When Edward Leung and Chan Ho-tin, the de facto leaders of the nascent Hong Kong independence movement, led thousands of protesters in a rally outside the government headquarters last Friday night (Aug. 5), it was about more than just the government’s attempt to bar them from running in elections in September. It was a symbolic gesture of one generation’s determination to revolt against the society’s so-called “old seafood” establishment, a defining moment for a city that desperately needs to find a new cultural identity.
“Old seafood” refers to the Cantonese phrase “lo see fut.” “Lo” is the sound of the Cantonese word for old, while ”see fut” resembles the sound of asshole. It is common Hong Kong slang, used to refer to the “old butts” occupying top positions in society and refusing to cede their privileges.
Sampson Wong, an artist and liberal arts lecturer at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing arts, said the old seafood class feel a sense of entitlement because ”they turned Hong Kong into a wonderful metropolis within two decades and made the Hong Kong miracle possible.”
“They probably have the tendency to feel that they should be in charge of the city, and that they are more capable than the younger generations,” he said. Wong’s art project “Countdown Machine” was removed from the city’s tallest skyscraper after he and partner Jason Lam revealed the installation was a clock counting down to 2047—the expiry date of the “50 years unchanged” promise that Beijing made to Hong Kong after the 1997 handover.
Whether its members identify as being pro-democracy or pro-Beijing, being part of the old seafood class is more about mindset than political stance. They can be anyone, ranging from mid-level management to the top leaders of companies, organizations, or political parties. They have demographics on their side—Hong Kong’s low birth rates and large elderly population mean that nearly half the city’s residents will be over 65 by 2041. And they continue to monopolize the discourse of Hong Kong’s cultural identity and values almost 20 years after the handover to China.
Oscar Ho, an art critic and associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, once used the legend of “Lu Ting” (link in Chinese) to describe the cultural identity of Hong Kongers in the 1990s. Lu Ting is a half-human, half-fish mythical creature that was said to be living on Hong Kong’s largest island, Lantau. According to Ho, the tribe was said to be followers of a rebellion in the Eastern Jin dynasty (310-420). But the movement failed and the tribe fled to Hong Kong. In order to survive and hide from their enemies, the creatures were forced to live between two different worlds—the land and the sea. They became the ancestors of indigenous Hong Kongers.
Ho concluded that Lu Ting was the perfect symbol for the cultural identity of Hong Kong because of its ability to navigate two different worlds: Hong Kong, as a British colony, was somewhere in between China and Britain. So culturally speaking, the city did not belong to either of them.
When Hong Kong was ceded to the British after the signing of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, China was an economically backward place, closed off from the rest of the world. Hong Kong successfully harnessed the role of an in-betweener, thriving on the great discrepancies between China and the rest of the world.
As China plunged into a long period of chaos and darkness, Hong Kong acted as a safe haven for those fleeing the Chinese civil war, and later Mao’s Cultural Revolution—just like the story of Lu Tings. Those who arrived before 1949 brought their capital, talent, and even treasures such as antiques to the city, providing the resources that helped Hong Kong’s entertainment and manufacturing industries take off.
This was how Hong Kong made its first bucket of gold. These Lu Tings saw their fortunes balloon even further in the 1980s, when China began to open up and Hong Kong manufacturers moved their production lines north of the border, where costs were much cheaper. The city’s film and entertainment industries also thrived with the export of kung fu films, TV series, and Cantonese pop music, making the city a pop culture leader in the Chinese-speaking world.
It was also during that time that discussions of the future of Hong Kong kicked off, with members of the old seafood class acting as mediators between Beijing and London, culminating in the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 and later the drafting of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s “mini constitution.”
But after 1997, Hong Kong gradually started to lose its edge as the gateway to China as the mainland opened up and grew more powerful. To the generation that came after the handover, Hong Kong is no longer “a borrowed place living on borrowed time.” They are not in between two different worlds. They belong to one world, and that world is Hong Kong.
The Lu Ting identity is now out of date, and there is an urgent desire to develop a new cultural identity that reflects the values of Hong Kong today. Members of the younger generation want to stay true to themselves, and not play by the rules imposed on them by the old seafood generation.
Thus when localist leaders Leung and Chan called for a “revolution” sparked by “changes from the bottom up” at last week’s rally, urging supporters to stand up against the establishment—including the traditional pro-democracy politicians—they were in fact asking people to give some serious thought as to what Hong Kong means to them.
Their call for independence—an idea that is backed by nearly 40% of young people aged between 15 and 24—isn’t merely a political movement. It has even greater significance on a cultural level. It is a call for cultural independence from the old seafood generation.