Category: History

Local Identity in the Hongkongers in the XX Century


During the 19-20th century, Hong-Kong has undergone many changes that were caused by both external and internal factors. Initially, it was a territorial unit of China; it implied that the same national identity existed within and outside the borders of the city. In 1842, this geographic location became a colony of Great Britain. For the territory, being a colony meant that the influence on its course of development was quite strong. For instance, scholars from Great Britain would come and shape the landscape design, thus contributing to the urbanization of this area. Besides, business owners would come from abroad to develop manufacturing and trading in Hong Kong. Without a doubt, the underlying processes in the cultural identity of the Hong Kong dwellers were immense and rapid. In addition, the Sino-Japanese War, which began in 1937, contributed to the identity of the citizens, as well. The fact is that Hong Kong was known as a great asylum for Chinese refugees, who ran away from the Sino-Japanese War.

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This mass migration shaped the identity of Hong Kong dwellers to a great extent. Later on, in four years, Japan occupied Hong Kong, thus altering the national identity even further. After the end of the Second World War, citizens of Hong Kong witnessed the fast economic development that was associated with the processes of globalization. In terms of these economic-induced changes, the discussed community saw the change in social inequality because of coming through mass labor riots. Also, these stirring times encouraged the change in the woman's identity, as well. The role of females in Hong Kong became more important and robust. In other words, women became both more independent and, at the same time, imposed greater social and economic burdens.

All these changes stipulated the formation of a distinct local identity for the Hong-Kong people. In many ways, the local identity resonated with the general identity of the Chinese people. Since initially, it was a single nation, this phenomenon is quite interesting. On the one hand, one should remember that both China and Hong Kong came through the same external and internal events. Therefore, it is possible to acknowledge the similarities in their identities. On the other hand, this paper asserts that Hong Kong's national identity became unique and distinct in the 20th century, during the colonial period.

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History of the Hong-Kong Urbanization in the 19-20th Centuries

The history of the Hong-Kong urbanization is mostly associated with the influence of British Professionals. As a colony of Great Britain, Hong Kong “grew from a small fishing village to an international metropolis”. Colonization lasted for a century from 1842 till the Japanese invasion in 1941. Thereafter, when the Second World War was finished, Hong Kong continued to be a colony of the United Kingdom until 1997. This period gave rise to urbanization, which continued after the end of the war. The UK professionals that came to develop Hong Kong belonged to the four main groups: surveyors in engineering, sanitary engineers, port managers, and consultant architects. This complex approach resulted in the improvement of the general quality of production and stipulated the fast economic growth of the region. An important particularity is that these improvements changed the life of village dwellers, who constituted the majority of the population at the end of the 19th century.

Atha (2012) asserts, “The cultural landscape is fashioned from a natural landscape by a cultural group”. Therefore, “Culture is the agent, the natural area is the medium, the cultural landscape the result”. Applying this rationale to the Hong-Kong history of urbanization in the 20th century, it becomes clear that the cultural identity of the locals was developed from farming to manufacturing, technological novelties, and international trading. This change of emphasis was stipulated by the devastating impact of the military invasions and the limited possibility for the production of agricultural goods.

Discussing the preceding reasons for urbanization, it is appropriate to point out the rapid population growth. Consider the statistics, “The population increased from 625,166 in 1921 to 840,437 in 1931”. Under such circumstances, leaving the habitual lifestyle of village dwellers and farmers and altering the respectful part of their identity in favor of the urbanization and development of manufacturing was a must. The poor living conditions and failure to meet sanitary needs were other urgent issues that had to be resolved within a short period.

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The task of the British professionals was four-partite; in particular, Hong Kong was expected to have four functional domains that were essential for arranging the local governing and production functioning. These domains included

the ancillary service (Morrison Educational Society, Medical Missionary Society, Marine Hospital Hill); military (barrack, Royal Naval Chamber); Government Hill (Records Office, Government House, post office, Land Offices House, police station, prison); economy and residence (British consortiums piers and Chinese bazaar).

This approach contributed to the local identity of novelty, as well as urban living. Hence, one should stress that the fluctuations and overcrowding became the two characteristics of the local demographics. Later on, during the Sino-Japanese war, many Chinese refugees would come to seek shelter in Hong Kong. Many of them would stay in this area; meanwhile, others would return to China because of the same reason: the lack of space and provision. A critical manifestation of the shortage of space was the rapid and significant increase in rental prices. The Hongkongers were doomed to pay high land prices. For instance, it is reported that a flat, which initially had cost about 20 dollars was rented for hundreds of dollars. This growth in prices could be explained by two reasons. The first was the increased demand; the second was strict control of landlords, who possessed significant power over both residents and refugees.

What made things even worse was the monopolization of the real estate market, which deteriorated the life of Hong Kong people even more. Under such tough conditions, the fact that residents and refugees managed to co-exist in a single state without conflicts and hatred was evidence of the presence of the collective culture, which was based on the principles of mutualism. Xue et al. (2012) accentuate the emotional stability of the natives in response to considerable demographic fluctuations even though these changes caused the shortage of provision and deterioration of living conditions. In such a manner, it is possible to deduce that the native dwellers of Hong Kong and those Chinese people that decided to become its residents did not consider their poor living conditions a social issue. In this respect, people’s readiness to value compact living, even with strangers, could be considered the characteristic of the local identity. This particularity is similar for the Chinese and Hong-Kong dwellers.

Besides, it is possible to assume that being armed with vital functional sectors, Hong Kong developed greater independence. In other words, despite the centralized power, this colony had the needed means and agents for independent functioning. In addition, a significant aspect of the urbanization of Hong Kong was the decision of Great Britain to deploy the geographic properties of this island and construct Hong Kong as a city port. This particularity contributed to the development of multiculturalism as an important part of the local identity. Overall, the policy of Great Britain in this state differed from a typical construction of a standard colony. Instead, it was built to be capable of functioning as a subject to the empire's territorial unit and, simultaneously, the location that possessed limited but essential independence.

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The development of the educational, medical, and social entities contributed to the formation of the multicultural identity. The Hong-Kong people with Chinese heritage were exposed to and imposed to accept the culture of Great Britain. In this respect, developing the ancillary service was the proper approach of the Empire to deliver and implant in natives the English cultural symbols including the language. In addition to learning the English language, the youth of Hong Kong was subjected to westernization, which meant “the culture of slavery”.

The efforts of Great Britain to instill its own culture in the Asian colony were passed to another invader, Japan. Nevertheless, the Japanese invasion was different from the regime of Great Britain. Specifically, it paid greater attention to the genuine cultural needs of the dwellers of Hong Kong. The Japanese culture was closer to the Chinese people, and when Japan occupied Hong Kong, it also imposed its language and culture, but it was met with less hostility from the natives. For instance, the history reports, “It has become a Hong Kong for the East Asians”. Nonetheless, an abrupt and hostile change of authority under conditions of the war inhibited the development of the island for a while.

The Japanese authority paid much attention to the quality and quantity of the Japanese schools. In particular, the professionalism of teachers was monitored to be sure that this language was delivered to Hong Kong students at a high level. Besides, the influence of the Japanese culture was strengthened by setting up a publishing company, Datong Book Publishing Co. This strategy focused on increasing the Japanese literacy of the locals. In addition, the language courses were incorporated into mass media. In a word, Japan deployed the same ways of instilling its own culture as Great Britain did only with even greater tenacity. At the same time, the introduction of another Asian culture was easier than the process of westernization. Without a doubt, the need to accept and learn another culture and language contributed to the development of the characteristic of multiculturalism, which was an important trait of the local identity.

To a great extent, the consolidation of a Hongkonger identity was predefined by the fact that the refugees did not want to associate themselves with China. Similarly, many Hong-Kong dwellers reported having a dual identity; this characteristic was well-aligned with the mentioned concepts of multiculturalism and multilingualism. Besides, one can note, “Hong Kong people’s social identity fluctuates with social, political, and economic changes in Hong Kong”. Apart from art and mass media, an important tool of influence was the system of education. In particular, during the period of colonization, the youth of Hong Kong, including the offspring of refugees, was taught to neglect the Chinese heritage. Undoubtedly, this approach was not supposed to meet the cultural needs of students. Instead, it was aimed to lower the sense of the Asian heritage in the growing generation.

On the other hand, schools were provided with a certain degree of flexibility in developing their curriculums. The growing understanding of the importance of the Chinese heritage encouraged scholars to review the approach of omitting the Chinese identity in academic settings. This tendency had been gaining popularity year after year; probably, it was a result of the strengthened consolidation of the local identity, which included the Chinese heritage as a considerable part of the identity of many residents and refugees. In acknowledging the importance of this social tendency, schools started to consider the cultural needs of the youth. The fact was that the genuine Chinese culture that was based on the principles of Confucianism taught tenacity, obedience, humbleness, and other virtuous that could help to anticipate the national resistance and keep under control the colony.

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For instance, the respect for the order and acceptance of the hierarchy, and self-recognition as a member, who belonged to the Asian community in aesthetic and moral domains were helpful. In this respect, Kam (2012) reveals that students were engaged “to be Chinese in every way, except in the political or nationalist sense”. This approach complies with the idea of multiculturalism and multilingualism of the Hongkongers. Under these complex conditions, the generation of refugees that ran from the Sino-Japanese war had grown. This emphasis on education contributed to the ambiguity of the local identity of Hongkongers, which was shaped but remained unique.

Another important element of the post-war colonial education was the shift from the academic theoretical insights to the practical education that was necessary for the future young employees, who were supposed to work in the urban development, manufacturing, and trading sectors. In other words, the educational establishment had to prepare the Hong-Kong youth to work to satisfy the needs of the British Empire. Consider an example, the curriculum for Hong-Kong children in the period of the post-war colonization revealed, “The purpose of education is to equip students with the appropriate technical and social skills required for their entry into the labor market”. This purpose statement implied that the educational system was not supposed to prepare scholars and leaders. It complied with the general policy of the Empire regarding the development of a colony.

Nevertheless, the educational curriculum was developed with the view to implementing the “‘whole-person development’ approach in schools”. This approach was a benevolent change for the Hongkongers because, in the middle of the 20th century, the level of literacy remained insufficient to meet the needs of the capitalist market. At the same time, sensitive topics that could increase the national resistance were omitted by applying the principles of depoliticization and decontextualization. This approach to education was well-aligned with the capitalist identity, which was to be instilled into the young Hong Kong dwellers.

To understand the cultural patterns that manifested as parts of the national identity of the Hong-Kong citizens, it is necessary to define the term. Liu and Lee (2013) define the term nation as ‘‘a named human population sharing a historical territory, common myths, and historical memories, the mass, public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members’’. Linking this definition to the above-discussed events that shaped the local identity, it is natural to assume that Hong Kong people possessed the elements of national identity that distinguished them from the rest of the nation.

Multiculturalism is associated with the identity of the refugee community, which is a typical idea of the public culture of Hong Kong. The fact is that accepting a great number of refugees, who came for a while, did not contribute to the consolidation of the local identity. Many people considered Hong Kong as “a ‘‘borrowed place living on borrowed time’’. Nevertheless, the natives, as well as individuals who came to live in Hong Kong without the final decision whether to come back or not, identify themselves as “Hong Kongers rather than Chinese (59.5% vs. 36.2%)”. The statistics revealed the consolidation of this local identity. This process is a tendency that is expected to continue due to the reconstruction of the island, which provided it with favorable growth opportunities. In other words, individuals that lived in Hong-Hong, either natives or the new natives, the majority of citizens valued their homeland. Undoubtedly, this fact contributed to the further consolidation of the local identity. The local identity is a mix of the colonial culture, refugee location that blended people from different geographic regions of China, and a hybrid western-eastern lifestyle and culture.

Moreover, Hong Kong was subjected to the processes of capitalization and globalization. Scholars reveal that this state was one of the most active in developing the urban infrastructure. This approach was accompanied by the capital inflow and respectful changes in the cultural identity of the natives. An endeavor to develop the urban infrastructure was realized in the rapid construction of port facilities, which were vital for international relations and trading. In a word, to meet the capitalist needs of this location, numerous public amenities were established and built in Hong Kong. This fast reconstruction and passage from the village to the urban infrastructure and environment strengthened the local identity even more.

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Specifically, the natives shared the public culture of a hard-working nation with a strong locus of control. This particularity can be illustrated with the example that Hong Kong did not have a system of welfare. This fact implies several premises. First, the dimension of tenacity was a distinguishing feature of the national identity; it manifested in the absence of welfare regulations. Secondly, this example resonates with the capitalist approach towards using colonies as a way of enrichment without any sufficient social protection for the locals. In other words, this particularity implies the national identity of the colonial state. Thirdly, the poor social protection itself was a part of the local identity of Hong Kong dwellers, which was a distorted manifestation of the poor social conditions that were typical for this geographic region before the Sino-Japanese war and after the post-war inflow of refugees.

As one may rightfully conclude the absence of welfare in Hong Kong was vivid evidence of the national identity that allowed making several important conclusions about its determinants.

In addition, when discussing the influence of Great Britain’s imperialism on Hong Kong, scholars point out the weak nationalism of the occupied state. The dwellers of this geographic location did not make any attempts to preserve and express their Asian identity under the conditions of a colonial state. The absence of cultural/national resistance allowed the construction and development of Hong Kong faster. The weak national identity might be a result of the refugee capital and culture. In other words, people were used to accepting newcomers; besides, those who fled from China did not expect to stay in Hong Kong for the rest of their lives. Therefore, the colonists did not face any significant resistance in this state. This peculiarity was important; thus, it should be stressed as an element of the local identity because it resonated with the culture of multiculturalism, capitalism, and westernization. All these determinants were present in the local identity of Hong Kong dwellers to a certain extent. Even though the Chinese identity was not strong, the new, complex, and hybrid identity of the Hongkongers appeared to be unique and prominent.

As it is known, the Japanese occupation was not long; however, it was quite significant in shaping the identity of the native Hongkongers. To be more precise, Japanese opposed the westernization. To succeed in imposing the new ideology, Japanese leaders fought against the culture of Western racism in Hong Kong. Without a doubt, it was easy for the locals to accept that idea because it strived to protect the authentic Asian culture. As a result, the hostile attitude to Western racism became deeply rooted in the public culture of the Hong-Kong people. Therefore, when Great Britain claimed back its colony after the Second World War, it met a much stronger Asian identity of the locals than before the war. To avoid the consolidation of the Asian identity in Hongkongers that could turn into significant resistance in the future, the Western Empire had to demonstrate more concerns about the national needs of residents and refugees. This complex relationship between Hong Kong and other states revealed the composing structure of the local identity.

Under conditions of multiculturalism, the process of consolidation of the Hongkongers’ local identity is closely interwoven with the multilingualism of the natives. Kar-Yan Chan (2015) reveals the “purity in an anomaly of Hongkong-speak”. When discussing further the language of this region, the scholar claims, “Multilingualism and multiculturalism, as reflected in the language, are necessary conditions in the territory”. Given that the language is the main cultural symbol, it is possible to assume that the natives constructed their unique identity based on multilingualism, which resulted from being exposed to the English and Japanese languages. Specifically, Hong-Kong people created their Hongkong-speak dialect based on the Chinese, English, and Japanese languages. In this way, the multicultural identity was strengthened. To meet this characteristic of the audience, both the mass media and arts considered the dimension of multiculturalism and multilingualism and deployed these cultural particularities to reach and conquer the Hongkongers. This increased interest in the formation of multiculturalism in the post-war period contributed to the further development of the unique identity of the locals.

The Cultural Development of Hong Kong during the 20th Century

Hong Kong became not only an important economic center but also the center of culture and education. Refugees that came to this location brought with them the cultural and educational elements of human life. As a result, the number of publishing houses continued to grow. In the middle of the 20th century, a lot of periodicals were published daily in Hong Kong. This fact particularity contributed to the development of the identity focused on openness and interest in learning. Furthermore, post-compulsory education started to evolve rapidly in the middle of the 20th century. In terms of the mass media, one can also note the ideology of multiculturalism since a lot of Chinese periodicals were published in Hong Kong at the time when it was occupied by the UK (Li). Besides, the blending of two different Western and Eastern cultures stipulated alterations in the female identity.

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Role of Women in the Hong-Kong Society

Given that Hong Kong was a part of China, it was not surprising that the influence of Confucianism was quite strong on this island even after it was occupied by the Western Empire. The dwellers of Hong Kong were still Chinese people, and they carried the culture and idea of the woman’s submissiveness. In the Chinese culture, “a virtuous woman was supposed to uphold 'three subordinations: be subordinate to her father before marriage, to her husband after marriage, and to her son after her husband's death”. Moreover, historical events contributed to the gender-based disparity because the majority of coming to Hong-Kong Chinese were males. At the same time, those men, who decided to come back to China, rarely took their families with them. Li (2013) argues that Western colonization contributed to the social inequality between men and women in Hong Kong. In particular, the colonial culture contributed to the disparity of job options and, as a result, increased the socio-economic gap between men and women in Hong Kong. This social inequality was reflected in the mass media and published literature.

At the same time, the change in women’s roles became more prominent during this period. For instance, during the Second World War, several female organizations appeared in the territory of Hong Kong. They included the Woman’s Concerns Association, the Women’s Military Disaster Association, and the Chinese Women’s Association. The growing role of females in social life resulted in the faster restoration of Hong Kong after the Second World War. In this way, the local identity, which rested upon the principles of Confucianism, was altered to accept the Western ideology about greater freedom for females, which contrasted with the image of female submissiveness.


Summing up the above-mentioned, it is necessary to stress that the local identity of the Hongkongers in the 20th century during the colonial period has undergone significant modifications. To be more precise, there was a tendency to consolidate the local identity. This trend manifested in the increased resistance to external factors, including the imperial ambitions of invaders. Besides, one should point to the great ambiguity and complexity of the local identity. Firstly, a Hongkonger identity was three-partite: it consisted of the Chinese heritage, Western cultural trends, and artifacts that were left by Great Britain and the Japanese culture. This complex identity resulted in multiculturalism and multilingualism which were the determinants of the local identity of Hong Kong dwellers. Secondly, the local identity was a mixture of Eastern and Western lifestyles, morals, and orders in interpersonal relations. Thirdly, the ambivalence of the local identity was not related to the national awareness (Chinese heritage) in terms of politics; however, it was connected with the Asian heritage in other dimensions. The peculiarity of the Hongkongers’ identity was that it was similar in many ways to the Chinese one since the two used to be a single state before the colonization.

Besides, among the refugees that came to Hong Kong during the 20th century, the colonization of this geographic location was those who supported the Chinese identity, as well as those who neglected their origin. Overall, the local identity was characterized by the high openness and acceptance of newcomers either of the same heritage (refugees) or individuals coming from the West. This particularity was favorable for the capitalist identity of the Hongkongers. In addition, it manifested such national qualities as tenacity and stoicism in overcoming difficulties. Besides, because of being given limited space and resources, the local identity of the Hong Kong dwellers revealed that living in an overcrowded place was not considered a social problem. This insight implies that the natives possessed a well-developed urban identity that could rapidly change the identity of farmers. Moreover, the local identity was characterized by the liberalization of women despite the heavy income disparity and social inequality. Furthermore, the Hongkonger identity of the 20th century during the post-war period was characterized by respect for education and considerable interest in academic achievements. Similarly, public identity resonated with the strong aesthetic needs and considerable attention to the products of arts and mass media. Finally, in spiritual terms, the local identity of the Hongkongers was closer to their Chinese heritage since the principles of Confucianism remained prominent in the public culture. In a word, the local identity of Hong Kong residents and refugees in the 20th century during the colonial period was greatly ambivalent and complex. Nevertheless, it was peculiar and even unique in many ways.

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