Of all the photographs that my family has of ourselves and our loved ones, the most precious is probably a black-and-white snapshot taken on July 15, 1956. It shows my parents, brother and sister standing on Mumbai's Alexandra Dock, together with relatives seeing them off, before they boarded the steamer S.S. Victoria for a two-week sea journey, via Colombo and Singapore, to their new home: Hong Kong. My father is wearing a light-colored Western suit and dark brogues; my mother, in traditional garb, is comely and calm, despite departing for a strange new life in a strange new world; and my siblings, toddlers then (he in white shirt and shorts, she in pretty dress), look wonderfully sweet if slightly apprehensive (they're frowning). You can't see me, but I am in the picture, toomy mother is pregnant with me.
I was conceived in India, but the first in my family to be born in Hong Kong ever since my great-grandfather, a businessman, left his small town in Gujarat in the late 19th century to seek opportunity, first in Aden, where he did not linger, then in Hong Kong, where he set down roots. While Hong Kong's complexion is overwhelmingly Chinese, its history is studded with ethnic Indians who helped make it the great and vibrant city that it isworkers and policemen, yes, but also moguls and philanthropists, judges and lawmakers, and those in between, building a better life for themselves without leaving their comfort zone: the British realm. In the decades following my great-grandfather's arrival, his descendants kept one leg each in India and Hong Kong; the menfolk, for example, would go back to India to marry, then bring their families over, as my father did. It was different for me. Being born and raised in Hong Kong confused my identity: I was not Chinese or British, of course, yet not solely Indian either. My loyalty, if any, was to a place, not a tribe.
That place has given me, besides a good education and career, exposure to a wealth of diversitythe rich medley of peoples and experiences that I could never have encountered in my motherland. For that, I am forever thankful. Had my fate been to grow up and live in India, I would have become more dogmatic and less tolerantan altogether narrower person. While the India of today is a dynamic land of opportunity, for most of my life it was an atrophic and closed societythe antithesis of Hong Kong.
Sure, Hong Kong could do with greater freedoms, more preservation, less pollution, sharper governance, cheaper housing, higher culture. But no other metropolis comes close to matching its efficiency, drive and spirit. People labor harder and longer to get things done. So much is achievable just on the phone. This must be the only place on the planet where you can directly call an Inland Revenue official who will willingly tell you how to (legally) lower your tax bill.
Don't get me wrong. I have long venerated India's culture and gentility. India is also a safe house that would probably welcome me if I ever needed it to. Though my family's Hong Kong heritage is older than that of most of the territory's Chinese residents, as non-Chinese, and non-rulers, we can still be seen and treated as non-belongers. Growing up, I recall being subject to racist slurs and snubs (as well as a punch thrown in hate that split my lip when I was 12).
But those incidents were too few and far between to define my life in Hong Kong. Today, by and large, everyone minds their own business because there is too much of their own business to mind. And, by and large, equality rules. It's partly the legacy of English common law, partly the fact that most everyone is an outsider or a descendant of one. Almost anywhere you care to name, Hong Kong has people from there, all escaping something, all seeking something else.
Race, creed, caste, gender, connections and government matter less in Hong Kong than they do in other placesenabling self-made men and women, many stymied by regulation or convention elsewhere, to flourish. This is where a Chinese TV weather girl can blossom into a political leader, an Indian tabloid reporter reinvent himself as the town's top headhunter, a Canadian college dropout be transformed into a tycoon. This is where you can be all you hope to be, unburdened by the past.
If New York is a state of mind, and London a state of grace, then Hong Kong is simply in a state: excited, acute, pushy, ceaselessly on the make. Some regard Hong Kong as unforgiving. Not so. It's the most giving place there isbecause it gives you the world.
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