Feeling Hope on Turtle Island: A “Home” Letter to Overseas Hong Kongers in “Canada” | Pamela P. Tsui

by Critical Asia

by Pamela P. Tsui, June 2023】

On July 1, 2022, hundreds of overseas Hong Kongers assembled in downtown Tkaronto (“Toronto”) to continue the tradition of Hong Kong’s July 1 marches. As the crowd reached the intersection of Yonge and Dundas, they were met with an orange-clad group of Indigenous protestors and allies, denouncing the economic genocide committed by the Canadian government. The two factions barely interacted as the Hong Kong contingent marched on towards Nathan Phillips Square. Soon, the Square was awash with black-clad Hong Kong protestors sporting yellow masks. A few proudly displayed the maple leaf flag, while the organizer of the pro-democracy rally played “O Canada” before delivering speeches on stage. I pondered the meaning of overseas Hong Kong protestors waving the Canadian national flag and playing the anthem on July 1. Was this a sign of “us” becoming “Canadians”? What does it mean to become “Canadians”? Perhaps, from a newcomer’s perspective, waving the red-and-white maple leaf flag might simply be an “innocent” gesture, signaling a willingness to integrate into the mainstream society of the hostland. However, I cannot help but wonder how these protestors, whether they have recently relocated from Hong Kong or have been living in “Canada” for a long time, perceive new immigrants in Hong Kong who wave the red-and-white bauhinia flag in Victoria Park on July 1. Would they consider these newcomers fellow “Hong Kongers” because of their endorsement of the official regional flag? As immigrants, how can we better comprehend and navigate our connection with the state government and the Indigenous peoples of this land?

My intention in raising these questions is to invite fellow Hong Kongers on Turtle Island to engage in a reflection, a conversation, as well as an exploration for alternative approaches to being a “diaspora.” Integration into the hostland is not a singular pathway. These reflective moments can help us uncover potential synergies with other groups advocating for social justice. By imagining alternatives, we create avenues for hope – a hope that fuels our vision for a reimagined Hong Kong. It is a vision that encompasses the possibility of creating just and innovative relationships with other peoples, resistance, and lands. In this case, by reflecting on what it means to be “Canadians” – or a guest on this land, we are also considering what it means to be “Hong Kongers.” By delving into the history and present experiences of Indigenous oppression and resistance in our hostland, we glean more than just our roles and obligations on this land, as this awareness can also illuminate our struggles back in our homeland.

In this piece, I purposefully juxtapose the relationship between the Hong Kong diaspora and the Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island with the dynamic between new immigrants and local inhabitants in Hong Kong. Although I stress that these two dyads are not identical or directly comparable, I aim to illustrate how our shifting positions within the dyad of natives and immigrants can prompt us to re-evaluate the entrenched conflicts and possibilities of situated solidarity between these groups. The narrative of Indigenous oppression and resistance, moreover, may inspire us to revisit the meanings of nationhood and nationalism in resistance.

July 1 is not only the Establishment Day of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region but also Canada Day—the national day of “Canada.” On such a day, the celebration of the state is often met with equally fervent voices of dissent. Just in 2021, the discovery of the remains of more than a thousand Indigenous children at former residential school sites prompted a resounding call to “Cancel Canada Day.” Established by the Canadian government and operated by Christian churches, the Canadian residential school system aimed to assimilate Indigenous children into white Canadian culture. This system forcibly removed thousands of Indigenous children from their families, causing trauma across generations of Indigenous peoples. It is astounding to consider that the last federally-funded school only closed in 1997. The burial sites at former residential schools serve as a haunting reminder that settler colonialism on Turtle Island is an ongoing process.

While both Turtle Island and Hong Kong have been impacted by British colonization, the processes and legacies of such colonization differ substantially. The British colonial history of Hong Kong is relatively brief. When the British took control of Hong Kong in 1841, their primary interest was in consolidating commercial and military interests by establishing a base on the China coast (Carroll 2007). Moving forward to the mid-20th century, the Cold War became a primary reason for Britain to maintain Hong Kong as a colony, while the newly-established Communist China “viewed Hong Kong as an asset in the East-West rivalry that could break the Anglo-American alliance” (Chu 2022:85). For both the British and Chinese regimes, the prosperity of Hong Kong as a capitalist economy was advantageous.

Despite its prosperity and relative autonomy, Hong Kong has never completed its project of decolonization from imperial powers. In 1958, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai emphatically rejected the notion that the British government might render “Hong Kong a self-governing dominion like Singapore” (Hung 2022:120). The United Nations’ 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples bestowed upon colonized peoples the right to seek independence or maintain ties with colonial rulers through a referendum. As Ho-Fung Hung (2022:120) points out, Hong Kong initially belonged to the roster of colonies granted this right of self-determination. Yet, this did not sit favorably with Beijing. When the People’s Republic of China supplanted the Republic of China (Taiwan) in the UN in 1972, Beijing successfully orchestrated Hong Kong’s removal from the UN’s list of colonies. This action led to the forfeiture of Hong Kong’s rights to self-determination under international law (2022). Presently, Hong Kong stands as a city of considerable economic wealth, yet it is one mired in political repression.

The colonial history of Turtle Island is both lengthier and more violent, spanning over five centuries. Here, settler colonialism distinguishes itself from other forms of colonialism, underscored by a logic of elimination. Patrick Wolfe (2006) argues that settler colonialism is a territorial project with a mission of land accumulation. As such, Indigenous peoples who have been attached to the desired land must be eliminated through the tactics of extermination, displacement, and assimilation (Lawrence and Dua 2005). Other scholars have contested this view, suggesting that the logics of settler colonialism were more complex, as colonizers simultaneously expropriated land and exploited the labor of Indigenous peoples (Byrd 2019, Harris 2019).

In the last five decades, Canada has shifted from a mode of coercion to liberal settler governmentality (Coulthard 2014). However, multicultural policies have only served to reinforce the colonial structure by making “Canada” a bilingual and bicultural nation with English and French as the founding races, effectively erasing Indigenous nationhood (Haque 2012, Haque and Patrick 2015). The erasure of Indigenous nationhood is mirrored within academic conventions, where Indigeneity are often examined as cultures in the discipline of anthropology rather than political systems in the realm of political science (Simpson 2014). This convention belies the ongoing processes of colonialism and reinforces the discourse of “Canada” as a multicultural nation of immigrants (Simpson 2014). This liberal pluralistic discourse, according to Sunera Thobani (2007:150), functions as a “diffusing or muting device” that displaces the territorial project of settler colonialism as an issue of tolerance and recognition (Simpson 2014).

As Hong Kongers leave our home and seek refuge through Canada’s lifeboat scheme and other immigration pathways, we must recognize that we are arriving on someone else’s land, someone else’s battlefield. The land on which we hope to build our new home is also home to others. Our arrival on Turtle Island signifies that we become a “part of the broader society which has made promises to Indigenous peoples by way of treaties that should be upheld” (Bauder and Breen 2023:373). Particularly when Canadian immigration policies often neglect Indigenous perspectives, as immigrants or sojourners, we must examine our role in the continuing oppression of Indigenous peoples.

My appeal to fellow overseas Hong Kongers to forge solidarity with Indigenous peoples and support their struggles goes beyond it being a just act. It is also rooted in the profound insights and wisdom we can gain from their epistemologies and experiences. Engaging with Indigenous studies has been a journey of revelation for me. I am genuinely touched and astonished by the unexpected parallels I have discovered between the challenges faced by Indigenous communities on Turtle Island and those experienced by Hong Kongers. These connections have resonated with me on a level deeper than I could have anticipated.

One way Indigenous studies have inspired me is by shedding light on an alternative approach to understanding sovereignty and nationhood. Audra Simpson (2014:11) describes the Indigenous nations, such as that of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy, as a form of “nested sovereignty” that exist within another sovereignty. She contends that it is impossible to have two equal and robust sovereignties when one is embedded in another. One sovereignty thrives only at the other’s expense. For instance, Canada and the United States were founded on Indigenous dispossession. As such, it is important to consider the tension between these sovereignties and the jurisdictional and normative challenges they encompass. One way settler states undermine Indigenous nations is through “misrecognition” (Simpson 2014). By misconstruing Indigenous peoples as a racial rather than a national category, settlers eliminate the possibility for a political definition of Indigenous people to exist (Andersen 2008).

The Indigenous scholarship exposes how some strands of postcolonial theories and certain studies of nationalism are underpinned by a settler coloniality. As Lawrence and Dua (2005) argue, postcolonial orientation to deconstruct nationhood perpetrates the delegitimation of Indigenous nationhood. It fails to see how settler states have continued to de-nationalize Indigeneity, and thus undermining Indigenous rights to self-determination. Worse, they “denigrate nationalism as representing only technologies of violence” (2005:131). As such, these theories fail to enable Indigenous peoples to resist colonial order through their nationhood but contribute to the erasure of Indigenous presence.

Indigeneity in Hong Kong follows an entirely different trajectory and carries its own distinct significance. The relationship between its Indigenous inhabitants and immigrants is also different, particularly in light of its historical emergence as a “refugee city” during the Cold War (Li 2021). However, if, as Ching Kwan Lee (2022:41) posits, the resistance of the city in the post-Handover era “amounts to a fight for decolonization, albeit one that had been delayed, denied, and repressed,” we may consider how the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island and the people from Hong Kong are connected in concurrent struggles of decolonization – even while confronting different forms of colonial adversaries. Through this lens, Indigenous scholarship may illuminate a progressive understanding of nationalism and resistance, thereby instilling hope for the decolonization endeavors in Hong Kong.

The knowledges and experiences of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island can also provide insights into understanding the relationship between the colonized and immigrants. Settler violations of Indigenous sovereignties are evident through their immigration policies. Similar to how Hong Kongers have minimal influence over the city’s immigration policies, Canadian immigration policies rarely take Indigenous perspectives into account. Anti-racist theorists often overlook the enduring violence of settler colonialism, failing to recognize that the concept of nationhood is crucial to Indigenous survival (Lawrence and Dua 2005). Consequently, efforts by Indigenous communities to reclaim their relationship to the land are sometimes mischaracterized as racist or xenophobic expressions of nationalism. Under such circumstances, Indigenous peoples find themselves caught in a dilemma, either being implicated in Canada’s anti-immigrant racism or supporting antiracist struggles that overlook the ongoing process of colonization (Lawrence and Dua 2005).

Without considering the vested interests of settler colonizers in the discourses of multiculturalism, the language of tolerance and inclusion merely serves to reinforce colonial agendas. As Tuck and Yang (2012:7) argue, “decolonization in a settler context is fraught because empire, settlement, and internal colony have no spatial separation.” At this “site of contradictory decolonial desires” (2012:7), it is essential to embrace an ethic of incommensurability, acknowledging that some aspects of decolonization projects and other civil rights-based social justice projects “simply cannot speak to one another, cannot be aligned or allied” (2012:28). While we should pursue opportunities for strategic and contingent collaborations, “lasting solidarities may be elusive, even undesirable” (2012:28).

The transnational journey of overseas Hong Kongers, whether voluntary or involuntary, inevitably places us in contrasting positions within two distinct yet similarly troubled sets of settler-colonized relations. Perhaps the silver lining is that our embodied experiences in each of these contradictory positions can help generate valuable insights as we navigate the challenging paths of decolonization. As uninvited guests on Turtle Island, we can reflect on how our homemaking is a settlement occurs on appropriated land at the expense of Indigenous dispossession. By actively resisting colonial unknowing (Vimalassery, Pegues and Goldstein 2016), we can consider creating dialogues and collaborations between our diaspora activism and Indigenous struggles.

In the context of Hong Kong, we can draw on insights from settler colonialism studies to understand how both the “natives” and “immigrants” are cast as outsiders by the state/colonizers, while their subjugation is relationally constituted (Pegues 2021). In recent years, a number of scholars in the field of Hong Kong studies have utilized concepts like racism, racialization, nationalism, and homonationalism to articulate the hostility Hong Kongers exhibit towards new immigrants from mainland China. While I concur that such phenomena warrant further scrutinization, I question the aptness of these conceptual frameworks, especially when their embedded coloniality remains unexamined. In alignment with Lawrence and Dua’s (2005) call to decolonize antiracism, I believe that any discussion on racism and racialization must take into account the legacy and continuing processes of colonialism and imperialism to understand how racial meanings are produced or adopted within the creation and maintenance of dominant social structures. Simultaneously, it is pivotal to recognize that nationhood and nationalism can have varying connotations and implications in different circumstances. For instance, its significance to people of an imperial nation-state contrasts starkly with that for social groups denied their rights to self-determination.

This is not a call to stoke further animosity between local Hong Kongers and Chinese new immigrants. Rather, it is an invitation for us to thoughtfully consider how we might cultivate situational solidarity, while mindfully acknowledging our conflicting social justice pursuits. Equipped with these understandings, we can infuse our struggles with rejuvenated hope by forging strategic and empathetic alliances between those deemed as insiders and outsiders in the city, without disregarding the fundamental incommensurability inherent in the projects of decolonization.

Pamela P. Tsui, PhD Student of Sociology, University of Toronto, Canada


[1] “Turtle Island” is the name used by some Indigenous peoples to refer to the continent of “North America.”

[2] To underscore the colonial origins of the land now referred to as “Canada” and “North America,” I enclose these terms in quotation marks. It is important to note that Indigenous peoples have historically assigned distinct names to these territories.


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