Some further analysis of Leung Ping Kwan’s ‘Images of Hong Kong’, from a historical perspective

…we are looking for a different angle,
that neither adds nor subtracts,
forever on the margin, forever in transition.
We write with pens of different colours,
but these things, too, easily become superficial.
Is this how history is constructed?
He is a good writer of spy stories with an Oriental flavour.
Entangled with what others have said
Why is it so hard to tell our own stories?

I’d like to go back to the poem ‘Images of Hong Kong’, by Leung Ping Kwan. To my mind, this is a poem whose subject is history; the way history is written, and who gets to tell it.

The line, ‘Entangled with what others have said’ suggests the problematic nature of memory, and the fact that there is not one hand in the writing of the history of a place, but many. It also identifies a problem, which follows neatly after the Oriental comment, which is that even if a place’s history is written by foreigners, their version is, to some extent, absorbed by the population that it describes, until it is difficult to extract exterior observation from interior thought. Edward Said makes a similar point about Orientalism as a process in which the Orient accepts the image that the Occident creates of it, and to some extent begins to reproduce that image.

History writing – and particularly colonial history writing – is a process of response, reaction, and reframing – not so different to the identity-negotiation process of the Hong Kongers themselves, which in many ways is a response to and rejection of the colonised position. Indeed, both histories and identities have a complex relationship with place, events, narrative and belief, and we might even go so far as to say that we create identity from the history to which we have access (or that we are able, in turn, to create) – whilst at other times particular identities, just as histories written by foreigners, are imposed upon people. This is relevant in the case of the people of HK, who officially passed from one relational identity in 1997 (connected to the British, under colonisation) to another (connected to the Chinese, becoming a Special Administrative Region).

This poem actually calls to be unpacked in order, since the layers of meaning build upon one another and its lines interact subtly. The first line in this extract is repeated multiple times within the larger context of the poem (though it is first phrased in the first person singular, and later in the first person plural) and represents the most important message therein: a quest to tell one’s own story, and from a fresh and somehow whole, truthful perspective – an angle ‘that neither adds nor subtracts’. This is an impossible feat – the ‘pens of different colours’ are needed, because a history must necessarily be polyphonic: it must tell multiple stories from multiple angles.

Note the sandwiching of the line “He is a good writer of spy stories with an Oriental flavour” between the question concerning history’s construction and the line denoting the problematic nature of memory and competing histories. This positioning proposes a certain identity for the ‘good writer’ – not just a novelist but a historian – and by describing his work as fiction full of intrigue and Orientalist allure, Leung underscores the subjective nature of History, and how damaging and biased it may in fact be. When I read this line Frank Welsh, a historian of British colonial history, sprang to mind. In one section of his history of Hong Kong (published a few years before the handover, and revised after the fact) he literally writes the colonial past (as well as economic imperialism) out of the city’s architecture, as if to whitewash the actions of the British and to absolve them of any responsibility for events post-1997. Welsh provides one ‘Image(s) of Hong Kong’ therefore with which to compete.

(de)subjectivisation

To feel citizen of a national political community there is a need for “markers”, “symbols” both in time and space.

— So said Michel Foucher, geographer, geopolitics specialist and diplomat, in an interview on the subject of borders, security and identity. http://www.exploringgeopolitics.org/interview_foucher_michel_borders_boundaries_frontiers_globalisation_security_identity_europe_central_asia/

From the announcement by Dr. Victor Fan this week that there are both many films and no films that deal with the political situation surrounding the 1967 riots in Hong Kong (due to colonial censorship no film will deal with the 1967 problem up front*), to the lack of reliable historical writing on Hong Kong, it has become apparent that we are attempting to approach a topic that is full of lacunae. This fits in with Fan’s work on Extraterritoriality, in which he constructs his argument precisely around an unstable Hong Kongese identity. To return to the above quotation from Michel Foucher, physical borders have great significance to the people of Hong Kong on a political, juridical and an imaginative level, however these territorial borders do not allow the straightforward identification of “citizen” that Foucher suggests.

When Chai and I visited Dr. Fan in his office hours this week he explained that, as someone born and raised in Hong Kong and who left in the 1990s to come to the UK, he always dodges the identity labels that people apply to him. Asked if he is Chinese, and he will answer “not Chinese; a Hong Konger” but if asked if he is a Hong Konger, he will also “erase” this label with a qualification. Fan explained this in terms of the negotiation of identity in relation to colonisation. He went so far as to say that the ego — sum — does not exist for such an individual. This is a process of ‘desubjectivisation’, in which a boundary is implicit in conversations with others on the subject of Hong Kong identity. I wanted to get to the bottom of this, and so I asked him how representative this sort of positioning was. Victor answered that people feel differently, but ultimately that if you probe and question long enough, you will find that people’s sense of affiliation is unstable and negative (negative in the sense of being to compelled to erase the labels that are imposed upon them; a reaction to colonisation).

To return to history for a moment: I want to emphasise the pertinence and timeliness of our project, with the British National Archives on Hong Kong opened only last year — an important source of primary evidence and the location of government documents concerning the period of British colonisation and handover to the Chinese. The colonial history of Hong Kong is a very young subject of study — existing in Hong Kong only since 1997 — and it is still considered a forbidden subject (both by the Chinese and the British government). This explains the scarcity in the historiography. Frank Welsh wrote a highly problematic but influential history of HK from a colonial conservative perspective, claiming for example that the 1967 riots could be reduced to an economic explanation (nothing to do with colonisation). Don’t read accounts from mainland China, advised Fan, as these show strongly nationalistic positions. Focus on the few books on the subject that have been published by the University of Hong Kong Press… These will be part of the bibliography that we are compiling.

Fan’s argument in Extraterritoriality extends to the cinema as a space in which HK identity may be expressed and negotiated. It seems to me that where the ability to achieve a political or historical overview of the situation developing over the course of the c20th in HK is significantly limited, it makes sense that scholars like Fan (Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at KCL) have located their studies within the cultural field, with art as a place in which individual experience is subjectively articulated. That is not to say that there is freedom of expression in art — particularly when we have so recently been considering the Cultural Revolution — but indeed, that it is fruitful to consider the silencing of directors (such as Shu Shuen, director of China Behind, a film which did was banned from public screening until 1981) and the barriers faced within the film industry, on which Lau Shing-hon has commented in ‘Shu Shuen: The Lone-Rider in Hong Kong Cinema in the 1970s’. It would be interesting to see if literature fulfills a similar role. Cue: Francesca!

In our meeting last Friday we reexamined the spatial significance of borders as a subject, and the relevance of methods from Geography for its academic treatment. A suggestion was made that we could connect our disciplines by reference to an overarching idea or approach relating to borders from geography, that we could all use as a starting point or combine with our own discipline in our individual research. We spent the meeting attempting to narrow our focus, setting the parameters in time (Classics stretching back to the Roman Empire in comparative study of the appropriation and return of provinces and History to the c15th and c16th definition by the Catholic Church of extraterritorial spaces: land that lay beyond European jurisdiction and therefore could be freely acquired as colonies) and space (HK, with a broader study by Lewis, who discussed his confinement within the discipline of Classics to the boundaries of the Roman empire but mentioned that he might possibly don his Ancient Civilizations hat if he wanted to branch out further into Asia).

We discussed a possible structure for our presentation, to show how history repeats itself, and George urged us to consider more recent developments in HK. Our Politics major would be best placed to address the Umbrella Movement of 2014. A reform was instigated by the Chinese government in 1997 promising voters the right to elect their Chief Executive by popular vote. However, the government would choose the candidates for which the electorate could vote. The first wave of reaction in the Umbrella Movement came from high school students, who occupied the Central Banking District and the Admiralty. They were later joined by close to a million people. When Dr. Fan discussed these protests with us he commented that the constitutional system put in place by the Chinese was nonetheless far more democratic and comprehensive than that laid down by the British colonial government. This might be a point worth investigating in order to problematise an East/West Orientalist divide, with the West typically waving their banners of democracy and declaring superiority on such grounds. Methods from Anuthira’s study of the riots by migrant workers in Little India, Singapore, may prove useful in application to the Umbrella Movement protests.

Our Comparative Literature student has already provided us with a detailed bibliography, both from a module taken in Hong Kong entitled ‘Hong Kong Culture: Representations of Identity in Literature and Film’ and from the works cited in her Translations Across Disciplines essay. It is interesting to note the structure of the HK course, which begins with ‘Unlearning Hong Kong’, explores ways of writing Hong Kong and the city, and in a third part revisits HK through China. I wonder if she could tell us a bit about the functions of literature for these purposes of resituation. Particular reference was made to the following part of the syllabus:

Rethinking the city as home: stories of migration and homecoming

Required readings:
Aihwa Ong, “Introduction”, Flexible Citizenship
Sara Ahmed, “Home and away: narratives of migration and estrangement”
Required literary text:
Wong Bik-­‐‑wan, “Losing the City” 黃碧雲〈失城〉
References:
Paul White, “Geography, Literature and Migration”
Lawrence Lam, “Searching for a Safe Haven”
Philip Mar, “Unsettling Potentialities: Topographies of Hope in Transnational Migration”
王德威〈香港: 一座城市的故事〉(An article by David Der-­‐‑wei Wang on Hong Kong literature: in Chinese only) Peter Chan, The Age of Miracles 陳可辛 《嫲嫲帆帆》(film)

To wrap it up before our next meeting: we agreed to do some individual research and to prepare a list of the books/articles/films etc specific to our own disciplines for compilation into a group bibliography. We also all agreed to watch the relevant scenes of China Behind (from 75 mins approx., to the end of the film).


 

*According to Fan, the film which most closely deals with the subject is The Home at Hong Kong by King Hoi Lam. He also recommended Ann Hui’s Boat People, though this shows a post-socialist situation, and the later 1980s comedies: Chinese-Hong Kong collaborations.