Academic journal article Ethnology

Politicizing Tradition: The Identity of Indigenous Inhabitants in Hong Kong

Academic journal article Ethnology

Politicizing Tradition: The Identity of Indigenous Inhabitants in Hong Kong

Article excerpt

This article investigates the identity of indigenous inhabitants in contemporary Hong Kong by discussing the Pang lineage in the New Territories. It examines this identity in relation to the lease of the New Territories, the colonial government, and the modernization of Hong Kong. The article discusses the way in which tradition has been continuously interpreted, negotiated, manipulated, and reinterpreted by different parties. It argues that there has been a shift of emphasis on the meaning of the identity of indigenous inhabitants; from being an ethnic minority in the periphery of colonial culture to becoming "Chinese" in the mainstream Chinese culture awaiting the reunion of Hong Kong with China. (Tradition, identity, Chineseness, indigenous, Hong Kong, New Territories, colonialism)

Ardener (1989:111) writes that "ethnicities demand to be viewed from the inside. They have no imperative relationship with particular `objective' criteria." Dikotter (1992:viii) further claims that "race" is a cultural construct, while Honig (1992:9) points out that ethnicity is a process which involves the "creation, invocation, and manipulation of notions." Indeed, identity is a process of social negotiation in the continuously changing relationships between different social groups under distinctive social situations (Marcus and Fischer 1986).

This article takes the view that identity, ethnicity, and culture are subjective constructs resulting from particular sets of social relationships in specific sociopolitical contexts and from the deployment and manipulation of certain notions. It investigates the ethnicity of indigenous inhabitants of the New Territories villages of Hong Kong as a clear case of the politicization of identity. Information was collected from the Pang lineage village at Fanling Wai, in the northern part of the New Territories, during fourteen months of fieldwork in 1991 and 1993. Villages in the New Territories have been studied in depth by anthropologists (Constable 1994, 1996; Freedman 1958, 1966; Baker 1966, 1968; Johnson 1973; Johnson 1996; Potter 1968, 1970; Watson 1975; Watson 1985). The ethnicity of villagers has been investigated by Blake (1981), Constable (1994), and Johnson (1996). However, the identity of these villagers as "indigenous inhabitants" remains an unexplored subject.(2) The uniqueness of the case of the New Territories derives from the fact that it was a leased colony and destined to reunite with the motherland of China in 99 years. This article reports on research conducted on the eve of the return of the land and describes the developmental process of the villagers' identity during the period of the colonial regime. It examines the identity of indigenous inhabitants by investigating their relationships to the lease of the New Territories, the colonial mentality, and the modernization of Hong Kong. During this period, there has been a shift of emphasis in the meaning of the identity of indigenous inhabitants (yuanjumin) from that of an ethnic group peripheral to colonial culture to that of Chinese awaiting this reunion with China and being in the mainstream of Chinese culture.

This study of the identity of the indigenous inhabitants is more than research on a Chinese diaspora community; it is also an investigation of the identity of a colonized people. Their identity, constructed during the colonial regime, is a flexible construct formed through political negotiation within Hong Kong (between the villagers and the colonial government) and internationally (between China and the United Kingdom).(3) It demonstrates that capitalism and commercialization have had a considerable effect on village customs and exerted a significant influence on the interpretation and reinterpretation of these inhabitants' identity. The construction of ethnicity has been an idiom of political struggle, a vehicle of resistance to discrimination and exploitation by the colonial government, and a means of demanding economic compensation and political rights. …

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