I know I sound like a jerk when I say I have never been particularly fascinated with Asian countries other than Vietnam, Japan, and South Korea, but it’s sadly true. I know people who have moved here from these countries and most of my international students came from them. I did become more interested in China when we had a student living with us and learned to appreciate much about the huge variety of cultures there.
It probably comes as no surprise, then, that Hong Kong was in last place on my “excited to go there” list when I joined this program. All I knew other than the brief bit I studied in order to teach history, was that it is crowded, hot, and humid – three of my less-than-favorite things. Steve Tsang’s Modern History of Hong Kong (along with Jackie Pullinger’s stories) have seriously shifted my view. What a rich and interesting history this small, densely populated territory has endured.
As I was reading this book, I ended up pulling up a map of Hong Kong to see where many of the important places are/were located. I clicked on some of the locations, and was immediately sucked in. I made a list of where I want to go, and what I want to see. I wondered if there are monuments there to mark historical moments and people as there are here. Suddenly I am looking forward to seeing temples and gardens and markets, as well as nightlife and festival events, as well as hearing about the work that Christians and others are doing in Hong Kong.
I paid particular attention in this book to the time between 1980 and 1997, as those years held the events I remember most. When the joint declaration was signed in 1984, I was a senior in high school. We talked about the implications in my senior government class. In 1989, when the Tiananmen Square massacre took place, I was expecting my first child, and remember the outrage and fear I felt. In 1997, I watched the ceremonies surrounding the official transition of Hong Kong from a British territory to a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. I knew very little about the journey from joint statement to that hand-over. I just remember feeling a sort of sadness, knowing that there would be winners and losers in the transition, and that people in lower socioeconomic strata were usually the greatest losers. I rarely thought about Hong Kong again, except as a business, technology, and fashion hub.
In 2009, I had my first student from Hong Kong. I was fascinated as she described how Hong Kong remained very “Westernized.” Social media and other entertainment that was forbidden in mainland China was available to citizens of Hong Kong. Still she had to be careful about what she said in her calls and letters home. Her family had money, but they were not among the powerful. In 2012, on the other hand, the Chinese student who came to live with us was one of three students to come from mainland China. Her father was a very wealthy, very powerful textile manufacturer in Shenzhen Province and she had access to things other students would never have. Still it was interesting to realize that students from Hong Kong held a much more relaxed view of their government and of the future than those from mainland China, regardless of their financial status. Reading Tseng’s book helped me understand why this would be.
Until a few years ago, I always assumed our greatest threat would come from the government in the PRC. I grew up under the Russian threat of the Cold War, and the Chinese seemed to be a continuation of that concern, especially with the way our trade is now so intertwined. Tiananmen Square has long stood clearly in my mind as a reminder that we cannot simply trust a government that would slaughter protesters that way. There was never a time, however, when I believed that our greatest threat would be found in capitulating to a dictator who would terrorize dissidents by placing them in concentration camps where they would either work to death or be killed, slaughter Christians and other “rebels,” force women to have abortions, and detain US citizens only to send them home near death. Yet here we are…capitulating and perpetuating our own set of human rights violations. Once again that sadness has settled over me as I recognize that the losers far outweigh the winners, and our country (and world) will never be the same.