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Ethnic minorities in Hong Kong

As Beijing pushes a Chinese identity for Hong Kong, where do Eurasians fit in?

Stefano Mariani says Hong Kong’s Eurasian population is the natural outcome of a port city in Asia that was a colony for European empire, and this population has made lasting contributions to the city’s history, society and culture. Why, then, does Hong Kong not extend the same recognition to its Eurasian population that Singapore does?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 July, 2018, 3:01pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 July, 2018, 7:44pm

I am Eurasian. My father’s ancestors, to borrow a Chinese turn of phrase, are buried in the fertile plain of the lower Po valley, in an Italian region best known as the birthplace of balsamic vinegar – and Ferrari. My mother, who was raised in Kowloon City and attended St Mary’s Canossian College, is as thoroughly a Hongkonger as one can be.

As peculiar as that admixture is, it was unremarkable from my perspective; I happened to attend schools with Eurasian students and entered a workplace where many of fellow early-millennials were of European and East Asian descent. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that the demographic trajectory for Eurasians in Hong Kong is very much on the ascendant.

The lack of official recognition of Eurasian identity in Hong Kong is thus curious. Hong Kong is in essence a Eurasian city, built on British norms and institutions that took root in the fertile substratum of the industry and ambition of a heterogeneous local populace.

As a colonial entrepôt, Hong Kong was a place of meeting and acculturation. Eurasians, being the biological issue of those exchanges, have been a part of Hong Kong life since the colony’s foundation. Yet the debate around Hong Kong identity today gravitates around two cardinal disputes: the localist question and the matter of the integration of “ethnic minorities”, an ungainly term applied to South and Southeast Asian residents.

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There is, as yet, no clear sense of where Eurasians belong. We exist in a liminal space and that sense of dislocation has recently been compounded by the aggressive cooptation of Hong Kong identity by the Beijing government, which posits that, to be a true Hongkonger, one must be “Chinese”. Witness, in that regard, the crude racial profiling of foreign judges by certain elements of the pro-establishment media.

That conclusion betrays a startling ignorance of history. Hong Kong’s formative years were shaped by the great Eurasian comprador clans like the Hutongs and the Kotewalls, whose names are now immortalised by the very urban geography of Hong Kong.

Forming the first local commercial bourgeoisie of Hong Kong, these first- and second-generation Eurasians negotiated relations between the often mutually closed worlds of Chinese mercantile associations and British institutions. In more recent times, one would note the lasting and distinguished contributions of jurists such as Roberto Ribeiro and Joseph Fok to our judiciary, or the fact that our finest schools are shaping a new generation of Hongkongers who are the progeny of mixed marriages.

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Given their long-standing presence in Hong Kong, and the importance of their contribution to its civic and economic life, it is surprising that there is little in the way of a Eurasian narrative in the discourse of our cultural identity. There is not even a census category for Eurasians. Statistically, one is either “Chinese” or “white”, with no scope for asserting any intermediate identity or of qualifying one choice with the other.

Contrast Singapore, which not only has a separate census category for Eurasians, but recognises them as an indigenous ethnic group. When Joseph Schooling won Singapore’s first-ever Olympic gold medal, his achievement was feted as a uniquely Singaporean success.

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His Eurasian identity was understood to fall under the umbrella of Singaporean unity. If our own Siobhan Haughey managed a similar feat, would the response in Hong Kong be as enthusiastic? In implementing its pledge to showcase Hong Kong as Asia’s world city, it seems remiss of the government to overlook an important component of the city’s population that is ideally placed to straddle the very intercultural straits Hong Kong seeks to navigate.

Extending official recognition that Eurasians exist as a discrete ethno-cultural group, overlapping with but distinct from Hong Kong’s East Asian and European populations, would be an important first step. It would honour our past and give thousands of young Hongkongers a sense of place and purpose in their city's future.

Implicit in that exercise is the rejection of Hong Kong identity as equated with the construct of Chineseness. Here, Singapore again leads the way in balancing the pivotal role of its various Sinic groups, which constitute most of the population, with the affirmation that these are subordinate to an overarching and culturally transversal Singaporean identity.

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The argument that the Chinese historical experience is incompatible with the recognition of multiple and overlapping affiliations is patently false. Two of the most successful dynastic rulers of what is now China, the Tang and the Yuan, drew much of their administrative and military elite from Central Asia which, then as now, was the crucible in which Western and Eastern Eurasia were fused, both culturally and genetically. The past, as ever, offers instructive parallels with the present.

To that end, I would moot the incorporation of a Eurasian exhibit in the Hong Kong Museum of History, alongside the well-conceived dioramas dedicated to the life and culture of Hong Kong’s principal ethno-linguistic groups.

A Eurasian museum was proposed a decade ago with the backing of the Fringe Club and the Hotung family as part of the redevelopment of the Central Market area, but that proposal was unaccountably rejected by Donald Tsang Yam-kuen for, it would appear, political reasons. It may well be time to revisit that decision.

Self-identification will always be a matter of conscience. Many Eurasians, myself included, may choose not to identify culturally or ethnically as such. That very choice, however, is inherent to the Eurasian experience.

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Acknowledging our city’s Eurasian heritage in its manifold and very personal articulations would enable us to evaluate the significance of Eurasian identity in the context of the broader debate on Hong Kong’s post-handover identity: for some it may mean nothing at all, and for others it may be fundamental in understanding the place they occupy in Hong Kong society.

If nothing else, it will ensure that this distinctly Hong Kong phenomenon has a role to play in our understanding of this city’s past and our vision for its future.

Stefano Mariani is a tax lawyer. The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author