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

Twenty Years: Unfoldings and Intersections

by Danica van de Velde

In Ackbar Abbas's seminal work Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance he dedicates a chapter to the concept of "Writing Hong Kong." His opening thesis is that there is a distinction between "Writing Hong Kong" and "Hong Kong Writing," whereby "Hong Kong Writing" captures a literary canon featuring local authors and texts, predominantly written in Cantonese, about and within the city. "Writing Hong Kong," on the other hand, is less interested in the provenance of the authors than the complex negotiation of how the city's cultural space is inscribed within the text.[i] The historical context of the preparation and publication of Abbas's book, which took place on the cusp of the handover in 1997, understandably has a different resonance now, when the process of writing the city is problematically subject to a counter-narrative imposed by Hong Kong's uneasy relationship with mainland China. Indeed, the existence of dual and conflicting histories in current day Hong Kong was highlighted by politician and key Umbrella Movement activist Nathan Law Kwun-chung in an interview in which he emphasised the need to "define another version of the history: the true version for Hong Kong." Law's comment, which was given just after the twentieth anniversary of the handover, underlines that there are potentially two ways of writing Hong Kong: one that conforms to an enforced patriotism for the Mainland and one that looks beyond the façade of "one country, two systems."

My own interest in writing from and about Hong Kong is both academic and personal. When I first encountered Hong Kong-born British poet Sarah Howe via a YouTube recording of a TEDx event, my response to her performance of the poem "Crossing from Guangdong" sparked a painful tinge of melancholic recognition. Although I could not relate to her tracing the route of her mother's journey to Hong Kong Island as a baby, her depiction of an area of Hong Kong Island was intensely familiar:

Suddenly, I know –
from the Mid-Levels flat where I grew up,
set in the bamboo grove – from the kumquat-
lined windows on the twenty-fifth floor,
tinted to bear the condensation's glare –
you can no longer see the insect cars
circling down those jungle-bordered boulevards.[ii]

In seven lines, Howe evokes the textures of Mid-Levels—from the rainbow-coloured features of the apartment blocks to the humidity and the dense geography. Learning more about Howe, I was not only drawn to her words and the vivid architectures of the city they recall, but also her individual story. While Howe left Hong Kong at the age of seven to live in her father's home country of England, I moved to Hong Kong at that very same age. The tenth-floor apartment I shared with my mother and our Filipina amah was also in Mid-Levels. Set amongst tropical plants, our windows initially provided a view that looked across Victoria Harbour to a runway at Kai Tak airport and then, following a flurry of development, into the intimate lives of people living in an apartment building opposite, which was painted in a colour that would now be described as "millennial pink." Howe's poems speak to me because the fragments that make up her personal map and fill her writing intersect with my own. When Law spoke of articulating another history, it can surely be located in the work of writers such as Howe, where a fervent desire to remember and write the city as one's own works to thread resistance into the composition of the text.

Of course, Law's call to action is far more politicised than simply recalling memories. It is about giving context to what we remember in relation to Hong Kong itself. I was still living in Hong Kong on the exceedingly wet evening that marked the beginning of the handover ceremony on 30 June 1997. I would also remain in Hong Kong for one year after the event, eventually leaving in August 1998. Even after moving back to Australia, my mother and I refused to cut our ties with the city. Routinely returning once a year for Christmas, family and friends would often ask us if much had changed after the transfer of sovereignty. For the first few years, we had little to comment on: walking the streets of Hong Kong has always been an exercise in nostalgia defined more by gaps and memory than by material presence. However, after promises to table a discussion on universal suffrage were continuously evaded, the mood of our yearly pilgrimage started to shift.

Christmas 2014 took place under the shadow of the Umbrella Movement that I had missed in a matter of days; however, the yellow ribbons tied to railings across the city served as a constant reminder. Returning to Hong Kong for Christmas 2015, the region's media was anxiously covering the disappearance of five book publishers. When I arrived for Christmas 2016, my heart sank to discover the closure of both HK Magazine and my favourite bookstore, which I had been frequenting from the time I lived in Hong Kong in the 1990s. When an article I had published in a mainland Chinese-based journal earlier this year edited out what I thought was a diplomatic and fair reference to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 in the context of Hong Kong's historically difficult quest for identity, I realised a pattern: the fault lines in my personal map of the city all centre on the written word and freedom of speech. If these are under threat, then how it is possible to accurately write Hong Kong?

I witnessed the rain-sodden official ceremony unfold on a television in a Fortress store in Causeway Bay, the sadness of the event multiplied as the imagery played across a wall of television screens. In a strange visual echo, the presence of umbrellas, used to shield those at the handover ceremony, would make an uncanny reappearance as the leitmotifs of the Umbrella Movement, but this time used to protect against far more damaging substances than rain. In 2017, I observed the twentieth anniversary of the handover through media snippets and sound bites eight hours away in a city which, despite having lived here for more than twice the time I lived in Hong Kong, inspires less feelings of belonging. I have attempted to erase this distance by focusing on Hong Kong through an academic lens. This compulsion is based partly on a need for identification, as well as a desire to play a part in representing the city in a way that I feel is truthful. Indeed, Hong Kong's political and historical situation has laid it bare to constant theoretical critique: from the aforementioned "culture of disappearance" enshrined by Abbas to the more recent notion of being "lost in transition" theorised by Chu Yiu-Wai, the dilemma posed by Hong Kong's uncertain future has made it the very stuff of academic fodder.

Although researchers (including myself) will undoubtedly continue to draw on Hong Kong as an example of a liminal and contested space that presents unique issues of politics and identity, the action of writing Hong Kong—whether political or personal—must occur in the margins of official history to capture the "true version" espoused by Law. To return to Howe's "Crossing Guangdong," the poem's final moments chart the journey of the Star Ferry traversing Victoria Harbour, with Howe writing that it is "turned always home." To my mind, this is how we reclaim and hold on to Hong Kong, by not allowing what the city stands for and what it means to its people to be effaced by narratives imposed from the outside. In essence, we turn always home.


[i] Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, 111.

[ii] Sarah Howe, "Crossing from Guangdong." Loop of Jade. London: Chatto & Windus, 2015, 2–5.

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