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How to Know Hong Kong and Macau

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

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Seeking Self in Other: The push and pull of heritage tourism

For most of us on this trip traveling and experiencing culture in Hong Kong and Macau, our first experience with China was not actually in China itself. For hundreds of years, millions of Chinese have immigrated throughout the world to create one of the largest diasporic communities in the world. A Chinese presence exists on every continent

Asian American studies frequently discuss Chinese overseas experiences as shaped by their racialized position as the Other of the white (male) American. This builds upon the binary of identification set up in Edward Said's Orientalism (1978): The West defines itself as opposed to the East. Where the West conceptualizes itself as modern, the East is ancient; the West is aggressive while the East is passive; the West is masculine while the East is feminine; and so on. Because the East appears to be so different from the West, the East becomes exotic. Asian immigrants from this exoticized land have often remained exoticized when they come to the United States. A visit to Chinatown could be seen as a domestic touristic excursion, giving the visitor an experience of new foods, architecture, language, and smells.

Tourism itself comes with the desire to experience difference and distance. Dean MacCannell writes that the tourist is motivated by the idea of the Other, which he describes in six general themes: the cultural other, the other sex, the other intense pleasure, the other love, the other place, and the unconscious. Ultimately, he argues, the unconscious is the predominant Other, for it "contains every lost object of desire."1

Every lost object of desire. The tourist, MacCannell suggests, is perpetually searching for him- or herself through the act of traveling, whether they do so knowingly or not. What is this search for self? In his argument MacCannell points to Said's discussion of the Orient as the counterpart of the European, thereby framing his own analysis (perhaps unintentionally) in terms of not just a "cultural other," but a racial Other as well. Yet not all tourists seek their binary opposition. There are also those tourists who travel to places to which they have been racially linked, joining the trend of heritage tourism (also known as roots tourism, genealogical tourism, etc). In one perspective, heritage tourism is read as a means of finding one's past - a benevolent, empowering activity. In another, less idealistic sense, it is an attempt to understand a place that has been linked to the tourist solely on the basis of their race or ethnicity. Heritage tourism becomes a search for identity, not by encountering the Other, but by engaging with an Other that should be much closer to oneself. 

But the countries that receive heritage tourists can be far more pragmatic than these theoretical analyses. To have heritage tourists seeking their roots is also to have foreign consumers who may have a personal interest in further investment in the modern development of the "ancestral" country. Overseas money-makers have been critical throughout history - and especially in modern Chinese history, with such a large population of overseas Chinese throughout the centuries.

It is here that the heritage tourist can get caught between the idea of ancestry and the reality of descendants. As an American-born Chinese (or a Chinese American) whose parents were born in Hong Kong, my travels in the Chinese SAR (Special Administrative Region) have been tinged with both comfort and uncertainty. I join a history of transnational movement, but how can my act of heritage tourism be contextualized within these economically-driven patterns? How does the relationship of overseas Chinese and the People's Republic of China (PRC) affect heritage tourism's implications for the both the tourist and the PRC? In spite of the heritage tourist's travels to an "ancestral" place, can ideas about self and identity be separate from such practical and political questions? 

1Dean MacCannell, "The Ubiquitous Tourist and Postmodern Paranoia," from The Ethics of Sightseeing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 11.
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