Flying Sand

Is it now time for whites in Hong Kong to be considered an ethnic minority?

While some colonial cap-doffing may still exist, ­it may be time to rethink Caucasians’ place in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2017, 7:13pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 August, 2017, 2:33pm

When my Cantonese teacher offered me the Chinese name “Fei Sha”, or “Flying Sand”, I was underwhelmed. Apart from the phonetic alignment with my surname, it seemed to have little going for it.

To decline his offer would have been churlish, if not downright rude, particularly as he had taken the time to come up with a moniker for the least able of his students.

I accepted his rhyming reasoning, knuckled down and tried – and am still trying – to get to grips with a language which could not be further from my native tongue, although it does have eerie echoes of the guttural Dundonian dialect of the city of my birth, Dundee in Scotland.

Of course, there was more, much more, to my teacher’s choice of name than simple rhyme. I didn’t realise it at the time, but he was setting me off on a journey of discovery and had put a great deal more thought into selecting my Chinese name than I had given him credit for.

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You see, my si fu, or “master” in English, knew my occupation and, without getting into too much gory detail, had also gained considerable insight into how I ticked in just a few weeks of classes.

The famous but fatally flawed photojournalist and war photographer Situ Chuan, whose work for the Chinese Communist Party during the 1937-45 Sino-Japanese War made him one of the most influential and admired leftist photographers of his generation, also took the name “Flying Sand”, although in his case the Chinese characters switched, making him “Sha Fei”, or “a grain of sand in the sky of his country”.

Obviously, I am no “Sha Fei”, but the realisation that so much more genuine thought and care had gone into the Chinese name I was given made me feel all the more at home in the city in which I have now lived and worked for a quarter of a century.

That – and a recent headline posing the question “can you really understand Hong Kong if you don’t speak Cantonese”, got me thinking.

As the complexion of Hong Kong changes while it feels its difficult way back into the future as an integral part of the Chinese nation and tries not to junk its international credo, is it time for me and my ilk – Caucasians – to be considered a bona fide ethnic minority?

We certainly fit the bill if the dictionary definition of the term is anything to go by: “A group of people of a particular race or nationality living in a country or area where most people are from a different race or nationality”, the Cambridge Dictionary says.

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

The latest census figures show that in 2016 there were 58,209 self-identified “white” people in Hong Kong.

Dreamy expat packages are very much a thing of the past and while tiny – and frankly objectionable – remnants of colonial cap-doffing exist, most of the non-Asian migrants to this great city are either of the economic variety, here for the long haul, or, like me, both.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Equal Opportunities Commission takes a more nuanced stance, nimbly side-stepping the vernacular-laced question: “Are gweilos an ethnic minority?” with “The ethnicity of a person is determined by self-identification. The classification of ethnicity is determined with reference to a combination of concepts such as cultural origins, nationality, colour and language.

“In Hong Kong, a significant proportion of the population is Chinese, and among the non-Chinese, Asians account for the majority.”

Food for thought, don’t you think?

This is a new weekly column by Niall Fraser