Penguin Specials, we are told, must fill a gap. Judged by this yardstick, the new Penguin Specials series on Hong Kong cannot fail, since the gap in writing on the city is so very large. These short books are also intended, says Penguin, to provide ‘thought-provoking opinion, a primer to bring you up to date, or a striking piece of fiction’. These goals are met by some but not all of them.
Simon Cartledge’s A System Apart: Hong Kong’s Political Economy from 1997 until Now (Penguin 100pp US$9.95) gives a precise account of Hong Kong’s economic health at the time of the territory’s handover from Britain to China in 1997 and of the failures of leadership since, which have left it in danger of losing relevance and also vulnerable to charges of inequity. The more China opens up to foreign trade and investment, the harder Hong Kong has to look for a role; the more Hong Kong’s government relies on courting tycoons, the greater the poverty of its underclass becomes.
Far from being one of the world’s freest economies, Hong Kong is largely run by cartels, in property, electricity, construction, ports, aviation, supermarkets. That covers most aspects of daily life. The British officials were administrators, not business people; under Chinese rule, that distinction has been lost. ‘Having the city run by the primary beneficiaries of its existing economic system creates enormous conflicts of interest,’ Cartledge writes.
Education provision has increased over the years, but so has inequality; social mobility has only declined. While the top ten billionaires have a net worth equivalent to 35 per cent of GDP (in Switzerland this number is 10 per cent), one in three elderly people live in poverty, collecting old cardboard to take to recycling companies in order to earn a few cents. No wonder the political divide is growing.
Ben Bland’s focus, in Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow (Penguin 100pp US$9.95), is on young Hong Kongers, starting with the obvious – Nathan Law, Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, the leaders of the Umbrella Movement (also known as Occupy), which closed down part of Hong Kong for seventy-nine days in 2014. Indeed, although timed as a meditation on the twenty years since the handover, this and the other books in the series seem principally concerned with explaining the Umbrella Movement, a tribute to its impact on public life and thinking.
Bland meets the young professionals trying to raise the political consciousness of their peers and dives into the after-school tutoring industry, where the superstar tutors are as stressed out as their students. But his efforts to get some of Hong Kong’s most privileged youngsters – the offspring of tycoons, heirs to fortunes, educated around the world yet calling Hong Kong home – to speak to him hit a thick wall of privilege. Only a couple will talk, anonymously, with a public relations executive in tow; they fear that any criticism of China might damage their families’ business interests. Just one, Lau Mingwai, agrees to speak on the record, an exception among his class.
Lau sees no point in trying to crush a whole generation. Better, he says, to find out why so many of Hong Kong’s youth have become bottle-throwing radicals, demanding not just autonomy but now complete independence from China. He concludes that Hong Kongers are so angry because they are unsure of who they are, neither British nor (mainland) Chinese. China has been ‘cack-handed’ in its approach to them. Beijing should know by now that if you push Hong Kongers, they push back, but it doesn’t learn.
Bland meets the producers of Ten Years (2015), a film that gives a bleakly terrifying (and witty) look at life in Hong Kong as Chinese control increases. A low-budget surprise hit, it was briskly banished from cinemas in Hong Kong. Bland also points out that the way in which China, under its most authoritarian leader since Mao, handles Hong Kong is a clear signal of what the rest of the world faces ‘from a rising great power that is no longer willing to bide its time and sheath its sword’.
The fiction writer Xu Xi, in Dear Hong Kong: An Elegy for a City (Penguin 100pp US$9.95), suggests that its population should be more like her mother, who has Alzheimer’s. ‘Forgetfulness can be sweeter,’ she writes. Christopher DeWolf firmly disagrees. His area of expertise is urban life, and in Borrowed Spaces: Life Between the Cracks of Modern Hong Kong (Penguin 100pp US$9.95), he ably documents the idiocy of bureaucrats who have consistently deprived Hong Kong of its heritage, its open spaces and its sense of community.
Lively street markets have been pushed into concrete blocks and licences for street-traders have been successively cut back, while only twenty-five dai pai dong (open street-side food stalls) remain of the three thousand that existed in the 1950s. Rooftop settlements of people living in hand-built shacks have been demolished rather than legalised, while heritage sites, such as Kowloon’s Marine Police Headquarters, have been turned into luxury shopping malls catering for rich tourists from the mainland.
I’m not convinced by DeWolf’s claim that all this represents a deliberate strategy of social repression – that the lack of trees and benches or navigable footpaths and parks is part of a plan to quash freedom of movement. His fine reporting also disproves his claim that ‘free thought cannot survive in a city of dead spaces’, because he keeps finding Hong Kongers who fight back.
He seeks out the street life, records it and gets to know the people creating it and losing out. He chronicles the tragedies but also celebrates the victories – the planting of mango trees beside a highway, the erecting of book stalls in a building lot, the revival of lost communities, the informal borrowing of space.
Antony Dapiran, a lawyer, was clearly galvanised by the protests of 2014. The sight of thousands of committed Hong Kongers of all ages and backgrounds gathering on what are usually heaving highways running through the centre of the city, the songs and slogans, the homework zone, the community self-help initiatives: all moved him deeply.
In City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong (Penguin 100pp US$9.95), he says that protests are an indicator of what matters in a society such as Hong Kong, where formal opportunities for airing opinions, such as elections to meaningful assemblies, are lacking. He also wants to believe that protest works. He gives a brisk rundown of protests in recent decades against corruption, the curtailing of civil rights, the destruction of the city’s heritage and the huge sums of money demanded from Hong Kong taxpayers to finance the bridges and railways demanded by Beijing, the construction of which costs billions and destroys rural communities. He claims that recent protests are ultimately about identity or locating ‘Hong Kong’s place in this post-colonial world’.
This is a fashionable phrase, of course, but Dapiran’s discovery that there is a longer history of protest in Hong Kong reveals a larger problem in his book, and the series in general. While he is excited to find demonstrations dating back to 1966, he doesn’t mention the fact that public protests can be traced back at least a century earlier, as more insightful works, by Jung-fang Tsai or Tak-wing Ngo, have demonstrated.
As with much of the public discourse in Hong Kong, this series lacks a sense of history. One is left with the impression that Hong Kong somehow burst into existence after the Second World War and has only faced identity crises since 1997. If one were to overlook DeWolf’s brief reference to a law of 1872, one could easily forget that the city is 176 years old, dating back to the early 1840s, when British traders moved there, and that it grew out of centuries-old trading routes.
For as long as Hong Kong has been a city, it has never been exclusively Chinese, as Beijing likes to claim. It has been home to people from around the world who have worked, loved, procreated and built a sense of belonging there. Hong Kongers can trace an identity back to the 19th century, long before China’s current ruling regime emerged.
At one point, Bland notes that Hong Kong is ‘uncomfortable’ with its history. Indeed. Hong Kongers may only be able to understand their current condition as part of one empire, China’s, by looking more clearly at the multiple lives their forebears led as part of another, Britain’s.