A Deeply Personal Look at the Past, Present and Future of Hong Kong
INDELIBLE CITYDispossession and Defiance in Hong KongBy Louisa Lim294 pages. Riverhead Books. $28.
For an authoritarian regime facing a restive population, it’s an ugly version of the Goldilocks conundrum: How to exert just the right amount of repression to quell demands for democracy, without going so far that you provoke disparate voices to unite in solidarity and opposition?
In “Indelible City,” Louisa Lim charts how her own identity as a Hong Konger had never been so clear until China’s brutal attempts to crush pro-democracy protests in 2019. She had been feeling increasingly alienated from a densely populated place where extreme inequality, soaring costs and shrinking real estate made “the very act of living” — even for “still very privileged” people like her — completely exhausting. Lim’s experience as a reporter amid a swell of protesters changed that. She could feel her face flush and her throat well up — not from the tear gas, of which there was plenty, but from a surge of emotions: “I’d fallen in love with Hong Kong all over again.”
Needless to say, this is an unapologetically personal book. For Lim, who worked as a correspondent for the BBC and NPR, the turmoil in Hong Kong made it ever harder “to safeguard my professional neutrality.” With every twist of China’s political screws, the journalistic distance she had long tried to maintain was getting squeezed alongside the vibrant city she had known firsthand since childhood. Following a brief, anticlimactic honeymoon period after 1997, when Britain returned Hong Kong to China, many of the freedoms that Hong Kongers had taken for granted have been chipped away. Distance, Lim says, is impossible when the walls are collapsing around you. “There is no escape from the horror of watching your home be destroyed,” she writes.
Lim moved to Hong Kong when she was 5. As the child of a Chinese father from Singapore and a white mother from Britain, she was always “hovering between two cultures like the hungry ghosts flitting between two worlds,” she writes. The “startlingly Victorian” curriculum of her schooling didn’t help matters. China was barely mentioned, and even though “anything British was mentioned in awed tones,” her teachers took care not to make the United Kingdom sound too wonderful, lest it encourage in the young Hong Kongers a desire to move there. “Our education effectively deracinated us,” she writes, “suspending us in a kind of colonial non-space designed to ensure that we did not identify too closely with any place.”
Part of her book is an attempt to recover that sense of place, as she writes her way through history, explaining that Britain’s acquisition of Hong Kong wasn’t “so much an imperial masterstroke as an accident.” Looking at documents in the British National Archives, Lim notices that in letters exchanged between Chinese and British negotiators during the First Opium War, Britain’s demand for Hong Kong had been added in the margins. A colonial civil servant later described the cession of Hong Kong as “a surprise to all concerned.” For Lord Palmerston, Britain’s colonial possession of Hong Kong was bound to be fruitless. “A barren rock with nary a house upon it,” he wrote. “It will never be a mart for trade.”
But of course it did become a mart for trade, and Lim traces Hong Kong’s fortunes under 155 years of British control. She recalls the colonial governor of her childhood, Murray MacLehose, a “paternalistic authoritarian” known as “Big Mac.” MacLehose took care not to antagonize China, promoting administrative efficiency and civic campaigns as a substitute for democracy. Hong Kong’s last governor, Christopher Patten, assumed that China’s economic reforms would necessarily lead to political liberalization, even though the moderate democratic measures he undertook in the years leading up to the handover earned him hostility from Beijing.
“Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad,” an otherwise polished Patten said in a moment of candor, when Lim interviewed him in 2019. She had asked him how he felt when he saw his own hopeful words from more than two decades before — that it was Hong Kong’s “unshakable destiny” to be run by Hong Kongers — turned into desperate graffiti.
Lim asks what it might mean for Hong Kong to forge an identity that isn’t beholden to either Britain or China. She finds inspiration in Tsang Tsou-choi, known as the King of Kowloon, who emblazoned the surfaces of the city with his own calligraphic graffiti for decades. His brushstrokes spoke to a family tale of dispossession, deriding the authorities no matter who they were. Until his death in 2007, this “obsessive, mentally and physically challenged pensioner” had, for her and many others, become an “unlikely lodestar” — the constancy of his grievances made him stand apart from the “scrolling whirligig of Hong Kong politics.”
The emergence of a localist movement in Hong Kong provides an alternative vision, too — but its proponents resort sometimes to nativist invective, with one of them comparing Chinese mainlanders coming to Hong Kong as “locusts.” Besides, Lim’s own identity as a Hong Konger doesn’t quite check all the localist boxes. She wasn’t born there. She’s half-white. She speaks terrible Cantonese. “Where was the place for someone like me?” she asks.
“Indelible City” was presumably finished before the latest phase in the pandemic wreaked havoc on Hong Kong’s elderly population, and before its chief executive, Carrie Lam, announced earlier this month that she wouldn’t seek a second term. The engine for this vivid, loving book is Lim’s insistent questioning — her recognition that whatever comes next for Hong Kong will require not only fortitude but also willful acts of imagination. “We had lost our old city forever, and our old selves along with that,” she writes. “We had no choice but to reinvent ourselves.”