Hong Kong Rural Women under Chinese Rule

Hong Kong Rural Women under Chinese Rule

Hong Kong Rural Women under Chinese Rule has recently been published by Routledge as part of the Routledge/Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) Women in Asia Series.

Hong Kong has been undergoing unprecedented pandemonium since June 2019. Protests and rallies that very often ended in physical confrontation and violence are happening from weekly to a day-to-day basis. Once a city known for efficiency and order, with the chief executive of the former colony’s recalcitrant move of pushing forward an extradition bill that could send anyone to China for imprisonment, and her refusal to compromise, it has turned the city from a city of peace to a city of furor.

What adds oil to the fire is the brutal assault, a month after a series of protests, that occurred in Yuen Long, where most of the indigenous villages (a.k.a walled villagers) and the indigenous villagers reside. On the eve of July 21, 2019, a mob of rod-wielding men, donning white shirts (as a pro-Beijing and pro-government symbol), rushed to the rail station, pushed through the gate, and landed on the platform to get in the train compartments and beat the passengers indiscriminately, with more than forty people severely injured. Worse still, there were no police arriving on the scene to stop the violent act. The police station in that area was closed and no policeman was in the station picking up the phone. The emergency hotline was jammed as people kept calling when no policeman was in sight. The irresponsiveness of the police in this rural part of Hong Kong, a new town trying to turn itself into a posh shopping spot and high class residential complex that rivals the downtown area in the urban Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, has revealed its historical patriarchal, territorial, turf mentality. Their past history has not only shown the unique “one city, two systems” that permits the indigenous inhabitants to run their own villages like self-sustaining units but also explains why for centuries, women were being discriminated under the archaic male inheritance law, and the violent response of the villagers to people who were allegedly creating “troubles” in their turf.

Rather than simply looking at the village and lineage history like previous studies of the indigenous villages, my book, Hong Kong Rural Women under Chinese Rule explores gender dynamics in the indigenous villages (also known as walled villages) in post-handover Hong Kong. It looks at how Hong Kong’s reunification with China has impacted the walled villagers, in particular the women, and how the walled villages’ current gender dynamics in return reflect the changes that have happened in Hong Kong after the reunification with China. It traces the historical development of the walled villages, outlines the nature of walled-village society, and explores the changes currently at work including the erosion of the rural/urban divide, the increasing participation of indigenous women in Hong Kong society more widely and the breakdown of traditional social norms, especially patriarchy.

Drawing on intersectionality and post-colonial feminist theory, the book analyses how indigenous women were marginalised in both legal and customary practices in Hong Kong under British colonial rule. It examines whether the ground-breaking legitimisation of women’s inheritance rights has caused, or contributed to, a change in the gender relations of the indigenous people. It considers how women have fared since they won the court case in 1994, three years before the handover of Hong Kong to China. It examines the contemporary situation of indigenous women and explores whether some women have benefited from the advantages of the new law and, if so, how they have been advantaged in terms of inheriting their patrilineal properties. It analyzes social structures and cultural attitudes towards gender relations in the walled villages and how they have changed since 1994. It examines whether there is strong resistance to successfully curb the potential changes taking place within the villages. The book explores to what extent the legal change affects practices of inheritance in the walled villages and whether other factors like individual choices and socio-economic factors play important roles in changing the practices of inheritance that reflect the changing gender dynamics within the walled villages. In both villages where I conducted my research, one was open for sale and rent and the other was getting ready to open for rent and sale but was closed when I first started my research. The changing meaning and value of land to indigenous women looks rather complex in the post-colonial period, especially when it is examined through the lens of different generations, a novel approach that departs from the traditional lineage, kinship and class approach in studying indigenous villages in Hong Kong.

The book begins by looking at the historical backdrop of the indigenous villages.

It then focuses on two strands of analyses: the past of the indigenous villages and  the present, after Hong Kong is handed over to China. The first part looks into how the past of the walled villages, the British colonial rule, has consolidated the patriarchal practice. The so-called non-intervention policy adopted by the British colonial government has strengthened the semi-autonomous position of the walled villages. In addition to their patrilineal and patriarchal tradition, the book also looks into how the advent of the British colonial rule has favored the male indigenous inhabitants by granting them special privilege to build houses at nil premium or applying for a private treaty grant for the construction. And how this policy discriminated against the female indigenous inhabitants, encouraged commoditization of the walled villages, and in the face of financial interests, female indigenous inhabitants will be cheated or driven out of the place that originally belonged to their parents or that they have the rights to reside until they die. As the first social movement of its kind from the indigenous walled villages, the book then analyzes the nature of the 1992–1994 movement and the political involvement of external interests, especially of urbanites, in order to engage in a critical gendered analysis of the motives and interests promoting the 1994 reform and the subsequent lack of interest. It also discusses the legal and social implications of overturning the century-old law. The colonial government had tried to adopt a non-interventionist policy because of the sensitivity regarding the property inheritance issue in the New Territories.

The second part looks into the present situation of the walled villages: Urbanisation, better infrastructure and communication, development of new towns and commoditisation of the villages along with the merging of the education systems have dramatically changed women’s roles and their positions in the walled villages. The chapter explores how the villagers struggled to maintain their customary practices while, at the same time, recognising the need to open up for profit-making and survival. It also discusses how the blurring of the rural/urban divide and the handover of Hong Kong to China which has brought the Hong Kong–China relationship closer, has changed the topography of the walled villages. These changes have affected women’s roles in the walled villages. The book analyzes stories and narratives of walled-village women from the two villages, and garnering perspectives from married-in urban women and urban migrant women living in the walled-village. It highlights the gender dynamics across the distinctive spectrums of the walled villages starting from the village council meetings. It examines their ritual and social activities, as well as individual households and individuals’ daily conduct, social activities and women’s strategies in dealing with their spouses. It argues that gender dynamics work differently and are contested across different spectrums. These dynamics vary in different villages, although male villagers are generally dominant from the communal to the macro-level. The book concludes that the changes in gender dynamics are the result of the blurring of the rural/urban divide rather than a change in the inheritance law. It describes how generational differences reflect the changes within the community with reference to the gender dynamics of women/daughters; mothers-in-law/daughters-in-law and men’s and women’s relationships across different generations. Most importantly, we see how walled village women have developed their own agency from household to village level; how the blurring of the rural/urban divide has facilitated women’s changing roles and allowed them to become more proactive in decision-making processes at home and beyond. Walled village women, whether they are born walled villagers or rural/urban migrant women, have become movers and shakers in ways that alter gender dynamics in the walled villages with the closing of rural/urban divide, when Hong Kong has experienced a dramatic shift due to the reunion with China.

Isabella NG is the Assistant Professor and Associate Head (Teaching and Learning) in the Department of Asian and Policy Studies, The Education University of Hong Kong.

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