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Hong Kong 20th Anniversary: Portraits from Settler Society

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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.

Gill Sukha Singh, 77, former president of the Sikh Temple, and a retired British Army serviceman, holds an undated photograph of himself greeting a former colonial governor, at his home in Park Island, Hong Kong, on June 22, 2017. "Hong Kong is my birthplace. My father was in the British Army and he married my mother here. She was Chinese and spoke Cantonese to me. There were many such marriages. I joined the British army in June 1960 and retired in 1993 when my unit was disbanded. I was in the army depot police. Sikhs were employed to guard ammunition because we don’t smoke. I’ve never thought of leaving. Punjabis have prospered here. Many of our children are professionals and people have beautiful homes. My son is the first person of Indian descent born here to become a doctor. This is our home. I consider myself a Hong Kong person."Aidyn Fitzpatrick
Janette Slack, 36, Eurasian DJ, composer, and producer, at her studio in Kowloon, Hong Kong, on June 19, 2017. "People are always curious where I’m from. My accent is slightly English, slightly American, with a bit of an Australian twang, and of course we throw in a bit of Cantonese [and pidgin] just naturally. I’m more forgiving of people who are shocked that when I open my mouth I sound the way I do. I call it the Hong Kong accent. But in their minds, people expect a Chinese accent. I’ve met a lot of Eurasians in England who say to me ‘I’m English,’ and I’m like, ‘How can you say that?’ I’m very proud to be from Hong Kong. We always thought it would be devastating after the handover but everyone who said they were going to leave is still here and still having a good time.”Aidyn Fitzpatrick
Jimmy Minoo Master, a 61-year-old Parsi, in the prayer room of the Zoroastrian Temple in Happy Valley, Hong Kong, on June 23, 2017. "I am the fourth generation of my family here. We’re more Hong Kong than many Chinese families because we’ve been here so long. I don’t think most students know that Hong Kong University was founded by a Parsi. One reads the names Mody Road and Bisney Road without knowing these are Parsi names. We have kept a low profile and we like it that way. Hong Kong is to be applauded for simply allowing us to get along with our lives. That’s what makes this place unique: there is no push from either side to conform to the other. Hong Kong’s ethnic diversity has enabled us to fit in anywhere we go."Aidyn Fitzpatrick
Amod Rai, age 37, a teacher and activist for the Gurkha community, pictured at the cemetery for Gurkha servicemen in San Tin, Hong Kong, on June 22, 2017. “The Nepalese community is a part of Hong Kong history and 80% of the community consists of Gurkha descendents. We started coming here in 1948, after World War 2, and we made the utmost contribution in making Hong Kong a safe place. Gurkhas cleared Hong Kong of wartime mines. They helped to build our infrastructure — bridges and roads and water supplies. They reforested the hillsides and they helped when disasters like typhoons struck. They maintained peace between the PLA and the British on the border. None of this is in the Hong Kong school curriculum — our identity, dignity and culture are not included. People are calling for democracy. Well, diversity is a core element of that. If we want Hong Kong to be differentiated from China then we have to appreciate our diversity.”Aidyn Fitzpatrick
Irit Kafry, a 61-year-old member of Hong Kong's Jewish community, being embraced by her daughters Ifat (L), 37, Avia (C), 24, and Ayelet (R), 30, on the site of their former home, now a cafe, in Kowloon, Hong Kong, on June 26, 2017. Irit: "Hong Kong isn't China. It's what Switzerland used to be in Europe." Avia: "I've not wanted to live anywhere else. People ask where I'm from and when I say 'Hong Kong' they act shocked. They just don't get it." Ayelet: "I don't know anything else. I was born here." Ifat: "I've tried to live in other places but Hong Kong has our hearts. Jewish people recognize each other wherever they are in the world. If you're from Hong Kong, it's the same thing."Aidyn Fitzpatrick
Rennie Marques, 59, Portuguese broadcaster and teacher, pictured at Club de Recreio, Kowloon, Hong Kong, on June 21, 2017. "Hong Kong is home. It’s where I’m comfortable but I don’t identify myself as a Hongkonger. At the core, I identify myself as Portuguese. I hold a British passport but I've never felt comfortable in the U.K., physically, emotionally, or culturally. I don’t see a thriving future for the Portuguese here. We’re the wrong race and the wrong color. When I’m looking for a job as a teacher, people decide that because I’m not white I’m not good enough, even though I’ve been in [English language] radio for over 40 years."Aidyn Fitzpatrick
Roderick Miller, 55-year-old solicitor and the son of a colonial civil servant, pictured in Temple Street, Kowloon, Hong Kong, where he does pro bono work on behalf of refugees, on June 14, 2017. “The most important things in my life are my son, my family, and my Hong Kong Identity Card. I was born in Kowloon Hospital, spoke Cantonese before I spoke English, and was brought up here in the only culture I ever knew. I totally and passionately identify with Hong Kong and cannot identify with living in Britain. I’d find it difficult to adapt to the social norms there. I remember my dad once stopping me from leaving the house in pyjamas and without shoes. I wanted to go out like that because that’s what Chinese kids wore. I didn't realize that it was because they were poor. But that’s just how it was. You didn’t sit around going ‘Isn’t this great? It’s so colonial.’ There was no concept of race. Everyone just mucked in.” Aidyn Fitzpatrick
Businesswoman Kiri Sinclair, 40, pictured by the famous "wall trees" of Hollywood Road, Hong Kong, on June 27, 2017. To her, the strength of Banyan tree roots growing through solid rock symbolizes her own rootedness in Hong Kong. "I was born, grew up and was educated in Hong Kong. My [American and New Zealand] parents arrived individually in the late 1960s, met here, married here and never looked back. Unlike some kids of expatriate parents I went to school with who went 'home' for the summer, I was always told that Hong Kong was my home. It is the only place where I own and operate a business, own property, vote, and have a bank account. A Hongkonger is all I have ever been and all I will ever be. When I tell people I am from Hong Kong I often get the response, 'No, I mean where are you really from.' It is most amusing when said by an overseas-born ethnic Chinese who has just told me they are from Canada, America, England or Australia."Aidyn Fitzpatrick
Twin Parsi brothers Shiroy (L) and Shiraz (R) Vacha, 53, pictured at the Kowloon Cricket Club, where Shiroy is head of cricket, on June 26, 2017. Shiroy: “We consider ourselves 100% Parsi and 100% Hong Kong. This place is uniquely multicultural. A lot of people leave and always try to find a way to get back. I’ve never had a problem being accepted. If people swear at me in Cantonese, I swear back at them in Cantonese. Then they accept me very seriously.” Shiraz: “This is home. This is where we grew up. We don’t know any other place besides Hong Kong. Anyone that’s grown up here, or was born in Hong Kong, should always consider this as their home regardless of their ethnicity or religion or culture or whatever.”Aidyn Fitzpatrick

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