The Invisible Armada

How to change the terms of the conversation on Hong Kong?

Manki Hon



One of the terms we often use in a conversation about Hong Kong is Hong Konger. In this presentation, I try to draw three functions of this identity which is part of an apparatus of what I will call identityism.

Let's start by remembering: Hong Kong identity is a product of British colonization. The Chinese Qing Empire lost two wars against the British Empire and was forced to let part of Hong Kong be colonized since 1841 and all of Hong Kong since 1898. At that time, Hong Kongers were not distinguished from Chinese. It was during colonization that the Hong Kong identity discourse was put in place, which had the main effect of fighting against the patriotic communist discourse of anti-colonization. I do not present the details concerning the genealogy of Hong Kong identity because the question “where does Hong Kong identity come from” probably matters less than the question “where does it lead us”.

The problem with Hong Kong identity is that it is recycled by the discursive machine of Western powers like the United States and turned into a weapon against China. "A weapon" is in no way metaphorical, because the Hong Kong identity, as it is claimed and put forward by the Western media, is part of the antagonistic scheme - Democracy against Dictatorship - and prepares for war. To this very effect, Hong Kong identity is a vague matter of recognition. Everyone can identify with it, the capitalists, the workers, the young students, even the Chinese who come from mainland China, on condition that they submit to the scheme of a struggle to the death between democracy and authoritarianism - and that they line up on the side of Good.

The war begins with discrimination and the discourse of Hong Kong identity fuels discrimination against the Chinese through language. With the discourse that seeks to establish the authenticity of the Cantonese-Hong Kong language, linguistic difference is not considered as a regional difference, which is nothing more than one more difference, a lukewarm difference on the scale of habit and completely surmountable (like that between “pain au chocolat” or “chocolatine”, two ways of naming the same thing, in French), but as a very hot difference, which aggravates, stigmatizes and is insurmountable  - noli me tangere – seeking the purity, the sanctity of language. Words aside, the use of Mandarin is also  stigmatized - Mandarin is the common spoken language in the Chinese community, spoken not only in mainland China, but also in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, etc. Here's an anecdote: in a recent radio interview, in Hong Kong, a teacher expressed the fear of the disappearance of the Cantonese language that she felt on the train in Hong Kong because she could hear the kids talking in Mandarin. What if the kids were speaking a different language? Would this teacher be afraid? Which language is acceptable, or even identified as social prestige? Which language is identified as a threat? 

I am not saying that all identities prepare for war. I say that Hong Kong identity is part of a market and war program promoted by Democracy, and that it is militarized and locked into its illusory or real hegemony by the apparatus that produces identityism.

Identityism is about presentability and profitability . One wonders if an identity is presentable and profitable within the framework of the war against the Dictatorship, against the Devil. It's a matter of marketing or mask-tagging (identity as mask and tag) - cosmetic notion, that is to say, we create problems where there are none and we propose so-called solutions with a price that costs a lot. Mask-tagging war. But why are profit and war linked? Far from being able to provide an analysis of what links them together, I simply state a trivialized fact: Perhaps the condition for the link between profit and war is that the military industry is currently benefiting from colossal investments. In 2023, US military spending will cost around $800 billion, which makes the US the world champion in military spending among all countries, and China remains in second place with $230 billion. just over a quarter of the US budget. Often, we do not feel what can represent one billion , so I'm going to show you a measure of time: a million seconds is 11 days, and a billion seconds is 31.5 years.

In identityism, identities not only function as a weapon for war, but also as a carpet that hides problems. Hong Kong's identity and its background of war between Democracy and Dictatorship hides well issues like institutional racism and modern slavery in Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, in 2021, there are 7.4 million inhabitants and 450,000 are Filipino and Indonesian helpers . Helper is already too pretty a twist. In Cantonese, we say外傭or工人, which I would translate as servant. They live with the family that hires them. They take care of everything at home, do the housework, do the shopping, cook, baby-sit or accompany the elderly. 70% of servants work six days a week, more than 11 hours a day and 30 % work more than 16 hours per day. They earn 22HK (2.5 EUR) per hour, while the minimum wage is 40HK (4.6EUR) in Hong Kong. They therefore earn a little more than half of the minimum wage, which is recognized by law. Sometimes they are abused and sexually harassed by their boss . This modern slavery which is part of the norm in Hong Kong is swept under the great carpet of Hong Kong identityism.

Under the regime of identityism, the third function of identity is intended to justify the thought and attention from others. To think , to make a thought heard and to be visible and audible, it is not enough to argue, but above all you have to present this or that identity. Identity becomes a certification, a document to show before speaking, before thinking. For this purpose, the identity functions as an ID card. For example, at the beginning of the war in Ukraine, in an episode of Lage der Nation1 ,  Germany's biggest political podcast , a journalist was interviewed to give his opinion on the war. Before saying anything and displaying his analysis, the journalist declared that his father is Russian and his mother is Ukrainian.

Let's sum up: Identityism makes an identity a weapon, a carpet and an ID card. It remains to ask ourselves the question: what to do with identities? It may not be about moralizing and weaponizing identities, but letting them be thoroughly administered, as Bai Xue's 2018 film The Crossing suggests.

Peipei, the heroine of the film, a high school student shares her life in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, in China. The two cities are close. If you start from downtown Hong Kong, you can get to Shenzhen in less than an hour with a direct train. Peipei lives in Shenzhen with her mother who comes from mainland China, not with her father who, a worker in a port, lives in Hong Kong with his family. By the way, this is a fairly common family situation: a Hong Kong man takes on a mainland Chinese mistress. Every day to go to school and to return, Peipei crosses the border and customs - yes, between Hong Kong and Shenzhen there is an administrative border where you have to show your identity document like at the airport. One day, Peipei is caught in an iPhone traffic which consists of buying iPhones in Hong Kong, going through customs and reselling them in Shenzhen. Peipei is neither a buyer nor a seller, she just crosses the border with iPhones in her backpack and earns for each iPhone transported an amount corresponding to the delivery costs.

In the film, identity is reduced to the administrative dimension. At two points in the film, Peipei shows her ID just to get a job. Once, it's for a job at the restaurant at the beginning of the film, the other time it's for iPhone traffic. Identity remains a function of administration, of registration, like a paper to fill out. It appears much less important than work,  adventure, friendship, love and the dreams of the characters. The power of this piece of Peipei's adventure that the film presents us does not take root in her identity.

The question of identity is not what matters in the film. Although Peipei lives between the two cities, between mainland China and Hong Kong, between Mandarin and Cantonese, she is not obsessed with the question of identity. At no time does she ask herself the question of identityism: am I from Hong Kong or Chinese? Of course, she is surely concerned by the question of difference, it is not the path of identityism that the film has taken to ask this question. In the film, identityism is not a subject. On the contrary, there are movements of friendship, love and curiosity, in an adventure of iPhone traffic, even if these moves take root in the soil of consumption, of money. Admittedly, Peipei traffics in order to be able to afford a trip to Japan with her best friend. You could say OK, going to Japan, sightseeing, locking yourself in the contemplation of the snow as her best friend wishes, there is nothing interesting in all that. But, when Peipei has to answer her lover who wants to know why she wants to look at the snow so much, she says: “because I would like to know how it feels, the cold”. A sentence reflecting a children's curiosity and sensitivity, by contrast with any possible consumerist interpretation of the anticipatory stimulation by the wish of seeing anf feeling the snow. 

While identityism imposes on us the obsession to find a place and the contemplation of a presentable identity, Peipei offers us movements of sensitivity , she restores the dimension of it. The film does not fall into the trap of identityism questioning “who am I?” and takes a pragmatic stance: What does it feel like? How does it feel like? How do we feel different? Peipei does not remain a spectator who fits into an identity and contemplates the snow. She moves to feel the cold, to get skin open, and we follow her.