Some very weeks ago I took a bus to Tai O, a famous fishing village usually frequented by tourists and locals alike. As I was sitting down waiting for the bus to leave, a Western guy approached the bus driver and asked him for directions, pointing to a map and politely enquiring: “Do you go here?” The driver didn’t even bother to look at the young lad and screamed in Cantonese: “I don’t speak English,” a sentence he kept repeating in an increasingly unpleasant way. The young guy got down the bus in despair, and I was left wondering if the driver would act the same way with a Chinese tourist who didn’t speak Cantonese.
Hong Kong was an international city not so long time ago. Now none of that is left, it seems. I got almost lost today in Harbour City trying to find a store because the staff who kindly approached me as I was checking the map was unable to understand where I wanted to go. After a few failed attempts I asked a random guy in the information desk if he spoke Mandarin, and proceed to explain to him what I was looking for. Job done.
Many kids also employ Mandarin instead of Cantonese in their daily playground conversations, and they even look at foreigners on the street and the MTR like they had never ever seen a gwailou –something that you rarely see in Taiwan, Japan, or the old Hong Kong not so many years ago, but a commonality in China. They are the newest, youngest generation, a generation that will not only be ignorant of the internationality of the English language, but who will soon embrace Chinese nationalism and look at foreigners with suspicion or disdain. Sorry to disappoint you guys: Without those foreigners, Hong Kong would have been just another unfree, polluted, uncivilized part of China with its cultural heritage long time gone and its citizens starved to death.
But English is not the only thing vanishing.
Some days later I ended up wandering around Victoria Harbour, when my eyes caught a bunch of red post-cards hanging behind some stand near the Hong Kong Museum of Art: All of them were written in plain simplified Chinese, the writing system employed in the People’s Republic of China. And in my last visit to Princess Margaret Hospital in Kwai Chung, I could see the names of many patients written in simplified Chinese. Given the obnoxious condition of the hospital, the inattentive service, and the negligent diagnosis, I wonder if one would not be better off in a China.
For some reason, this process of Sinicization (becoming more People’s Republic of China-like) makes me think of a couple of politically incorrect stories. The first one is about Hong Kong’s wild monkeys in Kowloon. The species was introduced in the early 1910s to control the spread of a local poisonous plant that could affect the water of Kowloon Reservoir (nothing to worry about anymore, since Hong Kong imports water from China now). This plant, the strychnos, is the favorite food of the Rhesus Macaque, and they developed some sort of symbiosis with Hong Kong. But in the 1950s a new species was introduced when a Tibetan acrobat troupe was forced by the government to release some Long-tailed Macaque. Both species interbreed and the resulting hybrid has become quite a problem for residents, who have their homes vandalized by the monkeys, and hikers, who have been increasingly feeding them for the past six years. One could hardly avoid the irony when walking among the “new Hongkongers” in Mongkok or Tsim Sha Tsui.
The second story concerns a group of four Tehuelche people, an indigenous tribe from Patagonia. They were carried by Charles Darwin to London and educated there in the English customs and culture. Darwin’s goal was to send them back to South America so they could bring English civilization to their own people, but once the newly English-educated guys landed in their old land, they got rid of their new garments and customs and went back to the old, uncivilized way of life of the South American pampa.
It is my experience that any Chinese who gets polished with the spirit of Western civilization or Asian cultures (such as in Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Japan, among others), will eventually get rid of their tuxedos and moccasins and embrace their beloved, five-thousand-years-old Communist China. And as it seems, the once-fine-burnished-by-the-spirit-of-British-laws Hong Kong is about to undress itself from the weariness of English and traditional Chinese and immerse in the filthy waters of the China Sea.