Before a clear understanding of Hong Kong’s post-colonial identity can be reached, I find it necessary to understand what exactly the term post-colonial entails. In general, scholars attribute three possible definitions to the term. The first definition can be viewed as a literal translation: that is, post-colonial as “the era after colonialism”. More broadly, when applied to a nation, the definition of the post-colonial can be understood as new nation-states that have emerged out of the act of de-colonization, specifically in the post-Second World War era. Examples include India, Africa, and, by this definition, Hong Kong.
While this first definition is not actually incorrect, it does not fully encompass the multitude of textures to the term. The second definition of post-colonialism refers to more than just a chronological understanding of post-imperialism, as such a dry reading leaves much to be desired in terms of understanding the political tensions and social upheaval post-colonial nations have historically been inundated with. In the socio-political sphere, post-colonial equates with instability. The immediately-post-colonial nation is a place of conflicting cultures, histories and ideas, a characteristic that never fully disappears in some cases. If one were to take post-Independence India as an example, the years of riots, religious wars, stark caste and class divides resulted in numerous States of Emergency and poor economic development.
At the same time, post-colonialism cannot help but enter into the personal lives of the nation’s citizens and be reflected in their everyday interactions. The third conceptualization of postcolonial refers to a means by which one can interact with, and perhaps reject, colonialism’s power structures, social constraints and hierarchies, and imperialist discourses. This version of post-colonialism appears in the art of the people—whether it be literature, cinema, music, though most commonly in literature.
If we look at any of the three definitions above, Hong Kong could generally be considered a post-colonial state—except for those frequent uncertain moments in which we must pause and reconsider. Five unique factors of the island itself challenge Hong Kong’s status as a postcolonial nation: 1) its initial colonization by the British Empire was a result of a treaty as opposed to full, all out take-over, which set the terms for eventually decolonization; 2) because of the characteristics of its initial colonization, when the English finally decolonized Hong Kong in July, 1997, instead of being given autonomy, Hong Kong was simply handed back to its original “mother”; 3) unlike other postcolonial nations, such as India or Africa, it’s postcolonial status was achieved not until many years after the initial decolonization measures of the British Empire; 4) for the duration of its colonization, its motherland—mainland China—remained an inerasable presence just across the water; and 5) its decolonization did not bring with it the levels of social unrest nor the levels of corruption experience by most all other postcolonial nations.
Arguably, the first and third factors do not point to an unsteady post-colonial identity of the state. However, if we take into consideration the terms of the Treaty of Nanking—that Hong Kong would eventually be released from the British Empire’s hold—the awareness of impending “freedom” was something that unique about Hong Kong as a colony, as it allowed the island greater freedom with regards to retention of its Chinese heritage. The decolonization in 1997 is significant for the fact that, instead of occurring in the post- Second World War era, it occurred in the post-Cold War era, when Hong Kong was in the height of its power as a world superpower. In the post- WWII era, Hong Kong still struggled with water shortages, poor economic conditions and even periods of social unrest. Had it been decolonized then, there is no doubt that the nation would have followed in the footsteps of its post-colonial brethren. Instead, England decolonized it when the nation was least likely to experience the socio-political upheaval of decolonization (factor number five). In addition, this named Hong Kong as among the few colonies to emerge from imperialism with a world status that granted it the admiration of the West.
Considering the second factor, if post-colonialism refers to the era after colonialism (i.e. after the end of imperialist rule), then why does one get the feeling that imperialism still maintains a grip over Hong Kong? That is to say, how does one explain the fact that, instead of gaining sovereignty over itself like all other postcolonial states, Hong Kong was simply handed over to Mainland China? Today, the island is a Special Administrative Region under China and although it more or less remains separate from China’s interference, the fact remains that it is Mainland China would dictates the rules. As Choy states, “to the autochthons of the small Hong Kong, this postcolonial (re)turn is actually more a re-colonization than a decolonization of the capitalist Cantonese city by the mainland Mandarin master” (1).
Yes, this returning of Hong Kong to China is the result of the Treaty of Nanking and yes, technically, Hong Kong returning to its motherland does not equate with imperialism. However, after decades of British rule, Hong Kong managed to develop its own sort of national consciousness, one separate from its “Sino-genetic mother and foreign foster father” (Choy 7). Hong Konger is no longer merely a cultural identity “but also a political subjectivity and social entity”, which presupposes that the nation itself considers itself different enough from the mainland that seamless integration is not possible. (I will go further into this aspect of Hong Kong in a later section.) In the end, a Hong Kong national consciousness separate from Mainland China brings into question whether Hong Kong has even achieved the primary characteristic of post-colonial states: freedom from imperialism.
In addition, China’s unavoidable presence right across the water ensured that Hong Kong’s development was always tempered on two sides: the side of the imperial father and the distanced mother. Indeed, “Hong Kong is both local and global” (Choy 7). British political theorist Thomas Macaulay, speaking of the relationship between India and Britain, once wrote that imperial pedagogy looks to form a “class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” (Mehta 10). In the case of a post-colonial state such as India, which was colonized in its entirety, there was no “mother force” tempering the influence of the Empire, which resulted in a lifestyle oriented around the British system; in Hong Kong “the life orientation is based on the Chinese culture, even as it follows a British system of rule” (Tu Wei Ming 5).
All this, however, only defines the status of Hong Kong as a post-colonial state—defining postcolonial identity, of course, indubitably complicates matters further. Identity here refers to less the status of the nation and more the consciousness of the people; after all post-coloniality is just as much factored into collective awareness of the subjects just as much as it is socio-political and temporal identity of the nation. Post-colonial identity implies a collective consciousness that it marked by cultural hybridity. An example of this exists in the various names Hong Kong has accumulated in its period of colonization: Hong Kong, as it was named by the British; Xiang gang, as it is termed by Mainland China; Heung gong, as Hong Kongers have named it. These names point to the multiplicity of languages in the small island—the language of the Empire, the language of the motherland and the language of the child torn between the two. The problem of which language to use (indeed, the problem of using all three languages) is an everyday part of Hong Kong life.
Again, there remains the matter of national identity: Hong Kong is unique for three reasons: 1) its use of Cantonese, which is neither the language of the motherland or the Empire; 2) its recognition on the global stage as an entity separate from China and the Empire; and 3) a culture and social system that blends together two considerably conflicting ideals. These qualities point to a collective awareness that maintains that Hong Kong is very much separate from its two parents, and yet constantly harkens back to the presence of both parents in a very post-colonial manner.
Hong Kong will always have the title of “colony’ in its consciousness—at first because of British rule but now, due to it living through a history of relative autonomy, to be “handed back” to China is akin to being colonized all over again. By these factors, defining whether Hong Kong has postcolonial identity becomes more complex, indeed even more impossible.