Between Affective Attachment and Effective Detachment: Seeking Resonances in Hong Kong in Times of Crisis | Helena Wu

by Critical Asia

by Helena Wu, Dec. 2021】

Fig. 1. The self-remembering of Nga Tsin Wai Tsuen before the demolition in 2016

When did “Hong Kong” begin? The Hong Kong Museum of History dedicated the Devonian age, around 400 million years ago, as the starting point of its permanent collection titled “The Hong Kong Story,” which was introduced when the museum was inaugurated in 2001. Tracing the history of the city to a time before the Anthropocene, the setting expands on the geologic time scale of the territory’s existence before humanity, but in its entirety the museum narrative is by no means free from anthropocentrism. In the second gallery, the exhibition switches its focus from nature to human, introducing human activity in the region through its display of relics dating back to the Stone Age and Bronze Age. In “Prehistoric Hong Kong,” the gallery presents not just archeological evidence of human settlements in the coastal areas of the territory but also a human voice naturalizing the transition from natural to human history. Whereas geological dating challenges the retrospective territorialization that contemporary worldviews have taken for granted, the exhibition showcases a teleological continuity and a narrative closure that smooth the ruptures across Hong Kong’s local history and its encounters with different worlds and political powers. While the name “Hong Kong” has been widely adopted since British colonization in 1842, there was no “Hong Kong” to begin with in the museum’s rendition of the “Hong Kong Story”—likewise, it is just as oxymoronic for the exhibition to end with the 1997 handover (at least before its closure for renovation in 2020).

By exploring the narration of birth, death, and areas in between, I contend that the projection of the beginnings and endings of Hong Kong constellates the speaker’s relation with the territory across different time-spaces. Reflected in this essay are the disparities of the plotted beginnings and the nearness of different ends, and their interchangeable relations in light of a worldwide pandemic and the migration wave out of Hong Kong as the city’s political structure and culture continue to be revamped.

The Endless (Be)Coming of Age

The “beginnings” of Hong Kong vary according to different political ideologies, national histories, and identities. Using the metaphor of growth to cover up ruptures and governing authorities reminds one of Ernst Johann Eitel’s work Europe in China: The History of Hongkong from the Beginning to the Year 1882 published in 1895, in which he described Hong Kong as “the growth of one ideal person (the Colony) naturally expanding itself in a continuous line of so many generations” (emphasis mine).[1] Having served as a missionary in China and a civil servant as an inspector of schools in Hong Kong for most of his life, Eitel demonstrated the use of common tropes, such as the personification of Hong Kong, and presented a colonialist point of view that reflected the dominant mindset of his contemporaries in the nineteenth century.[2]

On the eve of the Second World War and the lead-up to the Japanese occupation of the city, Geoffrey Robley Sayer, historian and the colony’s Director of Education, correlated the “birth” of Hong Kong to the moment of colonization in Hong Kong, 1841–1862: Birth, Adolescence and Coming of Age published in 1937. Entering the cold-war era, George Beer Endacott, who was appointed in 1946 as the one and only one lecturer in history at the University of Hong Kong, was also convinced that “the history of Hong Kong really begins with the coming of the British in 1841.”[3] Ideologically contrary but structurally similar to this colonialist point of view is “patriotic historical scholarship,” which justified the claim of sovereignty over Hong Kong through the handover and thereafter by constructing a tie between pre-colonial Hong Kong and ancient China[4]—phrases such as “since time immemorial” are often deployed by such discourse to claim “ownership” of once-ceded territories and contested borderlands.[5]

While both colonialist and nationalistic discourses are somewhat preoccupied with situating their respective narratives in a “beginning,” during the transitional period and thereafter the local discourse on cultural production seems to focus on endings, characterizing a collective consciousness shared by the local habitants in a spectrum of various political leanings, conceptualizations of the local, and personal choices and emotional responses to critical transitions.

Making “Ends” Meet

Over the years, the fin-de-siècle sentiments predominating the city before the handover have been extensively contemplated by Hong Kong cultural studies scholars. Just when Ping-kwan Leung (Yasi), writer and scholar, published his poetry collection City at the End of Time in 1992, featuring works composed in the 1980s and the 1990s; Ackbar Abbas was notably struck by the “doom and boom” paradox in which anxiety about the future unleashed frantic economic activities in the city preceding the handover.[6] As a whole, the “end of (colonial) history” used to be a source of nostalgic sentiments in the 1980s and 1990s and partially fueled the “post-fin-de-siècle search for new beginnings” in the post-1997 era.[7] In her close reading of the indie film Made in Hong Kong (Fruit Chan, 1997), Esther Cheung related the death of all the young protagonists and the film’s portrayal of their “immunity” from an uncertain future and suffering to the city’s “critical transition” via the “ghostly voice.”[8] In view of the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and 1998, Laikwan Pang provided another reading of death as a sign of the deterioration of a “dead end” filmmaking industry, revealing the subsiding doom-and-boom phenomenon prior to the handover.[9] Importantly, Pang pointed out the “[cultural] tradition” in the use of the metaphor of death, unveiling “the audience’s collective feeling toward the city’s political future” since the postwar period in the colonial times.[10]

In any case, the feeling and the narration of an impending end did not conclude with the actual arrival and the inevitable passing of the year 1997. On the twentieth anniversary of the first publication of Ping-kwan Leung’s City at the End of Time reprinted in 2012, the new introduction by Esther Cheung referred to the present time as a “new end” preceding the “old end.”[11] Moving from academic discussion to everyday life, the claims of the “death” of Hong Kong cinema, Cantopop, and the city continued to appear and would become a cliché with time, not just numbing the meaning of death but also prolonging the process of an end. In 2021, the debate between 71-year-old media personality Yeuk-Yuen Shiu—who declared yet another death of the Hong Kong film industry—and 30-year-old actor and co-founder of the satire group Mocking Jer and the YouTube channel Trial & Error Neo Yau—who has been experimenting creative productions in different forms and engaging new media distribution strategy to disprove such negativism—continues to draw audiences.[12]

The declaration/speculation of death and the rebukes it attracts are a double bind preconditioned by the political configuration of post-handover Hong Kong, where the notion of a deadline has long been internalized and institutionalized by the promise of an unchanging state for fifty years and the fluctuations around it. Therefore, the location and the projection of an end exposes a certain relation to be severed and identifies the corresponding target at the other end (e.g., a thing, person, place, space, event, etc.), hence spelling out the varied degrees of affective attachment and effective detachment. Whether it is a branding strategy or not, the noticeable re-localization of taste and the market—as seen in the popularity gained by a number of Hong Kong-based creative talents, artists, singers, and idols amidst health and other crises in 2020 and 2021—shows the receptiveness of the locals as well as the translocals (e.g., from the growing diasporic communities due to the post-2019 migration wave) toward a shared imagination of Hong Kong, whatever it is, in the hope of rekindling a bond or projecting certain affinity even when it comes to entertainment consumption.  

Building Communities in the Twilight Zone

Entering the postmillennial era, the local community has been reimagined through the perspective of the streets and land, precipitating into what I call local relations with time.[13]

Considering the heritage preservation campaigns (e.g., Central Star Ferry Pier in 2006, Queen’s Pier in 2007, Lee Tung Street from 2005 to 2010) and social activism movements (e.g., against the construction of the Express Rail-link in 2010 and the development of the northeast New Territories in 2014) that took place during the first decade of post-handover Hong Kong and in the lead-up to the 2014 Umbrella Movement, demolition in the name of urban renewal sentenced “subaltern heritage” to a kind of death through land resumption, gentrification, the disappearance of iconic landmarks, and the dissolution of old neighborhoods.[14] Among the city’s landmark protests against anti-subversion legislation in 2003, national education in 2011 and 2012, the August 31 decision in 2014, and extradition to China in 2019, local consciousness and place-based memories took root by way of participation, documentation, and commemoration that occurred at different points in time, blurring the beginning and end of these events.[15] Simultaneously triggered in the bottom-up attempts and the collective efforts to rebuild or rehabilitate a community was a cluster of local subjectivities in the making and a series of relations which recognized the (once) physical presence of a specific thing, place, and person in the territory.

Prior to the eruption of the 2019 Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill (Anti-ELAB) Movement and over its course, the term “endgame” was often mentioned in protesters’ speeches and mobilization calls. Through a symptomatic reading, the interaction between cultural flows and social responses cannot be neglected, as witnessed by the popularity of the Hollywood superhero blockbuster Avengers: Endgame (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 2019), which was the highest-grossing film in the city that year. On the eve of the introduction of the National Security Law in 2020, Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last British Governor, declared the death of the city in the article “The Lonesome Death of Hong Kong,” lamenting the end of Hong Kong’s promised fifty-year unchanged status (Project Syndicate, May 25, 2020). In response, a pro-Establishment voice dismissed the suggestion of any ends, or deaths, as in two articles written by the same author—“No, It Is Not the Death of Hong Kong as They Again ‘Predict’” (Vittachi, China Daily Global, June 3, 2020) and “They Declare Us Dead, but We’re Still Here” (Vittachi, The Standard, June 3, 2020)—revealing a political agenda maintaining the status-quo discourse.

To this end, the “endgame imagination” not only channeled the simultaneous perception of opportunities and threats, attributing to the public understanding of changing protest tactics;[16] but it also showed how the local discourse on the ground negotiated the areas between dead and not dead, in comparison to the disputes over the use of the word “death” in the latter examples. Last but not the least, the commemorative activities designated to a particular place, event, people, and date—by engendering a shared experience and identity—embodied place-making and memory-building agency, as in the act of collective mourning intensified during the Anti-ELAB Movement. However, in the aftermath of the large-scale social events in 2019 and 2020 and the looming pandemic thereafter, it has become almost impossible to mourn in public spaces in the city. Under the circumstances, the obstacle to attaining a genuine state of decolonization is not only locating a trajectory but also the probability of treading on it.

Conclusion: “That’s It for Now”?

The theme of death used to be “central to the critique of such a society” in a Hong Kong characterized by capitalistic modernity toward the end of the 2000s.[17] Although the syndrome is not new, the susceptibility of urban dwellers to the imagery of an end was reflected in how quickly they picked up the catch phrase “this city is dying, you know?” from the locally produced drama When Heaven Burns aired in 2011.[18] In hindsight, the rhetorical question embedded in the line represented a subconscious call for resonance between the speaker and the recipient that paved the way for a series of film and sports spectatorships to be shown in urban spaces. For example, the wave of community screenings generated by the indie film Ten Years due to the lack of commercial screens available, and the public live streaming of sports events featuring local athletes, such as the 2018 World Cup qualifying match and the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games.

Likewise, the boiling frog, as a symbol of slow death, has been applied as a reference to the condition of Hongkongers after the handover.[19] Among its many applications, the four-panel social commentary comic series “Boiling Water Diary,” featuring personified frogs as its characters, was published online regularly by Hong Kong artist Baak Sui (literally, “white water”) from 2011 to 2021.[20] When Hong Kong artist Cuson Kong-chi Lo released a satirical cartoon in June 2014 depicting five frogs enjoying a “bath” in a hot pot while two uniformed men with hammer and sickle armbands kept the fire burning, the creative work was suspected to be the cause of the suspension of his Facebook account. Similar to the endgame imagery, the cautionary undertone of the boiling frog story disclosed an inherent pessimism and simultaneously a hope for positive change. While the 2015-film Ten Years was still being attacked by lawmakers for its depiction of a dystopian future on the occasion of amending the film censorship ordinance in 2021, all these commentaries failed to acknowledge the ending of the film, where the line “it’s too late” was replaced by a more hopeful suggestion of “never too late,” in response to its own depiction of the loss of the self in the then-imaginary scenarios of political interference, taxidermy, inarticulation, death, and censorship.

Nevertheless, some local creative talents have refused to be certified “dead,” pointing out that it is futile to be compared to obsolete models in the past. Rebuking the much cliched narration of death, Neo Yau, in a commentary video filmed in February 2021, reacted to the aforementioned debate, “it is impossible to copy the so-called world of abundance in the 1980s. The world has changed. The time and the opportunities are no longer the same, but can we still pave way for a future [sic.] with a future?”[21] Eight months later, the Youtube channel Trial & Error, co-founded by Yau, held two in-person shows on its first anniversary. With a full-house audience, media spotlights, and the support of celebrity stars, the endeavor demonstrated not only an alternate entertainment format but also the group’s marketing power and outreach ability in crisscrossing virtual and physical points of contact to interact with their audience. Prior to the spectacle of this visible spectatorship, the channel has been generating resonance by circulating cultural references and offering commentaries and comical significance of the everyday life in their productive creations. Among them is a nine-minute video “Hai gam sin la” (Cantonese; “That’s It for Now”), which went viral alongside a music video released in July 2021.[22] The phrase “That’s It for Now” is not just an integral lyric of the titular song which expresses an ambivalence and reluctance of a farewell; but the effective communication of this implicit reference to Hongkongers’ migration wave also bespeaks the spectators’ hypersensitivity to the social context and personal psyche.

Considering the fallacy of (self-)entrapment between an ungrounded beginning and an arbitrary end, unpacked in the recurrent discussion is the dialectic of life and death, questioning binarism and the linearity assumption that fixates a beginning and its end. To confront the ruptures delimited by the illusion of continuity and the insistence on status quo and to unthink what a beginning and an ending is, those are the keys to projecting multiple positionings and promoting intersubjective understanding.

Helena Wu, University of British Columbia, Canada


[1] Ernst Johann Eitel, Europe in China: The History of Hongkong from the Beginning to the Year 1882 (London: Luzac & Company; Hong Kong: Kelly & Walsh, 1895), ii.

[2] Historian Christopher Munn identified this body of works as the “colonial school” that focused on “wars, military issues, and colonial anecdotes” while largely effacing the experiences of the local non-European population. See, Christopher Munn, Anglo-China: Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong, 1841–1880 (Richmond: Curzon, 2001), 6–7.

[3] George Beer Endacott, A History of Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1955/1973), 4. Endacott was described by Hong Kong historian John Carroll as a “colonial” who “took the legitimacy of British colonialism in Hong Kong for granted.” See, John Carroll, “G. B. Endacott and Hong Kong History,” in George Beer Endacott, A Biographical Sketch-Book of Early Hong Kong (Hong Kong University Press, 2005), x.

[4] Munn, Anglo-China, 7–8; Jung-fang Tsai, Xianggangren zhi Xianggangshi 1841–1945 [The Hong Kong People’s History of Hong Kong 1841–1945] (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 2001), 7; Jung-fang Tsai, Hong Kong in Chinese History: Community and Social Unrest in the British Colony (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 6.

[5] Desmond Sham, “Hong Kong as a Port City,” in Hong Kong Culture and Society in the New Millennium, ed. Yiu-wai Chu (Singapore: Springer, 2017), 101.

[6] Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1997), 5.

[7] Vivian P. Y. Lee, Hong Kong Cinema Since 1997: The Post-Nostalgic Imagination (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 3, 18.

[8] Esther M. K. Cheung, Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009), 47–48.

[9] Laikwan Pang, “Death and Hong Kong Cinema,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 18.1 (2001): 16.

[10] Pang, 15-16.

[11] Esther M. K. Cheung, “New Ends in a City of Transition,” in Ping-kwan Leung, City at the End of Time: Poems by Leung Ping-kwan (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009), 9.

[12] This was the age of the speakers when the debate took place. “You Xuexiu dazhan Xiao Ruoyuan: Xianggang dianying gongye sizuo wei” [“Neo Yau versus Yeuk-Yuen Shiu: Is Hong Kong Film Industry Dead?”], Stand News, February 24, 2021.游學修大戰蕭若元-香港電影工業死咗未.

[13] Helena Wu, The Hangover After the Handover: Things, Places and Cultural Icons in Hong Kong (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020).

[14] Mirana M. Szeto, “Intra-local and Inter-local Sinophone,” in Sinophone Studies: A Critical Reader, ed. Shu-mei Shih et al. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 194.

[15] Wing-sang Law identified the 2000s as the third wave of local consciousness in Hong Kong. See Wing-sang Law, “Xianggang bentu yishi de qianshi jinsheng” [“The Present and the Past of Hong Kong Local Consciousness”], Reflexion 26 (2014): 113–151.

[16] Francis L. F. Lee, Edmund W. Cheng, Hai Liang, Gary K. Y. Tang & Samson Yuen, “Dynamics of Tactical Radicalisation and Public Receptiveness in Hong Kong’s Anti-Extradition Bill Movement,” Journal of Contemporary Asia (2021): 9.

[17] Cheung, Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong, 14.

[18] Yiu-wai Chu, “Introduction,” in Xianggang (yanjiu) zuowei fangfa [Hong Kong Studies as a Method], ed. Yiu-wai Chu (Hong Kong: Chung Hwa Publisher, 2016), 11.

[19] Ho-fung Hung and Iam-chong Ip, “Hong Kong’s Democratic Movement and the Making of China’s Offshore Civil Society,” Asian Survey 52.3 (2012): 504.

[20] Baak Sui announced the suspension of the series on July 3, 2021, in view of the difficulty of releasing political cartoons in a “brave new Hong Kong.” See, “Shishi manhua lianzai jiulian, Wenshui Juchang tingzhi gengxin” [“Current Affairs Comics Boiling Frog Diary Halts after Nine Years”], Stand News, July 5, 2021.時事漫畫連載九年-溫水劇場停止更新.

[21] Neo Yau, “Weihe wojiang Xianggang dianying gongye weisi? Yu Xianggang chengnian dianyingren de tantao” [“Why Did I Say Hong Kong Film Industry Is Not Dead? A Discussion with Adult Hong Kong Filmmakers”], Trial & Error, February 23, 2021.

Note that the title of the video reiterates that it is a dialogue with “adult Hong Kong filmmakers.”

[22] As of November 15, 2021, the two videos have accumulated over 1.5 million views on YouTube. “Hai gam sin la,” Trial & Error, July 29, 2021.; “Hai gam sin la,” MC $oHo & KidNey, July 30, 2021.

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