HKFP History Opinion

On belonging in Hong Kong and remembering the war

Evan recounts a conversation that made him reflect on the changing “internationalism of Hong Kong and remembrance of the Second World War. He asks us to learn from the European experience, and confine our hate to a past action and not to a people or state.

Where are you from?

“Are you American?” asked the voice. A middle-aged man with thick-rimmed glasses appeared from among the crowd of shoppers. He smiled innocently.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“Hong Kong,” I replied.

His smile froze as the stranger computed my response. It is a reaction I have in recent years come to expect. It was not always so.

When asked where I am from I have, as far back as I can remember, answered as such. It is not only the truth, but a truth I had, as a child growing up in the city, never felt the need to question.

Only once in my childhood do I remember my answer warranting pause, when on a family visit to the United States a man questioned why we didn’t sound Japanese. On that occasion my father stepped in. “We’re British. We live in Hong Kong,” he said. It was a reply that sat uncomfortably with me. Then my father explained that sometimes, when in foreign countries, it’s easier to tell a white lie than to be drawn into a long conversation you don’t want to have.

Hong Kong may still be an international city, and yet what it means to be international seems to have changed. Whilst there does not seem to be reliable data on the number of mixed marriages, it does seem to be more common as such relationships have become more acceptable to both communities, and there continues to be a sizeable number of people of non-Chinese descent choosing to call Hong Kong home.

There has also been a growing sense of a uniquely Hong Kong identity, founded less on the international or historic roots of this city as on the common experience of many ordinary local people in the late 1970s and 1980s. It is an identity that for my generation was most vividly illustrated in the music of Sam Hui and the peculiar comedy and word play of Stephen Chow, whose appeal continues to resonate far more with the community than the more China-orientated offerings of their counterparts today. It is an identity that is not only distinctly Hong Kong but also Cantonese.

After a pause, the man asked “Where are you really from? You are not Chinese.”

“I am Chinese. My mother is Chinese,” I said, now in Cantonese.

There was another pause. “Where is your father from? He is not Chinese. Is he American?”

In the increasingly absurd debate over Hong Kong’s identity – absurd in that identity is what it is, not what others decree it ought to be – it is the international, multicultural aspect of our identity that is being ignored. The city I grew up in was able to accommodate non-Chinese people as Hong Kong people; that there were multiple local communities was accepted. As a colony, Hong Kong had no national identity. If Hong Kong was a city of immigrants, all immigrants had equal claim to be local.

My father was born in London, of mixed parentage, but has lived most of his life in Hong Kong. He is not Chinese, but is he British in the way that this question implied?

Though I was not speaking with a foreigner in a foreign land I remembered my father’s advice. “He’s British,” I said, this time in English.

The stranger seemed chuffed, not at having struck up a reluctant conversation but, and this was unmistakable in the way his body language changed and from the tone of his voice, because in his mind he had finally placed me. In his mind he was the local, and I the foreigner; I may be his guest, but this was his home. Hong Kong was not my home because it could not be. And it was from this position that I would be entertained.

Remembering to hate

The conversation now took an unexpected turn. “Americans fought the Japanese. Do you hate the Japanese?”

It was my turn to pause. I wanted to walk away, but felt it would be rude. I had to give him an answer.

“I know. But I do not hate the Japanese. I do not hate a people, only the actions, and the politics that breed it. But that was a long time ago.” I was about to turn away when my new acquaintance hit a nerve.

“Do you know what they did to the Chinese? Do you know about Shanghai? And Nanjing?” He asked. “You would hate them if you knew what happened in Hong Kong.”

I was angry, as much for the presumption that as I didn’t look Chinese I did not, and could not, know.

The liberation of Hong Kong in 1945 after the Japanese Occupation during WWII. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

My grandmother never spoke about her time during the Japanese occupation. Once, when I was still a child, I had asked. She said nothing, but began to cry. I soon learnt never to broach the topic to her again. I heard from other members of the family about the hardship, the military yen and the food shortages; of the neighbours who disappeared and the bowing of heads and the beatings on the streets. I heard how the Japanese treated the Chinese as subhuman. I also heard about the rape.

I was angry, as much for the presumption that as I didn’t look Chinese I did not and could not know, as for the suffering my family experienced. “I know what happened. My grandmother lived through the Japanese occupation. “Don’t tell me I don’t know what happened,” I retorted, as calmly as I could manage. “Did your family live through the occupation?” I asked.

evan's family

The maternal side of Evan’s family.

The man did not answer. Instead, he continued to look on as if what I said could not be so.

“And yet,” I continued, “whilst I accept my grandmother’s pain, I do not hate the Japanese. Neither do my family. My cousin is married to a Japanese man. He is a good man.”

This now provoked a response. “Hong Kong, the Chinese, hate Japan,” the man said. Then came a most revealing remark. “We do not hate the Germans”, the man said, as “the Nazis never did anything against China.” It was then that I knew that to him this pain, this history, was that of what he believed was his people and of his nation. It was a pain he did not wish me to remember, but to merely acknowledge was his privilege to feel.

It was now that I politely excused myself and walked away. I rarely resign from a conversation but standing in Mong Kok on a weekend afternoon was neither the time nor place. A few people had already stopped to loiter close by, clearly listening to our conversation. One man had by this time even shot me a look, as if to encourage me to continue. But politeness dictated otherwise. And yet, I found much to reflect upon from the conversation.

Looking inwards, I found myself reflecting on the legacy of a war fought before even the birth of my parents. It revealed most poignantly how this legacy is today felt less by our hearts and minds as by our politics. That in this man’s Hong Kong, whilst the evils of the Japanese are patriotically remembered and loathed by some—that rabid minority that constitute the patriotic classes of all societies—the horrors of the nazis are neither felt nor acknowledged.

I could reflect also on coming from a family that directly experienced both horrors. Where as my maternal grandmother lived through the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, my paternal grandmother was in Brussels when the Germans occupied Belgium. Both suffered. And yet, for one side of my family these memories are tempered by reconciliation and a desire for cooperation. With armistice in Europe came a desire for peace, and a wish not to dictate future stability from the bedrock of individual and national greatness but for it to be built within a common trans-national community.

Germany has faced its past in a way Japan has not. But Germans are not Japanese in neither how an apology is understood culturally and in the semantics of their language of memory and remorse. We should all acknowledge the pain of those Chinese and Korean families who directly suffered from the brutality of Japanese occupation. But this is not a national pain; it is a personal, human pain. It is also a pain that Japan has repeated acknowledge.

In too much of Asia today, remembrance of the Second World War is a political exercise. It is the management of a sense of national shaming and hate for political outcomes. China, as a country scarred more recently and arguably more deeply by self-hurt, would do well to remember that it was the fostering of such hatred and a sense of national victimhood that bred both the kind of politics and sense of nation that allowed people to perpetrate such horrors.

A Chinese version of this essay was published by Stand News on August 27.

On belonging in Hong Kong and remembering the war