Hong Kong’s restless youth look to the future for change, rather than seeking to destroy the colonial past
Andrew Collinson says those involved in mass protests such as the Occupy movement are firmly focused on moving forwards, instead of campaigning to remove statues of those blamed for past wrongs, as student movements in other cities have done
Dour-faced and clutching an ornate sceptre, Hong Kong’s former imperial Queen sits impervious to the elements in Victoria Park, Causeway Bay. In the Zoological and Botanical Gardens in Admiralty, King George VI stands proud, while Sir Thomas Jackson – one of the original architects behind Hong Kong’s banking system – casts a lengthy shadow in Statue Square. Aside from a few mutterings about replacing the last remaining colonial-era postboxes bearing the crown insignia, few of the wilder ideas to decolonise Hong Kong – including a proposal to replace British street names with the names of lauded Chinese figures – have come to pass. But with a fervent anti-colonialist zeal having swept through university campuses in South Africa, the US and England’s Oxford University, is it inevitable that a campaign to remove Hong Kong’s colonial statues will erupt?
Relations between the pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps are rancorous, the gap between Hong Kong’s richest and poorest is growing, and China’s economic outlook is shaky. Yet in spite of a febrile political climate where fish balls are a catalyst for violent clashes with police, Hong Kong’s colonial statues continue to stand, unopposed.
History partly explains why: the last time historic statues were moved or altered in significant numbers was during the Japanese occupation. Queen Victoria was transported to Japan, but was returned and restored in 1952. Others, including governor William Des Voeux, were less fortunate, disappearing entirely and not replaced. Antipathy towards the darkest chapter in Hong Kong’s history shapes today’s ambivalence to changing the status quo.
But there’s a further reason why the statues are still standing: Hong Kong’s forward-looking and politically mature millennials. Mature isn’t a word typically bandied around when discussing Hong Kong’s teens and young adults, but consider the Occupy protesters: whether you agreed with their objectives or not, they shared a goal to change the legislative direction of Hong Kong. They were not interested in looking backwards or squabbling over the appropriateness of colonial relics in public places. Their focus was explicitly on the future, not the past.
When a cellist was reprimanded by MTR staff last September for travelling on the train with his instrument, an ensemble of over 100 musicians gathered at Tai Wai station and played music, a pitch perfect response to overzealous enforcement of the rules governing transporting goods on public transport. The violent scenes which characterised last month’s so-called fish ball protests in Mong Kok are an aberration, if historic precedent is anything to go by, and the hot-headed actions of a minority have rightly been condemned.
If there is a commonality in these three disparate acts of protest, it is a reluctance of the young to rummage through a history of colonial injustices and use racial animus to stir a bitter narrative about Hong Kong’s current political crossroads. It’s a marked contrast to student-led protests surrounding century-old statues at Yale and Oxford, where campuses sizzle with resentment for past wrongs, but are devoid of a meaningful discussion about how to reform political and social institutions to rectify the complex legacies of colonialism.
Holding men such as Woodrow Wilson or Cecil Rhodes to 21st-century standards of morality was always going to be as foolhardy as blaming Hong Kong’s bickering Legislative Council on George Bonham or Chris Patten. At a time when the superficiality of a Twitter hashtag campaign – #RhodesMustFall being the most notorious example – reigns supreme, it is a breath of fresh air that Hong Kong’s millennials are so far resisting dredging up the past to address their current grievances. There isn’t a #QueenVictoriaMustGo movement, and aside from some isolated episodes of vandalism, her statue remains unscathed. Colonial statues and relics dot Hong Kong’s landscape like dai pai dong, and our lives are richer because of it. Learning from the past is preferable to the futility of trying to blitz it from memory.
Andrew Collinson is a British writer based in Hong Kong