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World Story of Hong Kong 01

2018/4/24 — 23:52



【Author:Evan Fowler(a local Eurasian Hongkonger)】

I am the child of one mixed marriage at the cusp of a previous age, who found happiness and be-longing in another very different mixed family; and the little white face of a family not as Chinese as they believe.

Throughout my life, in my friends and family, my hobbies and habits, my traditions, and in the choic-es I have made are glimpses of that diverse network of relations — ethnic, racial, cultural and politi-cal — on which I a Hong Kong identity is based and continues to evolve. It may not be your Hong Kong, but somewhere we do overlap, share a connection, a common that identifies us as a Hong Kong person.


My Hong Kong Story began as I took my first breath. I was born eight weeks early, and weighed 4lbs 11oz. And so the first week of my life was spent in a ventilator at Canossa Hospital. Doctor Chan, the family paediatrician, gave my chances of survival as roughly even.


That I survived this period, my first ordeal, was evidence enough for my mother to draw two conclu-sions that she still holds firmly to this day: firstly, that I am often too inquisitive for my own good, and consequently find myself in troublesome situations; and secondly, that despite all the irritating habits and eccentricities I would develop, I was nevertheless worth persevering with. My life had come to my mother as a blessing.

Part 1. Mummy

At the time of my birth my parents were no longer living together. My mother had moved back to the family home, at the time a pre-war tong lau just off Prince Edward Road. Here she lived with her mother, my Pau Pau, and her youngest sister, auntie May, who was at the time not yet married.

My mother’s family considered themselves Chinese, and had shuttled between Hong Kong, Guang-zhou and the United States for several generations. My great grandfather, my Bak Kung, was born in Hong Kong in the late 1890s. He was a small man, and when I knew him was notable for his very round head and somewhat thin face that accentuate his already unusually prominent features. In the 1920s he had been one of a wave of patriotic young Chinese men to take up a government scholar-ship to study engineering at an East Coast university. And yet, when I knew him I was always struck by how little English he seemed to understand, though he was very old when I was still very young.

It was because of this US connection that Bak Kung’s three wives were entitled to a US State Pen-sion. When I was young I remember it was my mother’s job to collect these each month for them and to deliver it to their home in Mong Kok. When I was allowed I would come too. Bak Kung’s home was a fascinating place, a rather large flat in a low rise building that had been partitioned into separate living quarters for each of his wives. Each living quarter had its own tea set, two sauces of red and black melon seed (瓜子) and a plate of fresh oranges that would be replace each morning by our Chinese amah. This dusty wooden time warp was presided over by two large cats that would saunter in as they please and who always had first choice of space.

The only wife I got to know was his third, and last wife. I called her Ah Bak. She too was a girl from “our” ancestral village in Toishan, but like the others she never lost her thick regional accent. She had what can only be described as an elephantine face. Everything about her was fatty — her eye-lids, nose and cheeks, and her large lips that would wobble as she spoke in a dialect even my mother struggled to understand. But she had beautifully soft skin that seemed to glow a healthy pale, and was “as smooth as a baby’s bottom,” as my dad would have said. She was also the only wife not to have bound feet, and was a vivacious as the stereotype would suggest. That little sign of nonconformity and self-confidence I liked.

Four times a year the family would gather at Jade Garden in Star House for a traditional Chinese banquet, where we would always have a room. The meal would be preceded and end with a few rounds of mahjong, and two televisions would be always on. Our room would be as noisy, chaotic and mildly ridiculous as the gameshows on TVB.

Of my mother’s six siblings, three were living in America when I was born. They visited rarely, but when they did the family made sure each day was spent eating. When relatives were visiting it was not uncommon for family members to gain 10-15% in weight within a 2-3 weeks.

Our family love to eat. Pigeon, seafood and roast meats; and Cantonese, Hakka and Chiu Chau del-icacies. And though we stretched Hong Kong’s extraordinary broad cuisine too its very limits, it was always ever Southern Chinese food. This was what the family knew and enjoyed, and there was no reason to consider anything else. What we ate reflected our particular Chinese identity as Hong Kong Cantonese, a point of significance in a region of such diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Food was our commonality around which we could all enjoy, regardless of how the family evolved and also of the differing politics individuals may have held.

This cultural and ethnic diversity within our family was highlighted to me very personally when, in my early teens, I began to realise that my mother’s family could not be fully Chinese. One of my uncles and an aunt just do not look at all Chinese, nor do their children; Bak Kung’s features were unusual to say the least; and my mother was herself often mistaken on the street for being Eurasian.

This suspicion was confirmed just two years ago when a DNA test showed that my maternal family must have been ethnically mixed for several generations. My mother admits there being some Por-tuguese and possibly Scottish blood running through the family. But most interesting was the trace of Polynesian DNA that the tests unearthed, a link no one in my family is prepared to even consider let alone accept. Like so many supposedly Hong Kong Chinese and Chinese-styled Eurasian fami-lies, we were Chinese by identification and therefore by choice.

Part 2. Daddy

The man who was my father is English, and was born in South Africa in the mid-1930s to a privi-leged but financially bankrupt family. After accepting a position in the City, his father lost the family inheritance and that of many others in the 1929 stock market crash. Consequently the family were no longer welcome in London society and moved to South Africa.

His son, my father, was raised between the vineyards of Constantia and the English countryside, where he stayed with his mother’s relations. Then at the age of nine he was packed off to an English boarding school. He never saw his father again. It was this unrooted upbringing and sense of social exclusion, coupled with the politics of his own family, that eventually lead my father to Asia, and to what was then the furthest outpost of British sovereign land — Hong Kong.

My father is a small and physically unimpressive man, with distinctive green eyes and wispy gold-grey hair. My mother was, in her youth, a very beautiful woman and must have represented quite the catch.

In South Africa I have two half-brothers a sister. They are part of a family, and a paternal lineage I have never met. The only person from my father’s family I did meet, and saw every year until the age of nine, was my grandmother. I never knew her name. I only knew her as granny. She lived in England and twice every year we would go stay at her house.

Granny lived on a small estate about two hours drive from London. The house had come to my Granny from her side of the family, a point though rarely made was nevertheless unmistakably clear. My two times great grandfather had built the house to a standard mid-Victorian design to replace what had previously been a Tudor mansion, and then extended it at the turn of the 19th century by adding a west wing. This wing of the house was kept boarded up except for the conservatory on the roof, which was my Granny’s favourite place in the world.

If Hong Kong showed me life at it’s most intense, it was England that made me conscious to see it. In the English countryside I found beauty in the smallest things: the first buds of springs and the softness of morning dew; little red and black spotted ladybirds that scuttled across a leaf and on to my fingers, and the robin who hopped about me as I dug for earthworms in the soft brown soil. In Hong Kong my garden was mostly concrete. Our front lawn of coarse, dark elephant grass grazed my ankles and the bottom of my feet. Our fountain was tiled and on the sides of the pond fish fed year-round off newly hatched mosquito larvae. My identity, defined by Hong Kong, was thus shaped by a distinctly different perspective — like the astronaut looking back at his home from the outer reaches of space, understand how both ridiculous and fragile his home appears.

For my dad Hong Kong was not a home, but a place of transition; a port of call on a journey he had undertaken to escape a home he knew he would be unlikely to return to. He may have lived in mate-rial comfort and watched the races from the members box, but his Hong Kong story was strikingly similar in a human perspective to many of those in the public galleries, regardless of race, culture of standing.

But for me my relationship with Hong Kong was different. Like my mother I was born here. And as for my mother and at least 5 generations of my maternal family, this was the place and community I called home.

When I was nine years old I was meant to go to boarding school. My place had been secured at birth, and in a way my life so far was a preparation for this next step. My father had gone, as had his father and my uncle, Henry, whom I heard a great deal about but whom I never met. But I was not a “good little British boy” and I did not go home. I was home. So I said no.

My father left Hong Kong when I was nine years old. He left without saying good bye. He would not return.

Part 3. Me

“He would have loved you so much,” my mother would often say. My grandfather, gong gong, died in 1976, three years before I was born. “You have the same twinkle in your eye.”

As a young child this confused me. I could never see that twinkle in my eye no matter how hard I looked. Instead, what I did see were two deep brown corneas highlighted with flecks of emerald green.

From a young age I was aware that I looked different from my cousins. I had auburn hair, large eyes and a small, distinct nose. Indeed, the small size of my nose and ears were of great consternation to my Pau Pau and some of my older relations who worried I was fated to be unlucky and poor. I was also affectionately known in the family as “Ma Lo Tsing,” the Monkey King, a moniker I quite en-joyed, and which was certainly better than the host of nick-name I acquired in later years at school by real British boys.

I would visit my mother once every two weeks, and though she lived at home with her mother and family in what was a small flat compared with where I was raised, being in a home and among fami-ly was always a time I would look forward to. But it was not always happy times, and each day spent with them was coloured by the full emotional spectrum. I fought my cousins over who would get to use one of the remaining pairs of ivory chopsticks; who would use the colour pencils over the felt tip pens; who had to bath first, and why the girls could use special shampoo whilst the boys could not. We fought over what ice-cream lollies we had on hot summer afternoon, whether it be Joystick 脆皮樂, Wonderbar 旺寶雪條, Milki bars 牛奶樂 or, my personal favourite, Tropical Sundae 鳳仙.

Then in the late 1980s two things happened that would shape my life more than anything else. The first would give me what I wanted most — a family; the second would turn my world upside down.

In 1988 my father left Hong Kong, and I went to live with my mother, who had now remarried and was expecting a child. Shortly after my (half) sister was born. It was the happiest time of my life. I was part of a family, with a new father, also English, who embraced me as his own and who loved me without expectation. I soon adopted his surname, Fowler.

My new father was an expatriate engineer, born and raised in North London to an English father and Belgian mother. Hong Kong was his third overseas posting, but it was also a significant familial post-ing. Between 1922–1925 a relation, Major-General Sir John Fowler, was Commander of British Forces in Hong Kong.

My new family were part of a younger, fresher and more progressive new generation to hit Hong Kong in the early 1980s that were as happy eating chicken wings in South bay as sailing in Tai Tam. Were as my father had introduced me to Noel Coward, my new father introduced me to the equally wonderful music of Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkel, which soon joined my collection along-side Sam Hui (許冠傑).

I now lived on Kennedy Road, in perhaps less style but as a family. When expatriate culture on the island turned more pretentious with a new corporate and banking culture, we left and moved to a flat in Kowloon Tong that overlooked Kowloon. Concorde flew in to Kai Tak once a week. I would wait sitting in a rattan chair in our balcony for the distinctive sound of Rolls Royce Avon engines as Speedbird One approached for landing.

In the flat next door lived a Chinese gentleman recently returned from academia in the US to take up the position expected of him in his family run company. His young Chinese wife had the sweetest smile and would invite me over to play. We had pillow fights, and made pillow and sheet houses in the living room in which to hide. As my own family grew, with my brother born two years later, so did that of our wonderful young Chinese neighbours. The gentleman became my godfather, but soon became much more: a best friend, mentor and a pillar around which I have constructed my life. These were the happiest days of my life.

Then, almost exactly a year later, came the second event. It was an event that reverberated around the world, and tore a deep hole in the hearts of every Chinese person.

The month-long pro-democracy protests in Beijing gripped every Chinese family, regardless of poli-tics. Even die-hard communists family’s we knew believed our country was on the cusp of history, of making the transition from authoritarianism to democracy, from a state define by oppression to one of openness and hope. Each day after school instead of going home I went to my Pau Pau’s house and joined my family as they tuned in on the television to live broadcasts of events in Beijing. We watched as the army entered the city.

On June 4th, 1989, as blood ran through the streets of Beijing, every Chinese household in the world ran with tears. I remember the total silence as my extended families sat, stood and lay in my Pau Pau’s house. Not a word was muttered. Everyone was crying but in silence. Even one of my uncles, a rabid Communist who had objected to my mother marrying outside of her race and thought I was unclean, sat slumped, his face red with anger and wet with tears.

The following day I joined my mother in Victoria Park, and walked with the pain of what we had wit-nessed, not in anger but in a mixture of sadness for disgust. Disgust for a party and a government that claimed still to represent the Chinese people; and at a government we knew would in 8 years time would claim sovereignty over both our being and our home. This moment made me appreciate what we had in Hong Kong, of how fortunate we were as a family and how relatively benign had been British rule.

1989 broke apart my Chinese family. Before this date we hoped the family would be united when my uncles in the US retired and returned to Hong Kong. After this date we counted down the days be-fore my remaining family in Hong Kong left to settle where they could. My Pau Pau left to Minnesota, to a frozen land where no one spoke her language. She would die there thirty years later having de-veloped a taste for McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish.

My was the only one for her family to remain in Hong Kong, her security seemingly assured by her British passport. The family home was sold, and never again did my Pau Pau cook for us, nor did we meet as a family at Jade Garden. Hong Kong never ceased being home, but the home with which my family had once identified has changed. Some of my family coped and adjusted, becom-ing Americans. For others, their identity as Chinese and their connection with Hong Kong was too strong, and they have become shadows, neither accepted nor embracing their American nor Chi-nese identities, as the China and identity they once knew has ceased to be recognised. Rootless, they have found solace in fundamentalist Christianity within a host of Hong Kong-Chinese congrega-tions. They found God but have lost themselves.

It rained on July 1st, 1997. As the drums rolled and bagpipes played, one flag replaced another, I watched with hundreds of thousands of others on the streets of Nathan Road where, hours before, the PLA had rolled into the city to a deafening silence. The Joint Declaration promised that Hong Kong people would run Hong Kong. But no one forgot that entering our homes was not a force of liberation but an army that had fired on its own people; and that there were two flags being raised over Hong Kong — that of the new Hong Kong Special Administrative Region but also that of a par-ty that claimed to represent China and the Chinese people, but could not even acknowledge the truth of the pain it had inflicted on generations of Chinese since it came to power in 1949. If half of Hong Kong in principle welcomed the handover with their hearts and conscience fluttering, there was another half for whom the new flags were an offence, and whose Chinese eyes looked on envi-ously over the Taiwan Straits.

The friends who stood with me in the rain that day were Indian, Taiwanese, South Korean and Hong Kong Chinese. All had been born in Hong Kong and for each Hong Kong was home. Though we all applied for a Hong Kong passport, that summer, before we began university, only one was to re-ceive their passport without issue.

Today Hong Kong remains a meeting place and melting point of many different cultures, some of who embrace a local identity and some of whom do not. This local identity exists on many levels, and no single identity is definitive. It is not tied to a territory, a set of values or a political position; and neither is it established by a single, approved historic narrative. Each Hong Kong identity is unique and each changes, as has my own, depending on our own Hong Kong stories. What unites us is the meals we share, the friends we have and the moments of great elations and those of great disappear we share as a community. These are our Hong Kong stories, ever weaving and interlock-ing and building on the past.

This has been a glimpse of my Hong Kong story.

[April 23, 2018]

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