Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Jargon of the Month (Part 1)

Sir Donald Tsang's Letter to Hong Kong broadcast last Sunday yet again provided another proof to the saying that when a buzzword is uttered by senior government officials, it is doomed to become a cliche that people frown upon with weariness.

Yes, you got it. The Jargon of the Month goes to "collective memory".

Before anything else, I really wonder why so many people out there began picking up the jargon so comfortably and eloquently when, to be honest man, most of us don't really have a clue what it actually means.

Pardon me if I sound repetitive, but I'm really fed up with this rhetoric brought about by the herding instinct.

Herds are everywhere, but fellows here seem to be particularly good at being one. And they seem to be proud of their excellence in this profession.

Having read Sir Donald's letter quite carefully, I couldn't help raising a whole bunch of questions:

What is collective memory? How do we define the concept if it should become one of the criteria in evaluating the merit of whether to conserve a building or not? If a precise dictionary definition is not available, as Sir Donald aptly put it in his letter, is it still appropriate to take collective memory into account? If yes, how? If not, why not?

There are also questions about who owns or identifies himself/herself with the so-called collective memory. Who is eligible to be considered as part of the "collective" and who is not? What are the qualifications? Who define the qualifications? Why should we adopt these rules?

Take the Star Ferry Pier episode as an example. Apparently someone like me who lived in Central when I was a child, who commuted back and forth across the harbour on ferry every day and who was a frequent visitor to the City Hall library, will have a strong emotional attachment to the Star Ferry Pier, the tolling bell and everything around that area. But how about an old lady who has been living in the New Territories for more than 50 years and has never visited Hong Kong Island? She will have no idea what the clock tower looks like and how the bell strikes every 15 minutes.

Therefore, I think Sir Donald was respectfully brave when he mentioned the complicated issue of cultural identity and made a very brief attempt to explain what he thinks it is:

"The result is a growing sense of history, rooted in locality and focused on a sense of place. Perhaps it's a feeling that has been momentum since our Reunification in 1997, as people seek to identify with the place they were brought up and where they work and live."

Unfortunately, sir, I'm afraid you are terribly late in keeping pace with what the local people think. The strong emotional attachment to the city where we are born are bred didn't emerge just a decade ago, but as early as the 1970s when Hong Kong's cultural links with the Mainland were more or less eradicated after the turmoil in late 1960s. The economic takeoff and social stability in the following decades provided a fertile grooming ground for a strong sense of pride and self-confidence not only in our capabilities but also in our identity as the people of Hong Kong, not the people of China (in terms of a state rather than a nation).

Drilling down on this, there will probably be an endless list of questions on the ownership and implications of collective memory of Hong Kong: What does it mean for Hong Kong as home to more than six million people with a diverse portfolio of family roots and cultural backgrounds? What does it mean for Hong Kong if it wants to sustain its position of Asia's world city? How about those citizens who have non-Chinese roots? How about the millions of visitors who choose to spend some time in Hong Kong for business and leisure purposes every year? Do they have a voice in constructing Hong Kong's collective memory?

None of these questions was raised, let alone addressed. This is where I think Sir Donald's courage came in. Obviously he didn't really understand what he was talking about. I bet he didn't have time to bother about reading Maurice Halbwachs and Pierre Nora, not even checking out Wikipedia to get a sense of the buzzword.

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