Culture Club
Culture Club

‘Local’ should be defined by the values we share, not language

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 June, 2014, 7:17pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 June, 2014, 4:24pm

“What is local?”

That’s the question that gives me headache from time to time – particularly working at the South China Morning Post. And now this question comes back to haunt me again after reading an intriguing Facebook post.

Last week when Hong Kong was saturated with the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of June 4 Tiananmen Square crackdown, the annual Cultural Leadership Summit organised by the Hong Kong Arts Administrators Association took place (just why would anyone stage an event that clashes head-to-head with June 4?)

This year’s topic is “Branding Hong Kong Through the Arts?” I suppose this shouldn’t be ending with a question mark. The city already did it with films over two decades ago, from Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan to Wong Kar-wai and John Woo. And it was a success without the government’s meddling.

Anyway, during this two-day event, there was a debate on “local”: “This House Believes that Hong Kong Cultural Branding Should be Predominantly Led by Local rather than Overseas Talents by 2020”.

I wasn’t there. But one of the speakers, artist Simon Birch wrote an intriguing three-page long post-debate Facebook status and it got me wondering what has gone wrong – not just at the debate but in Hong Kong.

“To be clear, 'local' means Hong Kong Chinese, Cantonese speaking. So not me, even after nearly 20 years of commitment to [Hong Kong], because, let's be frank, I'm white. Lovely.”

Birch’s team allegedly lost the debate. But what intrigued me the most is how we define the meaning of “local” in today’s Hong Kong.

The recent wave of so-called localism depicted in Hong Kong cinema appears to have laid down the rule of thumb to define what is local: cultural references that can be understood only by a group of people that share the same language. If you don’t understand Cantonese, you won’t get it even if you have lived in this town your whole life. And as a result, you are not local Hongkongese.

But then, is language the ultimate criterion to define “local”? If so, does it make the SCMP less local than Apple Daily? I don’t watch TVB drama or listen to the newest Canto-pop releases, but does it mean I’m not local? On the other hand, are you qualified to be a local person if you can master the language of Cantonese? 

Take TVB singer/ actress Corinna Chamberlain for example. The Hongkong-born and bred New Zealander goes by her Chinese name Chan Ming-yan. She speaks and sings perfectly Cantonese. But is she getting more opportunities than her Asian-looking counterparts? The answer is no. The blonde hair and blue eyes that are considered as bonus in the west become her obstacles in this part of the world.

Same as other Caucasian actors like Gregory Rivers. A veteran in Hong Kong showbiz, the Australian who goes by “local” stage name Ho Kwok-wing ditched medicine studies in Australia and followed his dream to Hong Kong to pursue a showbiz career. Eventually he became one of the most recognisable “white” faces in Hong Kong’s television. But eventually he chose to leave TVB and recently he was spotted selling handmade jewellery at a market in Sai Kung. He speaks perfect Cantonese, but it isn’t getting him anywhere further in his acting career.

I don’t have the answer to the definition of local in Hong Kong. But it certainly shouldn’t be limited to language – particularly in a so-called "World City" that is known as a cultural melting pot. Cantonese language is one strong heritage but not the only one. After all, sharing the same values among a society weighs so much more than sharing merely the same language or skin colour.