Thu 27 October 2016
Up on a slope in Happy Valley, Tung Lin Kok Yuen carries its own particular piece of Hong Kong history. We talk to two people on their journey to enlightenment, and what this means for them in the day to day.
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Tung Lin Kok Yuen is an extraordinary commemoration of a 50th wedding anniversary, but beyond its unique architecture, the family behind it captures so forcefully the intersection of government, economy and society of a particular moment. I’d heard about the Hotung name in passing, of course, usually in association with squabbles over land or money, but it wasn’t until I started reading about its patriarch did I realize how much his existence shed light on attitudes that are still very much present today.
I’ve been obsessed with Sir Robert Hotung for about a month now. Here’s someone who, essentially from birth, had to navigate the boundaries and perceptions of two communities that were far from eager to invite him into the fold. His Dutch father, who had moved to Hong Kong to work at a firm that shipped goods and coolies between China and San Francisco, took on a protected woman, named Sze Tai. When Robert was around 7, Bosman was declared bankrupt and moved away from the colony, leaving behind Madame Sze and her children.
It was dire if a foreign father up and left, as oftentimes the whole family would have been dependent on him to survive. The European community didn’t hide its disdain for the custom of taking on protected women. Meanwhile, Chinese kin groups were unlikely to accept Eurasian children as it was often the mother who was Chinese, not the father, and patriarchy was/is very much alive. They were a group apart, marginalized by both - but despite the upheaval, Sir Robert excelled at his studies and worked his way up to the head of the compradore department at Jardines, and was believed to be one of the richest men in Hong Kong by the age of 35.
Colonialism being colonialism, a land ordinance was passed in 1904, preventing houses on the Peak to be let to the Chinese. Sir Robert bought a house in the district two years later. He was lambasted as an “illegitimate half-caste whose wives and Concubines numbered four” by the governor at the time, white families refused to let their children play with his, and more than a decade later, when he owned three houses on the Peak, the next governor, Sir Francis May, wrote in 1917 that:
“Chinese families if resident in the Peak District would have much more frequent and closer communication with the Chinese portion of Victoria than do Europeans and the chance of the carriage and dissemination of communicable disease would be much increased…It would be little short of a calamity if an alien and, by European standards, a semi-civilized race were allowed to drive the white man from the one area in Hong Kong, in which he can live with his wife and children in a white man’s healthy surroundings.”
Many articles on the Hotung family remark on his Chineseness - and to what end? That it was remarkable that someone half white could speak Cantonese, preferred to wear the gown of a Chinese scholar, exhibited filial piety and raised his family on Confucian values? There is always a desire to make sense of things by apportioning his selves, put them on a scale and see where it tips. But it’s also a feeling that hasn’t quite died out.
We’re no longer a colony. Chinese people can live on the Peak. But the notions of being measured up to a moving goal post of authentic Hong Kongness is certainly still there, always dependent on who’s doing the measuring. Despite our Asia’s World City, East meets West slogans, there are still plenty of opinions on who does or doesn’t belong in Hong Kong. Lines are still drawn in everyday attitudes - “expats” and “locals” identify themselves using those labels, people who may have been born and raised in our city but aren’t ethnically Chinese are still asked where they’re really from, and I, who have grown up here but may stumble over Cantonese, get the raised eyebrow on occasion when I try to claim my place as a Hong Konger.
I suppose that’s why Buddhism is so intriguing - the concept of having no self seems antithetical to everything we hear about the importance of having an identity, something you can build and hold onto. All the talk we hear about what makes one qualify as a Hong Konger, how that self can be justified, is no longer rooted when we recognize that these themselves are not eternal and permanent. The question that remains is how we might be able to live better together when we’re aware of that - when we take it to be true - how unflinching awareness can potentially bring us closer in community.
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