Questions of identity: How do you define a ‘real’ Hongkonger?

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The term “Hongkonger” is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as  describing a “native or inhabitant of Hong Kong.”

If we were to follow that definition to the letter, then everyone who resides in the city would be able to call themselves a Hongkonger. But when it comes to identity, it all seems to go much deeper for the people of Hong Kong. And whether they admit it or not, different people seem to have their own yardsticks.

For example, many think that being a Hong Kong person is an identity available exclusively to those of Chinese descent. But even within that bracket, there are discrepancies.

If you and your family are from Hong Kong, but you spent a large chunk of your formative years abroad, you will be on the receiving end of comments about being a “banana,” or some such epithet. I know this first hand, because my own relatives often pick on me for things like not liking red bean soup, and my brother for preferring chicken breast to leg. Apparently, only “real Hongkongers” know how to appreciate the Chinese dessert specialty, while the dried, flavorless part of poultry is for gweilos (white foreigners). “It’s because you guys are so westernized,” they say. (For the record, that’s not true: I just don’t love the mushy texture of red bean soup. As for my brother, I don’t know what his excuse is.)

And what about people who spend a short period of their childhoods here in Hong Kong, then end up moving abroad? I remember very clearly, at primary school, a considerable wave of pupils dropping out: their families were in a hurry to move abroad before the 1997 Handover of sovereignty to Communist China. By the time it rolled round, half of my friendship group seemed to have vanished. These folks are native Hongkongers, surely? In some circles, they don’t count, though – because they left at such a young age, and are no longer affiliated with their hometown.

Non-Cantonese speakers miss out on a huge part of local culture, Hong Kong’s unique brand of humor, our collective memories and what makes us tick

Then there are those (again, like me) who are born and raised in the city, yet don’t have have a Hong Kong passport. This is the case for a considerable number of Hongkongers who hold British National (Overseas) passports – a British nationality created under the Hong Kong Act 1985 and issued ahead of the Handover that gives holder British consular protection.

I would say that most who lived through this period accept non-passport-holding Hong Kong people as Hongkongers, although I’ve lost count of the amount of times people from outside of the city have seemed shocked by the fact that I don’t have a document that “proves” my citizenship (I hold British and Canadian passports). When I was studying in the UK, there was a girl from Spain who flat-out refused to believe I didn’t have a Hong Kong passport. “If you were born in Canada, then I was born in China,” she said.

Residents who are non-Chinese – or with one non-Chinese parent – also have a hard time being accepted as Hongkongers, despite perhaps having lived here for an extended period of time, or perhaps even all their lives. There are, for example, some 70,000 ethnic South Asians living in Hong Kong, with many likely to have been born in the city.

Another group of Hong Kong inhabitants who many don’t believe to be real Hongkongers? Expats, whether they live in their expat bubble or not. And while some (maybe most) expats are fine with labelling themselves as such, others may feel a genuine sense of belonging to the city.

A man enjoys lunch at a "dai pai dong" street food stall in Hong Kong's Central district. Who knows whether he is a "real Hongkonger? Photo: AFP / Anthony Wallace

A man enjoys lunch at a “dai pai dong” street food stall in Hong Kong’s Central district. Who knows whether he is a “real” Hongkonger? Photo: AFP / Anthony Wallace

This leads me nicely to my final category of people who are rarely regarded as real Hongkongers: people who don’t speak Cantonese. Non-Cantonese speakers miss out on a huge part of local culture, Hong Kong’s unique brand of humor, our collective memories and what makes us tick. Not knowing the language can create a gap that is difficult to bridge.

So, then, what really defines a true Hongkonger? I don’t think it should matter where you grew up, what race you are, or what passport you hold. Ultimately, though, it’s easier to define someone who is definitely not a Hongkonger, whether they speak Cantonese or not: if you don’t care about Hong Kong and don’t try to immerse yourself in its culture, then I’m sorry, but you just don’t qualify.

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