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Wui gwai has been the most popular word this past week, alhough there have been some other words heard here too, like "handover" and "transition." But in Hong Kong’s media, the word wui gwai, meaning "return" in Cantonese, has been used emotionally to describe the change, analogous to a long-separated child headed back into its mother’s arms. This word has been used not only in Hong Kong, but also in mainland China. Television screens have shown enormously crowded celebrations for this wui gwai in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. More than 100,000 people gathered in Tianamen Square and celebrated until 5 a.m. on July 1, the date of Hong Kong’s passing from Britain’s into Beijing’s hands. I doubt whether these people know much about Hong Kong and wonder whether they feel happy on our behalf or just enjoy the feeling of national reunion.
As June 30 moved into July 1, the flags of Britain and Hong Kong were lowered, the flags of the People’s Republic of China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region rising to take their place. Still, people in Hong Kong continued to have very mixed feelings on this "return" of sovereignty. As a local-born Chinese, here I offer some personal insights on the Hong Kong handover and some of the uncertainties — both good and bad — in the days ahead. A pressing issue, one that will continue to receive much future attention, is that of immigrants and identity. Since 1949, Hong Kong has experienced continuous immigration from mainland China. Because of the similar socio-cultural backgrounds of most of those from South China, the question of who is "Hongkongese" and who is "Chinese" has been controversial and contested, apart from whether one holds a Hong Kong Identity Card with a three-star mark.
Hong Kong residents share some senses of identity, like similarities in language, religion, and food, and not others. There are local-born, western-educated, young professionals in Hong Kong who consider themselves "Hongkongese," there are established immigrant businessmen who consider themselves "Chinese," and there are many who feel that they fall in between the two. Lately the legal rights of youths who come illegally from the mainland to stay in Hong Kong has become controversial, as they are not ordinary illegal immigrants: their fathers are elder working-class Hongkongese who have taken second wives on the mainland, their mothers women who wish to escape China’s one-child policy and gain access, at least for their children, to Hong Kong’s higher living standards. The close and complicated relationship between Hong Kong and South China, the effects of China’s increasingly open economy, and the realities of legal and cultural identities of people in this now-former British colony, come together in this issue.
During wui gwai I became a local guide for my friend’s family from Japan who came here to witness this historic moment. They were visitors curious to know more about Hong Kong, believing as they did that this is one of the most important events of the late 20th century. In contrast to tourists arriving to view an important moment in history, there are many local people who are taking advantage of the five-day holiday to travel overseas. According to some of them, since the return of sovereignty is confirmed, there is no particular significance in staying for the ceremonies.
Hong Kong people hold many different attitudes about wui gwai: some people are celebrating the return to the Chinese motherland, some argue about whether or not this should even be considered a celebration. Others see this as the beginning of "Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong," "a high degree of autonomy," "one country, two systems," "Basic Law," and "50 years unchanged." In particular, keeping Hong Kong "unchanged" for the next 50 years is the aspect of Beijing rule perhaps least understood by locals.
On July 3, when I return to my office after the five-day holiday, I expect that there will be several handover-related e-mail messages awaiting my response. I try to think of what insights my friends expect me to share with them beyond what they have seen on TV, since I know that most of them will have watched the ceremony. These e-mail messages are something I anticipate before typing in my password, but to which I do not really know how to reply.
"The weather is bad and the sky is too dark for us to see things far away." This is my first reply to most of the e-mail messages. It is true that the weather has been bad. It rained the entire week. But my reply sounds metaphorical rather than meteorological. On the one hand, rain brings water to the land. Water, a bus driver told me on my way back home, also means money or wealth in the Cantonese cultural context. On the other hand, on the first day of Chinese New Year, people are warned to stop any cleaning or washing, even washing one’s hair, because water will wash away the wealth and luck from the family. I wonder, will this rain bring good luck or bad?
Sidney Cheung C. H. is in the Department of Anthropology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.