SCMP Tuesday, May 1, 2001

Hold on to our culture


Former Chief Secretary for administration Anson Chan Fang On-sang's farewell remarks have sent shockwaves through the SAR. She complained that "too many Hong Kong people . . . have looked towards the mainland at the expense of our traditional links with the rest of the world" in her April 19 speech to the Asia Society.
And her observations on how Hong Kong should position itself have struck at the heart of the most fundamental controversy since the handover. Should we be looking northwards or westwards? Should Hong Kong strive to be a Chinese metropolitan city or an international metropolis in China?
To start with, there is one thing we all agree upon, namely that Hong Kong should not become just another Chinese city. That is to say, Hong Kong should be among the top cities, if not the very top one, in all of China.
Before the handover, Hong Kong was a British colony handling, at its peak, more than 60 per cent of China's exports and inflow of capital. Unquestionably, Hong Kong was then the number one city in China and occupied a very unique position. No one wants Hong Kong to become a second-class city.
But the next logical question is whether Hong Kong should be a Chinese city or an international one? And our consensus ends right there. People like Mrs Chan still want Hong Kong to remain an international city that just happens to have a population which is more than 90 per cent ethnic Chinese and is situated at the southern tip of China. They believe the Chinese influence is so big and all encompassing that if we do not make an extra effort to fend it off and retain our international image then Hong Kong will slip into the status of a second-class city, initially on the international stage, but ultimately even in the domestic arena.
In their view, the threat to Hong Kong's future does not lie in being too internationalised but rather in becoming too sinocised. That means we should strive to upgrade the standard of English in our schools rather than stress mother-tongue teaching, and, if we can afford it, send our children overseas to get a good international education. More importantly, we should interpret what is happening around us from an international rather than a Chinese angle.
It is a point of view that looks upon China as poor, backward, undemocratic, and lacking any respect for human rights, and which argues that we should first try to dissociate ourselves from China and, if possible, remodel the country in a form conforming to international ideals.
You can say this is all very colonial, but it is also very laudable, and is taken for granted and followed by most of Hong Kong's upper- and middle-class. After all, it is impossible for the more than 150 years of British colonial rule not to have had any effect. Instead it has left some marks in our common psyche, not least on people like Mrs Chan. This is evident, for instance, in the markedly different reactions of people in Hong Kong and those on the mainland to the recent mid-air collision between a US spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet.
But even such people find it politically incorrect not to acknowledge that, after the handover, Hong Kong is part of China. So they chose to do so in a form which very often amounts to no more than lip service. A case in point is the Culture and Heritage Commission's recent consultation paper on cultural policy in the SAR, which after exalting our Chinese roots, went on to dwell in great detail on international developments.
Although the SAR Government's annual spending on cultural affairs exceeds that of some famous cultural centres such as Vienna, Hong Kong is often jeered as a "cultural desert". Every year we organise an Arts Festival featuring internationally-renowned artists. But, except for a few key performances, the seats are mostly empty, with those few that are occupied being taken mainly by expatriates and members of the upper- and middle-class elite.
Contrast this with another annual cultural event, the International Film Festival. It is not only much much more popular, but also helps to nurture a vibrant local film industry, which, despite some recent setbacks, is making a big international impact. This is an example of the right mixture of parochialism and internationalism to bring lasting results.
"Think globally, act locally," is a management cliche that is highly applicable to the debate over how the SAR can best position itself. Before it can become a proud cosmopolitan metropolis, Hong Kong must first be a self-confident Chinese city.
And some progress has already been made in this direction, with the post-war Hong Kong generation being the first batch of modern Chinese who can look Westerners straight in the eyes, confident in the knowledge that they are their equals. Many can communicate smoothly in English, laugh at English jokes, and even crack a few themselves. Yet deep inside they remain thoroughly Chinese - and proud of it.
This is the result of several generations of mental and cultural adjustment. The first generation of internationalised Hong Kong Chinese were the compardores who tried to get rid of their cultural heritage to the point of willingly adopting westernised surnames such as Hotung and Kotewall. In fact these people could not even speak proper English. Their descendants, many of whom had a solid British public school education, quietly reverted back to being Ho's and Lo's to be together with their Chinese brothers and sisters. They respect Western values, but treasure their own. Newcomers are often amazed that after 150 years of colonial rule, Hong Kong is still unmistakably a Chinese society.
And this is the Hong Kong we want to keep. Faced with superior Western culture brandishing big guns in the 19th-century, some Qing dynasty mandarins proposed a "Chinese as the body, Western as the function" strategy, which has since become a laughing stock. Looking back, while we cannot always distinguish what is the body, and what is the function, we should never, and for that matter can never, become completely Westernised.
American-born Chinese are often derided as "bananas" for being yellow on the outside while having white hearts inside. Striving to be bananas should never be Hong Kong's goal, as we can hardly make better bananas than the approximately 50 million overseas Chinese. The most important thing in the world is to have the heart in the right place - and that must be Hong Kong's goal.
Lau Nai-keung is a political commentator and delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.