a longform on Hong Kong vs Singapore

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With Joshua Wong, secretary-general of pro-democracy party Demosistō. We were both speaking at The Economist’s Open Future Festival in Hong Kong on Oct 5th 2019.

Dear friends, I just published a piece on Rice Media where I compare Hong Kong and Singapore, the “socio-economic twins but political opposites”. Click to read it there. Or, for a preview, first few paragraphs below.

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Just don’t wear black. In early October that was the pre-arrival instruction I received from friends enmeshed in that modern urban war zone, Hong Kong.

“Don’t worry, you can wear black, nobody will think you are a protestor,” rebutted Tang, the jovial cabby in his fifties who picked me up from the airport, gesturing at my brown skin. But for Cantonese locals like him, wardrobe options have indeed become limited.

Black for protestors. White for their opponents. Red for China. Blue for the police, i.e. those alleged to have tortured some “blacks”. “Also no pink, no green,” Tang joked, lest he be mistaken for a homosexual or a bleeding-heart environmentalist.

“So I wear yellow. Yellow is safe.”

Tang rattled off other jokes—“Where is the most dangerous place in Hong Kong? The police station”—while glancing at his smartphone, which beamed a digital buffet of protest updates, video clips, cabby chatter, and yes, even the occasional phone call. Tang’s calmness, coupled with the quiet on the roads, put my mind at ease.

A few traffic jams and subway closures aside, the next week would prove one of the smoothest and most enjoyable I’ve had in twenty-five years of visiting Hong Kong. I discovered new nooks, traipsing around the lush Sai Kung pier in the northeast, alongside hikers and tourists from China and the West, and slurping up beef tendon noodles draped in a rich restorative broth, in a Cantonese joint near the Aberdeen Centre in the far south, not a word of English exchanged.

The dramatic television scenes of petrol bombs, shattered storefronts, and masked protestors clashing with police seemed a world apart from my visitor’s bubble.

Hong Kong’s protests over recent years have often been led by precocious adolescents who have persisted despite the annoyance of the older generation.

This year the generational divide has narrowed. “We will be gone in thirty years,” said Tang. “They have to fight for their future.”

This includes his daughter, who has just graduated from university in Savannah, Georgia. She had wanted to return to be with her friends after seeing the million-person demonstration this past June against a proposed extradition bill, the spark for this year’s protests.

“I said sure. But you pay for yourself [her air ticket]. Is that fair or not?” he asked me rhetorically. “Fair right?”

Alongside this acceptance of youthful idealism is a more sober expectation of short-to-medium-term economic pain. “Yes, business has dropped, some days maybe fifteen to twenty per cent less,” Tang admitted. “But then there are no more mainlanders around. So am I happy or sad? Hahaha.”

It has become commonplace in multicultural societies around the world for older immigrants to cast scornful eyes at prospective ones, for instance with second-generation Indian Americans supportive of Trumpian border control. It is one of the many bizarre symptoms of a world in which liberal ideas of nationhood and identity are being seriously challenged by nativist ones, against the backdrop of yawning economic inequalities.

Nowhere is this impulse stronger than among Hong Kongers, who have turned sharply against the land of their ancestors, less than an hour’s drive away. The prejudice can be vile, expressed in physical attacks and slurs like “cockroaches”.

Indeed, some of the fiercest Sinophobia one might experience around the world occurs in two of its richest Chinese-majority territories: Hong Kong and Singapore.

The cities’ differences and similarities offer a prism through which to better understand their relative fortunes, as well as the impact of global capitalism on Asia.

Comparisons Between Hong Kong and Singapore Since the 90s

Which Chinese-majority, East-meets-West, Asian Tiger city-state do you prefer: Hong Kong or Singapore? Over the past few decades each person’s answer to that has fluctuated in tandem with China’s emergence onto the world stage.

Continue reading at Rice Media, where this was first published.

 

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my talk on identity at The Economist’s Open Future Festival

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Dear friends, click below to watch my ten-minute talk on identity and multiculturalism in Asia at The Economist’s Open Future Festival in Hong Kong on October 5th.

I cite the different approaches to ethnic/cultural identity that we find in China, India and Singapore, and give my reasons why we all need to think a bit harder about our identity choices, given current larger forces at play in the world today.

In a sense, this Economist talk is a direct product of the brownface brouhaha in Singapore in July/August this year. I made a couple of videos on brownface and race, which got passed around by some of my former colleagues at The Economist Group in Singapore, Hong Kong and London. (Read more about my work there from 2006 to 2013.)

That in itself was surprising, because I thought the videos were hyper-local, what with my generous use of Singlish. I guess it shows that these issues are quite universal, no matter my bumbling delivery.

I took that as a cue, and decided to have a Singlish segment in this Economist talk. First time I’ve used so much Singlish at a “proper presentation” overseas. It went down well, especially with Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party in Thailand, who was laughing away in the front row (and later introduced himself). I guess South-east Asians have a soft spot for our Singlish!

It was both tougher and easier than other talks I’ve given. Tougher because it’s a big topic for ten minutes; and I felt the pressure of both the live stream and the very tight timing, the clock counting down at me from a screen at my feet. I missed a couple of lines, but oh well. Happens.

But easier because I had lots of support and encouragement from the floor, including a bunch of former colleagues and bosses, some who gave me many opportunities to speak and write early in my career, some thirteen years ago now.

Also great to have Singaporean buddies Amanda and Mel in the crowd, who kindly took me out for a smashing time after. Long time since I partied in Lan Kwai Fong.

Many have asked me about whether it’s safe to travel to Hong Kong now. My response: it’s the best time! Fewer tourists, hotels are cheaper, easy to get around. The protests are very well organised and planned, so you know where to go or not, you know whether to take the MTR or taxi. I had a great time (while also acknowledging the pain others on all sides are enduring…).

And, finally, very grateful to Kaiyang Huang and Rohan Mukherjee for helping me refine my arguments.

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There were many other cool segments at the conference, including this debate between Joshua Wong, Hong Kong’s most famous pro-democracy activist, and the pro-Beijing Shaun Rein, managing director of the China Market Research Group.