(only available in Chinese)
In Hong Kong, it is not uncommon for foreigners to speak fluent Cantonese. However, each story is unique. The stories of their experience of learning local culture are intriguing. The protagonist of our story is one of them.
Michael attended a school designated for non-Chinese speaking students. Over 90% of the students were ethnic minorities, and the rest were local Chinese. Michael remembers that the year he enrolled in elementary school happened to be the year when the Chinese language became the primary language of learning for all the students in Hong Kong. He recalls, in the first and second year of primary school, he often failed dictations and quizzes. ‘I went to the neighbourhood of Lee Tung Street almost every day. The herbal tea shopkeeper, the parking lot staff, the security guards, they were all very willing to teach me reading and speaking in Chinese. The auntie from the herbal tea shop even treated me free drinks sometimes.’ In addition, the living conbditions when he was a child coincidentally immersed him in a Chinese-speaking environment. ‘I lived in a tenement building. In the kind of old building, the TV signal was always unstable, so I couldn’t watch the English-speaking channels that I used to watch. Without much choice, I watched TVB. I loved to watch cartoon Pokemon, and [costume dramas] such as Virtues of Harmony and Love is Beautiful. I thought learning Chinese like this is quite fun.’ Later, Michael started his third year in primary school, and one day in a Chinese writing exam, he suddenly did not find the Chinese characters unfamiliar. Michael describes the experience like ‘a eureka moment’; his performance at school progressed drastically. Michael feels very lucky that his learning was ‘in the right place’ and ‘with the right people’.
Speaking of Lee Tung Street in Wan Chai, Lee Tung Street is the place where Michael grew up. Although he was forced to relocate because of the urban renewal plan ten years ago, to him, it is still the most memorable place. What he misses the most is the friendliness of the neighbourhood; the neighbour relationships were close and harmonious. Michael also recalls the moments with the neighbours before the forced relocation. ‘The spirit of the neighbourhood was even more obvious when the street was about to be demolished. People were having hot pot by the street, and partying!’ Michael takes the decorations on the buildings as an analogy of the relationship between neighbours; these images gradually built up and became an important part of his identity, ‘Lee Tung Street was two rows of tenements across the street, so they made a sort of art installation. They hang a rope between the two rows of buildings, linking the buildings together, as a symbol of our connection. As I look back, this might be one of the things that had gradually established my identity.’
However, the challenges for ethnic minorities came thick and fast. Michael continued his secondary education in a non-Chinese speaking school. The students came from three kinds of backgrounds: ethnic minorities, locals [Chinese] and Mainlanders who had just arrived in Hong Kong. The teaching model divided students into Chinese and English groups that were independent of each other. Michael describes it as ‘well water does not intrude into river water’. There were very few opportunities for communication between the two groups. Michael’s biggest challenge came in S6. Originally there were 40 ethnic minority students in each class, but after the examination in S5, only ca. 4 to 6 students could continue their study in the current school. Therefore, the school arranged for minority students who originally belonged to the English group and other transfer students to join in the Chinese group. When asked about the influence of the transfer, Michael says it was a turning point for him. ‘I used to be more active. Because of the cultural differences with Chinese students, we found it difficult to express ourselves. I became quiet. And the learning models of the two groups were different. The English group focused more on practical application and we mostly learned by acting, such as enacting a dramatic scene. The Chinese group did have a good learning atmosphere because most of the time they required you to sit down and study, and for the exams, they usually had model answers. However, the students from the English group were very resistant to this kind of method.’
There was another incident that made him more aware of the differences between the two cultures. ‘We were preparing for a graduation dinner. During the course, other ethnic minority students and I had some different opinions about the plan, so I talked to the leaders of the Chinese students. It might be a communication problem or cultural issue, the leader thought that I made him “lose face”, so it ended unpleasantly.’ Owing to this experience, he began to remind himself to be aware of the others’ cultures when communicating with them, so misunderstanding could be avoided. After he entered college, Michael gradually realized that speaking Chinese did not guarantee smooth integration into the Chinese society. ‘I didn’t listen to Cantonese songs and I didn’t use LIHKG. People would think that you are not one of them.’ Because of the misunderstanding caused by cultural differences and the rejection from his peers, Michael realized that he needed to integrate Hong Kong and Canton culture into his life. Therefore, he decided to ‘do as the Hongkongers do’ and learned to be ‘one of us’. Gradually, he can ‘speak their language’ when communicating with the Chinese.
Which languages does Michael speak in his daily life? Michael says that it depends on the situation. ‘Because my mother speaks Filipino very fluently, and she is very proud of the language, so she speaks Filipino with my brother and me; if my father is present, we speak English. English is a bridge. My so-called primary language is English, and I consider myself a native speaker. But as a Hongkonger, I will, symbolically, describe myself as a native speaker of both ‘Hong Kong English’ and ‘Hong Kong Cantonese’. Michael says that sometimes he uses four languages in a day. ‘There was an incident when I was at a scene in which someone had jumped off a building. A foreigner asked what happened, so I answered in English. And a couple of housewives spoke in Cantonese so we discussed the matter together. Later, a Filipino came, so we spoke in Filipino. And then another man came and we spoke Mandarin. As a result, everyone turned their attention to me.’ He also talks about his language learning experience, ‘When I was a child, I mainly spoke English; when I went to kindergarten, I started to speak Filipino. And I started to speak Chinese after that “eureka moment” in P3. In secondary school, I learned Mandarin and a bit of French.’ Although he introduces himself as a ‘mixed-race Hongkonger’, it has not always been the case. Michael admits that he did not think of himself as such when he was a child. ‘Growing up as a member of ethnic minorities and non-Chinese communities in Hong Kong and studying at designated schools for non-Chinese speaking students, everyone in the environment has a common understanding that people like me are foreigners. Throughout the school years, we consider the Chinese as “locals”, and we are “foreigners".’
‘I think the turning point occurred when I was in college. There was the Umbrella Movement. It brought challenges to my identity. I suddenly threw myself in the [reflection on] the core values of Hong Kong, and I discovered that the core values of Hong Kong are being yourself and working hard, that is “the spirit of the Lion Rock”. [If you believe in this], you belong to the community.’ Some images in the movement made Michael reaffirm his identity. ‘I saw the first round of tear gas fired out on TV, which officially marked the beginning of umbrella movement. The image was so shocking, so without a second thought, I went to the front line with my friends on the next day. At that time, I considered myself a student, who had the responsibility to protect my homeland. I found out that I love this place very much; it is just that I was conditioned to be a foreigner by the environment in which I grew up.’
Michael recalls the time of the Umbrella Movement, ‘At that time, Hong Kong entered a dark period. I dressed up all punk, and I stood at a place where there was only a mills barrier between me and the police. At that moment, I felt that I had nothing to lose. I never thought dangerous things nor suppression from the regime would happen in Hong Kong. In the face of the regime, if you do not come out and protest, the ordinary life will be gone, and you will become a slave. I could not accept that. As a student in Hong Kong, I thought that I was the one who can afford to lose the most, so it’s my responsibility to bravely protect my home.’ The Umbrella Movement left him with some good memories. It also reinforced the importance of acknowledging his identity as a Hongkonger. He no longer considers himself a foreigner.
When Michael realized that he is a Hongkonger, he thought that he should do more and contribute to the society. ‘I think what I can contribute the most is the education outreach services. At the time of graduation, I do a lot of counselling for secondary school leavers, and I organize many talks on campus. The biggest goal is to bring a message of hope, that is, even if you fail the public examination, there are still a lot of different channels that can help you continue pursuing your dreams.’ At the same time, he hopes to look after young people from ethnic minorities who are facing difficulties in entering colleges. ‘Maybe because I am also a minority, so I know how to communicate in this cultural context. I have seen a lot of versatile children who could not realize their full potential just because they did not have comprehensive information. I want to tell them that there are many ways to realize our dreams.’
Michael, who has obtained a master's degree in marketing from the City University of Hong Kong, has not always been in full swing after graduating from high school. As the grades were not as good as expected, he had no choice but to advance to an associate degree. At the same time, he saw that local students eventually set foot on the road of no return due to the problems with obtaining further education. Therefore, a few years ago, Michael launched a project ‘Bestfriends for Further Education’, hoping to actively promote the associate degree programs to local students as someone who has been around the block. He especially aims at non-Chinese-speaking students in the hope that ethnic minorities would not bury their talents due to lack of academic qualifications. He also hopes that they could enter various professional fields and truly integrate into society. Michael did not know what was special about his project initially, but according to him, he had ‘an impulse’. It is perhaps because he had experienced huge pressures when facing the public examination and the confusion of the way ahead, he can be in the graduates’ shoes. ‘There was a student, who I called on the day when the examination result came out. Surprisingly, I found out that he did not do well on the Chinese subject. He is a Chinese; I knew that he was interested in literature, so I suggested that he could pursue an associate degree related to English. I told him that I had followed this track to enter the local university. It was effective and worth trying.’ Eventually, Michael persuaded the student to apply for an associate degree, and the student succeeded in advancing to the University of Hong Kong. Michael continues, ‘After a while, I talked to him about this, he said that he was already on the rooftop the day when I called him. This implied that he was thinking about doing something terrible.’ A greeting and companion can be very powerful, the effect may be unexpected.
Regarding the definition of Hongkonger, Michael thinks that there are three conditions: ‘First, the place where an individual permanently resides is Hong Kong; then it is to fulfil the responsibilities of a citizen, such as voting, paying taxes, getting involved in the society; the last condition is that you make contributions to the society, but this is an ideal, it is optional.’ Michael believes that language is not [an] essential [condition], ‘If we talk about the identity of Hong Kong [people], language is not necessarily a key factor. Even if you speak the native language of a certain area of Africa, or Arabic, any language in South-Asian, you can still be a Hongkonger. As for values, he thinks it is only an influential factor, ‘The foremost important thing is you identify yourself as a Hongkonger, have a sense of belonging in this place, accept the local values, and have a high degree of connection with and involvment in the place.’ When it comes to Hong Kong’s core values, Michael believes that it is ‘the spirit of the Lion Rock’, ‘Work diligently, do your part, support the family, serve the community, and watch over each other. It is more obvious now. In the past, it was more like working diligently for yourself. Now we work together to do something for the society.’
Does ‘work hard and watch over each other’ characteristic of Hongkonger also apply to the Hong Kong police and government officials, and are they also Hongkongers? It seems that Michael already has an answer, ‘They are indeed Hongkongers. The values I just mentioned are about you caring for this society and protecting your homeland. I think that their original intentions are also based on this belief. They want to protect their homeland. The pro-establishment and pan-democratic, they both have great ideals and they serve the society, but they have different beliefs and methods. So both sides deserve our respect. If they are both upright gentlemen, I think we should respect their freedom of speech. But if you choose one side and only work for a living, I will think that you are a soulless person, a broken person. When you choose a political stand, you have to know why; you must do your research before casting the ballots.’
At present, Michael continues to be active in various public activities, such as acting as a host, participating in art performances, etc. Looking back, he has had many doubts on whether a non-Chinese can truly be a Hongkonger since he had been through many difficulties and journey of identity, such as learning difficulties, language barriers, cultural differences and social movements. Michael shares with us some interesting moments of living in Hong Kong, ‘Sometimes I hanged out with my Chinese friends, I forgot that I am not Chinese, and I scared myself when I looked at the mirror. Sometimes I saw non-Chinese people speaking Cantonese, I thought, “they are so smart”, but then I realized that I am just like them.’ After careful observation of the people around him, Michael thinks that although he has a different life background and looks different compared to most Hongkongers, it does not prevent him from becoming a part of the community.
Michael hopes that the interpersonal relationship between people would not be constrained by geographical identity. At an event of the Foreign Correspondents' Club, Michael met two friends from different countries and took a photo to commemorate the moment. Moreover, Michael discovers that many people from different places have settled in Hong Kong and become Hongkongers. To him, no matter where people come from, as long as they share everything, everyone can become ‘good friends’. Michael often mentions the lyrics, ‘Let’s set aside the differences and pursue our ideals together’ (‘Under the Lion Rock’ by Roman Tam, 1979); he hopes to use the power of friendship to exert the former ‘spirit of the Lion Rock’, to resolve the conflicts between people, to learn to accept and appreciate each other's uniqueness, and to make progress in society.
Written by: Chris Lau
Original story in Chinese, English translation by: Daniel Leung & Sharon Huang