After a year-long hangover, can Hong Kong reawaken its desire to do better?

Keane Shum says Hong Kong’s famous can-do spirit seems to have waned after the events of the past year

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 December, 2015, 4:58pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 December, 2015, 4:58pm

For most of its modern history, as long as most of us can remember, Hong Kong has been nothing if not aspirational. Ours has been the city of let do, make do, can do; a tiny dot on the map radiating outsized ripples across oceans. The world has eaten our food, bought our toys, watched our movies, invested in our funds. And as the city has dreamed big, so have the citizens. Nowhere else on earth is so much wealth concentrated within such small confines by so thin a sliver of society, and yet even the most downtrodden among us never take their frustration out by throwing bricks at the Mercedes-Benzes double-parked on a one-lane street. Because there is respect, if grudging, for the Benz owner; admiration, if covetous; and hope, if misguided, that we are all capable of joining the Benz club one day.

I am proud of my parents the same way I am proud of Hong Kong, of the audacity to have aspirations and, more difficult, the determination to realise them

My father, born in a village in Kam Tin during the Japanese occupation, was cut from this dreamwoven cloth. He yearned for the city beyond the village walls, then for the world beyond the city limits. So one winter day in 1962, having exhausted his options in Hong Kong, he took off from Kai Tak for Australia. He hoarded degrees like they were precious metals, to be mined for increasingly lucrative corporate jobs. He got married and had children. And when he and my mother felt they had hit the ceiling of their middle-class immigrant life, they came back to Asia. I was three.

We came back, but my parents never stopped being immigrants, never stopped striving in their own lives and for their children’s. We never had a Benz, but the company provided the next best thing, a Lexus, to say nothing of international school tuition, fancy club memberships and roomy apartments on the south side of Hong Kong Island with sweeping views of the South China Sea. It was about 40km from Kam Tin, but the distance my father had traversed was, of course, immeasurable.

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I used to be bashful about these spoils of upward mobility, wary of being out of touch with the real Hong Kong. But I have come to recognise that my Hong Kong is as real as anyone’s, and I have nothing to be embarrassed about. I am proud of my parents the same way I am proud of Hong Kong, of the audacity to have aspirations and, more difficult, the determination to realise them.

But as the events of the past year have unfolded, I have begun to wonder if that determination, even that aspiration, is waning; that this dragon is entering its slumber. Fifteen months ago, the world watched as our city, or at least parts of it, seemed poised to punch above its weight again, confronting the Chinese Communist Party more brazenly than any world power has dared in recent times. Then, by the start of this year, that (mis)adventure had already been put to bed, for better or worse.

What has followed has been a year-long hangover of sorts, our politics still too dizzy to move straight in any one direction. Electoral reform was predictably vetoed by pan-democrats, but the Legislative Council vote was such a shambles that the pro-establishment camp literally couldn’t figure out which way to walk. Turnout for the district council elections was encouraging, but the results were inconclusive, no one party emerging with a mandate to do much of anything. While our universities remained incubators of dissent, their governing councils appeared to prioritise the interests of the state over the student. The city continued to gain prominence as a global arts hub, even as it shut down creative writing programmes like the one I graduated from.

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The chief executive, meanwhile, was in Beijing’s eyes transcendent, but in the eyes of our laws subject to prosecution once he steps down, just like any other citizen. That and the other headline trial of the year – the prosecution of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s former employer, Law Wan-tung – were either triumphs of our independent judiciary or indictments of the sense of entitlement running through this city, from the Tseung Kwan O apartment where the Indonesian domestic worker was abused, right up to Government House.

Even on the pitch, our footballers fought desperately, like no Hong Kong footballers had ever fought before, just to secure a draw, all so we could celebrate the complete absence of goals in a fraught confrontation with the mainland. Twice.

We are stalled, stagnant like the water where mosquitoes breed in that old public service announcement. This was the year our special administrative region turned 18, but rather than springing impulsively into adulthood, it seems to have plodded uncertainly into a suspended adolescence, self-sufficient but indefinitely inhibited from making its own decisions (for its own good). Even the youngest, most impetuous activists have turned to the long game, effectively writing off the next three decades by focusing on the judgment year, 2047. Are we consigned to maintain this awkward status quo every year until then? Or will we sober up in 2016, plot out a direction and begin finding our way?

My father used to march with me on July 1, not so much for universal suffrage as the simple idea that Hong Kong has imperfections and shouldn’t be afraid to confront them. He died on May 6. That was the biggest story of my year.

This was the year our special administrative region turned 18, but rather than springing impulsively into adulthood, it seems to have plodded uncertainly into a suspended adolescence

He passed away in Sydney, but we brought his ashes back to Hong Kong, scattering them in the South China Sea, where he used to look out, I imagine, and feel the world spreading forth, endless trajectories of possibility like those Hong Kong once charted.

My father’s aspirations live on, through me and my brother and sister. But what of the city’s? Will we – will this paper – keep asking and trying to answer the hard questions, about ourselves and our city, and about China and our place in it? Will we openly confront our imperfections? Will we challenge each other to improve? Or have we stopped trying to become better versions of ourselves?

Keane Shum is a lawyer in Hong Kong