Cantonese-speaking ethnic Chinese aren’t the only ones who qualify as Hongkongers

Peter Kammerer does not agree with those who regard ethnicity and language as the defining characteristics of a Hongkonger. Other considerations matter, such as a sense of belonging

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 August, 2017, 11:58am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 August, 2017, 7:01pm

A comment on my last column about the rudeness of Hong Kong people got me thinking. The reader obliquely accused me of not knowing what I was talking about because I probably lived in Discovery Bay and was therefore unlikely to have used public transport. Stereotypes are one thing, but suggesting what we know about where we live depends on ethnic or economic background is quite another. It raises an intriguing question, though: What is a Hongkonger?

Broadly, anyone who lives and works in Hong Kong can call themselves a Hongkonger. From the official standpoint, it’s about passing the seven-year permanent residency mark and gaining the rights of being able to work without a visa, vote in elections and stand for public office. But then there are those who like to think in terms of language or ethnicity, believing only those who can speak Cantonese or are Chinese should be able to use the term. Then the purists among us step in, contending that the privilege should be bestowed only on Hong Kong passport holders and “natives”, a racially neutral way of saying Hong Kong-born Chinese whose first language is Cantonese.

Only on the first two grounds do I qualify. I was not born and bred in Hong Kong and am Caucasian, although I have lived here for 29 years, more than half my life. Criminally, many would argue, I cannot speak Cantonese and know only a few fistfuls of the numerous colourful expletives and slang words for which the Chinese dialect is so renowned. If I can’t carry on a conversation in the local language with a taxi driver or vegetable seller in the wet market, then there’s no way I can be considered a local, the argument goes. Nor do my two sons qualify; although born in Hong Kong, they are not ethnically Chinese.

But then matters get murky, as a colleague with every known qualification to be referred to as a Hongkonger pointed out. I know too much about the everyday Hong Kong that the typical Cantonese-speaking denizen frequents to be called an outsider. My free time is spent where there are few foreigners, if any; going to restaurants with Chinese-only menus, hanging out in working- and middle-class districts and visiting shopping malls. Blame that on my Hong Kong-born and raised, Cantonese-speaking girlfriend.

What makes a true Hongkonger: knowing what ‘fly sand go milk’ means, perhaps?

Having explained that as the reason for my perceived-as-unusual knowledge, it occurred to me that I rarely frequent places where my own racial group can be found. The same is not always true for members of Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities, some of whom live, shop and even work among their own kind. That is also the perception of many Hong Kong Chinese of Caucasians; I suspect it was such a person who tagged me as being a Discovery-Bay-dwelling, taxi-rider. Little does he or she know that I have been to Discovery Bay on average once for each of the three decades I have lived in Hong Kong and that I rarely use anything but buses, trains and trams.

Are you a true Hongkonger? It depends who you ask

But, to my mind, those details in themselves don’t mark me out as a Hongkonger. It’s my adoption of things typically local that gives me that right. Why take a taxi when there are far cheaper and as-direct options? Physical contact with a stranger is to be avoided at all costs. Who would pay HK$60 for a hamburger when there is McDonald’s? More than 600 square feet of living space is a waste. Crowds of people are comforting.

Above all else, the test for whether someone is a Hongkonger is where they intend to live after retirement. I have been away from Australia, my country of birth, for so long that I think of it as “foreign” when I visit. When I return here, I give a sigh of relief that I am home again. So, call me a Hongkonger.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post