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Humans of Hong Kong: Blending cultural tones with Joanna Hotung

By Catharina Cheung 13 July 2020

Welcome to Humans of Hong Kong, a brand-new story series on Localiiz that takes a deeper look at the many colourful characters and unique personalities that call our beloved city home. We chat with entrepreneur and educator Joanna Hotung about growing up as a Eurasian in Hong Kong during the 1970s, trying everything at least once, and the importance of creativity in education.

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“I always say that I am a real Hongkonger. I was born and raised in Hong Kong, went to boarding school in the UK when I was 10, but I came back to Hong Kong in 1991 and I’ve been here ever since.

“As a child, I remember incredible freedom, which I don’t think kids have any more. [There was] a lot of time to explore and invent things on my own. I remember wandering around the streets and the parks on my own, walking to school on my own. I must have only been about seven or eight, but obviously, it was considered safe by my parents. I remember running out to the ice cream man after school and getting red bean ice lollies.

“I went to Glenealy Junior School. We used to live on Robinson Road, and I would walk up Old Peak Road and then along Hornsey Road to school. My uniform was yellow and white checkers, very thin cotton, and a short skirt—which was quite annoying because you couldn’t run around and climb on the climbing frame like the boys could. The winter uniform was a white shirt and a sort of grey pinafore. My friends who went to German Swiss International School didn’t have to wear uniforms, and I thought they were so cool. Every school that I went to had a uniform. It became quite extreme in the UK, where you had to wear a tie and these straw hats!”

“My father is British and my mother is Chinese. As my father worked for the Hong Kong government, I believe school fees were paid for civil servants, so I automatically went into the ESF system. And then I went to a British boarding school, then the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. I studied Chinese and History of Art, really because I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with myself after school.

“Because I had always focused on the British side of myself, I thought, ‘Now’s my chance to actually tap into my Chinese half.’ I learned how to speak Cantonese because of my mum, and we had Chinese amas looking after us, so I could speak colloquial Cantonese and get around, but I couldn’t read or write. So I went to SOAS and my second year was spent abroad in Beijing. It was 1985, still really early days for Beijing, and such an exciting time to be in China, which was just starting to open up.

“I would love to have been raised bilingual, and more bi-culturally. I think I was a product of my time. In those days, I’m talking about the 1960s and 1970s, there was very much a feeling that you should choose one culture and focus on that, and the other culture was secondary. Now I see Eurasian kids everywhere and there is more of a focus on them being brought up to be fluent in Chinese. I would have loved to have that opportunity. I must say, I tried to do that with my kids, but I haven’t been that successful because their Chinese is also not as good as their English.”

“I’ve always been really proud of being Eurasian. I think it’s added incredible richness to my life. All my Chinese relatives and British relatives do completely different things culturally. I have occasionally felt like I didn’t quite belong. I loved boarding school, but I was definitely that slightly strange person who wasn’t really British. Every now and then I would try and fit in and be more British, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really tried to tap more into my Chinese side. It’s fantastic to have that ability to move between two cultures—I think it’s a gift.

“When my parents got married, in 1964, it was still a little strange. There were mixed marriages already, but it was slightly frowned upon. Being Eurasian two to three generations ago, you were definitely an outsider because you weren’t Chinese and you weren’t British. So you tended to stick together with other Eurasians, and there’s a whole community of Eurasians that intermarried because of that. I think my father was told he might not progress very far in the government if he has a Chinese wife.

“I think I’m the first generation that benefited from being Eurasian. Now, Eurasians are a dime a dozen, which is brilliant. Hong Kong is brilliant for that because access to culture is all around us and it’s so easy to meet people of all nationalities.”

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“With my husband, Michael Hotung, meeting another Eurasian and feeling that connection was definitely part of the attraction. I’m a straightforward fifty-fifty mix, whereas my husband is quite complicated. He’s actually only one-eighth Chinese and the rest is a mix of Irish, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch; a real mixture because his family goes back quite a few generations, and there was a lot of intermarrying into the family. Interestingly, he looks Western, but his perspective culturally is more Chinese because he grew up in a very Chinese household. Marrying him, I actually connected more with my Chinese side, and it’s because of him that our children learnt Chinese and have more of an Asian background.

“Our family does Sunday dim sum. My mum used to put red packets under our pillows, so I do that with my kids. Chinese New Year is a really big celebration for us. Even when I go to the UK, where my sister lives, we still do red packets with each other. We also celebrate the Lantern Festival; we’d get lanterns and go out to look at the moon. There are also deeper things that I grew up with culturally: family closeness and respecting your seniors. That’s something that’s deeply ingrained in my Chinese heritage. But the Western side of me has enabled me to go out and explore more, and take more risks.

“My dad was a great believer in trying everything you possibly can. He very much instilled in me that every opportunity that you are given, you should have a go. As a child, I was doing piano, ballet, clarinet, drama, horse riding, and more. It really wasn’t because my parents were tiger parents at all; in fact, they were the opposite. I remember my dad saying, ‘You don’t have to be good at these things, but you’ll find as you go through life, you’ll be glad you did them because they will help with something else.’ And that was really true, I realised. So I’m not that good at any of them, but I can ride a horse, I can draw a little, I can sew a little. I’m a jack of all trades, and a specialist in none.”

“There is a lot that I admire about the Hong Kong education system. In fact, I sent both of my girls to a local kindergarten because of that, and partly because I wanted them to learn Chinese naturally. I also like the discipline and the respect that’s instilled in all the students. I think that these are really important attributes to have in young people, but there isn’t enough encouragement of individual thinking and learning. What is lacking is that it is still very much a rote learning system, based on an outdated syllabus. It’s still the teacher preaching to the students, and the students listening, memorising, and regurgitating.

“I’m a believer in education being about discovery and inquiry-based learning. Particularly now, when anyone can find anything in two seconds on Google, you don’t need to memorise all of these unnecessary details. What’s more important is being able to apply knowledge and analyse information, and come up with new ways of thinking. I see a lack of curiosity among kids that have gone to local schools because they’ve just received information their whole childhood. It hasn’t inspired them to think for themselves or consider, ‘That’s what I was taught, but what do I actually think about it?’ I have found that children who have gone through the local school system don’t know how to articulate, or they don’t know how they feel about things, and when you challenge them, they feel really uncomfortable. But if they’re going to move forward in the twenty-first century, it’s important that they start to think about that.”

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“That’s why I founded my own creative arts education business in 1996. My kids grew up in the centres as well, which was great, because I was able to incorporate being a mum, and having kids, and then starting and running a business. My 28-year-old graduated with her Bachelor’s degree in literature and drama, and my younger daughter did liberal arts in New York. I guess it’s expected that the artistic influence was there.

“I think Hong Kong parents should really get to know their children as individuals. Obviously, when a child is young and developing, you want to give them as many opportunities as you can. I’m very thankful that my dad did that for me. Along the way, I was better or worse or more interested in some things, while others just fell by the wayside. There was never any pressure on me to excel. Providing opportunity is one thing, but not trying to force them to go down a path that isn’t suitable is also important. You should give your child time to explore.

“Children are incredibly creative. There’s that huge sense of curiosity and inquisitiveness, and I feel bad when you see these children being programmed a certain way, and they start to lose that because they just have too much to do. Being bored is great. One of the memories that I remember from my childhood was being bored with my sister because summer holidays seemed to last forever. So we went off and invented things to fill our time. One summer, we created an entire board game, and another, we made our own play and made our poor parents watch it. Looking back, I think that really helped me become a creator of things. We had the time and space to do it.

“It’s a different world now—a much more competitive world. As a parent, you have to prepare your kids for the reality of the world, and the reality of competing in it. But I’m such a believer in the arts that I would never push my kids to study something they didn’t want to or that they didn’t feel an aptitude for.”

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Catharina Cheung

Senior editor

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.