Becoming watery agency in post-2019 Hong Kong | Fiona LAW

by Critical Asia

by Fiona LAW, Dec. 2021】

Two characters are having a brief conversation in Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time.  When Huang Yaoshi (acted by Tong Leung Ka-fai) asks if he can offer the blind swordsman (acted by Tong Leung Chiu-wai) some wine, suggesting that alcohol helps one to be forgetful, the blind swordsman refuses this invitation by making another comment.  Expressing the preference of drinking water, he reflects that one feels warm after drinking wine and cold after drinking water.  This implication of amnesia through warming intoxication and potential retentiveness through cooling hydration seems to foretell and allegorize two wishful attitudes towards the state of being in Hong Kong in the postcolonial era through liquid medium, with the former being related to the celebrative fin de siècle easiness as one indulges in the void of memories and new beginning, and the latter being associated to a struggle to stay awake and resist the escape of memories.  Having experienced through the change of sovereignty and the end of British colonialism, questions about collective memories, nostalgic representations, dis-appearance of histories and culture, the imaginary of home(lessness), and the becoming of local identity have never found a finite consensus among citizens through cinematic poesis nor public discussions.  Yet the clock is ticking, the borrowed land with borrowed time is immanently on expiry, and the cycles of death in terms of cultural, economic, financial, social, and political lives have been haunting the city with a pressing sense of arrival rather than a preparation about its afterlife. 

Twenty-six years after the release of this cinematic classic that totally defies the generic tradition of martial arts films through its affectively loaded images, Hong Kong has faced with waves of changes that cannot be solidly articulated – from the 1997 handover to the implementation of the National Security Law in 2020, it is difficult to tell whether the city is heading from the ending to the beginning, from the beginning to the ending, or the city simply allows its destiny to loop between endings and await for the (im)possible rebirth.  Being stuck in the dilemma of becoming oblivious and staying awakened, people of Hong Kong has turned limbo into action, and vice versa, when a multitude of hydraulic imaginary has provided them the possibility of a shifting agency when flows and waves of unprecedented socio-political changes compel them to action, reactions, and inaction.  From the wide-spread mobilization tactic of “Be Water” during the Anti-ELAB protests in 2019 to the advocacy of a mindful blessing to “Drink Water” in the double distress of post-2019 social trauma and COVID-19 pandemic attack, the persistence of a watery agency seems to have helped sustaining many lives in Hong Kong in finding creative possibilities to spill on the increasingly restrictive political order.   

We need water to sustain our lives, and water is a major constituent of human bodies.  Yet, the ontological qualities of water being colourless, tasteless, odorless, and shapeless have somehow encouraged human beings to evade its importance as such life-maintaining element.  Water does not invoke and evoke sensual desire; but its purity defines itself as a substance of necessity as well as of spiritual desire.  Water heals as well as kills; its liquidity is also subject to liquidation.  The dis-appearing and paradoxical nature of water, however, also allows this inorganic element to be the rich carrier of symbolic meanings in cultural imaginations.  In writing on the material imagination related to water, Gaston Bachelard states that water as an “element of materializing imagination” regenerates itself as it provides opportunities for a psychological ambivalence and thus poetic double for endless transpositions (11).  While Bachelard focuses on the poetic potentiality of “imaginary water” in literary works, I find that water has also been offering materializing praxis in the context of Hong Kong’s recent socio-political reality.    

Immersed in the sweat, teardrops, and wounding blood over the numerous protest scenes that spanned from June to December 2019, the affective and bodily engagement of Hong Kong’s Anti-Extradition protesters is also most notedly identified by their “organizational fluidity” (Holbig, 332) through efficient and effective use of social media and digital technology in mobilizing and communicating among individual protesters and groups in different locales.  The self-learnt, self-initiated, bottom-up networking of civilian activists has been generally based on the principles of adaptability, flexibility, liquidity, and mobility literally coming from a spread of Bruce Lee’s popular dictum about his philosophy of kung fu in the 1970s: “Be water” or “Be water, my friend.”  Originally referring to Lee’s philosophizing of Chinese kung fu with a taste of Taoist thoughts, his mindful advocacy to act like water when practising kung fu has been conveniently available in the network society, in which contemporary viewers can disseminate the quote over social media or even revisit the video of his TV interview on YouTube – watching him confidently uttering:           

“Empty your mind
Be formless, shapeless, like water
Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup
You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle
You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot
Now water can flow, or it can crash
Be water, my friend.”


Coined as “Water Revolution” by Financial Times (Anderlini), the pro-democratic protests in 2019 do not only rely on the principle of passive formlessness and dual nature of water learnt from Bruce Lee in their organizational logic.  Building on this popular image of water is the extended metaphors of ice, dew, and mist when confronting police force, as the protesters creatively logicize and summarize the situational reactions of dispersal, gathering, anonymity, and spiritual unity through quotable mottos such as “gather like dew,” “be strong like ice,” and “scatter like mist” etc (Anderlini, Financial Times).  Water as an implied elemental definition of social movements in Hong Kong was actually first associated through the protective use of umbrellas against the firing of teargas instead of sheltering from raindrops during the 2014 Umbrella Movement.  The activist agency was established on the act of self-protection when expressing one’s political standpoint.  The random and clever appropriation of daily objects such as umbrellas defines the movement as a bottom-up tactic-based communal movement which is decentralized and leaderless, making a practical preparation for the social movements that come afterwards. 

Although the water praxis in social movements has not yet acquired fulfilling outcomes when the authorities soon took control of the 2019 movement by massive arrests and later the city was struck by the world-wide pandemic attack in 2020, the agency of Hong Kong people has shifted and transformed into that relying on the calming, healing quality of water.  With the gradual fading of protests, people’s pursuit of a sense of social justice and equality, freedom of speech and expression, democratic citizenship, and political autonomy as promised by the “One Country, Two Systems” framework of governance has been constantly fractured and challenged in the post-2019 Hong Kong, particularly after the establishment of the National Security Law in July 2020, resulting in a wounded community that needs internal healing.  Altogether with the global biopolitical risk and local pandemic fatigue brought by COVID-19, the well-being of bodily existence and a discourse of everyday self-care emerge as a shared moral necessity in the traumatic aftermaths of social movement. 

This goal and struggle in “staying alive” through mutual encouragement becomes broadly circulated through another set of water-related popular discourse.  Greeting people by encouraging each other to “drink more water” is introduced across social media and popular culture since mid-2020.  Such mode of greeting friends or strangers is embedded with the symbolic meaning of an unspoken blessing among those who are disappointed and disturbed by the city’s fast-declining civil liberties and related moral fatigues.  This watery empowerment started from the sudden popularity of a Facebook page “See This and Drink Water Association” [見字飲水協會], which is actually about the promotion of kidney health through a habitual drinking of water.  Through sharing visual memes that advocate the benefits of drinking water, this Facebook page quickly attracts a surprising number of viewers who generate a secondary layer of connotation related to a broader caring attitude about well-being, both physically and psychologically.  This advocacy of self-care is further widespread as “drinking more water” is communicated through circulation of internet memes and the speech of public figures in open occasions, such as indie pop singer Serrini in her concert and pro-democratic ex-district councillor Sam Cheung during a public forum at the legislative primaries.  Local lyricists Albert Leung, Wyman Wong, and Roy Tsui responded to this popular blessing and captivated its linguistic usage through their creative works as well.  Greeting cards and spring couplets for Chinese New Year also incorporate such expression.  The intimate reminder of drinking water may sound bizarre and enigmatic at the onset, but its endearing utterance inspires on a necessary transformative agency when the city’s ending and rebirth remains in gloom.  In this process of returning to the everyday norm from the extraordinary social movements and pandemic, water ought to be mindfully internalized so that human agency could acquire energy, conscience, and awareness for recovery and self-actualization.  

In response to the cliché of Hong Kong as a dehydrated “cultural desert” ever since its self-recognition of economic prosperity in the 1980s and the critical concept of disappearance since the postcolonial era, the emerging watery agency has offered both a discursive and practical turn in imagining and exercising a social agency that requires connection which is both vulnerable and resistant.  In contrary to the general assumption that Hong Kong as an international financial hub is driven by entrepreneurial individuals’ strong urge to make fortunes, the post-1997 generation has been struggling to safeguard a growing sense of post-materialist values in their coming-of-age.  When the city of protests is going to be liquidated, water as a humble substance hence becomes a symbolic device to assist the vulnerable citizens in seeking fundamental meaning of life from a microscopic vision.  However, as in all hydraulic processes, the effect of water upon human lives can be slow, miniscule, and sometimes imperceptible.  While the water praxis may not offer a definite methodology with guaranteed or solid results, its proposal of a transformative praxis stemming from material imagination and discursive transference might offer an opportunity for hydrating oneself and each other.  Only a healthy body is worth welcoming the city’s restoration.      

Fiona Law, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong


Anderlini, Jamil.  “Hong Kong’s ‘water revolution’ spins out of control.”  Financial Times, 2 September, 2019.  Accessed 14 November 2021. 

Bachelard, Gaston.  Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter.  The Pegasus Foundation, 1982.

Holbig, Heike.  “Be Water, My Friend: Hong Kong’s 2019 Anti-Extradition Protests.” International Journal of Sociology, Vol. 50, No. 4, 2020, pp. 325-337.

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