Want to support our work? Donate
Skip to content
29 September 2023

“Our heritage is dynamic + constantly changing”

By Simon Cheng, Hong Kong exiled pro-democracy activist, and founder of the UK-wide Hong Kong diasporic non-profit organisation, Hongkongers in Britain.

I am a Hongkonger who has been exiled to the UK. My parents are from mainland China, feel culturally and ethnically Chinese, and are first generation migrants in Hong Kong. We waited decades to be reunited with our family in China. I see how the term “Chinese” has been weaponised, and it makes me not want to associate with it, because the assumption is that I must be pro-Chinese Government. But I am not, and I fled Hong Kong precisely because I was critical of the Chinese Government. 

How I relate to the term ESEA

In Hong Kong, there is no concept of “Asian” or “East and South East Asian”. Most of us are Hongkongers, Han Chinese, South Asian, or non-Asians. From the perspective of foreign expats and elite middle classes in Hong Kong, this city is always seen as a melting pot between ‘East and West’ and a bustling international hub. But to many local residents living in grassroots communities however, there is not much multiculturalism. So, for Hongkongers coming to the UK, the concept of a joint East and South East Asian identity is a new one. It may take months and years to adapt to, since this collective identity was never something that Hongkongers would have even thought about or been conscious of. 

In Hong Kong, there is not much attention given to anti-racism. The concept of race is a new topic for those raised in Hong Kong. There are many Pakistani and Indian second generation migrants who are born and raised in Hong Kong. Cantonese speakers will often refer to South Asian domestic migrant workers in derogatory terms. Han Chinese communities do not make much effort to reach out to or welcome South Asian communities, and they are also not represented in mainstream media or pop culture. They experience what it is like to be a minority in Hong Kong, and when we come to the UK, we are suddenly no longer the majority: we are minorities too. So, navigating this shift from being part of the majority to being a minority is very interesting and eye opening. It is so important to have ESEA solidarity, but also Asian solidarity, and solidarity with communities beyond Asia. 

We should be proud to identify under the ESEA label. It is a meaningful label under which we can build solidarity and community. As Hongkongers In Britain, we have encouraged our Outreach Coordinator to do more work on ESEA Heritage Month. We have also worked with the Chinese Community Centre to rename themselves as the ESEA Community Centre. Our organisation was also invited to the PM’s Lunar New Year Celebrations. This used to be commonly referred to as “Chinese New Year”, but the name Lunar New Year is obviously more inclusive, since many who are not Chinese will celebrate this occasion. Lunar New Year is something that unites many of us across the ESEA community.

As East and South East Asians, we are also united by our experiences during the height of the Covid pandemic. Many of us have been subjected to racially abusive language, including myself, and have been called “dirty”, simply because we are East or South East Asian. 

As a Hongkonger in London, the sheer diversity of ethnicities and cultures has impressed me. I see BLM and the Windrush Generation have their own dedicated shelves in London libraries, and I think this is so important. 

I live in an area in London where there is a large South Asian community. Many Bollywood films are shown in the local cinema, and there are many South Asian restaurants and food shops in my area. This inspires me to get to know and learn about other cultures, histories, and identities. Initiatives such as ESEA Heritage Month can help with this type of cross-cultural understanding. Marginalised voices need to be heard, and as a society we must listen to the stories, struggles and histories of various migrant and migratised groups. 

Heritage is living culture

‘Heritage’ is the lessons you have taken over decades and centuries, and how you bring them into the present moment. It’s about taking our culture and moving it forward, whether that be medicine, architecture, language, music or political philosophy. Some people think that traditions should tightly control and dictate people’s behaviours, but heritage should be about holding on to elements of the past whilst also being able to change what no longer serves us. 

Due to the nature of being a colony, Hong Kong culture was once only about practicality, and how to improve one’s economic situation and adjust to new financial situations. But the new generations, especially since 2019, care about protest, social movements, the environment, cultural heritage preservation, humanity, revolution, and the struggle for democracy, autonomy and freedom. This collective struggle for a just society is part of Hong Kong’s heritage. Our heritage is not just trade, modern architecture, financial centres and skyscraper skylines, it is the people and their aspirations. Heritage is dynamic: it doesn’t just involve the past, but also the future. New generations bring new elements to our collective heritage and make it better. Our spirit is still premature, but slowly Hong Kong is developing a spiritual and cultural heritage centred on humanity.

There is a stereotype that we are obedient and submissive: but our revolutionary heritage proves this to be a myth. British society needs to listen to our heritage, and take on board the lessons that our heritage can provide. We see ourselves as pioneers, bringing our values and lessons to the UK. This is why the MAP Programme is so important: it allows us an avenue to implement change based on our values and the lessons we have learnt.

ESEA Heritage Month: cultural or political?

Most people think of heritage as something strictly cultural, about finding common ground beyond the political. And it makes sense in some ways to conceptualise ESEA heritage as something cultural. This is because our struggle for human rights and political issues in Hong Kong may not be shared by other East and South East Asian communities beyond Hong Kong (and Taiwan, since Taiwan also faces CCP aggression). Their political struggles may be different. However, Orientalism and experiences of racial abuse during the pandemic do unite us politically as East and South East Asian migrants in the UK. And sometimes, culture and politics can merge.

The Milk Tea Alliance flag: representing Thai milk tea, Hong Kong milk tea and Taiwanese milk tea.

Milk Tea Alliance artwork.

During the 2019 Hong Kong protests, the online human rights movement- the Milk Tea Alliance– was started by Hong Kong, Taiwanese and Thai activists, to protest against authoritarianism. This united the political struggle across Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Burma, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia through the symbol of milk tea, which has many varieties across East and South East Asia. 

Hong Kong’s Pillar of Shame (photo via BBC News)

Sunflower Seeds, 2010, Ai Wei Wei via TATE

Apple Man, 2023, Lumli Lumlong via @lumlilumlong_

The cultural is often political. Art and culture is often used in service of the oppressor, but it can also be a political tool for the oppressed. I have met many exiled Hong Kong painters and sculptors, and I often wonder how their art can be used as a vehicle for political expression. My friends Lumli Lumlong have repeatedly been targeted by the CCP for their political artwork. The Hong Kong Pillar Of Shame commemorates those who died in the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989. In 2023, the sculpture was seized by Hong Kong police. Art is sometimes far more politically powerful than words and speech. Ai Wei Wei has repeatedly been targeted by the CCP for his politically charged work in exposing corruption.

Looking to Lunar New Year

Lunar New Year is perhaps our most important festival in Hong Kong, and a key part of our heritage. It is a values driven celebration, symbolising unity, family and love. The actions of those in power directly violate the ethos of compassion of this celebration. This celebration, and our heritage as a whole, can guide us towards social justice and can unify us across struggles and continents. 

Our spiritual, cultural and political heritage is beautiful. We must be proud of our heritage and protect it. East and South East Asian Heritage Month is an amazing opportunity to take control of the narrative and share our stories and heritage on our own terms. 

Artwork courtesy of Hongkongers in Britain.