The post-80s generation of young men and women of Hong Kong are mostly bright, well-educated and inquisitive. Unlike their immigrant forebears, they strongly identify themselves with Hong Kong, which they are not embarrassed to call home.
All these are good, except that their elders, those in their 40s and 50s, who are deeply entrenched in the various levels of the power structure in business, finance and the government, don't seem to be able to relate effectively to their de facto successors. Indeed, the generation gap that exists between the old and the young in Hong Kong has been widened and distorted by the return of sovereignty to China in 1997.
Before that, Hong Kong was widely seen as a city of migrants. At that time many people were either first or second generation immigrants from the Chinese mainland, mainly Guangdong province. They regarded themselves as transients who would, one day, either return to their ancestral homes or move on to seek permanent residence in foreign lands.
This transient mentality was passed on from generation to generation of Hong Kong people, who were known for their single-minded pursuit of personal gain in a hard-nose business town that cared little about its heritage and legacy. This city's psyche was nakedly reflected in the unbridled destruction of the countless historic landmarks to make room for the erection of monstrous commercial and residential buildings. Such callous disregard of our environment was never put to the question, until now.
The children of those transients of Hong Kong have taken roots in the city their fathers built. Because they are proud of their heritage, they feel increasingly frustrated by being denied a say in preserving it. Such frustrations sometimes gave way to agitation, manifested in several conspicuous confrontations with the government.
Misjudging the undercurrent of change, the government was apparently caught by surprise when hundreds of young conservationists occupied the condemned Star Ferry clock tower in a stand-off with the demolition squad. They were persuaded to leave only after the government agreed to preserve the tower which is now standing awkwardly on a large track of reclaimed land.
Young conservationists were out in force again to protest the demolition of all the shop houses along a side street which owed its fame as the "wedding stripe" to the many small printing shops that specialized in printing invitation cards.
Most recently, demonstrators besieged the Legislative Council building for hours to protest against the building of a high-speed railway line that requires the relocation of a number of last remaining villages in the fast disappearing rural area. Law makers had to be escorted out of the building by police after passing a bill for the allocation of public funds to finance the project.
Steeped in the tradition of the rule of law, the government and its police have shown great restraint and patience in handling public demonstrations, mostly by young people, that occasionally turned nasty. But there is no guarantee that both sides can keep their cool future occasions.
The siege of the legislature has awakened the government to the need to improve its communication on the Internet with the young people with the hope of winning their understanding and trust. To do that, the government will need to educate itself about the aspirations and frustrations of the young people by reading the discussions in their favorite chat rooms and blogs so that it can make timely and focused responses.
Don't listen to what some legislators said about these demonstrators. Most of these young people at the ferry clock tower, the wedding stripe and, more recently, outside the legislature, were not spoilt brats or trouble makers. They were highly-educated and well-informed citizens, who, in time, will take over the task of running Hong Kong.