On the evening of Nov. 25, in the Hong Kong protest camp Mongkok, people I spent the afternoon with were being blasted with CS spray by police. The camp was being partially cleared out, a test by the police to see how the protesters might react as they lost ground. The rest of the camp, which had settled on a major road, faced dismantlement the next day.
The standoff started in the morning and drew a large crowd of spectators, including me. Plenty were sympathetic to the protesters who were calling for direct elections, even though they didn't approve of blocking public roads. But a louder minority not only wanted the protesters gone, they wanted them arrested, convicted, or even executed — as they might be in Mainland China. (Hong Kong doesn't have the death penalty, but Mainland China does.)
As I watched from the sideline, a woman told me off. From her accent, I could tell she was from Mainland China. "You and your fucking long hair. I know you're with them, and you should be hauled to jail just like all of them!" A skinny man on my other side spoke in a heavy accent that indicated he wasn't local: "Get that trash out of here!" He cheered for the cops and said the kids who have been camping on the streets for two months deserve to be shot.
People say Hong Kong is a gem of a city, a glowing example of hybridity. They give it that cliché label: cultural melting pot. That can be true, depending on where and how you look at the city. But Chinese-on-Chinese vitriol still goes on every day, and it's only getting worse.
By now, I'm used to the verbal abuse. In Guangzhou, a major city in Southeast China, a stranger called me hanjian — traitor to the Han Chinese race — because she found out I hold a U.S. passport, even though she was in line to fetch her U.S. visa. I visited Nanjing in 2006, where the Japanese Imperial Army killed 300,000 people in the 1930s. Because of how I dress, locals thought I was Japanese. One man confronted me about it, and was surprised to hear me speak Mandarin. He could tell that I'm not local, but just Chinese enough. The same thing happened six years later during a monthlong stay in Nanjing. Cities wear their scars deep but the trauma still surfaces once in a while.
It's hard to define Chineseness. It stretches beyond ethnicity and geography. It's 5,000 years of history and pride and shame all rolled together. Even though I'm not full Chinese, I do get caught up in the struggle — half in, half out. Growing up in Hong Kong, then watching tensions between Hong Kong and Mainland China fester in the past few years has led me to believe that it's their China — the Party's, the nation's — not ours. The Chinese identity has lost its cultural component, the one that made it human. Now, when someone from China asks me where I'm from, if my answer is "Hong Kong," they immediately go on the defensive and shoot back: "But you know that Hong Kong is a part of China, right?"
It is, on paper anyway. Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997, when sovereignty of the city was handed over to the People's Republic. But Hongkongers call the Mainland Chinese "locusts," because they enter the city in massive droves. Some are here briefly just to shop for iPhones and safe food, though many receive permission to settle down. In return, Hongkongers are labeled "dogs," because they are "disloyal." The term hanjian is tossed around once in a while since Hong Kong was once a British colony, and retains many foreign characteristics. The two cultures clash, sometimes physically.
If an entire nation of 1.4 billion can't figure out their what their collective identity is, how can I fit the Chinese identity into 1,200 words? The truth is that I can't, at least not in a way that would satisfy everyone. Even when I try to grapple with my own identity — something that I admittedly don't often think about — I end up going in circles. Have I ever felt at home in Hong Kong, where I grew up? In Mainland China, where my father's family is from? In America, where my mother's ancestors built their home generations ago (and where I'm occasionally asked if I was adopted)? I can't really say yes to any of those.
My identity was forged through personal experiences. There was my first visit to Beijing, when I was told that I was lucky to have a foreign mother and to be living in Hong Kong. There were the chess games with my grandfather, a veteran who fought the Japanese Imperial Army, when he explained to me how his battle brothers fell in line with the Maoists and purged their closest friends. There was the time when I was 6 years old and watched footage of tanks rolling into the Gate of Heavenly Peace, men in uniforms firing on unarmed university students. If those same protests happened today, in the same location, the students would be wearing useless face masks and the crackdown would take place under the cover of heavy industrial haze. Foreign journalists looking out from their hotel balconies would miss the entire episode.
It was a foggy January in 2011 when my sisters and I made our first visit to our father's ancestral village in Southeastern China. The main street bore our surname. Apparently almost everyone in the neighborhood was somehow related to us. They spoke Cantonese, but it was tinged with a rural lilt. My sisters and I spoke English at home since our mother is Irish-American, but we grew up in Hong Kong, so we picked up crisp, urbanite Cantonese too. Our newfound blood relations understood us just fine because they watched soap operas produced in Hong Kong. We had a tougher time keeping up with them.
On one drizzling morning, an uncle — how exactly he was an "uncle," I still don't know — said he'd take us to visit the family shrine. We piled into a black sedan that looked like it was 100,000 kilometers past its expiration date. Ten minutes later, we parked by an empty lot sandwiched between two villas built within the past few years. "Here it is," our uncle said. "Or at least it was." The shrine was destroyed by the Mao's Red Guard in the 1960s, though somebody managed to rescue the genealogy codex, a tattered, written record that traces the family tree back by centuries. It seems like ancient history now, but the family remembers. It was a hard time, when the Maoists believed that anyone who didn't fit into their poorly cut olive green uniforms didn't deserve a place in China. Those who could leave, like my grandfather, did.
Decades have passed, but those feelings of anguish never went away. When my grandfather decided it was time to uproot his family, they floated down the Shizi Ocean with little more than the clothes on their backs. Nobody uses the word in Hong Kong, but many here are children of refugees, or are refugees themselves. Carrying excess baggage was never an option. As they left behind the material possessions that were part of their home, they shed something much more crucial as well. They might still be ethnically Chinese, but of China? No longer so.
Brendon Hong is a writer, photographer, and radio reporter based in Hong Kong.
Contact Brendon Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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