A Memoryless Hong Kong: On Shibani Mahtani and Timothy McLaughlin’s “Among the Braves” and Brian Kern’s “Liberate Hong Kong”
By Joshua YangFebruary 4, 2024
Among the Braves: Hope, Struggle, and Exile in the Battle for Hong Kong and the Future of Global Democracy by Timothy McLaughlin and Shibani Mahtani
Liberate Hong Kong: Stories from the Freedom Struggle by Brian Kern
I thought about this statistic almost every day I was in Hong Kong last summer. As I was jostled through the crowded streets of Mong Kok or Sheung Wan, I stared at the faces of passersby, trying to guess how many former protesters I was brushing past. How many of these commuters now wearing pencil skirts and linen suits had once donned gas masks and hard hats? How many of these vendors now hawking their wares had once waved anti–Communist Party banners and chanted protest slogans? How many of these pedestrians now hurrying from one destination to another had once fought for a free and democratic Hong Kong?
But I will never know, because three years after the Chinese Communist Party passed a repressive national security law to crush political dissent and gut the city’s fiercely independent spirit, the protests have become an unmentionable subject. Of the dozens of Hong Kongers I interviewed last summer, only one person—an American expat whose name was already in a police file somewhere—openly admitted to me that he had marched on the streets.
A false history has instead blossomed to fill the spaces of this silence. On the most recent June 4 anniversary, Victoria Park hosted a pro-China expo instead of the once-traditional candlelight vigil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre in Beijing; schools now teach that Hong Kong was never really a British colony; even the Hong Kong Museum of History has been subjected to a “comprehensive renovation.” The civic institutions, newspapers, and pro-democracy politicians that labored for a free Hong Kong are no longer a presence in the city, along with the hundreds and thousands of Hong Kongers who have fled their homes. If the Czech novelist Milan Kundera is right that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” then this memoryless Hong Kong is a place where power has triumphed, perhaps irreversibly so.
In the aftermath of this fall, then, how should we remember a Hong Kong that is now irrevocably lost to us? And to what end? It is exactly these questions that feature at the center of two books from last year documenting the 2019 Hong Kong protests, Among the Braves: Hope, Struggle, and Exile in the Battle for Hong Kong and the Future of Global Democracy and a new edition of Liberate Hong Kong: Stories from the Freedom Struggle.
The former title, by Washington Post investigative correspondent Shibani Mahtani and The Atlantic contributing writer Timothy McLaughlin, is a narrative history with deep ambition. Among the Braves goes beyond documenting the most recent of the Hong Kong protests; the book also traces the history of Hong Kong as a haven for generation after generation of refugees and dissidents since the mid-20th century.
Hong Kongers, as Mahtani and McLaughlin note, have historically accrued a reputation for only showing interest in “the stock market and the mah jong table”—but Among the Braves demonstrates just how deeply the city’s identity became intertwined with the spirit of protest ever since the 1980s, when the United Kingdom agreed to cede the territory to China. Mahtani and McLaughlin recount the circumstances that led 1.5 million Hong Kongers to stand in solidarity with their mainland counterparts during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, half a million Hong Kongers to successfully block the passage of a repressive national security law in 2003, and another 1.4 million Hong Kongers to march for universal suffrage in 2014.
Yet the great strength of Among the Braves is Mahtani and McLaughlin’s ability to capture the sweep of this broad narrative through the voices of a select few individuals. First is Chu Yiu-ming, one of millions of refugees who fled Communist China for British Hong Kong between the 1950s and 1980s. Once Chu arrived in Hong Kong, his own rising fortunes mirrored that of the city’s: Mahtani and McLaughlin follow Chu as he built a life as a Baptist minister, helped organize Hong Kong’s burgeoning democracy movement, and smuggled mainland student activists into the British colony in the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen protests.
When the narrative reaches the 2010s, Mahtani and McLaughlin introduce a new cast of Hong Kongers born in the ’90s to continue the story. Finn Lau Cho-dik, who lived in London during the 2019 protests, assumed an anonymous identity online and organized a grassroots campaign to lobby foreign governments to sanction Hong Kong. Gwyneth Ho Kwai-lam left behind a career in journalism to run for elected office on a pro-democracy platform, only for Beijing to disqualify Ho’s candidacy and charge her with subverting national security. Tommy—who boasts perhaps the most improbable story of them all—is a frontline protestor who managed to flee life as a wanted fugitive in Hong Kong by sailing to Taiwan in an inflatable boat.
Among the Braves jumps between these individuals, weaving their lives into the broader history of the Hong Kong protests. In Mahtani and McLaughlin’s hands, this is a story that spans decades and takes place in Hong Kong, Beijing, Kaohsiung (Taiwan), New York, Washington, DC, and beyond. At one point, Margaret Thatcher makes an appearance, as does Donald Trump.
Brian Kern’s Liberate Hong Kong: Stories from the Freedom Struggle, first published in a limited run in 2020 and issued here with a new foreword by UK-based Hong Konger exile Evan Fowler, takes an altogether different approach to chronicling the Hong Kong protests. Kern, an American who was long based in Hong Kong and now lives in the United States, previously wrote about the 2014 Umbrella Movement and its aftermath in Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong (2017) and the essay collection As long as there is resistance, there is hope: Essays on the Hong Kong freedom struggle in the post–Umbrella Movement era, 2014–2018 (2019). Now, in his latest book—which, like the other two, was initially published under a pseudonym to protect his safety but is now republished under his own name—Kern turns his attention to the 2019 protests.
Where Among the Braves is expansive in scope, Liberate Hong Kong is exacting in its detail. Unlike Mahtani and McLaughlin, Kern makes no effort to present a disciplined, journalistic narrative: Liberate Hong Kong often resembles oral history transcribed just after the fact, preserving the raw chaos and frenetic energy of the protests. Over the course of the seven months the book covers—from June 2019 to January 2020—we follow Kern as he marches in protests, evades police officers in alleyways, and gets tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed repeatedly.
Four years later, reexamining this history on such a granular level is both exhilarating and exhausting. The smallest of details are deployed to devastating effect: Kern witnesses a police officer fire a tear-gas canister directly at a “very prim, tidy, and clean” nun; after the police launch a siege on hundreds of protestors barricaded in a university, a young man puts a pair of scissors to his throat, only to be stopped by his friends. A man who delivers a minor miracle by hiding Kern from the oncoming authorities walks on crutches and gives Kern the “biggest smile of them all.”
Indeed, both Among the Braves and Liberate Hong Kong shine brightest—and are at their most gut-wrenching—in depicting Hong Kong protestors as ordinary people thrust into extraordinary, tragic circumstances. Kern watches the police arrest a teenage protestor whose expressionless face conveys that “he’s prepared for this a long time,” before realizing the activist was once a little kid who lived in his neighborhood. From Mahtani and McLaughlin, we learn that Tommy, an inveterate class clown, grew up in one of Hong Kong’s public housing estates and dropped out of secondary school to pursue art; Finn Lau works as a surveyor and emphasizes that he’s simply an “ordinary guy who loves Hong Kong.”
In an especially poignant scene from Among the Braves, Gwyneth Ho, the journalist-turned-candidate, tags along with two young activists who embark on a press tour in New York City. At the end of a long day, Ho insists on walking a dozen blocks to Central Park, if only to “feel like a protagonist in a film.” That evening, the Hong Kongers eat mooncakes to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival and chat about life for hours. “For just one night, [the three] forgot the adult roles they had thrust themselves into,” Mahtani and McLaughlin write, although Gwyneth knows there can be “no neat, movie-script ending for her friends.”
But even so, the ending, when it comes, is breathtaking in its swiftness and cruelty. While marching in the streets, Kern thinks to himself that “sooner or later we’re going to be made to pay for this.” Less than a year later, Beijing’s national security law ensures just that.
There is a finality to the passage of this law that no other watershed moment in Hong Kong history—not the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, not the 1997 handover to China, not the 2014 Umbrella Movement—can match. “[E]very few months or years some political commentator who suddenly remembered we existed would pen a new obituary,” writes Hong Konger Karen Cheung in her 2022 memoir The Impossible City. “But we’ve never been as dead as when the national security law was enacted.”
By publishing Liberate Hong Kong, Kern has effectively confessed to violations galore of the national security law and knows he can never return to Hong Kong, a place he was so deeply attached to for most of his adult life that he considers himself living as an exile in the land of his birth. Finn Lau’s marriage falls apart from the demands of his activism work; Tommy spends months languishing in a Taiwanese detention facility before being granted asylum to start a new, uncertain life in New York City. Mahtani and McLaughlin interview Gwyneth Ho at Lo Wu Correctional Facility, where she has been detained for nearly three years. Even Reverend Chu is not spared: warned that he may be arrested, the elderly minister flees to Taiwan, where he watches from afar as his friends are sent to jail and wonders whether he’ll end up dying in a foreign country.
In the last chapter of Among the Braves, an emboldened China flexes its muscle in the Taiwan Strait; the exiled Hong Kong democracy movement spirals into infighting; the Hong Kong government sweeps the memory and trauma of the past few years under the rug. Does the end of Among the Braves, then, mark a definitive end to those willing to fight for Hong Kong?
On Friday nights in Hong Kong, I often met up with a rowdy crew of twentysomethings I’d befriended to drink, gossip, and chat politics late into the night. Around a squat table, my friends and I sipped plum wine and peeled fresh lychee from a plastic grocery bag. We alternated between swiping through each other’s Tinders (“No way, he’s such an MK zai!”) and discussing the future of Hong Kong with startling honesty. It was at those gatherings that I learned how to curse in Cantonese, and it was also at those gatherings that two slightly wine-drunk strangers told me where to buy a burner phone for mainland China.
In those conversations, ordinary life and extraordinary courage still existed alongside one another—so let me offer this: the Hong Kong, and the Hong Kongers, that Among the Braves and Liberate Hong Kong depict still exists somewhere, tucked away in a thousand little corners of the city.
But I do not mean to imbue these images of the present Hong Kong with a false sense of hope. Countless journalists, both local and foreign, have lost the ability to report on the vicissitudes of Hong Kong firsthand in the last few years. “We have traded Hong Kong for our ability to write freely about it,” write Mahtani and McLaughlin, who now live in Singapore. The writers that have come afterward—writers like me, who have never experienced Hong Kong before the national security law —face the prospect of a city in which the stories worth telling shrivel away in isolated pockets of space.
To a great extent, “the struggle was psychological,” Kern wrote as the protests raged on. “It had to do with the stories we told ourselves, and how we told them.” If there ever existed a Hong Kong we could tell ourselves stories about—if there ever will exist such a Hong Kong again—then Among the Braves and Liberate Hong Kong simply mark where the stories, and the struggle, have come to an end for now.
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