Review - Hong Kong 20/20: Reflections on a Borrowed Place is best collection in years of writing and comment about city
Anthology of short stories, essays, poetry and art by the likes of pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, commentator Chip Tsao and G.O.D. founder Douglas Young a rich depiction of Hong Kong’s first 20 years under Chinese rule
by various authors
What if the police had been less restrained during 2014’s Occupy Central? What if, instead of a night of tear-gassing and the roughing up of some activists, the police genuinely opened fire? What if the event triggered the People’s Liberation Army to leave their barracks and join the action?
“It Was All Wasted,” a short story by Shen Jian, begins with two typical Hong Kong boys who are more interested in basketball and karaoke than politics. They join Occupy Central just out of youthful curiosity. But when a video of one brother goes viral, he inadvertently becomes a symbol of the resistance, and is drawn into the revolution.
In Shen’s fictional account, Hong Kong is doomed by one fateful action – when a single, umbrella-wielding protester launches himself over the wall of the PLA compound and is shot dead. Suddenly everything changes, in a city that had until then been protected from the gun violence and police brutality seen overseas. The military takes over, the Hang Seng crashes, the internet goes down, and foreigners flee. Hong Kong falls like a set of dominos.
“It Was All Wasted” is one of 47 works in Hong Kong 20/20: Reflections on a Borrowed Place, a PEN Hong Kong anthology which is the best writing collection this city has produced in recent memory. Its 16 poems, 12 essays, eight short stories and 11 illustrations – all high-quality and original – are a testament to the strength of the local literary scene.
The book’s 42 contributors are wonderfully varied and include veteran commentators Chip Tsao and Steve Vines, poet Sarah Howe, literary figure Xu Xi, student activist Joshua Wong, and Douglas Young, founder of lifestyle store G.O.D. .
Hong Kong 20/20, published by the independent Blacksmith Books, is a truly home-grown project. Funding to produce it was essentially crowdsourced from the Hong Kong public earlier this year. At that time, nobody could have predicted that the book launch would take place amid a firestorm of debate about freedom of speech in this former British colony.
In late June, the Asia Society Hong Kong caused an uproar when it barred Occupy movement student leader Joshua Wong from speaking at Hong Kong 20/20’s planned launch party. (At the last minute, the organisers moved it to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. The Asia Society’s New York headquarters subsequently released a statement saying that the decision to cancel was “an error”, but it was already too late to save the event).
Two weeks later on July 13, the jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo died in China – inspiring candlelight vigils and other memorials in Hong Kong, one of the few places left on Chinese soil where such a commemoration can take place.
The day immediately after Liu’s death, Hong Kong’s High Court removed four elected opposition lawmakers from the Legislative Council, reinforcing the view that the city no longer tolerated dissident views. It is in this context that Hong Kong 20/20 appears, just as Hong Kong society is doing some soul searching on whether it still has a place for unique voices.
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Hong Kong publishers and NGOs, such as PEN, are fighting to ensure that original, uncensored, local content is created and read. Adding to the struggle are the high costs of operating in the city, and the low visibility of local authors. In the past few years, financial constraints saw the City University of Hong Kong’s master’s programme in creative writing close, ended the prestigious Man Asia Literary Prize, and led to the closure of MUSE magazine, which had once envisioned itself as the “Hong Kong New Yorker”.
This is what makes reading Hong Kong 20/20 so refreshing. Very few local publishers have successfully come up with such a good mix of personal essays, commentary, fiction, poetry, art, and sharp-witted political cartoons – all from or about Hong Kong.
There are retro “Lily Wong” comic strips from Larry Feign, and biting contributions from South China Morning Post satirical cartoonist Harry Harrison. There are journalists we usually associate with serious news – Kris Cheng of Hong Kong Free Press and Louisa Lim of the BBC and NPR – opening up about their personal Hong Kong upbringings. There are quirky short stories from Mishi Saran, Kate Whitehead and Ilaria Maria Sala.
I was surprised at how rich the Hong Kong content was, and discovered several authors I’d never read before. Hong Kong 20/20 succeeds not because it was tagged to the handover’s 20th anniversary, but because most of its writing is simply a joy to read. All anthologies are a mixed bag in terms of quality and style; but in general, the essays here are concise, the cartoons clever, the fiction imaginative, and the poetry beautifully written.