Hong Kong: Is It Just A Question Of Confidence?

Hesitant in Hong Kong?
Hesitant in Hong Kong?
Leung Man Tao

HONG KONG — A journalist from mainland China asked me recently whether the current unrest in Hong Kong is perhaps because residents there "are losing their confidence."

The question took me by surprise. I've heard people in Hong Kong complain and criticize a lot, particularly with regards to Chinese mainlanders, but I never thought these grumblings had anything to do with "confidence." Some say that too many Chinese mainlanders are moving in, that spaces and facilities can no longer cope. Others focus on issues such as urban planning, or on the failure of social security, education and healthcare facilities to meet local needs.

Having said that, the "confidence" question was also something I might have anticipated given the term's popularity on the mainland, where it is used by authority figures and the media alike to "magically" explain everything from foreign policy to Hong Kong.

Two years ago, at an academic conference, I saw a famous professor from a certain field severely reprimanding the students present. The professor called the students stooges for following a western academic model: by always specifying the sources they quote, for example, and by providing detailed and comprehensive references when preparing speeches. He also criticized them for spending too much time learning foreign languages.

In the professor's view, academia, in its current form, is a purely western product. And in trying to adapt to it, Chinese people have discarded their own writing style and scholarly traditions. They have forgotten their ancestors.

"We ought to have more confidence," the professor said. "As our country becomes more powerful and more developed, more and more foreign students will come to China to study. We'll then gradually grasp the discourse correctly while our own method of conducting academic work will become the world's mainstream."

If the Chinese are truly confident, in other words, they won't need to worry about whether their academic tools and formatting rules meet international standards, the professor concluded.

Ever since the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), when the Chinese empire encountered setbacks, Chinese historians have attached great importance to the country's loss of confidence. China's major ideological trends, which have ranged from "applying science and technology based on traditional Chinese values" to "total westernization," have all been related to the issue of confidence, according to historians.

But while China may indeed have confidence issues, it cannot expect, as the professor suggested, that a theoretical abundance of self esteem would somehow solve all of its problems. Nor would it give China license to ignore the rest of the world's norms, regulations and customs. Just because Chinese soccer players perform badly — and Chinese fans feel badly about it — doesn't mean the team can suddenly change the rules as it sees fit.

To put it bluntly, this "confidence theory" is to certain extent the 2.0 version of the "national conditions theory" that Chinese people used to ascribe to. In the face of questioning we have always liked to argue that there exist "national condition differences" and that other countries, therefore, shouldn't apply their standards to us.

Whether it's national conditions or confidence, this kind of thinking risks falling into the trap of misplacement and relativism and can thus cause confusion.

For example, earlier this year the "Yuling Dog-Eating Festival" set off a debate. Some people turned to the confidence theory, saying that Chinese people ought to have the confidence to eat dog and shouldn't blindly follow Western standards. They shouldn't, in other words, be servile to foreigners.

Why people eat dogs does have a cultural background and when discussing the subject, one should neither exclude the specific social context nor put it in an abstract vacuum. But there are many other concepts and values at stake as well. The difference between dogs and cows, sheep and pigs, and the complex dog-human relation all allow discussion. To say "I'm Chinese so I am free to eat dog" is to oversimplify things.

The current situation in Hong Kong is another example of just how limited China's emphasis on the confidence issue can be. Some people probably would have been happy if I'd answered the journalist's question by saying, "Yes, Hong Kong's problems do have to do with a lack of confidence." But would being more confident help Hongkongese mothers who can no longer find any powdered milk for their babies because it is all swept away by the mainland visitors? Would it ease the problems their children face gaining admission to the island's primary schools, which are being overwhelmed by an influx of newcomers?

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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