The British establishment left Hong Kong when, at the stroke of midnight on June 30, 1997, it ceased to be a colony. Many Britons, however, did not leave. Neither did members of the historic Hong Kong communities that would not have existed except for 19th-century imperial adventurism: South Asians, Eurasians, Gurkhas, Portuguese, Jews, and others. All chose to remain because they knew no other home.
Today, they form Hong Kong’s settler society. As fraught as the word “settler” may be in other post-colonial contexts, it is the most apt term here, and settlers of all ethnicities are part of the reason that this semi-autonomous region is so startlingly different from any other place in China, even after 20 years of Chinese sovereignty. At a time when Hong Kong is drawing a sharply separate identity from Beijing — giving rise to an independence movement, calls for self-determination, and youth that hardly regards itself as Chinese — settlers are more germane to the Hong Kong narrative than ever.
Not that you would know it locally. Traditionally, nobody speaks of settlers except to deny their legitimacy. Families that have been in Hong Kong for generations can still be referred to as foreigners or expatriates, as though their members were all bankers and systems analysts on two-year visas. With the exception of English, minority languages are not taught in local schools. Last year, Hong Kong’s newspaper of record, the South China Morning Post, launched a virulent attack on “expat brats” — ignoring the fact that its targets were likely to be lifelong readers, and neither expatriates (being Hong Kong-born), nor brattish, but people who have been forced to think deeply about matters of identity and culture.
Things are changing, however. Just as the Australian accent coalesced from Cockney and Irish, so is the distinctive, flattened accent of Hong Kong settler English now increasingly recognized; born on the playing fields of King George V School, nurtured on the multiracial pitches of the Kowloon Cricket Club, and leavened with rich borrowings from American vocabulary and pidgin Cantonese. There is now a dictionary of Hong Kong English and even a hip-hop anthem. Among the young, there is an understanding that belonging is an active verb: you do not wait for permission to belong in post-colonial Hong Kong. You assert it.
The six women and seven men who have sat for this series of portraits (click through, above) are not a perfect demographic representation of settler society — of which, full disclosure, I myself am a member as a Hong Kong-born Eurasian. But they have, with one exception, made that assertion of belonging. Some are personally known to me: settler society is small, comprising a fraction of a single percent of Hong Kong’s population of 7.3 million. Inevitably, we were schooled together. Our fathers drank together. Now our children attend each others’ birthday parties.
To understand why settlers continue to exert an influence on Hong Kong out of all proportion to their numbers, ponder the tale of the Gujarati king and the Zoroastrian priest, as recounted in the Qissa-i Sanjan, an epic poem of the Parsis, themselves a historic Hong Kong community. The tale says that when the Zoroastrians were driven out of what is now Iran in the 16th century, they came to Gujarat in India and appealed to the local ruler, Jadi Rana, for asylum. The king gestured to a pitcher of milk that was almost overflowing as a way of indicating that his kingdom was full and could accept nobody else. In response, a Zoroastrian priest approached the pitcher and added a fistful of sugar. In the same way, a small number of settlers has altered, and will forever alter, the flavor of Hong Kong.