Links with the motherland?

Before I came to China, I read a lot about Hong Kong, the development of Hong Kong, and religious practices in Hong Kong (mainly “local religious practices” since not much research has been done yet on the more institutionalized religions in this region). Amongst others, I read an article of Tik-sang Liu, who wrote:

The relationship between immigrants and their home villages is important when looking at local religious activities in the urban context. […] When they conduct their rituals or ancestral worship at home, the rituals are not only just an urban event, but are directly tied to their native places (p. 386).
[G]enealogical links are being established between temples in the mainland on one side and temples in Hong Kong and Macau on the other. In the near future, local religion will become a significant cultural linkage binding the three places within the “one country two systems” (pp. 393-4).

Around 95% of all people living in Hong Kong originally comes from mainland China, most of them from the Southern provinces. Migrants came to Hong Kong during the civil war in China (fleeing from the turbulence at home), the beginning of the Second World War (fleeing from the Japanese), and the 1950s and 1960s (fleeing from the Communists). They were hoping to build a better life in Hong Kong, a life in which they could become wealthy, modern citizens of the British colony. After the opening up of China in the late 1970s, again a lot of mainlanders came to Hong Kong, and even nowadays thousands of Chinese migrants come to Hong Kong every month.

Most of the people I speak to for my research have their family roots in mainland China. Almost all of them can be classified as first, second or third generation migrants. Because of this, I thought – before I came to Hong Kong – that family relations with the mainland would be strong for the average Hong Kong person, and would play a large part of their religious identity. While this may be the case for the more local religious practices described by Tik-sang Liu, it is much less so for the Buddhists and Catholics I speak to. Many of the second or third generation migrants look at me blankly when I ask them from which part of China their family originally comes from. “Somewhere in the South, maybe Guangdong province?”, is an answer I got few weeks ago from a 26-year old Catholic man.

Moreover, religious beliefs appear not to be shaped by links with past generations (passed on from one generation to the other), but by the ‘original’ teachings of the religion. Buddhists tend to rather put their trust in what the Buddha taught centuries ago instead of in what their parents passed on to them. Catholics listen more to the news of the local Diocese, expressing the views of the Pope, than to the ‘teachings’ of their family members.

It makes me wonder: In an urban society like Hong Kong, where everybody feels the democratic freedom to belief in whatever he/she wants, despite traditional religious values passed on from one generation to the next, and inspite of descendence and places of original, what role did the mainland truely once play and what role does it still play in the formation of the identity of Hong Kong people?

This blog is inspired by the article of Tik-sang Liu:
Tik-sang Liu (2003). “A nameless but active religion. An anthropologist’s view of local religion in Hong Kong and Macau”. The China Quarterly, 373-394.

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