Don’t get me wrong, Hong Kong is, hands down, one of my favourite cities in the world. But, even here, in this centre of global capital, there is something curiously insular about the city’s tribes.
Hong Kong was born out of an earlier wave of globalization, over a hundred years ago. The Chinese leased the territory to the British to meet their demands for a strategic trading port from which to conduct the lucrative China trade.
From the very beginning, Hong Kong belonged to no one and everyone. It was multiethnic and transient, hosting traders from all corners of the British empire eager to purchase porcelain, silverware and whatnot for consumers back home.
Between the 1880s and 1939, thirteen million people transited in Hong Kong en route to elsewhere.1 Even as late as 1996, the Census figures showed that 40 percent of the population was born outside the territory.
Through it all, there has remained an immobile core to Hong Kong, whose members, as the anthropologist Helen F. Siu has pointed out, “relate to the world outside through a limited range of material symbols rather than through deep cultural engagement.” Among this group, current attitudes towards outsiders can feel like a throwback to a more tribal time.
Hong Kong’s core is made up of locally born people who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. Their rise into the ranks of the middle class was buoyed along by the territory’s rapid transformation into a post-industrial economy. For them Hong Kong is home, and they are proud of its pioneering spirit. Their cultural lodestar is Hong Kong, not China, and they voraciously consume Hong Kong’s Cantonese media.
Despite a public education system that offered every opportunity to a few meritocratic elite and very little to everyone else, functional English and a serendipitous link to the world assembly line in China gave Hong Kong’s masses a chance to feel as though they were participating in globalization, albeit in a superficial way.
The good times came to an end with the Asian economic crisis and Hong Kong’s return to the mainland. The SARS epidemic further undermined confidence in the government’s ability to weather the volatile forces of neo-liberalism and China’s rapid liberalization. With the exception of the globally-mobile elite professional class, there was a widespread feeling of powerlessness in the face of these external shocks.
As the future becomes ever more uncertain, many core Hong Kongers have started to double down on what it means to belong to their tribe. Some have begun to invest great meaning in local landmarks—whether humble ones like dai pai dangs and public housing estates, or grander ones like the planned West Kowloon Cultural District. Others focus on institutions, such as the rule of law, clean government and civic values, as representing the Hong Kong spirit. There is still another group whose members are loyal supporters of China. In their view, Hong Kong was a colonial creation, and its redemption lies with the mainland.
The prognosis isn’t all gloomy, however. As China has begun to exert its economic might overseas, building and financing infrastructure projects in Asia and Africa, mid-level Hong Kong managers with relatively more international experience than their mainland counterparts are being called upon to manage international teams. Ironically, for many of them, this is the first time they are meaningfully engaging with other cultures.
This begs the question, is meaningful global engagement less or more likely when done from a position of tribal weakness?
Could we have expected anything else when Hong Kong’s core residents were merely colonial subjects? Will the migrant Pakistani worker employed on these Chinese-funded projects engage as much with his colleagues as his expatriate manager from Hong Kong?
And let’s pause a minute here to consider what “meaningful” entails: is it a confirmation of your world view as universal, or is it being forced to accept that your truth is marginal?
For proponents of globalization, Hong Kong in recent years is a cause for concern.
The tribal instinct in humans is strong, particularly among the less empowered.
Even in Hong Kong, a “space of flow” where most people come from elsewhere, we’ve seen that the majority have a limited appetite for real globalization and all its implications.
What can we expect of more entrenched populations?