I embarked on my very first overseas trip in 1984 to Hong Kong and China, the latter still a land of grey and blue Mao suits. Ten years on, in 1994, as I was just about to finish a degree in Asian Studies at the University of Sydney, I obtained a scholarship for a year’s study at Fudan University’s language school in Shanghai. Before arriving in Shanghai, I had a few days “sinicizing” in Hong Kong. I took a trip up to Victoria Peak to overlook the city and bought a key ring with “Hong Kong” on it. Little did I know that three years later I would be in Hong Kong, a result of seeing a notice for a job as an editorial assistant at Renditions, a translation journal of Chinese literature at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

However, the job would not start till late October. In the interim, I watched the lead up to Hong Kong transitioning to a Special Administrative Region of China. I watched the “global media spectacle” on TV and read about it in newspapers. Would Hong Kong change completely overnight? Would the PLA’s tanks come rumbling in under cover of darkness and arrest Martin Lee? The speculation in the world’s media ranged from nuanced to way over the top. I had the impression that some commentators really wanted Armageddon to happen. Nothing much happened.

hong kong handover ceremony
Hong Kong handover ceremony in 1997. Photo: Apple Daily.

Like a new boss who promises “things will remain the same”, and despite the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law promising “maintenance” and “continuance” of most of Hong Kong’s pre-handover systems, things did change. Arriving in the newly minted SAR, I watched these changes slowly take place.  I certainly feel like a part of history.

Seeing how people talked about these political changes and the promise of future democratization in the form of universal suffrage was interesting from someone who came from the stable, prosperous and democratic country of Australia. I am always intrigued why flourishing Hong Kong was always talking about stability and prosperity as if it would all collapse tomorrow. I think that this is because of turmoil next door in China during the Cultural Revolution and also the Confucian cultural ethos of harmony and stability, which is why being pragmatic is seen as a desired virtue in Hong Kong.

hong kong occupy protest umbrella
Pro-democracy supporters shut down the heart of Hong Kong last year. Photo: Pasu Au Yeung via Flickr.

I became interested in how people “talked” about these changes and this led me to take up linguistic studies and research “social change through language change” – how people talked about democracy and universal suffrage among other issues. I started to become involved in political talks, activities and organizations, wanting to show people that they should have confidence in themselves to handle political and social change.

Of course there will be “birth pangs”. No change is smooth. Largely, I think that the current issues of “localism” relate to uncertainty about identity, the complex historical relationship between mainland China and Hong Kong, and the feeling that mainland concerns takes precedence over Hong Kong’s concerns.

Sometimes I grow depressed about Hong Kong’s journey, but I am glad that I can share Hong Kong’s “teenage” years with it.

Jennifer Eagleton, a Hong Kong resident since 1997, is a policy committee member of the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation and was an adviser to the University of Hong Kong’s “Designing Democracy Hong Kong” project. Her PhD analyzed how Hong Kong talks about democracy through metaphor. She is a teacher of English and linguistics as well as researcher and editor.