Essays / December 2017 (Issue 38: Writing Hong Kong)

Hong Kong Nostalgia: Sickness or Cure?

by Antony Dapiran

Reading Dung Kai-Cheung's recently translated collection, Cantonese Love Stories, I was suffused with a sense of nostalgia for the Hong Kong of the late 1990s when the pieces were first published. From the cultural ubiquity of Hello Kitty to the romantic potential of photo sticker booths to purchasing pirated VCDs in Mong Kok street markets, a rush of memories from my early years living in the city returned to me.

The tone of Dung's work is typical of Hong Kong literature of that era. Nostalgia—regret for lost times and lost places—was a common theme of Hong Kong literature and cinema in the years leading up to 1997, part of what cultural critic Ackbar Abbas famously called Hong Kong's "culture of disappearance": a culture which appeared only in the face of the anxiety of its imminent disappearance.

Hong Kong has always had an ambiguous relationship with the past. On the one hand, an active "nostalgia industry" has valorised and marketed Old Hong Kong, whether through consumer brands such as Shanghai Tang and G.O.D., or the attractions of the city promoted by the Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB) such as the Avenue of Stars (a homage to the lost golden era of Hong Kong cinema). The HKTB even arranges for a restored Chinese junk to sail on Victoria Harbour, juxtaposing the traditional with the modern skyline to create a convenient photo opportunity for tourists, and an equally convenient visual metaphor for the "grand narrative" of Hong Kong's transformation from sleepy fishing village to global financial centre.

At the same time, Hong Kong places us in a disorienting relationship with the past. The "temporary" can often seem very permanent in Hong Kong: the Cadogan Street Temporary Garden in Kennedy Town lasted twenty years before being threatened with disappearance (and saved at the last minute by community action), and the David Lane Temporary Public Toilet on Centre Street in Sai Ying Pun appears very, well, permanent. At the same time, the seemingly "permanent" often turns out to be all too temporary, contingent upon the whims of government planners and property developers. Murray House, a colonial building situated on former military land in the heart of Central, was demolished in 1982 to make way for the Bank of China Tower. However, its disappearance proved temporary, as it magically reappeared twenty years later, reassembled brick-by-brick on the Stanley Waterfront on the other side of Hong Kong Island looking just as permanent as ever.

The term "nostalgia" originally described the pain one felt at being away from one's home. Over time, the term evolved to refer not just to a distance in space, but also a distance in time: today, nostalgia is more commonly understood as looking back to a time in the past, the glory days, a time when one felt perhaps more "at home." But more often in Hong Kong changes in space and time are conflated—distance in time changes the place, such that we no longer feel "at home" in our own home.

Nostalgia in Hong Kong did not abate with the relatively uneventful passing of the 1997 Handover. Throughout the first decade of this century, concerns about the loss of collective memory—about lost time and lost space—coalesced around community movements protesting the destruction of historic monuments (such as the Star Ferry and Queen's Piers) or communities (such as Wedding Card Street in Wan Chai and Choi Yuen Tsuen village in the New Territories).

The most notable of all Hong Kong's protest movements, 2014's Umbrella Movement, even embodied a kind of double nostalgia: first, a nostalgia for a Hong Kong free of Beijing's interference (with some protesters even nostalgically waving the old British colonial flag), and second, a nostalgia for the Umbrella Movement itself, as it was happening. Because we knew it could never last—the government would never allow Harcourt Village to continue indefinitely, and each day brought with it the possibility that this was the "last day" before the police moved to clear the occupied sites. As such, the world of the Umbrella Movement was already disappearing from the day it began.

One wonders whether Hong Kong writing can ever avoid nostalgia: even as we write, the just now is slipping away. But surely now, twenty years after 1997, the time for nostalgia has passed in Hong Kong? We are reminded that nostalgia was first considered a disorder, a medical affliction from which one could be cured.

And yet while the Handover may be gone, the anxiety has not. The threat of 1997 has been replaced with the threat of 2047, being experienced almost as a "second Handover," or perhaps the "real" Handover. With political developments of recent years, it seems a new impulse to nostalgia is triggered by this anticipatory trauma.

Perhaps we even need it—perhaps nostalgia is, not a sickness, but a cure to the aggressive anti-sentimentality that Hong Kong can at times seem to embody.

In this context, the concept of "solastalgia", proposed by Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, might be instructive. "Solastalgia"—a neologism combining the words "solace" and "nostalgia"—was coined by Albrecht to refer to the pain caused by the lack of solace, or discomfort, and sense of isolation, arising from the state of one's home. It is, he says, a form of "homesickness" one feels while still "at home." Albrecht was originally describing the pain caused by environmental degradation and climate change; however, he claimed his term has universal relevance wherever communities face the "transformation or destruction of the physical environment (home) by forces that undermine a personal and community sense of identity and control." Any of us who has lived in Hong Kong will recognise these forces at work.

Albrecht suggested that a remedy to solastalgia is "community involvement in the protection, restoration and rehabilitation of their home"—exactly the kind of involvement seen in the heritage protest movements of Hong Kong. Through expression, giving voice to the voiceless against the power of governments and corporations to silence and isolate, the helplessness of solastalgia can be repaired.

This, then, is not backward looking, not an appeal to nostalgia, but forward looking: a cure for solastalgia. More Hong Kong writing, then, to face this challenge: to cure us of our solastalgia, and help us feel at home in what can at times feels like our increasingly unfamiliar home.

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