I was born on the highest peak in Hong Kong. The city stretched below, its frenetic sounds muffled by hills, and clouds. It was too high to smell the stench from the harbour.
Back in 1994, on the year I turned 21, the island still belonged to the British. The Empire had struck again, and the country was full of ex pats (that’s white migrants to you and me). My father had moved back to Hong Kong in the 90’s after a divorce, but had kept in contact with various people from our first interlude there, in the early 70s. I was therefore lucky enough to have two Chinese godmothers who insisted on holding a 21st birthday banquet for me. The fact that I had been born in Hong Kong was a source of great pride ‘You are a daughter of the dragon, never forget’ they would whisper in my ears. I belonged to them. To Hong Kong. Whenever I passed through passport control, the abrupt staff would bark at me ‘Where is your Hong Kong ID card? You were born here, why don’t you have one?’ I never did get one, something I regret.
I was Gweilo, a foreigner, born of New Zealand parents with both British and New Zealand passports. The land where I was born was not mine to claim. Yet on my 21st birthday, I stood in my cheongsam, carefully made and fitted to my body on the request of my godmothers. The female tailors had chuckled as they measured the dress against my body a week earlier “We need more material for the bust area, and the hips! Her body has curves. We have not made a dress for a Gweilo before”
On the evening of the birthday banquet, longevity buns, filled with sweet, sticky lotus seed, red dyed at the tip, with a crease along the side to resemble a peach, filled the enormous table. They were fed to me for the a lucky ‘long life, a good husband, and many children. ’ My stomach expanded with each mouthful, making the dress impossible to sit down in. And how could I explain to these people, my extended family, that perhaps I wanted neither a husband or children? That I fully intended to look after myself and a man would be the icing on the cake of my life, but never the cake itself? My Western upbringing defined how I saw my womanhood, and how I lived my life everyday. The love for me on my 21st birthday was palpable, but as I stood there swathed in Chinese silk, I felt like a fraud.
When I was going through a somewhat Goth-like period and my hair was a very dark brown, on visits to Hong Kong, I would often be asked if I was mixed race. As the word Gweilo fell from my lips, the disappointment on people’s faces was tangible. After all, who would want to be a ‘foreign white devil’ when you could be Hong Kong Chinese? And I agreed with them. My connection and love of Hong Kong and Chinese culture runs deep, and after the death of my mother in 1983, my godmothers tried to help fill a void. They did it out of duty, but also love.
Family is not always found in blood, family can be chosen. Throughout my life and my many travels, and with my blood family living thousands of miles away, I have found comfort from the women who have mothered me in my own mother’s absence. Losing the person that carried you in their body is inexplicable, but I am so grateful to the women who have stepped up over the years, given me love, warmth, comfort and advice. Most importantly, they made me feel less alone in the world. My Chinese godmothers were there when others were not, with advice, care: a maternal presence when I most deeply needed it, as a young woman.
In the 90’s, the term ‘cultural appropriation’ was not used. I did understand, however, that I had been given permission to wear the cheongsam. In fact, it was expected of me. If you only knew how fearsome one of my godmothers is – one of the most influential business directors in China – saying no to the dress was not an option. She had always forged a different path than the one expected of her, and I respected her greatly for it. In this way, we both understood that we were different.
My heart will always belong to Hong Kong, when I visit, no matter how many years pass, it feels like home. I even smile when I smell the harbour as the wheels of the aeroplane touch down on the tarmac. I revel in the pushy old Chinese ladies selling their cigarettes on the street corner, I’m even fond of the frankly terrifying taxi drivers who all seem to have a suicide wish after a night shift and still high off betel leaves and areca nut, which are chewed and used as a stimulant to stay awake. In a life full of movement, change and loss, Hong Kong and the people in it, gave me a grounding and a place to belong to. Even now, so many years later, when I mention to a Hong Kong Chinese person that I was born in Hong Kong, I am treated like a long lost family member. There is an unsaid understanding, usually followed by the offer of tea and dumplings. To this day, Dim Sum will always be my breakfast of choice.
My cheongsam still hangs in my cupboard, carefully kept and moved from flat to flat over twenty-four years. The gold thread is slowly coming apart, but the black silk is still holding strong. One of my godmothers has now sadly passed away, but I hope one day to be able to wear it again with permission, as a thank you to the country and people that adopted me all those years ago. Home and family does not always mean blood. It can be the people and places that make you feel less alone in a fractious world.
By Lisa Jenkins