People in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan should realise they do not own the sole right to Chinese identity

Danny Chan says the idea that nationality is a singular culture is outdated and no longer applies in today’s diverse and interconnected world

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 February, 2016, 8:30am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 February, 2016, 8:30am

There are usually no winners in controversies about nationality, especially those that seek to impose one view over another. This is exactly what happened in the recent row over Taiwanese teen pop star Chou Tzu-yu – who was forced to apologise after waving the island’s flag on a South Korean TV show – and many other disputes about “Chineseness” in Hong Kong, Taiwan and on the mainland.

READ MORE: Taiwan’s teen pop star Chou Tzu-yu: how a wave of a flag caused a great flap in China

We often imagine a nation and its culture as a totality, with a single language or homogenous culture. Yet this is a fantasy; in reality, such thinking only engenders stereotypes and bias that widen the divide between people. Nationality can never be defined once and for all; the notion is subject to constant change and reform, and clinging to the past can never stop this.

There are many problems associated with old-school nationalism, including an unrelenting pursuit of an origin that is not found in daily life. Thus, to validate it, the only choice is to turn one’s back on the present and probe deeper into a past that not many find relevant.

Chineseness should always be plural, as long as each community is considered equal

Take contemporary Chinese immigration history as an example. It is a historical fact that war, famine and exploitation displaced a majority and forced them to head abroad to survive. This is what lies beneath the notion of the Chinese diaspora, which is now used to justify a centralising national totality.

If those at the centre are considered politically correct or culturally purified, and those at the margins are defective or impure, this root-searching mentality is just rubbing salt into old wounds.

Chineseness should always be plural, as long as each community is considered equal. It is not hard to find lots of Chinese communities around Southeast Asia speaking a language or living a lifestyle that is highly recognisable yet different from ours in Hong Kong. Judging which is more Chinese is not only unnecessary, it also ignores the fact that an identity is not something that can be easily pinned down.

READ MORE: An orphan, an angst-ridden teenager or a cross-cultural traveller? Hong Kong must find its unique identity

While it is increasingly popular to search for one’s roots in Hong Kong, this needs careful examination. We complain about how our ways of life have been marginalised, what about the ethnic minorities among us? If we think learning about their culture is unnecessary, this root-searching mentality will not make our community more diverse or free.

Perhaps this mentality only serves to prolong rivalries for political use; a sad way to reconfirm the significance of our community. If so, then we are no different from those making a fuss about Chu’s flag-waving. Roots should never be mutually exclusive.

Danny W. K. Chan teaches communication and language at Hong Kong Community College, Polytechnic University