A tribute to the gweilo localists who make Hong Kong a better place
Yonden Lhatoo recognises the unsung heroes among the expatriates here who, in their own way, contribute much to society for the love of Hong Kong
Now that localism is no longer a dirty word to the Beijing and Hong Kong governments, there’s a sense of revived, open pride in this city’s unique identity these days.
There’s nothing wrong with showing a preference for your own hometown and culture. I say it’s a good thing, as long as it doesn’t develop chauvinistic overtones or, worse, degenerate into a justification for racism.
Let’s not forget that a gweilo can be as local as they come, by adopting this city as home. I use the word not as a xenophobic epithet for white people, but as the affectionate term that now enjoys wide acceptance among foreigners themselves here.
I know quite a few expatriates who, like me, have fallen in love with this place and become its adopted children. They have embraced and absorbed everything good this city has to offer, and they’re just as protective and territorial about it as the next local. But, at the same time, they bring an outsider’s perspective on things that are unacceptable, or could be better.
One of my favourites has to be Mary Mulvihill, a feisty Irishwoman who’s the scourge of every government department not doing its job properly.
For more than 20 years, she has run a lone crusade against everything that bothers her on the streets of Hong Kong, from litter bugs and dripping air conditioners to illegal parking and pollution.
While nobody pays the least attention to the official ban on idling engines, including the government, you can see Mary in action on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, tapping on car windows and gesturing at startled drivers to turn off their engines if they’re just hanging around. No one is safe.
“TST police have told me that although I am a pain in the *** they respect that I never take my eye off the ball,” she wrote to me. “I find that the Chinese respect consistency.”
She has, in her files, more than two decades of written correspondence with government departments mostly trying to give her the runaround. And she’s showing no sign of slowing down.
Then there’s Judith Mackay, a medical doctor, academic, internationally feted anti-smoking activist, and tai chi enthusiast. She shares that same brand of dogged determination against all odds.
The enemy of big tobacco, which named her as one of the three most dangerous people in the world, Judith was once offered 24-hour protection by Hong Kong police because of her crusading. She doesn’t hog the limelight, and you won’t see her getting a Grand Bauhinia Medal from the chief executive, but she’s done more for public health than some recipients of the city’s highest award.
I have room for only one more gweilo, although I could fill a few pages with other deserving names, and it has to be Anders Nelsson, musician, actor, entertainer, and all-round jolly good fellow. Hong Kong’s Swedish son turned 70 this month and it will be a loss for this city if he’s not around at 100, still doing what he does.
On the flip side of all the localism talk these days, I hear a lot of boneheaded commentary along the lines of “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you just go back to where you came from?” Imagine how many Hongkongers settled around the world would have to come back if the same logic was imposed upon them. Where would you fit them?
Let me sum up the mentality of gweilos who care, as opposed to those who are only passing through: they love Hong Kong, that’s why they live here; and they’ll fight for this city.
They’re heroes, all, in my book, though unsung and unheralded. Thank you for making Hong Kong a better place for the rest of us.
Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post