Hong Kong’s anniversary celebrations last month set off once again the debate over the city’s identity.
But for local writer Stephanie Han questions of identity – how different groups see themselves and how they relate to each other and to those in power – are at the heart of her work.
Stephanie, who divides her time between Mui Wo and Hawaii, has just released her first book, Swimming in Hong Kong, a collection of short stories set in Hong Kong, Korea and the United States. It won the Paterson Fiction Prize and was a finalist in two other competitions, with some individual stories winning multiple awards, including one from the South China Morning Post.
To quote one review, the book “reflects upon the dynamics of East and West; local and foreign; colonised and coloniser; centre and periphery” and explores how these tensions play out in everyday experiences.
“There are different ways that people interact across cultures,” says Stephanie, who was born in Hawaii to a Korean-American family. “And I think this is important to know. Because fundamentally how we exchange and how we share is what we need to value.”
Hong Kong shares obvious characteristics with China but has its own distinct historical trajectory, she observes. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean this group of people wants to participate in the way that the larger nation of China wants it to participate.
“There are many unique things about Hong Kong, many things that maybe the larger nation of China could learn. I think this is something valuable and should be respected.”
There’s a strong parallel in Beijing’s relationship with the Uighur population in China’s far west. “Now, they are Chinese. But they might want to say, ‘we do not participate, we don’t believe in the structure of the Chinese nation. We want to say we are Uighur people.’
“Here’s a group of people considered and classified in different ways. We have to respect the way they exchange and the way they want to be thought of.
“As time moves on, we can see this with the Hong Kong people. Some of these big nations are failing certain types of population. Maybe we can learn from those small populations.”
As a a more equitable and more accepting framework, Stephanie proposes ‘polyculturalism’, which acknowledges the importance not just of your origin “but also how you exchange.”
It’s based on the musical concept of polyphony in which everybody sings a melody. “If we go to a symphony, everybody is important to how an orchestra sounds. Just because you’re first violinist doesn’t mean you’re more important than the tuba player.
“What’s also important is, when we listen to a symphony, sometimes we listen to different things. Some of us listen to the bass line, some of us the rhythm section. Sometimes we switch during our listening experience. There has to be an idea of respect for everybody’s different roles that they play in society, and how they’re exchanging and sharing and how they want to be considered.”
The topic resonates strongly with her own sense of mission as a writer and creative writing teacher. “Narrative is fundamental to how we see ourselves and how we see the world. It’s important to get your own story straight.”
She ran a writers’ workshop for some years on Lantau, which she enjoyed because “my interest is in helping people tell their personal narrative or to gain clarity about a narrative that they are interested in. Fundamentally creative writing comes from that.”
She and her partner moved here nine years ago because of the space it offered for their child. It wasn’t her first encounter with Hong Kong, having lived here early in the 2000s. Serendipitously, she first visited at the time of the handover, arriving from Seoul.
“I was really blown away. Seoul was a pretty conservative society still. But I came to Hong Kong, and it was something else. It seemed very global, very modern. There was a lot of energy to it.
“But I think the city has shifted. If you go back to Seoul now, to me it has a lot more energy. The dynamic of the cities has shifted. Seoul went on and Hong Kong has just stayed.
“A society that has a healthy arts and creative and environmental community is usually one that’s a little more dynamic.”
Stephanie Han will launch ‘Swimming in Hong Kong’ at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival on Monday, July 24
7.00 – 8.30pm
4F Lecture Theatre
Visual Arts Centre
7A Kennedy Rd
Tickets: $110 (Students: $70)