My interviewee sauntered into the studio with a confidence only success breeds. I could hear him well before he joined me in the room where our video interviews are recorded, chatting away to the production team and introducing his girlfriend, a glamorous younger lady whom I was told is an actress. He is in his late fifties but looks younger, swarthy yet impeccably groomed. He works in the entertainment industry.

Before we begin recording he excitedly proclaims that there is no one better to represent what it means to be a Hong Kong person than himself. “No one is more proud of Hong Kong,” he declares in all seriousness.

My interviewee is a scion of a family of mixed ethnicity that can trace their heritage in the city back to the late 19th century. Whilst not immensely successful, his family has done well from Hong Kong on the whole and those members of the family that continue to live here do so in comfort.

I ask what language he would feel most comfortable with for the interview. Having grown up bilingual, both English and Cantonese were of equal preference; both are his local language and mother tongue. His recent fluency in Putonghua – and I noted that it was Putonghua and not Mandarin – was never a consideration. We choose to record the interview in English.

“My father used to say Hong Kong is a borrowed place on borrowed time,” he said. For this reason, he argues, “Hong Kong could never be ‘home’.”

hong kong tram
Hong Kong. Photo: Wikicommons.

This saying brings back memories of my own, of being at gatherings with expatriate families who eagerly reminded themselves and their children of their position here. “A borrowed place on borrowed time” was a common saying in colonial Hong Kong. It was a saying that had many layers of meanings.

On the one hand the phrase reminds us that we should be grateful for the opportunity to work and live in Hong Kong. It urges the community to make hay whilst the sun shines, as it won’t always shine so brightly. It’s a message that, for me, epitomises an era when liberal economics, and the self-centredness and individualism that it promoted, came close to establishing itself as a human condition. It was not that Hong Kong could not be a home, but that there was no home; in this brave new world only opportunities existed and those who could free themselves from the emotional baggage of genuine relationships, whether with a people or a place, were the most free to find individual “success.”

But the saying was also a reminder of the uncertain future of colonial Hong Kong. As a relic of a previous age many people accepted that their concept of Hong Kong depended on the whim of a Chinese government that was to a majority neither representative nor legitimate. Even among those friends of Beijing, few genuinely trusted the Chinese Communist Party. The question on everyone’s minds was not whether the the British would leave, but whether Beijing would honour the principles and stand by the guarantees outlined in the joint declaration to preserve the fundamentals of this Hong Kong for its people.

The HKSAR Passport and the BNO. Photo: Wikicommons.

I asked the interviewee what he thought of people who identify with Hong Kong as a home. He replied, “Hong Kong can not be a home. It does not belong to the people. It belongs to China.”

Hong Kong is a sovereign part of China. But claims of sovereignty are themselves based on more than mere contract. A colonial British administration could not justify its legal sovereignty over Hong Kong in the hearts and minds of the people not because it was particularly incapable or oppressive, but because the majority of people for whom Hong Kong was home identified not with the legitimacy of Empire but with being Chinese. China is our national and cultural identity because it represents a concept with which people choose to identify. China can not own Hong Kong; we can only choose to identify with China.

“And what of those Hong Kong people who do identify with Hong Kong as home?,” I asked.

“They are misguided,” came his reply. “Hong Kong does not belong to them.”

hong kong identity

At this point I was confused. If Hong Kong was not only not his home but could not, by his understanding, be the basis of any form of association on which a “home identity” might be constructed, then on what foundations had his own identity as a Hong Kong person been built?

“To be a Hong Kong person is to be a person of the world,” he said. His Hong Kong person is a “global citizen” who, to my understanding, operates as an individual and a humanitarian without (or not needing) roots in any one place. Having grown up with a colonial identity, the world has replaced the Empire as that wider, trans-national and trans-cultural concept that compensates for our lack of roots. This Hong Kong identity is that of the rootless man, the perpetual refugee who, lacking value in a sense of belonging or home, must find it in the artificial emotions of a distant and seemingly greater ideal.

This is an ideal we may learn, but are as human beings not able to directly feel. We may on principle care about everyone, but by nature we learn to care by our relationships with those around us. Friendship, and to a great deal familial love, are based on these natural emotional attachments. Everyone may have the potential to be a friend, but it is those people who are around us, who engage in our lives and with whom we build memories, that are our friends.

To deny our immediate relationships – whether they be with a place, people or the roots we all inevitably lay down – and to deny these emotional foundations as a home, precludes us from really identifying with those greater concepts of humanity or nationhood. Our universal humanity is built on the foundations of our immediate connections; the natural bonds we forge with those and with what is around us. This is home.

As the interviewee left, I couldn’t resist putting one further question to him: is Hong Kong still a borrowed place on borrowed time?

evan fowler

Evan Fowler

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Evan is a UK-based researcher and writer on HK and China affairs.