Hong Kong: A Curatorial Journey for an Identity

Article excerpt

Is the planet developing a global culture, or are certain regions of the world once immune from the influence of the West just becoming more Western? Perhaps the issue is not globalization or local identity but the growing cultural domination of more powerful groups supported by economic and political might over others. For Hong Kong, the threat is not the West, but China. Since the early nineties, when Hong Kong's return to China was becoming imminent, its people have discussed the question of Hong Kong's cultural identity with increasing fervor. Out of insecurity, we have exaggerated our uniqueness and have tried hard to solidify, even fabricate, a distinctive cultural identity, which for some did not exist. As a presenter of culture, a curator can play a role in helping to shape this discourse.

In 1843 the British, who wanted a port for trading with China, took over Hong Kong as part of the ratification of the Treaty of Nanking. Hong Kong became a bridge between the East and the West, with no existence of its own except as a convenient passage between these two cultures. During the first half of the twentieth century, Hong Kong took on another role. Natural disasters, economic crises, and political unrest in China forced many citizens to move to the British colony. Hong Kong consequently became a center for refugees who had no engagement with the city. They worked hard and tried to make as much money as possible so that they could immigrate to other places or return to China once the situation there improved. Hong Kong was only a railway station, with many romances but no marriages.

After the communists took over China in 1949, another massive flow of refugees ensued. By the early fifties, it was apparent that the communist regime was going to stay. The refugees had no choice but to make Hong Kong home, although psychologically and culturally they were still linked with China. Also in the fifties, after the refugees had established themselves in their new home, Hong Kong's first baby boom, which resulted in a truly "Hong Kong" generation, began. For this generation, brought up in a British colony with no direct contact with China, communist China was a distant entity.

The colonial government naturally had no intention of nurturing the people's sense of identity, with either China or Hong Kong; a colonial power does not need colonists with a strong local identity. Instead, the government encouraged the people of Hong Kong to live in an ambiguous cultural state. In 1984 the British agreed to return Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997 as a special administrative region of China. Most Hong Kong people, especially the Hong Kong-born generations, were hesitant about reunification, for we had commonly regarded our motherland as backward and oppressive, and many of us were fully aware of the dramatic differences between Hong Kong and China. On the other hand, the British government's refusal to grant the right of abode in the United Kingdom to its own citizens in Hong Kong also demonstrated that Hong Kong people were not British. Hong Kong remained a transcultural political entity that was neither Chinese nor British, neither Eastern nor Western.

After the 1989 democratic movement in Beijing, the people of Hong Kong were becoming increasingly anxious. On the one hand, with one million demonstrators in the streets, many people were surprised to discover how much they were emotionally linked with China. On the other, they were terrified by the fact that fairly soon Hong Kong would return to a nation that could treat its people with such brutality. Since many Hong Kong people were refugees or children of refugees from communist China, the military suppression on June 4 only intensified their fear. There was a general feeling that China would socially, politically, and culturally overwhelm Hong Kong. Many people emigrated. For those who could not or did not want to leave, the need to establish something we could hold on to, an identity, increased. …