City Weekend

Lion Rock spirit still casting its spell on Hong Kong

From working folks trying to get ahead in the 1970s, to pro-democracy activists in 2014, the term has become symbolic of the city’s development and evokes powerful memories

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 April, 2017, 2:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 April, 2017, 2:32pm

Lion Rock spirit was a term that emerged during the 1970s, referring to the “can-do” attitude of Hong Kong people, specifically the baby boomer generation in a period when the economy was growing.

The term was coined after the RTHK television series Below The Lion Rock, which first aired in 1972 and ran until 2016. It featured stories about the city’s industrious working people. The series took its name from Lion Rock in Kowloon Country Park, which has become symbolic of Hong Kong’s growth.

The theme song for Below The Lion Rock contained the lyrics: “In the same place, far beyond/Hold hands and flatten the ruggedness/We wrote with our arduous hard work that/ Forever Hong Kong.”

Rita Chan Man-yee, who rose from production assistant on the show during the 1980s to become an executive director, said the focus was always about “reflecting the social situation”.

“We wanted to produce a programme to relate the situation of the Hong Kong people, and what they were thinking at that time,” she said. “We did not have a particular ‘spirit’ in mind, but I think in the early days it was about people being poor and working to improve their living standards.”

In search of this generation’s Lion Rock spirit

Chan said episodes in the 1980s and 90s revealed how Hongkongers were emigrating ahead of the handover in 1997 because of uncertainties about the future. She said shortly after the millennium, the focus shifted to the nature of the changing family dynamic and the human aspect of Hong Kong. By 2015, she said, the series was exposing the city’s housing crisis.

“When people watch the programme, they feel like it is happening next door to them,” she said. “The audience has the same feelings. Lion Rock spirit is real, and the show reflects the real situation.”

Professor Kristof Van Den Troost of the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong said he thought although the term originated from the television series, different generations increasingly had contrasting interpretations of the idea of “Lion Rock spirit”.

“For some people, this idea refers back to the older generation, when Hong Kong was a developing place,” he said. “It was a sense of working together to overcome the odds. I think there are some similarities with the American Dream.

“But for the younger generation, they might use it to refer to social problems, notably the fight for universal suffrage.”

We need to recapture the Lion Rock spirit, says designer Stanley Wong

Asked whether he agreed that some baby boomers would use the term as a means of disparaging millennials, he said: “They tell the younger generation that they are lazy and not hard-working. But I think young people realise that it is not so easy now to rise from nowhere to the top.”

Lion Rock spirit was in many ways typified by the government’s 1972 small-house policy, which enabled men living in the New Territories to build their own three-storey village home.

The policy was welcomed by some Hongkongers because it provided them with better housing and control over a portion of rural land, while others maintained it was discriminatory against women. During the late 1980s it also emerged that beneficiaries of the scheme were selling their homes to private landowners, which appeared to undermine the original policy.

There were further examples of Lion Rock spirit throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s. On October 1, 1979, governor Sir Murray MacLehose launched the MTR network, in response to a growing economy and increasing congestion on the city’s roads. It was a huge boost for both the local working population as well as for Hong Kong’s reputation abroad. Trains ferried 285,000 people across the city on the first day of service.

Later, in 1984, the constitutional principle of “one country, two systems”, laid out for Hong Kong by mainland China was seen by some as testament to its growing economic power. From the time of the British handover in 1997, it enabled Hong Kong to maintain some political and economic autonomy, at least until 2047, but in recent years has been criticised by some localists as restrictive of the city’s growth and freedoms.

Meanwhile, the 1997 handover itself, was celebrated by some as a significant milestone in Hong Kong’s development in that it became free from the shackles of its former colonial power. The city will mark the 20th anniversary of the handover on July 1, but some fear the city’s industrious spirit is increasingly being undermined by communist China.

Government must nurture the Lion Rock spirit of innovation

There then followed the much needed creation of Hong Kong International Airport in 1998 to replace the considerably smaller Kai Tak Airport in Kowloon City. This development significantly boosted Hong Kong’s profile internationally, as the airport became one of the world’s busiest passenger hubs, flying to more than 180 cities worldwide.

After the millennium, major tragedies to hit the city included the deadly outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003, which infected 1,755 people and killed 299, and the suicide of popular Canto-pop singer and actor Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing. But these troubling developments also had the effect of prompting Hongkongers to band together in solidarity.

Then in late 2014, Lion Rock spirit seemed to take on a new layer of meaning with the Occupy protests. On October 23, 2014, a group of protesters unfurled a banner that read “I want real universal suffrage” on the 495-metre high Lion Rock, which sits between Kowloon Tong and Tai Wai.

The stunt, which prompted a huge reaction online, was intended to show support for the Occupy protests, as well as being a demonstration against Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s comments that open elections could not be allowed because poor people would have too much political power.

The protesters shared video footage of them putting up the banner, in which one man was heard explaining the reasons for their demonstration to the camera.

“We think the spirit of Lion Rock isn’t just about money,” he said. “The people fighting for real universal suffrage all over Hong Kong have shown great perseverance. This kind of fighting against injustice, strength in the face of troubles, is the true Lion Rock spirit.”


1972 Small-house policy

1976 Home Sweet Home – Home Ownership Scheme introduced

1979 The train takes the strain with launch of the MTR

1984 City’s freedoms guaranteed under “one country, two systems”

1997 Dawn of a new era – Hong Kong returns to the motherland

1998 First-class ticket into the future – new airport opens

2003 Sars outbreak

2003 Leslie Cheung suicide

2008 Edison Chen nude photo scandal

2011 Fa Yuen Street fire

2012 Dolce & Gabbana ban on locals taking photos at flagship store

2013 Strike by dock workers

2014 Occupy protests