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

Stephanie Cheung says as Hong Kong searches for its identity, it is bound to recognise its role as a go-between

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 October, 2015, 5:58pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 October, 2015, 5:58pm

Mearcstapa is an old English word often translated as "border walkers". Like Strider the Ranger in The Lord of the Rings, Sir Francis Drake in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, or Zheng He, who founded the maritime Silk Road, border stalkers were individuals who travelled outside their group to bring back news of the outside world. Their ability to move in and out of tribes, traverse boundaries and understand different cultures equipped them to act as a guide to the outside world, and a protector of their own tribes.

READ MORE: Hong Kong's identity crisis

Hong Kong is presently like an 18-year-old with an identity crisis. As any teenager would know, this process of growing up and searching for one's identity is exciting, though it can be confusing, sometimes frustrating and even downright painful. Conflicting desires and instincts rage through him, flushed by hormones. He needs to develop a healthy self-image and know who he is, to go forward into the future.

In this quest for an identity, it may be helpful for us to learn from the ancient mearcstapas.

Hong Kong has always been an orphan, fostered by Britain in the colonial days. After 1997, this orphan's insecurity has been magnified into an overwhelming craving for approval 

The young go through conflicting emotions. Among these is a longing for recognition and approval by one's parents and those in authority. This is natural. However, when one is emotionally insecure, as in an orphan, this need for approval can get blown up to major proportions.

Hong Kong has always been an orphan, fostered by Britain in the colonial days. After 1997, this orphan's insecurity has been magnified into such an overwhelming craving for approval that part of him is driven to constantly demonstrate unequivocal loyalty by weeding out the slightest suspected miscreant to please his newfound parent. Some of the oddest incidents in Hong Kong be traced to this deep-seated neediness to belong, to be accepted, recognised and rewarded by those in authority.

At the same time, a young person also feels a natural urge to break free from the bondage of expectations and rules imposed by his parents and authorities, in order to become his unique self. Such is the making of unpatriotic pronouncements and wild fantasies of Hong Kong becoming independent.

It is not unusual for the young person to swing between the two extremes before he can work out his own identity. These warring factions inside him would come to a rest only with self-knowledge, acceptance, and appreciation of himself.

To reach this stage, the young person would benefit from some rational, peaceful and empathetic discussions with a parent, teacher or mentor instead of being harangued. Hong Kong, like the youth, can be guided to ask: "What are my strengths, weaknesses and passions?"

READ MORE: National education and the quest for a Hong Kong identity

By a quirk of history, Hong Kong inherited from the British the structures and management resources for its infrastructure, including its economic, legal, social, governmental, educational and cultural systems. As a special administrative region under the "one country, two systems" arrangement, Hong Kong has been allowed to continue to grow and develop these systems autonomously. This political privilege guaranteed under the Chinese constitution and the Basic Law is unique and precious.

At the same time, Hong Kong's strength and uniqueness lie in its colonial heritage. Without the strong foundation built under British rule, it would not be able to develop and flourish as a capitalist city. This part of history is integral to Hong Kong's make-up. Whatever emotive lens through which one sees colonialism, we can still accept and embrace our colonial past as part of Hong Kong's identity. Instead of shamefacedly covering up the royal insignia on our postboxes, we can openly use them as educational tools and tourist attractions.

Economically, through keeping a simple and low tax regime, with a free flow of capital, stable infrastructure, good connectivity, efficient transportation and reliable support services, Hong Kong has continued to attract businesses. We have the sixth-largest stock market in the world in terms of market capitalisation and one of the world's most active markets for initial public offerings.

The Washington-based Heritage Foundation names Hong Kong the freest economy in the world. Hong Kong's unique position as the gateway to China, with a currency of its own, has made it the world's largest offshore renminbi business centre.

The success of Hong Kong's economy is underpinned by a robust legal system upholding the rule of law. Common law is popularly understood and used by the international community. The high calibre of our courts give confidence to the dependability of contractual arrangements, protection of property ownership and intellectual property rights.

Multinational deals favour choosing Hong Kong law and courts to govern in the event of disputes. This month, Queen Mary University of London released its survey showing the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre as being the most preferred arbitral institution outside Europe, and the third preferred seat worldwide, just behind London and Paris.

Such international confidence would not be possible without our zero tolerance for corruption, particularly in business and government. Also, with free compulsory education, Hong Kong boasts an educated and hard-working population, trained in many areas.

Bilingualism is our strength, as it enables not only communication, but also understanding of the ethos behind the words. Widely travelled, many Hong Kong people have a liberal and cosmopolitan outlook, respect for law, human rights and liberties, and behave according to internationally accepted social norms.

This enables them, like border stalkers, to move in and out of different cultures, and adapt with ease to the most advanced communities in the world.

Their knowledge of and connections to the mainland give Hong Kong a role as intermediary for its tribal hinterland. With China's "One Belt, One Road" initiative and its leadership in the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Hong Kong is poised strategically to serve as the fundraising and financial management hub for these new opportunities.

READ MORE: Hong Kong-mainland relations

Insofar as weaknesses are concerned, Hong Kong lacks natural resources. Our water and much of our food comes from the mainland and other areas. Land is limited, and an oligopoly of developers has kept property prices rising disproportionately to the paying ability of the general population. The increasing gap between rich and poor, and the lack of social mobility opportunities for the younger generation, have caused social dissatisfaction, and even anger and rebellion. This is a risk area which needs to be addressed.

As an open city with people of different ethnicities, backgrounds, beliefs and talent, where access to news and information worldwide is largely uncensored, Hong Kong is a melting pot for a range of opinions. Historically, it has been a most liberal and free society, where knowledge and creativity flourished.

Lately, however, there has been a worrying trend within society to oversimplify issues and shout emotive slogans instead of engaging in rational and reasoned discussions. If unchecked, this trend will cause further rifts in society. Greater resentment will result. A society engulfed in negativity has its creative energy swallowed up.

The city has enjoyed a capitalist way of life, with many freedoms and rights guaranteed under the Basic Law for 50 years.

These rights are part of Hong Kong's DNA. When they appear to have been impinged upon, the city bellows in pain. The chief executive classified the Umbrella Movement last year as an unprecedented social movement. Hong Kong cannot ignore the passion for various freedoms. Neither can it deny the privilege it has been granted as an SAR, or wash away its colonial heritage.

READ MORE: Hong Kong must be given room to be different from the mainland

By being aware of its weaknesses, Hong Kong would be in a better position to protect itself. But, ultimately, it is in understanding its strengths, its roots and contribution to the tribe that it will be able to develop a healthy, realistic and self-respecting identity. That is the path to maturity and internal harmony.

Like the mearcstapa or border walker, Hong Kong should recognise that it is a born adventurer, endowed with much energy and curiosity. Its history demonstrates it was never meant to stay sedentary within its tribe all the time, but was given the ability to culturally travel outside the confines of China - to make excursions into realms and spheres of activities and ideas, and then bring previously unfamiliar freedoms and the like back to its tribe.

It would be a mistake not to recognise that Hong Kong's roots originate in China, from which it draws nourishment and identity. At the same time, its ability to traverse boundaries and understand different cultures should equip it to be a guide for its tribe in China, and to also be its protector.

Granted, there will always be some within the tribe who, through a lack of exposure and understanding or fear of foreign things, shows distrust. But Hong Kong should nevertheless seek to overcome such suspicions through its own liberal mind and an open heart of acceptance.

Stephanie Cheung participated in the student movements in the 1970s, and is currently a solicitor and mediator, and volunteer in youth work and education. She first encountered the term "mearcstapa" in the book Culture Care by Makoto Fujimura