The Chinese conundrum: why you might not want to assume that I'm from China

Here’s a strange conundrum: I’m Chinese, but I’m not from China.

In fact I sometimes resent the idea. How was China? a well-meaning friend asked me when I told him I’d just been on holiday to Singapore to visit my parents for Chinese New Year. Or a friend brings up their visit to Beijing when I mention that yeah, I grew up in Singapore, and was born in Hong Kong. Whenever I hear something along those lines — knowing that these statements have been made with no ill intent — an instinctive, almost defensive response kicks in. I go, oh, I’ve only been there twice, and I didn’t really like it at all. It’s something that my friends who are Chinese Singaporean and live abroad, especially in Europe or America, will probably identify strongly with; if anything, the gut response can even be to outright exclaim, oh, I’m not from China, followed by, Singapore’s not in China, in case you were wondering.

Well, if I’m not from China, then where the hell am I from?

I’m a slightly bizarre case, but not necessarily unique. I was born in Hong Kong, an area that was ceded part by part over a number of years to the British as the result of a series of so-called “unequal treaties” forced on late imperial China by the British and her European allies after the end of the First Opium War. Hong Kong became a kind of hostage city-state, but without the violence; in fact, under British colonial rule Hong Kong escaped the ravages of the Communist Revolution on the mainland and benefited from the early onset of a market economy, the establishment of a Westminster-style government, and the flourishing of an open, democratic political culture.

When I was about a year old, my father, who was working for the company still known at that time as Reuters, accepted a position in Singapore. Together with my mother, my brother, and me, he uprooted himself and settled down in the tiny but prosperous and independent city-state dangling off the edge of the Malay archipelago. In 1819, a leading member of the East India Company, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, entered into an agreement with the local Malay leaders and obtained their permission to set up a trading post on what was then known as the island of Temasek. The island conveniently sat midway on the route between China and British India, a vital artery in imperial British trade, and attracted large numbers of Chinese, Indian, and Malay people to live and work there. The port, now known as Singapore, became the quintessential immigrant colony — a melting pot of people from different cultural and historical backgrounds, languages, and religions, sharing the common language of their colonial masters.

Britain’s ownership of these two gleaming jewels in the Empire came to an end in the twentieth century: Singapore in 1965, when it broke away from a federation with the Malayan states to become an independent republic with its own president, and Hong Kong in 1997, when it was reunified with China as the 99-year “lease” laid out in the terms of the unequal treaties finally came to an end. I became a son of these two places, inhabiting a strange world between my Chinese heritage and the Germanic tongue that issued from my lips.

The purpose of that brief biographical abstract is twofold: the first, and most obvious point, is to illustrate the political complexities surrounding the group of people that we describe as “Chinese”. I’ve mentioned the movement of Chinese labourers to Singapore over the span of the Victorian era, and after. This is important because it reflects a much wider trend across the history of China, when for various reasons, whether economic or political, large numbers of Chinese migrated from their point of origin to other parts of the world. There are Chinese communities virtually everywhere in the world, and in what we might sometimes think of as surprising places; there is, for instance, a significant Chinese Jamaican community that has comfortably taken on much of the cultural traits and habits we associate with Jamaica.

But the second point of that biographical abstract is more important, and much more frequently overlooked. I want to talk about historical and cultural rupture. After the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the last imperial dynasty in feudal China, the power vacuum was filled by a ruling party known as the Kuomintang, or KMT (國民黨, occasionally translated as the Chinese Nationalist Party), troubled in its early days by embattled leaders and would-be dictators but which would later develop a pro-republic, pro-democracy stance. Eventually, and some would argue, unfortunately, the KMT lost its power to the rise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and was forced to flee to the island formerly known as Formosa — modern-day Taiwan, where they claimed sovereignty and declared the foundation of their own Republic of China (ROC), which is still the official name of the state, in the hope that they will one day reclaim the rest of the mainland and establish a truly republican, democratic China. The director-general of the ROC Government Information Office in 1985, Dr Chang King-yuh, delivered a speech, saying:

The Republic of China has built a demonstrably peaceful, prosperous, viable society over the past 30 plus years. We will continue in our efforts to safeguard our freedom and to continue our prosperity. … we intend to play a key role in defeating Chinese communism and ensuring that Chinese culture, freedom and democracy will be restored in mainland China.

The dream remains that: a dream.

The exile of the KMT to Taiwan is arguably the first major political rupture in the modern history of the people we collectively call the Chinese. The second rupture, more cultural in nature, was the experiment birthed by Mao Zedong at the height of communism in China that we now know as the Cultural Revolution.

It’s easy to underestimate exactly how much of a sea change Mao inflicted on the country that still proudly calls itself 中国, zhōngguó, the Middle Kingdom. The Cultural Revolution was partly centered around a campaign known as 破四旧, pòsìjiù, or “destruction of the Four Olds”. The Four Olds were “Old Thinking, Old Culture, Old Traditions, and Old Habits”, specifically. Ostensibly, the point of the campaign was to purge society of the capitalist and feudal elements that defined and ultimately led to the failure of the late Qing Dynasty. Certainly there were aspects that dominated late imperial China one could consider worthy of elimination — footbinding, the wide gap between the rich and the poor, the oppressive class system, the proliferation of local warlords that fought amongst themselves in the period of anarchy following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty — but the campaign descended into horror almost as quickly as it was launched:

Source: [ x ]
They beat her, bound her and led her from home. She knelt before the crowds as they denounced her. Then they loaded her on to a truck, drove her to the outskirts of town and shot her.
Fang Zhongmou’s execution for political crimes during the Cultural Revolution was commonplace in its brutality but more shocking to outsiders in one regard: her accusers were her husband and their 16-year-old child.

There is nothing unique about Fang Zhongmou’s story. The Cultural Revolution was essentially a campaign of mass paranoia, fuelled by propaganda and the fear of public humiliation. People were encouraged to report those they suspected of bourgeois values to the authorities — whether those being reported were their neighbours, their friends, or their own family members. Millions were mocked and denounced in public, some with signs placed around their necks declaring them to be traitors or towering dunce caps over their heads to mark their shame. Intellectuals and anyone with some measure of education were targeted in particular as they were considered to have been “contaminated” with old values; once identified, they were usually publicly executed, or sent to labour camps to be “reeducated”.

The horror and the intensity of the Cultural Revolution is, in my opinion, vital to understanding the difference between modern mainland China and the rest of the international Chinese community as we now know it — whether we are discussing the Chinese in places where they are the majority, e.g. Taiwan (officially and controversially known as 中華民國, Zhōnghuá Míngúo, the Republic of China), Hong Kong, Singapore, or whether we’re referring to the numerous diaspora communities scattered around the rest of the world. It’s important to understand that this difference is a break, a historical rupture, because communism — and particularly the traumatic Cultural Revolution — launched mainland China on a radically different path to the ones taken by the Chinese elsewhere. Mainland China is a place that the overseas Chinese don’t, or perhaps more controversially, cannot understand — how, after all, do you recover from what was essentially a cultural and political restart in the history of a nation? How do you bridge a chasm of historical memory opened up by fear and terror?

Most importantly, how do you once again believe in a nation that, for all intents and purposes, no longer seems to exist?

In September 2014 a series of sit-in protests and civil disobedience campaigns in support of the establishment of full democracy (or “real democracy” as it was called) in Hong Kong without the influence of Beijing blossomed into a full-blown political event christened the “Umbrella Movement” by foreign media outlets, referring to the umbrellas used by protesters to protect themselves against tear gas. There’s a lot of disagreement and ambiguity concerning exactly what the movement achieved in real terms. In the early hours of the first day of the Chinese New Year on 8th February 2016 what was ostensibly a protest against the closure of street hawkers in the area known as Mongkok became a full-on riot, with bricks being dug out of the pavement with crowbars and flung at unprepared policemen, cars being set on fire, and claims that individual policemen had been targeted and physically assaulted by the mob. The flurry of public discussion in the aftermath of the riots contained a confusing mixture of hearsay and conspiracy theories; that the riots had been intentionally incited by radical, anarchic organisations for the sheer purpose of creating chaos, or that the Chinese government had secretly encouraged or even organised the riots in secret to create an excuse for clamping down on Hong Kong’s already limited sovereignty. No doubt the official Chinese line on the riots was critical; whether it would lead to any serious plan of action on their part is, of course, still merely a matter of anyone’s guess.

What the Mongkok riots showed is that the Umbrella Movement merely signalled the prelude in a political struggle that, for all intents and purposes, has yet to fully unfold. For me, however, the significance of the affair, especially to the wider world — the world beyond Hong Kong and China — lies in the realisation that the people the Western world unitarily see as “the Chinese” are, at this point in time, perhaps more divided than it has ever been. The Taiwanese remain as embroiled as ever: in January this year, a Taiwanese pop-star, Chou Tzu-yu, who was pursuing a career in South Korea as a member of the K-Pop group TWICE, appeared on an online broadcast waving the Taiwanese flag traditionally known as the Blue Sky, White Sun, and a Wholly Red Earth. Web users based in mainland China complained that this was an explicitly political move; under pressure from these sectors and from the Chinese government, Chou Tzu-yu — a sixteen-year old girl — was forced to publicly apologise in a video broadcast, saying, “There is only one China and the two sides are one.” Whether someone else wrote these words for her to say or if she had penned them herself remains a matter of speculation — and there is certainly plenty of it — but the entire debacle and its aftermath only goes to show that the idea of a universal, unifying “Chinese identity” remains as fraught with tension as ever. If indeed “the two sides are one”, it still remains to be seen if they are separated by a chasm that can be bridged, or if, like two sides of a coin, they must always remain in opposition to each other, never to be reconciled.

It’s not all bad news, of course. In 2011, a high-budget historical drama series made in mainland China, 甄嬛传 (Zhēnhuánzhuàn, or “The Legend of Zhen Huan”, later re-titled as Empresses in the Palace when it was adapted for Netflix), gained record-breaking popularity across the rest of the Chinese-speaking world, becoming a topic of water-cooler discussion even in places like Taiwan. Despite the historical and political difficulties that remain unresolved, aspects of pre-communist Chinese culture and memory survived the Cultural Revolution on the mainland and are regaining currency, and these create connections that other Chinese communities around the world can relate and anchor themselves to. Empresses in the Palace connect the Chinese-speaking world in a number of ways — by reminding us that we do share a common history after all, that we still do share a common language and literature that defines the way we see the world and express our relationship to it, and that embedded deep into our DNA is an unshakeable affection for flashy and very melodramatic TV shows. YouTube channels like Off The Great Wall use the power of the Internet and social media to remind us of the cultural habits and patterns of thought that we share, not just with other Chinese communities around the world but also with our other East Asian cousins.

The fact remains, nonetheless, that Chinese identity is no longer something that can be easily defined, and can involve a lot more than what we call our father’s brother or whether we can recite the poems of Li Po. If we add together the latest UN estimate for the population of China, the statistics collected by the Taiwanese government in February 2016, and the number of overseas Chinese provided on the Academy of Cultural Diplomacy website, the total population of those on the entire planet who identify themselves as Chinese roughly adds up to about 1.47 billion people.

At risk of sounding frivolous, that’s a lot of people. It’s unsurprising that factions and political differences should arise. But we humans are instinctual animals, and tend to draw our lines based on perceived physical differences first, before anything else. So it’s not surprising at all that in a dominantly white society, I should, on first sight, be imagined to be one and the same as those who live in China, that much-talked-about superpower that threatens the world with communism and cheap products. Because in a sense, we are. The only thing they don’t see is that the China that runs in my blood — the China that my ancestors knew and believed in — doesn’t really exist any more. It was broken and destroyed by the Communist Revolution, turned into a hazy and distant memory by the man who declared himself Chairman of one of the oldest and most powerful civilisations the world had ever known.

Instead, all that we have left are fever dreams, passed down in scattered practices and habits that we can’t always explain, hot steaming dishes and bowls of rice that weigh down our dinner tables, and a beautiful, ancient language that some of us no longer really know.


Chinese writing today is divided into two forms: traditional and simplified. The latter was introduced by Mao Zedong as a way of making the written language, which had originally been mostly the privileged domain of the literati and the aristocracy, accessible to the ordinary people of China. Today, mainland China uses simplified characters while places like Hong Kong and Taiwan have kept the traditional system. In this article I have followed this convention: simplified characters are used where the former is concerned and traditional ones where the names are related to the latter.

In most places in this article I have used pìnyīn, the standard system of transliterating Mandarin Chinese in China, to represent the pronunciation of names and phrases in this piece. This is partly due to the fact that it was the system taught to me in Singapore when I was learning Chinese in school, and therefore the one I am most familiar with. It is worth noting, however, that in Taiwan a second, older system is also used, known as the Wade-Giles system, which currently co-exists somewhat awkwardly with the newer system. Names relating to Taiwan have therefore been preserved in their Wade-Giles forms in recognition of this fact. The only exception to this is the name of the poet Li Po (represented in pìnyīn as Li Bai), which has always been the traditional form in the majority of Chinese scholarship in English.

Further resources

The history of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the struggles they faced and continue to face are the result of a morass of factors that can't always be easily untangled and simplified. I can't claim I've done justice to this complexity, but the Internet is always a good place to start if you want to delve further into it. Apart from Wikipedia and the links interspersed throughout the text above, here are some other articles I found while writing this piece that might prove useful in illuminating some of the more salient and significant points in the recent history of the strained relationship between these states. I've only had a quick skim through these to determine their relevance—feel free to let me know how useful or informative you found them.

  1. Johan Nylander, Taiwan president will deal with China but not at expense of sovereignty [CNN, 4th November 2014]
  2. Julien Miller and Lucie Ripoll, Seven points to understand the current situation in Hong Kong [Le journal international, 4th October 2014]
  3. Tim Rühlig (2015), Hong Kong’s umbrella movement in search of self-determination, The Swedish Institute of International Affairs
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