Home ConsumerCulture Is Hong Kong still a thriving multicultural city?

Is Hong Kong still a thriving multicultural city?

A new book about the history of Hong Kong isn't about governors and colonial officials, but ordinary people – Paul French finds out more

by Paul French
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As she releases her new book, Fortune’s Bazaar, author Vaudine England meets up with Paul French in Hong Kong’s famous Foreign Correspondents’ Club to discuss two centuries of Hong Kong history – from “barren rock” to colony, from handover to today

With such uncertainty at present, perhaps it’s a good time to look back on the history of Hong Kong. There have certainly been books about the city’s history before – but long-time Hong Kong resident and prolific author Vaudine England’s Fortune’s Bazaar: The Making of Hong Kong (Corsair Books), is different.

Not the long list of former Governors and colonial officials, but a peoples’ history of Hong Kong, England engagingly rediscovers and accentuates the multi-cultural history of the former colony, including, of course, the Chinese and British, but also the major contributions of the Portuguese, French, Armenians, Russian émigrés, Parsis, Indians and a host of other nationalities that have added to the city’s once legendary vibrancy. It is also a history of the entrepreneurs, those looking to get on through hard work, the refugees, exiles, the women and the long-forgotten who trudged across the border to make their lives anew …

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Your history of Hong Kong is quite radically different to most previous attempts, emphasising ordinary working and entrepreneurial people over a long list of governors and officials. How long had this way of thinking about Hong Kong been bubbling away in your head?

This subject has probably been in gestation for about four decades, but the actual hard work took place alongside other research projects over the past decade. It all goes back, weirdly, to my parents’ friendship with the late great social historian Revd Carl T. Smith when they lived in Hong Kong in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Smith had this amazing and ever-growing collection of index cards in a pre-computer age, referring to just about any individual that ever entered any kind of record in Hong Kong.

Carl scoured newspaper birth/death/marriage notices, but he also spent years in Land Registry offices, legal offices, and public records offices compiling his mini-biographies of the real Hong Kong people. My work owes a huge debt to his work. In fact, any Hong Kong historian owes a debt to Carl Smith. His focus was on finding out who were actually the people of Hong Kong, where did they come from, how did they live, who did they marry and build families and homes with. It marked the beginning of what you might call a Hong Kong school of history – one led not by the narratives of Britain or of China, but by Hong Kong itself.

Your analysis is also far more multicultural than previous histories. But do you think that that early diversity in the former colony you describe – Parsis, Armenians, Portuguese, English, Chinese – is still an integral part of 21st century Hong Kong, or has that aspect been lost?

Descendants of those early families of such diverse origins do still live in Hong Kong. In particular, there are significant communities of Nepalese families (dating back to their forebears’ roles in the Gurkha regiments), as well as Muslim and Hindu groups. They remain marginalised, and perhaps more so than ever before, as Hong Kong becomes more populated and governed by mainland Chinese interests.

Many of Hong Kong’s diverse peoples have left over recent decades, primarily in search of a place of safety regarding passports and education. Some of them first realised the need for this when British Nationality laws separated out British nationality (a passport) from citizenship (the right to live in Britain). Others have since discovered, as one Indian tycoon put it: we were second-class citizens under the British, and now we are third-class.

You also stress the internal diaspora nature of Hong Kong – that it has always been a magnet for Chinese talent and entrepreneurs from southern China. Is Hong Kong still such a magnet of attraction now mainland China’s economy has grown so significantly? Does Hong Kong still offer opportunities to mainland Chinese?

Current Hong Kong government policies, strongly led by Beijing, stress the need for Hong Kong to integrate with what they now call the Greater Bay Area. At the same time, the Hong Kong government is openly struggling to attract talent in a wide range of fields, from medicine to law to education and construction. Some rules are being loosened to enable mainland Chinese and other providers of such skills to enter the labour force in Hong Kong more easily.

It’s an open question whether Hong Kong represents the same route to a wider world once aspired to by young mainlanders, but it seems safe to assume that people will go where there are jobs and money to be made. Behind this policy puzzle is, of course, the fact that hundreds of thousands of educated and professional Hong Kong people have left in recent years in search of a better home abroad.

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Fortune’s Bazaar also looks at the role of Cantonese in Hong Kong – as a language, culture, cuisine and beyond. But we’ve seen the marginalisation of some non-Mandarin language cultures, for instance, Shanghainese. What do you think is the medium- to long-term future for Cantonese now the drive towards Mandarin appears so strong and perhaps will become overwhelming?

I remember my profound shock back in the 1990s when one of my favourite editors – Fred Armentrout – suggested that Cantonese could become an endangered language. I did not believe him then, but as usual, he was prescient. I recall when the Cantonese in Guangzhou protested so vociferously when attempts were made to switch the main language of the evening television news to Mandarin/Putonghua. So far, Hong Kong still has two official languages — English and Chinese — but certainly, many more jobs now in Hong Kong required people to be at least bilingual — Putonghua and Cantonese — if not trilingual, with English. Having said that, it’s hard to imagine ever quelling the irrepressible wit and power of the Cantonese and their language.

Women, too, are shown to play a far more important role in Hong Kong’s development in your book. Hong Kong appears to be a place where historically, women could thrive to a greater extent than on the mainland. Is this still applicable in 2023?

Back in the mid-19th century, there were horrendous laws for women, such as the Contagious Diseases Ordinance, which required any woman servicing foreign men to undergo regular, invasive physical examinations, and then to be locked up until any infection had burned out. That was a serious downside to the colonial regime’s insistence on keeping their sailors clear of venereal disease.

On the other hand, some quirks of British laws, specifically those against slavery, enabled some working women from China to escape the clutches of the men (sometimes their relatives) who had trafficked them into Hong Kong. Moreover, the profession of brothel-keeper gave an early chance to some women to actually become CEOs – they had responsibilities under the law but also rights, which were unimaginable back across the border in China. Some progress has been made, of course, and the range of professions now open to women in Hong Kong has expanded exponentially. But they remain under-represented on company boards, subject to sexual harassment, not paid the same as male colleagues and much more.

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Lastly, since the mid-19th century, Hong Kong has been, as you stress, first and foremost a port – a place for ideas and peoples to enter and leave as much as goods. Does Hong Kong still have a future as a port, as a “transmission belt” for ideas and innovation as much as for goods in container ships?

Does a port city need to be free to allow for the transmission of ideas as much as goods? Indeed, that is the question I plan to tackle next.

Some friends in Hong Kong now argue that while the freedom of speech, assembly and expression has gone, and the rule of law has been fundamentally altered, it’s no problem as the ships still sail and planes still fly, so never mind. Others say that Hong Kong’s struggle to staff its companies right now clearly shows that without the openness of exchange, a city starts to die; without any challenge, a government becomes inefficient; without alternative views and ways of operating, the innovation central to any port is quashed.

The question is whether such free ideas and peoples are integral to a port city or not — are they the cake or simply the icing on the cake? I plan to take a look at several different port cities to try to answer this question and I’ll let you know when I’m done!

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