Narrative Justice for Hong Kong: On “Aftershock: Essays from Hong Kong”

April 23, 2021   •   By Gina Anne Tam

Aftershock: Essays from Hong Kong

Holmes Chan

HONG KONG IS PLAGUED by misunderstandings that often come from failing to see it on its own terms. A territory long on the fringes of imperial China, it became a British colony in 1842. One hundred and fifty-five years later, in 1997, it was “returned” to a political entity founded in 1949 — the People’s Republic of China (PRC) — and designated a Special Administrative Region of that country. Hong Kong’s relationship to both China and Britain has often been granted an outsize significance in its definition. Historically, colonial sojourners frequently presented it as raw material for an Orientalized fantasy, using phrases like “Pearl of the Orient” to exoticize it as a place that is categorically not Western. More recently, those eager to promote a Cold War dichotomy between the capitalist West and the communist East in the wake of Hong Kong’s 1980s economic boom presented it as a “freer China” with lower taxes and economic regulations than its counterpart across the border. And the propensity to mischaracterize is not limited to authors outside of Asia alone. In the PRC, Hong Kong is frequently described by those seeking to denigrate the city’s distinctive civic culture — defined, in part, by a robust tradition of protest — as misshaped by “Western” influences, whereas those itching to downplay Hong Kong’s unique identity, brashly proclaim that the city is “Chinese first, Hong Kong second.” These simplistic, often contradictory descriptors are united by the fact that Hong Kong is given little definition beyond a mash-up of East and West, with each inchoate term given its specific shape according to each author’s own biases and predilections.


I myself have been guilty of telling its story in a way that relies on simplistic referents. The first class I ever taught was a Hong Kong history class that I titled, cleverly so I thought at the time, “City Between Empires.” This naming choice, which I now regret, echoed a common description of Hong Kong — not quite Chinese, not quite British, Eastern but also Western (whatever those words mean) but nonetheless fettered by these oppositional descriptors that emerge from the experience of outsiders. It distilled Hong Kong’s complex history into a story of competing dichotomies, ignoring the fact that while Hong Kong is certainly shaped by big power games, it is by no means solely the product of them. Halfway through the class I realized that its title had confined our exploration of Hong Kong history, and no amount of questioning its general premise could undo the characterization I had created.


I taught that class in 2013, six years before a protest movement would shake the city’s core. In June 2019, millions of people began marching in opposition to an extradition bill that threatened to dismantle Hong Kong’s distinct legal and political systems. Over the months of subsequent demonstrations and violent clashes between protestors and an increasingly militant police force, Hong Kongers have repeatedly watched outsiders get their sweeping movement for a more autonomous, democratic city wrong. These outsiders, like so many before them who insisted on framing the city as nothing more than the sum of East and West, fall back on easy tropes and project onto Hong Kong’s movement whatever ideology they use to organize the world: as representative of the dangers or promises of communism or capitalism, authoritarianism or anarchy, right or left, or any other world-defining framework. Many of these claims are made without listening to Hong Kongers themselves explain what makes the city worthy of its own story and its own identity — without trying to understand how much the city’s core was forged in a long history of grassroots activism, built by its long history of fighting for its autonomy, over and over again.


But what does it mean to get Hong Kong right, particularly in its current moment? Part of it is simply listening to voices from the city itself. Fortunately, there has been no shortage of recent commentaries, reportage, and memoirs that, whether written by insiders or outsiders, center the voices of Hong Kongers and make legible a space that has so often eluded nuanced exploration. What unites the best of such works is that they brim with the authenticity of personal connection, filtering the historical enormity of the movement through diverse voices.


Like those works, Aftershock: Essays from Hong Kong does this well. But this strikingly original work does more. What is distinctive about this short volume of personal essays by journalists reflecting on their experiences of Hong Kong’s months of protests is that its purpose is less writing to explain than writing to understand. Each short chapter focuses on experiences that were deeply meaningful to the authors, but whose full weight they are continuing to process: watching a university campus become a battlefield; the unending frustration of watching one’s hometown be stuffed into a mold forged from other people’s fears and traumas; and the fights that were waged over storytelling within newsrooms. In other words, it does more than just center Hong Kong voices. It lays bare the methods through which Hong Kongers try to write their own stories while so many others have been trying to write those stories for them.


There are two themes that unite these essays. The first, as editor Holmes Chan puts it, is that each essay is defined by the author’s choice to be vulnerable and “choice to care.” The characters in each story are both deeply individual and highly relatable, people who feel pushed to the edge and feel the need to do something, even if that something is unclear or even futile. A second theme that pulses from the pages of the anthology is a desire to understand and be understood. Each essay probes holes, missing pieces, and fragments of memories of a movement that have been lost, muddied, misrepresented, or suppressed in a desperate desire to make sense of them. The truth is, despite the fact that this protest movement was likely the most recorded in history, there is so much that we still do not know about it. This short collection of reflective essays thus rejects the temptation to provide clear answers and, instead, grapples with that which remains ungraspable. As Chan so poignantly explains about the volume he created, “What I wished for was writing that […] was willing to keep me company as I banged my head against the wall.”


The clearest example of these themes is Holmes Chan’s own piece. The essay takes one instance of police brutality Chan witnessed in August 2019 and uses it to dig away at the piles of political and ideological justifications for state violence. Initially, Chan’s essay seems to want to explore the raw desire for power that drives individuals to control the world through physical force. But it quickly turns into a metacommentary on the volume itself. As his essay grapples with what he witnessed, he begins to see the reality of it as a “ghost” of truth, the kind of idea that slips between our fingers and feels impossible to sculpt with words alone. It leads him to a powerful realization: for words to actually arrive at truth, they need to do more than describe or explain. They need to fight back.


Other essays, though less transcendental, also draw attention to the power of narrative. There is Ezra Cheung’s painful reflection of watching Chan Tong-Kai — the man who committed the gruesome murder that was used to justify the extradition bill that initially sparked the protests — become subsumed by forces that had nothing to do with his crime. Cheung asks us to think about a man who, on the one hand, deserves little sympathy, but on the other, still experiences the very real trauma of becoming a scapegoat for pro-Beijing groups seeking to whittle away Hong Kong’s judicial independence. There is Hsiuwen Liu’s discomfort with how the slogan “Today’s Hong Kong, Tomorrow’s Taiwan” has “flattened” Hong Kong by viewing it solely “through the lens of fear.” Then there is Karen Cheung’s thoughtful realization that, although we are often changed as people when we “brush shoulders with” big historical events, our tendency to focus on decisive moments means we often ignore the “thankless community work” that makes activism possible — a good reminder for many of us.


Ultimately, what I take away from this volume is that bad referents do not just get things wrong. They erase, suppress, and make it harder to grasp truths. The suppression of understanding can cause trauma, hindering the creation of a collective memory that allows people to comprehend major events and make sense of them in their lives. Aftershock, however, is not a book of sadness or cynicism. It is one of hope. Chan’s volume highlights the importance of storytellers — not just to archive and document, but to discipline fragments of data into something meaningful. In this way, the essays are not just about a movement that’s still poorly understood. They are an attempt to break free from the maw of imperialism, cultural or political, and make use of the things we do not understand. The book pioneers a method for exploring Hong Kong on its own terms.


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Gina Anne Tam is an assistant professor of Chinese history at Trinity University in San Antonio. Her research and teaching focuses on the construction of collective identity — national belonging, ethnicity, and race — in modern China.