For HK and Asia, the ‘East-meets-West’ cliché shows a lack of self-confidence

By Brian Cheng

West Kowloon Cultural District says this year’s International Cultural Summit will “demonstrate Hong Kong’s commitment to acting as an East-meets-West centre for international cultural exchange.“

The same phrase frequently crops up in campaigns by the Tourism Board and fellow government departments. It has become especially popular since it was mentioned in the state’s latest Five-year Plan, and subsequently in the city government’s policy address.

A vintage government poster celebrating the 1997 Handover.

The chairman of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council claimed in a press release that the city is “an international metropolis with its unique East-meets-West culture…” The Asia Society used the phrase in a discussion on design. City University staged an exhibition about traditional Guangzhou embroidery entitled “East-meets-West.”

The phrase sounds impressive, hinting as it does at a worldly cultural diversity. But a Google search uncovers many entries and a lot of them do not refer to Hong Kong.

It appears in a recipe for Iranian meatball in an Italian-American sauce. It is in the headline of a review of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, also in an article about Japanese pop culture and British fashion. Japan’s tourism authority used the phrase to promote Hyogo prefecture. It also is linked to a concert promoted by the Korea Cultural Centre in the UK.

“East-meet-West” is both a TV drama in India and a 1995 Japanese film. It is the name of a charity group serving communities in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Last but not least, it was used in reference to a concert featuring the Wynton Marsalis quintet from the US and the Sachal Jazz Ensemble from Pakistan.

It seems any Asian country or city qualifies for the tag. After all, since the Silk Road era, are there any Asian locations which have had no contact with the West? The East has always been meeting the West. In terms of recent history, is there any Asian nation unaffected by Western colonial force, religious influence and scientific developments?

A District Council candidate's posters in a restaurant in Kennedy Town, on December 5, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.A District Council candidate's posters in a restaurant in Kennedy Town, on December 5, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
A man is eating in a restaurant in Kennedy Town, on December 5, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

And what exactly does it mean by “meets”? Is it the presence of a church, a fridge, a McDonald’s, a pub, Hollywood movies, street signs in English, fusion food, a certain degree of democracy, or white men? We can find all of the above in all of Asia. Or is it the more sophisticated cultural and social interactions? Among the 90 per cent of the Hong Kong population that is Cantonese Chinese, how many of us have a buddy from the West? Over the mass media, how often do we hear an English song on a Cantonese channel or vice versa? For over 180 years, it has been a process of meeting, not mixing.

The West is another confusing word. In many occasions it does sound like we are actually referring to the culture of WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) or WEIRD (White Educated Industrialised Rich and Democratic). While the narratives in the West about the West have been slowly morphing to be more inclusive (e.g., “melting pot”, “multiculturalism”), we still stick to the old-fashioned stereotypes about us and them.

“East-meets-West” has echoes of the banging of a gong, the qipao-and-suits juxtaposition, and a white man selecting dim sum with chopsticks. The phrase can mean anything and so it means nothing. In fact, it would be much more interesting to visit a place where East and West don’t meet.

How can we attract tourists with a sloppy slogan? It is especially disappointing that cultural and intellectual institutions adopt such a phrase, as they might be expected to have a deeper insight into Hong Kong culture. Apart from its sloppiness, there are also underlying problems with the phrase.

First of all, it perpetuates a narrative of an East-West dichotomy. Creating a culturally exotic other entity clouds our understanding of both East and West since it defines the essence of one place as whatever the other is not. It fails to capture the nuanced and lively culture of both regions.

Songkran water splashing festival 2024Songkran water splashing festival 2024
Songkran water splashing festival at a Kowloon City basketball court on Saturday, April 14, 2024. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The fact that it is has become a prevalent phrase in Hong Kong and many other Asian cities suggests a lack of confidence in their own cultures, that there is a need to tag along with the West. Have we ever seen a European tourism office promoting “West-meets-East”?

Moreover, what have we missed in this “East-meets-West” complex? What about “East-meets-South” or meets “East-by-Southeast”? While we would like to single out our prized milk tea, don’t forget that in cha chaan teng a typical breakfast includes satay beef from Southeast Asia. We inherit our curry recipe from Malaysians.

We have a vibrant Thai community in Kowloon City, as well as Indian, Pakistani and Nepali communities around town. There are over 370,000 domestic workers from the Philippines and Indonesia. These communities are not “expats” but neither are they just “immigrants”, “refugees” or “residents”. Their grandparents were closely linked to the region’s history and development and their lives were indispensable in shaping our distinctive cultural fabric. And yet we are not proud of them.

To foster a region’s cultural identity without stigmatising and stereotyping, and then to summarise it in a hashtag, is insurmountably difficult. But “East-meets-West” is not going anywhere. The city deserves better.

Tagline suggestions? How about:
“Hong Kong: Not Over Yet”
“Hong Kong: East-meet-Expats”
“Hong Kong: Messi and Swift missed this place”

And please don’t even think about “Pearl of the Orient.”

Brian Cheng writes about arts and culture. He has been a curator, educator, beer brewer and singer-songwriter.

Type of Story: Opinion

Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the interpretation of facts and data.

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