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How to Know Hong Kong and Macau

Roberto Ignacio Diaz, Dominic Cheung, Ana Paulina Lee, Authors

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My travels

Being in Hong Kong as a heritage tourist is somewhat unconventional. While there have been generations of families living in Hong Kong - for instance, generations of immigrants from the Chinese mainland, or from India, and so on - as far as overseas Chinese emigration goes, Hong Kong has usually been just a stopping point. Its history as a stepping stone makes it difficult to ascribe to Hong Kong the same "depth" that roots tourism in Guangdong might have. For my family as well, it was a place to rest for a few years after leaving the mainland before moving on to another destination. The "roots" I have in Hong Kong might be described as rather shallow. Despite being a postcolonial city, Hong Kong struggles to fit the typical model of identity-construction through heritage tourism that exists in other places.

Hong Kong's position as a Special Administrative Region of China furthermore complicates the notion of heritage. If heritage tourism - and tourism itself - is a form of search for oneself, as MacCannell has argued, what is the identity being reclaimed? For the American heritage tourist, this identity can be described as "Chinese American"; this is what I thought when I began my trip. Hong Kongers were, by default, Cantonese-speaking Han Chinese. But this is far from the case. Hong Kong struggles with its own identity as a place in-between East and West, and as a place now governed by China. To say that Hong Kong is "Chinese" is politically and culturally problematic, while to say it is "Cantonese" is linguistically exclusive. Both terms furthermore ignore a significant number of non-Han Chinese immigrants and residents in Hong Kong. It becomes hard to claim a Hong Kong identity when Hong Kong's identity is still being constructed in the midst of hot debate.

And although tourism to Eastern countries often sells places as ancient or timeless, visiting Hong Kong reveals it is a place in flux. Heritage tourism in particular builds upon nostalgia and memories, which are entwined with a seemingly stagnant past. But in Hong Kong, these "lost objects of desire" elude the seeker, getting even more lost in the city's constant change. I tried to walk the streets my parents used to live, but new construction and land reclamation projects have altered neighborhoods while building new ones, changing the landscape of the city and the sea. New slang and pronunciations appear as people come and go; Cantonese words that work in my home no longer sound the same in Hong Kong. If I had a conception that I would find a piece of home in Hong Kong, each day proved that I was still a stranger to the city - or that Hong Kong was still a strange, exotic place to me.

What remains to be reclaimed? At times I felt it was the creation of personal memories that struggled with other, prescribed memories. A visit to the Hong Kong Museum of History showed me what my father's one-room apartment might have looked like, because the real buildings had been torn down by now. I walked through life-size recreations of Hong Kong streets with the sounds of daily life ("Come home and eat!" yells one recorded mother to the museum visitors). That was what Hong Kong might have been, now my parents' childhood memorialized in a museum hall. The museum served me what MacCannell has called "staged authenticity" - the back-alleys and inside glimpses of a life that I could otherwise only imagine.1

At the end of the story, the museum celebrated the re-unification of Hong Kong with China, bringing my ancestral trip full-circle. My parents were from Hong Kong; Hong Kong was now part of China; I had come back to Hong Kong, and we were part of China again. Centuries of diaspora were resolved and my roots were revealed. If only the story were really so simple.

1MacCannell, 13-22.
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