For years, journalist Louisa Lim wanted to write a book about Tsang Tsou-choi, better known as the King of Kowloon. He’d spent decades painting his semi-literate graffiti – what Lim calls his “wonky, shonky calligraphy” – around Hong Kong, including on postboxes and lamp posts. He’d claimed that Kowloon was his ancestral property, illegally seized by the British and then, after the handover, by China. Initially, Tsang was considered a vandal with mental health problems; he’d spent 18 months in Castle Peak psychiatric hospital and later lived in a flat so fetid that sensitive visitors vomited. By the time he died in 2007, however, his work had appeared at the Venice Biennale and in Sotheby’s salesrooms, and he’d been cast in the role of valued eccentric. In 2011, a Taikoo Place exhibition was titled “Memories of King Kowloon [sic]”. That, Lim says, “was when the inkling was planted in my mind”. In the prologue to her new book, Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong , she describes Tsang as “a shaman, a truth-teller, a holy fool” and “a prism through which Hong Kong’s story could be viewed […] a David and Goliath tale”. Sometimes, she writes, “it seemed like the King was guiding me from beyond the grave – breadcrumbing my trail to Hong Kong’s most interesting thinkers”. Rather like the city’s M+ museum of visual culture , which placed a pair of doors daubed by Tsang in his declining years at the entrance to its “Hong Kong: Here and Beyond” exhibition, she’s employing him to tell a tale. Can the head that wears the crown also bear the weight of such metaphor? Well, yes – up to a point, and not entirely in the way she intended. Lim, who grew up in Hong Kong and lived in Beijing for a decade, and is a former correspondent for the BBC and NPR, now teaches audio journalism at the University of Melbourne. When she was told that, without a PhD, she wouldn’t be confirmed in her position, she spent five years analysing Hong Kong identity and how newspaper coverage elevated the King to icon status. “There were interesting discussions about exploitation back in 1997,” she says on a video call. “And not only whether he was being exploited but whether the media was complicit in the exploitation by writing about him.” When the 2019 Hong Kong protests began in June, she happened to be in Hong Kong, with her two adolescent children, doing regal research. (She was awarded her doctorate last year.) They flew back to Australia on July 2, the day after the storming of Legco, but she returned to Hong Kong several times that autumn before Covid-19 ended travel. The protests now became intertwined with the King for a possible book. She came across a third strand in an Oxford library: an archive of interviews with senior Hong Kong figures conducted in the 1980s and 90s by Hong Kong-born Steve Tsang , a political scientist. Having been sealed for 30 years “from the last incident described”, these were now available to researchers. I’m not interested in ‘what-about-ism’ … for those reporters who were inside the Polytechnic University, it did feel like a war zone Louisa Lim In one section, she focuses on the negotiations leading to the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, which, she writes, “sowed the seeds for the unravelling of one of the world’s greatest cities”. As Lim knows, history is a wonky, shonky beast. Her previous book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited (2014), describes China’s efforts to eradicate the memory of those 1989 events. It is dedicated to “those who dare to speak out”. This one is dedicated to “all those who really f***ing love Hong Kong” so no one could accuse her of half-hearted silence. Hongkongers, however, may be stunned to read an early statement about the 2019 protests: “Almost 90 per cent of the population had been tear-gassed.” Where did that come from? “Bloomberg,” she says, though it transpires that the cited article refers to police firing tear-gas rounds “in areas home to as much as 88% of Hong Kong’s 7.4 million residents”. In a subsequent email exchange, she writes, “It doesn’t change the fact that vast numbers of Hongkongers were exposed to tear gas,” before adding, “Ultimately it is my mistake and I will talk to my editor about changing it in later versions so thank you for raising it here.” But the problem is one of perception: that Lim could believe such a staggering statistic makes the reader wary. Her timing is also unfortunate. These days, sentences such as “It was clear that the accepted laws of war did not apply in this conflict zone”, or “There is no escape from the horror of watching your home be destroyed”, or a quote from a friend (“Are we Hongkongers going to be like the Jews after the Holocaust?”) induce winces. Is it really a war zone when, over seven months, a total of three protesters are shot by police, all of whom survive? “I don’t think it’s helpful to look at Ukraine , I’m not interested in ‘what-about-ism’,” she says crisply. “The fact is, I spent a lot of time near the front lines, I spent a lot of time in circumstances that felt dangerous and felt terrifying and I think for those reporters who were inside the Polytechnic University, it did feel like a war zone – it was a war zone. It’s very much a question of positionality.” As the book unfolds, it’s clear that the placement with which Lim, who is Eurasian, tussles is her own. Her mother (Hong Kong cultural historian Patricia Lim) is “posh” British; her father is a civil servant from Singapore; she’s even distantly related to former Hong Kong governor Henry May. She lived in England until she was five. When she was six, Chinese grannies in a Hong Kong tea shop threw tepid tea leaves at her. Years later, her mother explains they wanted her to leave so they didn’t have to look at a mixed-blood child. In Beijing, her Mandarin becomes fluent; her Cantonese remains “shamefully basic”. Each time she returns to changing Hong Kong, she feels like “a postcolonial relic writing about an imaginary place”. But when she arrives at the second big protest, on June 16, 2019, she suddenly recognises she’s in love again – “that sense of rightness in your gut”. Then a different tussle begins: between being a journalist and being a Hongkonger. Three months later, she’s painting protest banners, propelled by the spirit of the King. At the end of the book, she’s so vehemently against neutrality (“Even-handedness is an act of cowardice”, “A fisherman at sea cannot be neutral about an approaching typhoon”) that you have to wonder how the day job’s going. “It’s not that that disqualifies me from journalism,” she replies. “I tend to see it more as the kind of debate about Black Lives Matter and how black journalists cover race. It’s not, of course, the same. But there are similar resonant issues to covering a place like Hong Kong.” In 2015, Lim heard about a wall in Central where the King of Kowloon’s obliterated calligraphy becomes visible after rain – a lovely image of indelibility. Or maybe you could view this Hong Kong totem by a different light. He once made a commercial for Swipe, the cleaning fluid, which raised his profile by advocating his work’s erasure. Factions squabbled over ownership rights. He was naive, an irritant, open to media exploitation. In the end, he set fire to his own home. Then his freedom was curtailed.