Interview – Jason Ng

Born in Hong Kong, Jason Ng is a globe-trotter who spent his entire adult life in Europe and various cities in the United States and Canada before settling back in his birthplace seven years ago. He is a full-time lawyer and a freelance writer who raves and rants about Hong Kong and the quirky, endearing people with whom he shares the tiny island.

Jason’s first book, HONG KONG State of Mind, published by Blacksmith Books, was released in December 2010 to rave reviews and was reprinted in eight months. Jason is a resident blogger for The South China Morning Post. He is also a contributing writer for newspapers and magazines, and a member of the Hong Kong Writers‘ Circle. Lehrzeit is pleased to announce that Jason agreed to do an interview about education and culture in Hong Kong.

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Lehrzeit: Hong Kong is known as a city where the finance and law sectors are dominant. Do the humanities like literature and philosophy still matter in Hong Kong’s education system or is everything geared to more practically oriented subjects such as business studies and law?

Jason: In high school, every student is streamed into either „arts“ and „science.“ Students with better grades all tend to do science because biology gets them into medical and dental schools, physics gets them into computer science and engineering, and chemistry gets them into pharmacy. At the university level, the hardest majors to get into are: medicine, dentistry, business, law, accounting and pharmacy. The perceived „losers“ will end up majoring in Chinese literature, history or sociology. So the short answer to your question is yes, there is definitely a slant toward the more practical (i.e. money-making) subjects.

Lehrzeit: Do you personally regret this development and do you think it has something to do with a certain pragmatism and appreciation of wealth in Chinese culture? In your book, you mention and criticize the fact that according to statistics, many Hong Kongers do not read a single book after they graduate from high school. Would you say there is a relation between this and the orientation towards more practical subjects you mentioned above?

Jason: There’s a lot of what I called „intellectual lethargy“ in Hong Kong — which is of course regrettable. It comes through in both our education (as I discussed in my answer to your first question) and the lack of a reading culture. Compared to our counterparts in neighboring countries like Japan, Taiwan and even China, Hong Kongers really don’t read much. You hardly see anyone reading a book on the MTR (our underground transport system) or commuter trains. I won’t necessarily attribute that to pragmatism in Chinese culture at large. I think it’s a Hong Kong phenomenon. Hong Kong people want to make as much money as they can (to pay for that exorbitantly expensive apartment) and as quickly as they can (we refer to the ages between 35 and 45 as the „Golden Decade“ during which our money-making capability is at its height). Anything that doesn’t directly contribute to the money-making process, such as reading, gets sidelined. The only books people are willing to spend time reading are those on investments, personal finance and fortune-telling.

The intellectual lethargy in Hong Kong does not, however, prevent parents from forcing their children to read. Parents know that reading is good for their kids and will get them into better schools (which is another example of our pragmatism). Because parents so often make their children do things that they themselves have failed to do in life, they make sure the latter learn to play the piano, speak a third language like French or Spanish and read more books.

However, the new Generations Y and Z (kids born after 1980s and 1990s) are bucking the trend. Because they have been — either actually or presumptively — priced out of the property market, many of them have given up playing the game of getting ahead in the corporate world, saving up and becoming a home owner. Marginalized by the economic system, they tend to be more intellectually curious and politically active. They pursue traditionally less sought-after careers (like writing, music, organic farming, etc.) and have broader interests, including reading.

Lehrzeit: Let us briefly talk about those not affected by intellectual lethargy. It is sometimes claimed that in Japan, intellectuals are more and more turning away from Western models of thinking and that Kenzaburo Oe may be the last writer of his kind. Do you think the term “intellectual” also applies to Hong Kong and if so, to what extent does Western philosophy, art and literature influence Hong Kong intellectuals? Is Hong Kong’s relation to British culture still exceptional or is it rather treated like any other Western culture facing the dominance of American culture? What role does Chinese culture play in these fields?

Jason: Hong Kong touts itself as the quintessential „east meets west“ city, a crossroad of two cultures: English and Chinese. In reality, however, we are a fundamentally Chinese culture. You don’t have to look far, just look at the festivals we celebrate, the customs we observe and our family values. Superstition is one of the best windows into any given culture. Almost all superstitious beliefs in Hong Kong are Chinese-based. For instance, the number 13 — an unlucky number in the West — is never avoided with the same vigilance as the number 14, which sounds like „sure death“ in Cantonese. Although British culture and tradition are well-known to the local population, they are understood on a rather superficial level. Take Christmas and Easter for example. Everyone knows that they are about the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that the former is celebrated with decorated trees and wrapped gifts and the latter with painted eggs. But neither holiday affects us on a deeper level — unlike Chinese New Year, for instance — and no one can quite articulate what „Christmas spirit“ means.

Western philosophy, art and literature play an almost non-existent role in society. Children learn them by rogue at school, but only because they have to or their parents make them. Adults who pursue them on their own accord are often labelled as „pretentious“ or „white-washed“, sometimes justifiably so. Indeed, I sometimes question how many Dickens or Steinbeck readers truly enjoy what they read, and how many of them do so merely to feel different from and superior to the rest of the pack. Western philosophy is considered unattainable, if not an altogether waste of time. It would be hard pressed to pick someone from the street who can tell you who Hegel or Kierkegaard is. Most will probably identify them as luxury watch brands.

HongKongPeakLehrzeit: Now that we’ve almost come to the end of our interview, let us have a look at the future of Hong Kong. In 2047, Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” agreement eventually expires and many Hong Kongers have a rather critical view on this. Would you agree and what consequences do you think Hong Kongers could possibly draw? In your opinion, will there be major effects on Hong Kong’s education system and the way the city defines itself culturally?

Jason: Frankly speaking, few people in Hong Kong think that far ahead. Back in the 70s and 80s when the British and the Chinese negotiated the city’s destiny, 50 years sounded like an eternity. Now that we are 15 years into the handover with 35 more to go, 2047 still feels light years away. We all seem to take John Keynes‘ famous line to heart: „In the long run, we are all dead.“

As for the minority of citizens who DO think about these things (myself included), we generally believe that the Communist Party won’t make it to 2047. There are signs every day and everywhere in China that the current regime will collapse, implode and vanish within the next 5 to 10 years. Economy growth is unsustainable and when the economy ceases to expand, unemployment will rise and public anger will boil over to the point of an all-out revolt. A Jasmine Revolution is brewing, quickened by social media and instant information flow. All dystopias are destined to fail; China is no exception.

You mentioned „one country, two systems.“ The only reason why it still exists today is because of Taiwan. The unification of the two Chinas has been the only clear mandate the Communist Party has since the founding of the Republic. As long as Taiwan remains a renegade state, Hong Kong will always be held up by China as a poster child for a bloodless reconciliation of ideologies.

I will end by saying a few words about the recent „National Education“ saga. Attempt by the government to implement a pro-China patriotic curriculum was thwarted by weeks of public demonstrations. The political crisis demonstrates that, despite all the patent flaws we so willingly accept in our education system (including the anti-intellectualism I mentioned in my answers to your previous questions), there’s one thing we know we won’t stand for: socialist brainwashing and Sinofication of Hong Kong. It was a battle so brilliantly fought and won by the people that it filled me such pride and reassurance that not all is lost. Even the most hardened of cynics must crack a smile and tip his hat to our citizens.

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