of local protests every year and, as Louisa Lim’s recent book points out, they have kept a whole generation ignorant of what happened in T-Square in 1989.**

Everybody knows (or should know) that behind the PRC’s slow suffocation of the democracy movement in Hong Kong.  They fear it will detonate democracy movements in Tibet, Xinjiang, embolden Taiwan, and then, where else.  “Damn those Brits,” they might be muttering just about now, “they handed us a ticking bomb.”


© 2014, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 10.3.2014)

* “Polls conducted by academic institutions over the past year have indicated that the most disaffected and potentially volatile sector of Hong Kong society is not the students, the middle-aged or even the elderly activists who have sustained the democracy movement here for decades. Instead, the most strident calls for greater democracy — and often for greater economic populism, as well — have come from people in their 20s and early 30s who have struggled to find well-paying jobs as the local manufacturing sector has withered away, and as banks and other service industries have increasingly hired mainland Chinese instead of local college graduates.” [International NYTimes, by Keith Bradsher,  Sept. 30, 2014, online]
** The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited (2014).  Whereas Tiananmen is annually commemorated in Hong Kong where students who were born after the event use the term and hand signal “6/4” for June 4, 1989.