This second week of the Kundiman NorCal Regional Group’s Fireside brings a special interest from Hong Kong and the ongoing Umbrella Movement protests. Kundiman fellow Jennifer S. Cheng writes:
…and in the pale light of the shadow we put together a house.
—Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows
To understand the protests in Hong Kong, you have to understand its history. Before it was a “Special Administrative Region” of the People’s Republic of China, it was a British Crown colony, a treatied concession, a land leased. For 156 years, the people of Hong Kong lived under “foreign rule,” though at some point foreign becomes a slippery notion, a term submerged in water. You can talk about the cultural influence and formation during this century, you can talk about hybridity, you can talk about its greater freedoms in comparison to the mainland, but at least equally relevant is that, in some ways, Hong Kong was never entitled to its own identity, never permitted its own voice. (And doesn’t liminality have to do with a longing for a voice?)
From Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance:
“Postcoloniality…means finding ways of operating under a set of difficult conditions that threatens to appropriate us as subjects…for example, thinking about emigration in a certain way, emigration not in the diasporic sense of finding another space…with all the pathos of departure, but in the sense of remaking a given space that for whatever reason one cannot leave, of dis-locating.”
It is a city that protests: July 1, June 4, Occupy Central, hundreds of thousands, hours of marching, candlelight vigils, a crowd of bodies singing in unison. It began perhaps with 1989, one-sixth of Hong Kong’s population emerging in support of the students across the waters; in the years after the 1997 Handover, pro-democracy protests swelled. This history of public demonstration is yet another mark of disjuncture from “Chineseness” in a city already anxious about identity. When you are one in thousands, a body among bodies, sitting and lighting flames one by one, neighbor to neighbor, you cannot but ask, Why are all these bodies here? What heat do they feel inside? When you are one in a night on the street, sleeping side by side. Perhaps one articulation is that the city protests because that is a freedom afforded to it: an avenue for voicing itself: Hong Kong protests because it can.
“[Hyphenation] points precisely to the city’s attempts to go beyond such historical determinations by developing a tendency toward timelessness…and placelessness…a tendency to live its own version of the ‘floating world’…not as a neither-nor space that is nowhere; not even as a mixed or in-between space, if by that we understand that the various elements that make it up are separable. Above all, hyphenation refers not to the conjunctures of ‘East’ and ‘West,’ but to the disjunctures of colonialism and globalism…a very specific set of historical circumstances that has produced a historically anomalous space that I have called a space of disappearance” (Abbas).
To conduct research into Hong Kong history, linguistics, culture is to learn the terms hybrid, liminal, floating. If we were to say hybridity as identity, liminality as identity, it is because the history of belonging is one that eludes. We do not know exactly how to define the boundaries, how to draw a concrete outline. We do not know what the blueprints look like, where they are stored. Nineteen nights now, in the streets: timelessness as time, placelessness as place.
From Rey Chow, Between Colonizers: Hong Kong’s Postcolonial Self-Writing in the 1990s:
“Hong Kong’s postcoloniality is marked by a double impossibility—it will be as impossible to submit to Chinese nationalist/nativist repossession as it has been impossible to submit to British colonialism.”
“What would it mean for Hong Kong to write itself in its own language?”
(Or: What is the poetics of longing?)
Note: The 1993 Canto-pop song 海阔天空 (“Boundless Sea and Sky”) by Beyond has become an anthem for the Hong Kong protests for its heartening lyrics and its local, nostalgic significance. The chorus can be translated as: Forgive me this life of uninhibited love and indulgence of freedom / Although I’m still afraid that one day I might fall / Abandon your hopes and ideals, anyone also can do / I’m not afraid if someday there’s only you and me. The singer, 黃家駒 Wong Ka-Kui, died the same year the song was released, so in some ways it is also a memorial. Another song that has been adopted is rather a song that has been adapted: “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Miserables. The Hong Kong version in Cantonese goes beyond translation and rewrites the lyrics: Who wants to succumb to misfortune and keep their mouth shut? / May I ask who can’t wake up? / Listen to the humming of freedom / Arouse the conscience which shall not be betrayed again.
First photo by Vivian Yan.
Second photo by Henry W. Leung.