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Monday, January 25, 2010

Hong Kong versus Beijing: past and future

One of the shared battles that foreigners in China face is securing and maintaining a valid visa. Almost anyone who’s been here for a while eventually finds him or herself on a “visa run” out of the mainland. And although some people take the path less traveled and head for Mongolia or Southeast Asia, most of us head to Hong Kong, traditional port of entry to China, and these days, shopping haven for those yearning for vegemite or other tough-to-procure Western goods.

It doesn’t take long to feel the difference between Hong Kong and the mainland. Looking to save money, I flew into Shenzhen, a two-hour bus ride from downtown Hong Kong. As soon as you cross the border, the signs change from simplified to traditional characters. And although in southeastern China they also speak Cantonese, culturally they share far more with other mainlanders than Hong Kong Chinese, many of whom consider themselves distinct (read: superior). After all, they only joined the rest of the country 12 years ago, and the island’s British heritage is clearly visible in everything from school children’s blazers (much more becoming than the mainland’s nylon tracksuits) and its men’s fondness for spending their Saturdays betting on horse races.

Having come in from Beijing’s minus ten degree, record-breaking snowstorm, I basked in Hong Kong’s clear blue skies and balminess. At traffic lights, I was stunned at locals’ proclivity to wait for signals instead of dashing in front of oncoming vehicles and, while riding its hyper-efficient subway, their preference for allowing disembarking passengers off before entering, rather than the rugby scrub methodology I have become so adept at in Beijing. In its nightclubs, I was impressed with the confidence that local men displayed when approaching women, using a directness less often seen in shyer mainland boys, and when walking past their neo-classical legislative building, I took cathartic pleasure in the lively protest against an expensive high-speed railway project taking place on its steps. It stood in stark contrast to the tanks and rifle-toting forces outside my apartment during the lead-up to last October’s 60th Anniversary commemoration .

But after my short stay in this most Westernized piece of China, as I headed back into the mainland, visa successfully processed—with its air pollution and anarchic traffic and insecure striving and authoritarianism—I felt excited. For despite all of its shortcomings, there is still something so magnetic and emotionally drenched and compelling about living here at this moment. Having given it some thought, I found that two people best help to capture what makes Beijing, and the mainland overall, the future-shaping place that it is, while glittering Hong Kong, though not going anywhere soon, feels like it’s prominence, and much of what it represents, is cresting.

-- Howard, the New Yorker fact checker: Beijing

A few weeks ago, I was invited to the dinner party of a friend, Deng, a Michigan-raised ABC who is researching Chinese healthcare on a Fulbright fellowship. He also makes a mean gourmet burger. With us for dinner were several other Americans, two doing Fulbrights and a pre-med student in Beijing studying Chinese over winter break. The conversation was quintessential Beijing half-pat—ranging from the quirks of Chinese psychological therapy to Sino-Arab relations, Ivy league grad school applications and irreverent banter, the sort of intellectually heightened but always lighthearted conversation that I love to lounge into after spending a lot of time amongst Chinese peers, stepping more cautiously along culturally and linguistically foreign territory.

Also digging into burgers alongside us was one local Chinese. I’ve found that in such foreign-party situations, the local contingent often consists of Chinese girlfriends. But on this evening, it was a sharply dressed young man named Howard. He introduced himself as a “journalist’s assistant.” It turned out that the journalist he referred to is none other than the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, whose reporting out of Beijing has been consistently excellent. Both Howard and I have studied at Sichuan University. Howard’s English listening is excellent, but while his spoken English is fine, he has a pretty strong accent.

At several points during dinner, Howard made comments that were unclear, largely due to his pronunciation. At one point, through a mouthful of pumpkin, he made a comment that another dinner guest completely misunderstood.

“Oh, I thought you said ant,” the other diner said.

“That’s because I have pumpkin in my mouth,” Howard replied.

There was the slightest moment of hesitation amongst the others around the table, before we quickly moved to confirm that it was indeed the pumpkin’s fault.

It was true. He did, indeed, have pumpkin in his mouth, and that very well may have influenced his pronunciation. But the truth of the matter is that, pumpkin or not, Howard’s pronunciation was unclear because he is Chinese, and English is a second language. There is nothing wrong with this fact. I can only envy speaking Chinese as well as he does English. But he didn’t say: “That’s because I’ve got pumpkin in my mouth and also I’m Chinese, and my English isn’t perfect.”

As Howard would have it: the pumpkin was the reason for the misunderstanding: not nationality, not educational background. Because Howard, as he listened to our slang and pop culture references with remarkable comprehension, while he goes about his day job translating and checking references for one of the world’s most reputable magazines, is gaining a Western fluency that many of his peers strive for. He is already “in” with a group of select, accomplished young Westerners, and they are welcoming him into their social circle not only as “a Chinese friend”—something that carries a different set of assumptions and social etiquette—but simply as ”one of them.”

Not all young Chinese want to spend their time hanging out with foreigners, trying to fit in and understand our sense of humor and cultural minutiae, but of those who do, Howard does it with conviction and an admirably smooth style.

-- Rez, Jardine Executive Training Future Tai-pan: Hong Kong

Rez is smooth. His dark hair is slicked back, his tie is perfectly tied, and his pinstriped suit is tailor-made. We sit down to Nepalese in a restaurant in Soho, and he explains his complicated background: Welsh-American and Chinese father, Malay mother, born in Saudi Arabia, raised in Hong Kong.

After stints at Johns Hopkins and LSE, Rez is now in the executive training program with Jardine Matheson, one of Hong Kong’s most storied trading companies.

“We’re the ones who started the Opium War,” Rez tells me, “and we don’t hide that fact from anyone. In fact, we take pride in it.”

Jardines is involved in basically any sort of large commerce you can think of, and Rez rotates between various management positions. Presently, he manages gate services at Hong Kong International Airport, from which he has acquired the ability to ignore yelled threats and learned, with some regret, that ethnic stereotypes tend to ring true in passenger behavior. (The only time he’s had to call the police in was when, after a two-hour delay due to technical issues, irate Shanghainese passengers started pouring water over the gate staff’s computers.)

Rez went to international school, where the students were forbidden from speaking Cantonese, and so he understands but does not speak the local language. He acknowledges that foreigners and Westernized Chinese in Hong Kong live in a bubble, rarely traveling beyond the CBD and its endless malls, restaurants and nightlife. When I asked him about differences between Hong Kong Chinese and mainlanders, he replies: “There is no real difference.”

He hopes that the next management rotation will net him the coveted position of executive assistant, through which he can meet all the right people while assisting the company’s current “Tai-Pan”, the traditional Hong Kong term for foreign businessmen or “big shots.” To be selected requires good guanxi, which Rez possesses in abundance.

“My family and the Jardines owners associate with similar society,” he explained. My friend had earlier mentioned hanging out on Rez’s yacht, and while he currently lives with his parents on the Peak, the highest, most exclusive part of Hong Kong, he has purchased an apartment in Soho and owns another in New York.

Before we part ways, I ask Rez if he hangs out with his colleagues.

“I sometimes hang out with other executive program trainees. Beyond that, though, all the other airport staff are very local Hong Kong Chinese.”

By this, it is understood immediately, that he means they are beneath him. It is hardly conceivable, absurd even, for a member of Hong Kong’s established class, western-educated and on the corporate fast-track, to associate with the commoners of his homeland, those who make up the vast majority of its population.


Obviously, I draw an extreme comparison here, but in considering what makes China so compelling, I found these two cases to be the clearest examples. While Hong Kong is a place that maintains a strong colonial legacy: there, the white man remains king, and an international versus a local education will in large part determine your entire life. It’s racial hierarchy, while more inclusive that in past times, remains far more rigid and exclusive than the mainland. As one Hong Konger living in Beijing explained it to me: “It’s not so much about how much money you have but simply who you are…who your parents are.”

Of course, there’s plenty of snooty superiority within the mainland as well, something that the Shanghainese in particular are well known for. But on the whole, the mainland gives off the sense that—despite all of the inequalities and corruption within the system—there remains genuine opportunity for upward mobility. In social terms, the mainland possesses a large and growing class of newly enfranchised middle class professionals who all came from humble beginnings, possessing much less of the ensconced smugness that Hong Kong retains. I sense this from the way that my colleagues interact. Their generation, which came of age following Reform and Opening, carries a vision that is not quite the American dream—although in their earnest striving to own a home and car one certainly sees a strong resemblance—and it’s certainly not the Maoist classless proletarian vision, but a fully understandable, defensible and exciting one. We China-observing foreigners often voice our concern over the environmental Armageddon of every middle-class Chinese family owning a car, but through my work, I am meeting university students and professionals fully aware of their society’s problems, and diligently attempting to address them with the sort of innovative, entrepreneurial solutions required.

Hong Kong in many ways symbolizes the accomplishments of Western civilization, with its efficient infrastructure and glamorous old hotels and endless new malls. These material accomplishments are all things that Beijing and Shanghai are feverishly working to attain and display, in a David toward Goliath gesture of come-uppance that China can acquire all these things without having been colonized by the West. I don’t enjoy the country’s overly defensive, victimized self-identification, but suppose that given the choice, I still prefer it to the smug superiority of Hong Kong’s elite. In Howard’s ambitious social climbing and steadfast acquisition of Western cultural fluency, I see my own parents: I see myself. He belongs to a generation that will redefine his country and world in significant ways, and I hope that while here, I too can help contribute to that redefinition.

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