Fri, Jul 02, 2004 - Page 4 News List

Hong Kong identity grows little by little

LOCAL PRIDE The British are long gone, allowing Hong Kong residents to better feel what they share -- and what they don't -- with their Chinese brethren


An unidentified singer with the Chinese word for ``vote'' on his cheeks and a shoe on his head performs at Hong Kong's Victoria Park shortly before a crowd took to the streets in a protest march yesterday against China's decision to rule out full democracy for Hong Kong in the short term.


With green, sloping roofs and eaves imitating Chinese imperial and temple architecture, the sprawling King Yin Lei Mansion is one of this city's best-known landmarks.

Down the hill and around a corner stands Wanchai Market, one of two Bauhaus-inspired fresh-food markets known to survive in Asia. Built in the late 1930s, like the mansion, the market has harmoniously curving walls free of ornamentation, and has been a hub of the densely packed Wanchai neighborhood ever since.

Though each building is beautiful in its own way, neither would have been likely to survive the wrecking ball if developers had tried to tear them down just a few years ago.

But when developers moved recently to raze the mansion and the market, they encountered fierce resistance from neighborhood activists; the mansion was pulled off the market Tuesday last week and will remain a private home while the market's future is still being contested.

The struggle over historic preservation, in a city where only 4 percent of homes were built before 1960, shows a new sense of identity in Hong Kong. A pride and sense of community is emerging in what has been a city of immigrants. This sense of identity is manifesting itself in everything from a new interest in old buildings to a willingness to call for free elections.

Yeung Fai, 30, sells bok choy and other vegetables in the market at the same stall that his family has operated for 40 years. Yeung said that before Britain turned Hong Kong over in 1997, he thought of himself as Chinese, in contrast to the Europeans running the city.

But now that China is in charge, Yeung sees himself differently.

"I feel proud of Hong Kong, and of being a Hong Kong person," he said.

That sentiment seems to be spreading among this territory's 7 million people, a population a little larger than Switzerland's. The stirrings of a local identity -- no one here dares call it a national identity -- has nourished this city's democracy movement, which organized yesterday's march. And it has unnerved Beijing, which sees parallels to the much more developed movement in Taiwan which wants to declare formal independence from China.

Last Friday, China's Foreign Ministry denounced the US Senate's passage in Washington of a resolution supporting democratic reforms here as interference in China's internal affairs.

While Chinese officials recently said Hong Kong would be included in new legislation being drafted to ban secession, and have warned against any advocacy of independence, there is virtual unanimity in Hong Kong that independence would be both impractical and impossible.

"If they truly believe that democracy in Hong Kong will lead to independence, then they don't understand us," said Martin Lee (李柱銘), the founding chairman of the Democratic Party.


But while independence may not be the goal, loyalty to Hong Kong is clearly growing among its residents, with consequences that are hard to predict.

The British were fond of portraying Hong Kong as little more than a barren rock before they captured it in 1841. Yet there were fishing and trading villages and even some fortifications when the British arrived, while human habitation went back at least 6,000 years. This history is increasingly seized upon here as evidence that Hong Kong has had a long cultural and political tradition and is more than just a center of commerce.

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