Hong Kong citizen’s long struggle to maintain their city’s identity

Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong
By Louisa Lim
The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2022
306pp.

When huge pro-democracy protests erupted in Hong Kong in 2019 against the government’s Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill, journalist and historian Louisa Lim found herself drawn into the protests.

She writes: “Driven by gut instinct, I stood up and walked over to take a paint pot for myself. I knew I was crossing a line, from neutral reporter to voluntary participant in an act of protest, and that in doing so, I was violating the cardinal tenet on which I had based a quarter of a century of journalist endeavour. But I also realized at that instant that I didn’t care.”

As a member of Hong Kong’s mixed-race Eurasian community, Lim has often explored themes of dispossession, identity and the erasure of historic memory in her books. People's Republic of Amnesia explores how the Chinese Stalinist regime suppressed people’s memories of its crushing of the 1989 pro-democracy movement in mainland China.

Now, in Indelible City, Lim turns her attention to the struggles of the people of Hong Kong to maintain the city’s identity while caught between the competing myths of British colonialism, which claimed it was a barren rock before 1841, and Stalinist China, which views Hong Kong as a piece of Chinese soil that was returned to its ancestral homeland in 1997.

Both these versions effectively erase the role of the local Hong Kong Chinese and Eurasian communities. In response, they have created their own myths, such as that of the Lo-Ting, a race of fish-headed mermen who settled the area around 411 AD, in the process solidifying the city-state’s reputation as a refuge for dissidents from tyranny.

During the period between British colonial takeover and the handover to China, Lim rescues from historical erasure two key moments.

The first key moment was in April 1899, when members of the local clan fought British authorities in an event known as Hong Kong’s “Six Day War”. Despite being defeated, the rebellion extracted major concessions from the British.

The second key moment was the negotiations between the British and Chinese governments over Hong Kong’s future between 1979-84. Through archival research, Lim has rescued the voice of a group of industrialists, bankers and lawyers known as the “Unofficials”, which acted as advisors to the Hong Kong Governor.

A common thread through the negotiations is how the "Unofficials'', who as capitalists represented only a narrow layer of Hong Kong society, attempted to add a Hong Kong voice into the negotiation between the two powers, but ultimately felt a sense of betrayal for being shut out of the process.

The agreement reached in 1984 allowed Hong Kong to be handed over to China as a Special Administrative Region in 1997, under which the One Country, Two Systems arrangement would remain in place until 2047. This would allow Hong Kong to have some democratic rights, with a gerrymandered Legislative Council (LegCo) to ensure capitalist interests loyal to Beijing would rule Hong Kong.

During this time, we learn about Tsang Tsou Choi, a street artist who proclaimed himself the King of Kowloon, claiming his family’s sovereignty over the area stretched back to 973 AD. Although he started his street art in the 1950s’, he only became internationally renowned in the past decade. His work served as an inspiration for the political art that appeared during Hong Kong's recent protests.

After 1997, Hong Kong maintained some of its democratic rights, for instance being the only place where commemorations of the Tiananmen Square massacre are allowed on June 4. But with Beijing breathing down their neck, and people dissatisfied with the vast inequalities in Hong Kong, periodically protests have erupted.

The 2019 protests emerged in response to the LegCo’s attempted extradition treaty, which people feared would make it possible for the Chinese government to abduct pro-democracy activists to mainland China. For Lim, the movement was an attempt to reclaim politics.

Despite the LegCo withdrawing its extradition treaty and the 2019 Hong Kong district council election delivering a pro-democracy majority, the movement was ultimately unsuccessful in achieving greater changes.

In the aftermath, China has increasingly undermined Hong Kong’s autonomy, using COVID-19 as a pretext to adopt the National Security Legislation for Hong Kong, ban the annual June 4 Tiananmen commemorations and repress the pro-democracy movement.

Ultimately, Lim, who was among the thousands who have fled Hong Kong in the face of rising repression from the Chinese state, has in Indelible City provided an account of the struggles of the people of Hong Kong to maintain their identity, autonomy and democratic rights.

The book ends on a note of optimism: a hidden message discovered in one of the King of Kowloon’s art works, that states “Hong Kong will see light again”.