As Chinese New Year approaches (the best holiday, really, with the optimum permutation of food, family festivities and money), it is inevitable that I would contemplate how much more concrete the ‘Hong Kong’ facet of my identity has become since spending two years abroad. And enclosed within that facet, as the city is plastered with more and more fai chun (auspicious characters and couplets calligraphed onto bright red paper), is the problem of my mother tongue.
Against my own (and my family and friends’) expectations, I enrolled in a Hong Kong university four months ago. Since my early childhood, initially for no other reason than a romanticised Great Britain constructed from The Five Find-Outers and Harry Potter, I had always envisioned myself studying in the halls of some centuries-old English institution for my university career. It was only when I reached the wholly surprising conclusion that yes, I do want to be a doctor, and yes, I want to be a doctor in Hong Kong, that I grudgingly admitted Hong Kong is the most practical choice. Continue reading “What My Mother Speaks”→
When J.K. Rowling deems a book “an important, timely read”, you read it. The Good Immigrant is a beautifully articulate collection of anecdotes and reflections by minority ethnic writers and entertainers in the United Kingdom. Varying in tone from laugh-out-loud hilarious (Nish Kumar is an incredible man) to weary and raw, each piece loudly discredits the increasingly popular assumption that liberal democracies are sheltered within a post-racial, ‘colour-blind’ world. And having been published just three months ago in the year of Leave, Trump and post-imperial nostalgia, this book is a “timely read” indeed.
Even as I was drafting the opening paragraph, I found myself desperately scrambling to find the perfect, most impactful words to convince whoever may read this that a book so overtly focusing on racism is worth their time. That it is not some storm-in-a-teacup (this is a British book, after all) exposé of a cosmopolitan country. And that no, it is certainly not a means of catharsis for ‘race-baiting’ BAME writers blaming white people for all of their problems. My fear of being written off as another petty Asian girl is, in itself, already a strong indicator of just how relevant The Good Immigrant is. Of course, I did feel welcomed (or at least, nonchalantly accepted) during most of my stay in England. Despite having been assaulted in broad daylight on the High Street by a man who subsequently tried to do the same to my Korean and Malaysian friends, most of the people I met did not deliberately make me feel uncomfortable about my ethnicity. But in no way does this suggest that the dialogue on race should be obsolete. Rather, given the current political climate, it is just as, if not more, important than ever before.
Just from my personal experiences, even in a school that proudly declares itself ‘forward-thinking’, ‘liberal’ and ‘international’, a natural Afro was deemed too unprofessional to be part of the uniform code. I was told that whilst Hong Kong girls may be ‘academically talented’, it makes us ‘less emotionally expressive’ (and hence less likely to succeed in interviews for medical schools). Am I making an issue out of nothing? Isn’t being stereotyped as academically talented still a positive stereotype? Isn’t that an asset for people like me? The answer, in short, is no. Positive racism is a ridiculous myth. Like the label ‘model minority’, it is an insult to the systemic prejudice that millions must struggle against. Asians are the ‘model minority’ only because we are quiet and we keep our heads down. Which simply reinforces the idea that our voices deserve to be supporting roles at best. And as Viki Cheung shrewdly pointed out, “in the same mouthful as saying, ‘East Asians are the model minority because they’re quiet and hardworking’, [you imply that] black people are apparently loud and lazy”.1 More evidence that it is absurd to think we benefit from deeply ingrained biases? “Despite being among the highest achievers in [British] schools, Chinese male graduates … can expect to earn 25 per cent less than white male graduates”.2
Besides, actual attitudes towards East Asians are far more complex than just ‘they are all good at mathematics’ or ‘they are sensible and self-reliant’. Often, the UK’s image of an East Asian immigrant combines conflicting views. “In an educational study published by Routledge in 2005, … teachers attributed success to inherently ‘Chinese’ qualities while simultaneously hinting that these qualities were ‘enclosed’, ‘denying children individuality’ and in opposition to Western cultural ideas”.3 So the assumptive premise that we are only subjected to ‘positive’ stereotypes is already false. Not to mention the Tiger Mum and dog-eating caricatures that we still face.
Anyway, back to the book. Every one of the 21 writers offered poignant, poetic and unclichéd windows into their lives as first- and second-generation immigrants in the UK. Though racism is by no means a fun or lighthearted topic, at no point was the book a slow or sterile read. I devoured half of it in a single sitting, and only paused because it was 4 a.m. and my parents were understandably annoyed at the prospect of me showering and waking them up in the early morning (I have this thing where I absolutely must shower before I go to bed, and at that point I had not had my daily shower yet). Although I admit that I am very privileged to live in a city where I am the ethnic majority, my two years in England still made many of the authors’ sentiments incredibly relatable.
And even beyond my brief stint abroad, the fact that the universal experience is largely defined by the white experience nonetheless made the book a pertinent articulation of my identity as part of the global majority. In Darren Chetty’s chapter, he noted how he had “spent almost two decades teaching children … in English primary schools that serve multiracial, multicultural, multifaith communities”, during which “whenever children [were] asked to write a story in school, children of colour [would] write a story featuring characters with ‘traditional’ English names who speak English as a first language”.4 And that was exactly what I had done throughout my childhood as an aspiring writer, despite having been born and raised 9,600km away from England – something that I did not even realise until I watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk a year ago.
So regardless of whether you are currently an immigrant, or whether you live in a predominantly white nation, or whether you are part of a minority group at all, I cannot recommend this book enough. I implore you to keep an open mind, be challenged and to simply enjoy the ride of a great read.
1Beyond ‘Good’ Immigrants by Wei Ming Kam.
2Ibid. Data from Yaojun Li, Fiona Devine, Anthony Heath, ‘Equality Group Inequalities in Education, Earnings and Employment’, Equality and Human Rights Commission, (2008), Executive summary, iii.
4‘You can’t say that! Stories have to be about White people’ by Darren Chetty.
Three weeks of exams later, I can finally set foot on the glistening stretch of freedom laid out before me. As I recuperate from a 12-hour flight in my home city, my mind (now feeling strangely idle) wanders back to my favourite conversation starter – the nomenclature of Hong Kong places. All locals are familiar with the sometimes comical district and street names, most of which were transliterated (as opposed to translated). Sadly, this means that the English etymologies of countless places have withered away – most severely so for the non-Chinese-speaking demographics and constant streams of tourists. Admittedly, over 90% of our current population are ethnically Chinese. But I still believe that because English is our region’s second official language, and because it is no doubt visitors’ main gateway to appreciating an integral aspect of our diverse heritage, English names should reflect the meanings of their Cantonese counterparts.
Take Kowloon (九龍), which literally translates as Nine Dragons. Choosing to name it according to how it sounds instead of what it means was a terrible missed opportunity. Like all traditional tales, the origin of this majestic name differs slightly depending on who you ask. But the common backbone follows the young Emperor Bing1, who had fled to Hong Kong from the Mongols. When he had arrived, he named the area Eight Dragons (八龍) after eight tall surrounding mountains. (It is an ancient Chinese myth that every mountain houses a sleeping dragon.) However, a courtier had wittily suggested that he name it Nine Dragons instead, since the Emperor was there. (Chinese dragons are symbols of the Emperor, and ‘dragon’ and ‘Emperor’ were sometimes used interchangeably.) Not only would translating the name properly have exponentially increased Kowloon’s ‘coolness’, so to speak, but it would also have made an interesting morsel of Chinese folklore and history that much more prominent.
For other places, it just makes more sense. We have Mong Kok (旺角), home to tourists’ favourite suffocatingly jam-packed open-air markets, aptly called Busy or Prosperous Corner. And of course, Lok Ma Chau (落馬洲), which can be translated as Get-off-your-horse Area. Is it because it is next to China and it is high time you got off and turned back or presented yourself to customs officials? Sure, this version is a mouthful, but English-speaking nations are just as guilty of similarly verbose place names (see Cottonshopeburnfoot, England). We also have Tsing Yi (青衣), which translates as Grue2 Clothing, interesting mainly because ‘grue’ is unique to Chinese culture. Finally, even Hong Kong itself can be translated as Fragrant Harbour, apparently because the historical trade in sandalwood and incense lined the harbour with a pleasant aroma.
But names guard much more than ephemeral flashes of interest or humour. They embody deep-rooted identities, tying us firmly to our histories and cultures. Nine Dragons highlights a centuries-old myth and Emperor Bing’s fleeting reign, while the Cantonese name of Stanley (赤柱) simultaneously underlines the infamous activities of Cheung Po Tsai, a notorious pirate, and an ancient cotton tree, which had been a landmark of the town. The Cantonese name of Aberdeen (香港仔) translates as Little Hong Kong, drawing attention to its historical role as the first point of contact between British sailors and local fishermen. Of course, this does not exclusively apply to places – names are just as pertinent to the identities of people.
Until my middle teenage years, my cultural identity was far from concrete. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I was content with a fabricated identity wholly dishonest with myself. Although I am ethnically Chinese, I have attended British and international schools since I was a kindergartener, and have continually been exposed to Eurocentric perspectives and values. The omnipresence of Western media in Hong Kong and the many advertisements that imply caucasian women are the ideal definition of beauty only added to the strong influence of Western cultures on my self-perception. In fact, I became embarrassed by my traditional Chinese upbringing – why must I speak Cantonese at home? Why are my parents so unfashionable and unsophisticated?
Until my late primary school years, choosing the English name Christy was a major source of pride – it was almost unique in my international schools. But when I started to interact more and more frequently with students from local schools, I found out that it was, in fact, extremely popular among local girls. If I were to walk into a local school and shout “Christy”, I would be perfectly unsurprised to see a dozen girls turn around. But I was less perturbed by the general commonness of my name than by its commonness among the local Chinese because I had equated ‘non-Western’ with the opposites of ‘cool’ and ‘attractive’. In an almost pathetically desperate attempt to correct this, I had told my Year 5 classmates that my name is actually short for Christasia, an ungainly, Frankensteinic lump of sound inspired by Grand Duchess Anastasia, because what can be less Chinese than an European princess enrobed in romanticised mystery?
Thankfully, two years in England later, I am ever more aware that the one-dimensional caricature of British culture that I had sketched has no bearing on my actual identity. ‘British’ will continue to be my nationality, but it is a grossly inaccurate representation of my cultural affiliations. I am glad that this awareness has also restored my English name to a source of pride, and the fact that it is so recognisably ‘Hong Kong’, as my foreign friends in England have repeatedly pointed out, is yet another tie to the city that I proudly call mine.
1Emperor Bing (1271-1279) was the last emperor of the Song Dynasty.
2青 (often transliterated as ‘qing’) is a colour unique to Chinese culture, and can be roughly conceptualised as a mixture of blue and green. In most cases, it is more green than blue, especially when describing mountains (青山), grass (青草) and vegetables (青菜). It can even be used figuratively; 青春 (literally, ‘green spring’) means youth, comparable to the English usage of ‘green’ to describe a young, inexperienced newcomer. In other cases, it leans towards blue and aqua, such as when describing the sky (青天) and the Azure Dragon (青龍).