Living in a World of Illusions: A Hong Kongese Reflection on Race

by Calida Chu

“Camera Obscura,” Edinburgh. Christian Michelides, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

‘So, why are you joining this church? Your English is not bad.’

This was the first question people asked me when they found out I joined a Hong Kongese church here in Edinburgh. When interacting with people outside academia, I tend not to mention that I spent several years on a PhD thesis about public theology in Hong Kong—life is not defined merely by an academic degree. However, I find it interesting that there is an assumption, especially among the Hong Kongese diaspora, that churches not conducting their services in the English language are inferior. While in churches and in theological education institutes, we are taught that human beings are created in imago Dei (the image of God) and in God’s likeness (Genesis 1:27), there seems to be a perceived image in Christian communities that defines what is good outside the Genesis creation narratives.

When I first moved back to Hong Kong after my bachelor’s degree in Birmingham, England, I spent a year doing part-time music teaching as well as a sociology degree to better understand life. As both the United Kingdom and Hong Kong have rather hierarchal societies, to comprehend the social system is to comprehend your interaction with the world and with those surrounding you. One of my takeaways in this master’s programme was Charles Horton Cooley’s (1864–1929) concept of the ‘looking-glass self’: The individual’s sense of self is developed by how others perceive them, which in turn changes the individuals’ behaviours, just as you adjust yourself in front of a mirror and your subsequent action is determined by the image you see.

Next to New College, there’s a museum called Camera Obscura and World of Illusions, where curved mirrors are put near the entrance to attract tourists on their way to Edinburgh Castle. Many children smile and make funny faces in front of these distorted mirrors.

I see myself, an image distorted by my appearance, an imperfect image perceived by others due to my skin colour.

I see myself, though I cannot recognise myself.

If race is a construction, then the race of East Asians, or the race of Hong Kongese more specifically, is constructed through the perception of others, whether these others are the media or peoples with different skin colour. In his controversial book, Hong Kong, a Gloomy Family State (香港,鬱躁的家邦), Eric Sing-yan Tsui (b. 1978; 徐承恩) argues that the race of Hong Kongese is not exactly Han Chinese, because they are technically Baiyue (百越), an ethnicity more affiliated to Vietnamese than to the so-called Han Chinese. Though Tsui’s claim is a broad move that requires further research from archaeologists, it illustrates the neglect of the multiethnic nature of the Chinese peoples (in terms of nationality) and how the discourse of race has been dominated by those with power.

Race is a very underdeveloped topic among Hong Kongese. The usual argument is that Hong Kong is rather monoethnic, dominated by ethnic Chinese. Indeed, according to the statistics collected by the Hong Kong government in 2020, Hong Kong’s population consists of 92 per cent ethnic Chinese, 3 per cent Filipino, and 2.3 per cent Indonesians. Due to the lack of discourse on this matter, one often goes into two extremes: Either continually calling people of European descent ‘Ghostly dude’ (鬼佬), which implies ‘foreign devil’, or thinking everything that comes out of their mouth is true.

The aftermath of this polarisation, especially among the Hong Kongese diaspora in the UK, is the mindset of second class citizens, who are supposed to be inferior to (white) British. For those who subscribe to this mentality, since the approval of the British National Overseas visa route is a gift, Hong Kongese citizens should not take better jobs in UK society because they are supposed to be second-class citizens. Coincidently, this aligns with a study about the perception of Asian Americans, that they are second class citizens in the US and do not deserve to have better treatment. While I am grateful that the UK government has released this visa route, my worries are that the Hong Kongese diaspora will take this internalised racism for granted, which they may then pass on to future generations.

Another limitation of the current discourse of race at a popular level is the mentality of yellow-versus-white, in which everything related to race among Hong Kongese is framed as a ‘comparative study’ between Hong Kongese and people of European descent. In other words, they engage in what might almost be termed occidentalism to romanticise their migrant experience in the West. Although scholars of cultural studies in Hong Kong have already investigated the discourse of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, especially regarding Southeast Asians, it still has not reached a mass audience.

As Christians, we understand that all human beings are created in imago Dei. We are created to be equal, and our skin colour should not determine our self-worth both on the individual and societal level.

Internalised racism is a distorted mirror. It hinders us from seeing our true self, the perfect image God saw as good; it diminishes our fellowship with Christians from a global majority heritage into gatherings of second class citizens; it reduces the ability to speak non-anglophone languages to a burden rather than an asset. Our sister Chine McDonald has rightly articulated in her influential book, ‘God is not a white man’. Moreover, Andrew Walls, pioneer of the field of world Christianity, indicates that Christianity is not from the West, as many Hong Kongese Christians have wrongly assumed. Reducing one’s image because of one’s ethnic, cultural, and linguistic background is no different from diminishing God’s image and the beauty of God’s creation. It is time to break the distorted mirror and remind our brothers and sisters that we are loved by our creator simply because of who we are.

Postscript: This article is a tribute to my favourite Hong Kong author Liu Yichang (劉以鬯, 1918–2018), who is known for his stream of consciousness narrative method.

Calida Chu
Calida Chu

Contributing editor Calida Chu is a teaching fellow at the University of Edinburgh.