From time to time, I hear certain trail races being described as “local”. As in, “That race is pretty local”, or, “The race has a very local vibe”.
Other times, a particular running route is described using the same word – “It passes through a really local village”, or, “It’s a very local part of Hong Kong”.
What is largely left unsaid is what exactly the word local in this context means. Both speaker and listener are left to fill in the gaps, interpreting between the lines and decoding implicit assumptions.
Let me try and unpack the word local and explain why I think the loaded politics of the term makes me feel a little uneasy.
One of the problems with the word local is how ambiguous and undefined it is. Its unspoken connotations include the following: ethnically Chinese; born and raised in Hong Kong; Cantonese-speaking.
So already, in a single word, we have three different types of categorisations at play. Does each carry equal weight, or does one take precedence over the other? No one can say for sure.
Then there is the niche “local-local” signifier, which to some Hongkongers means a local who does not speak fluent English – thereby somehow making them doubly local.
Given the loose definition laid out above, one might venture that what is decidedly not local includes people who: are not ethnically Chinese; were not born and raised in Hong Kong; and do not speak fluent Cantonese.
So if someone or some place is not local, what are they? Non-local? This doesn’t quite hit the spot; being defined in the negative doesn’t really do the trick. How about gweilo? That might work, but the term, which itself can be problematic but is nevertheless deeply etched into the Hong Kong lexicon, excludes anyone who isn’t white.
Defining local along ethnic lines also runs into problems when we take into account the perceived division between mainland Chinese and Hong Kong Chinese. The rise of localism – a broad movement that at its core entails a commitment to safeguarding Hong Kong’s interests and identity – has brought this split to the fore. And as the 30th anniversary of June 4 approaches, the debate over what it means to be a local will take centre stage. To some Hongkongers, what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989 has nothing to do with Hong Kong’s fight for democracy; to others, they are one and the same struggle for greater freedoms and rights.
Trail running is only one of many realms in which the word local is used without too much thought. We also often hear places here described as a “local neighbourhood”, or a “local market”, or a “local noodle place” – not so much in the sense that it’s home-grown as opposed a giant multinational headquartered overseas with branches in Hong Kong, but more along the lines of what I’ve outlined above: ethnically (Hong Kong) Chinese, by and largely for a Cantonese-speaking populace, and rooted in Hong Kong.
So when I hear a trail race, runner, or running group described as local, I am left with mixed feelings and am unsure of what to think. For starters, I’m not sure what purpose the word serves. It also makes me wonder whether there is an intentional power dynamic at play, where local is made to be this spectacle to be observed from a distance, or somehow experienced as authentic and exotic.
And it leaves me with unanswered questions. For example, does a non-Cantonese speaker who has lived in Hong Kong for a mere handful of years, but knows the trails better than someone who has called this city home their entire life, somehow count as less of a local runner? And if not local, then what are they?
I think the larger point here is that the trail running community is incredibly diverse and welcoming. That’s one of the reasons I love it so much.
Just look at how many runners will be going to the World Trail Championships in June from Hong Kong. In addition to the two Hong Kong team representatives, Leung Ying-suet and Wong Ho-chung, we have at least three other competitors with ties to the city: Hong Kong-based Irish team member Brian McFlynn; Hong Kong-based, French-raised Cambodian representative Mat Leng; and Ukrainian representative Bogdan Onyschenko, who regularly races in Hong Kong.
Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: on the trails of Hong Kong, we’re all local. And perhaps loco, too: crazy enough to run some crazy distances.