I have long taken the idea of being a Hongkonger as natural and granted, but this has been shaken after a journey to the United States. I enjoy the days in foreign countries and am open to be acculturated and enculturated by a diversity of cultures. One unexpected side-effect brought by those encounters would be the estrangement of the idea of ‘self’, ‘ego’ or ‘self-identity’. With the facilitated communication across cultures, the identity of ‘self’ categorized under nationalities and ethnicities have both become a blurred concept. How can we describe the differences between ‘myself’ and ‘themselves’? Where is the line that draws ‘ourselves’ and ‘themselves’? How do we develop our perception of ‘myself’?
Born and raised as a Hong Kong SAR citizen, we naturally embrace the idea also being a Chinese citizen. It does not necessarily follow that a ‘Hongkonger’ is a ‘Chinese citizen’, or ‘Chinese’. In Hong Kong’s football team, the players present different ethnical and racial backgrounds (Cameroonian , Ghanaian, Nigerian, French, British), perhaps having dark or light complexions. They share one thing in common – all recognised as ‘Hong Kong permanent residents’, though they are statutorily not regarded as ‘Chinese citizens’. In statutory and political sense, such difference is reflected by the sheer racial borderline between a Chinese and a non-Chinese. However, in cultural and community sense, the players and I both belong to ‘Hongkongers’. How do we formulate and inherit such conceptualisation? How does the difference between the blood that we are born and the cultures and the community in which we live explain such conceptualisation?
As an ‘Ethnic Chinese’, we can still lead an expatriate life by acquiring expatriate languages and ways of life. We are also born with cultural competence to have a grasp of and realise expatriate lifestyles. The Chinese who I met in the United States were Cantonese speakers, with nothing distinctive in appearance and body figures from Hongkongers. The only difference that tells we are either ‘Hongkongers’ or ‘US citizens’ lies in the manner and acts we display. One interesting point to note is that they tend to take in their identity as a ‘Hongkonger’, even though the communication styles and lifestyles exhibit subtle differences. How do these perceptions come from and perpetuate? If the identity of Hongkonger does not derives from our territory and border, languages, or original nationalities, what are the carriers for self-identification?
I’ve experienced these struggles and thoughts repeatedly and I wish this series of work can serve as discussion of ‘ego’, self-identity and self recognition as a Hongkonger.
Exhibited in ‘/ˈpraktɪs/’ Joint Exhibition in New Asia Ch’ien Mu Library 2014
‘Anyone can be anything’ begins with the presumption of hair colour. Born yellow-raced with black hair, we reinforce ourselves as Chinese as we read from the books about who we are, yet we do not seem to share any pride and passion as the Americans do when China launched the first rocket to space. Patriotism does not share among many individuals in Hong Kong, perhaps because of Hong Kong’s British colonial times that our history has left us with confusion, questions and controversies to our Hongkongers’ identity.
In ‘Anyone can be anything’, Celine Chan was born in Taiwan but raised in Australia. She finds it not fitting to recognise herself as a Taiwanese because of her absence in understanding of official languages in Taiwan. Neither does not find herself fitting to call herself an Australian because of her Asian appearance. What affects us in identifying ourselves – self-consciousness, appearance and racial characteristics, or others? Is yellow complexion and black hair equivalent to ‘the descendants of the dragon’? Celine recognised herself as a ‘TCK’ (Third culture kid), who is born in another cultural environment from their parents and who perceives that they do not have a standard answer of nationalities.
‘Anyone can be anything’ is a highlight and expression of confusion of self-identity, and to find out the realm and meaning of such idea. I dyed the hair of foreigners residing in Hong Kong, and asked them to speak in Cantonese ‘I am a Hongkonger’, presenting the audience with the deviation and discrepancy of ethnicities and self-identities. As the title of the work presents, Hongkongers may not be the ones who can pronounce ‘I am a Hongkonger’, and may not be the actual Hongkongers as perceived. They used to have a very westernised outfit, blonde hair and green iris, but dyed black and spoke in Cantonese in the clip. Who actually are they? How do they then perceive and identify themselves?
In February 2014, the Education Bureau in Hong Kong made an official statement that Cantonese is regarded as just dialect but not statutory language in China. This has stirred up opposition by Hong Kong citizens, who reckoned this statement as government’s hidden agenda in replacing Cantonese with Putonghua. As a matter of fact, Cantonese is Hongkongers’ mother-tongue. Back in 1996, the UNESCO has listed it as a statutory language, and one of the six commonly-used languages in the world, apart from Chinese Putonghua, English, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and French. The repulsion, anxiety and fear are the signs that Hong Kong citizens lack confidence on the mother-tongue.
Mother-tongue is a key factor that affects our self-identity. Languages and cultures are connected to each other and the relationship between two is indispensable. Languages may only function as an objective factor for forming an ethnic group, but it is of paramount importance in identification process of such group. In some places in the world where there are no own languages, the inhabitants can still identify themselves as the group of people that belong there. For example, in Singapore where there are four official languages, Singaporean is still a broadly-perceived identity. Therefore, language is not the only factor for identity formulation. Other factors that should be taken into account, like cultures, lifestyles, connections with other inhabitants and responses to the society do play important roles.
Inspired by this news headline, I invited expatriates, each living in Hong Kong for more than five months, to express their thoughts and read them out in Cantonese. This experiment requires the expatriates to imagine themselves as a local, a Hongkong-born-and-raised individual, for the sake of communicating the notion of cultural competence. True self-identity should not be limited by language barriers, but be open to how an individual conceptualises and identifies ‘self’.
Exhibited in ‘We Don’t Drink Water’, The Art of CUHK 2014 Graduation Exhibition in Art Museum, CUHK
‘Q and A’ is the question-and-answer section about identities. I invited expatriates to read out the Q and A lines in Cantonese. The first row of subtitles comes from the movies that portray the idea of identity. Questions and answers are unrelated but both draw from the movies related to identity recognition, and they are juxtaposed to create identity confusion. For example, A asked ‘Do you think your voice sounds hesitating?” and B answered “You can choose to leave Hong Kong but Hong Kong won’t leave you.” (lines from the movie Helios) The expatriates communicating in Cantonese is to emphasise the sense of deviation between ethnicities and languages, and to highlight different understanding of self-identity arising from appearance and ego.
The second row of subtitles is actually the version heard by Sandro, who is a Italian-HongKong biracial. Born in Belgium but raised in Hong Kong, he is unproficient in Cantonese but who has a Hongkonger appearance. How shall him identify himself – a Hongkonger, Italian, Belgian, or others? The version that he heard has a fairly great difference with the original meaning of the sentences. For example, the line “I have nothing to tell but express my congratulations” was misheard and misinterpreted as “I am going to use the public toilets”. The discrepancy is a representation and manifestation of the blurriness of self-identification and the importance of how languages construct self-identities.
Upon the creation of this series of work, I have discovered and realised profound implications on the idea of self, the relationship about how self connects and interacts with conceptions of languages and ethnicities. Last but not least, our society can still ask more questions of how art conveys these ideas.