About three years ago, before the onset of the COVID pandemic, I attended a talk in New York City given by a Hong Kong activist. Back then the city was deep in the throes of massive pro-democracy protests, with millions of Hong Kongers taking to the streets and enduring the sticky summer heat to oppose the increasing authoritarianism of the Chinese government. Despite his obvious weariness, the speaker talked hopefully about the prospective outcome of the demonstrations: the rule of law, freedom of speech, and human rights would prevail over China’s attempt to undermine them. “If we don’t fight for our freedom,” he said, “that is self-destruction.”
Fast forward to now, and even revealing that activist’s name would be enough to land him in prison. Just one year after the protests began, the Chinese government—without consulting Hong Kong officials—imposed a harsh national security law on the city-state. According to the statute’s vague wording, any expression of discontent, countervailing views, or conversations with “foreign forces” could result in a prison term of three years to life. Since the Hong Kong police are increasingly applying the law retroactively, the activist whose talk I attended is still very much at risk—even though he spoke in New York in 2019. For Hong Kongers, accustomed as they are to inhabiting a free society governed by the rule of law, the new law comes as a shock.
How did Hong Kong, a former British colony with an independent judiciary that protected personal freedoms, come to find itself under the heavy dictatorial thumb of Beijing? In her beautiful and timely new memoir, Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong, journalist Louisa Lim does more than simply answer that question. She fills a gap that has long been missing in books about Hong Kong: an account of the city’s long history of defiance, told from the perspective of Hong Kongers themselves.
A native Hong Konger, Lim starts her narrative playfully by describing one of her adolescent obsessions, the so-called “King of Kowloon.” The King, as he was popularly known, was actually an eccentric named Tsang Tsou-choi. Between 1956 and the early 2000s, Tsang regularly graffitied public spaces and government property—mostly buildings, lampposts, and mailboxes—with a manifesto written in childlike calligraphy. He claimed that the Kowloon neighborhood of Hong Kong had once belonged to his family, insisting (absurdly) that since the neighborhood had been taken without just compensation, he wanted it back. Whenever his assertions were painted over, Tsang would return days later to write it all again. Returning repeatedly to the King throughout Indelible City, Lim makes him not just a quirky part of Hong Kong history but also a larger symbol of Hong Kongers’ long struggle for self-determination over their land and lives.
That struggle, as Lim demonstrates through fascinating interviews with archeologists and historians of early Hong Kong, has been waged continuously over many centuries. By as early as 222 CE, Hong Kong had become an important salt producer, trading extensively with the Chinese mainland while occasionally rebelling against the latter’s salt monopolies. In 1197, Hong Kongers again rose up to protest the monopolies, this time taking their revolt all the way to the Chinese city of Guangdong (Canton).
Linked to this rebellious commercial spirit is Hong Kong’s historic openness to persecuted refugees fleeing mainland China. Modern examples include the university students who participated in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, as well as those who narrowly escaped the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s (and used fishing boats to do so). As Lim shows, Hong Kong’s protective impulse can be traced back as early as the year 1276, when the city sheltered two boy princes from the recently overthrown Song dynasty. “The island has always been the safe haven, the refuge for those escaping injustice and tyranny,” Lim writes. Tellingly, she never answers the question of where Hong Kongers should go now to escape Chinese persecution.
Of course, Hong Kong’s ability to write its own history has been impeded by the two colonial powers that have ruled it, first the British beginning in 1841 and then the Chinese since 1997. Lim humorously describes Britain’s acquisition of Hong Kong as more of an accident than a well-crafted plan—British officers first laid claim to the land by using outdated maps. Even under British rule, though, Hong Kongers continued to exercise cultural sovereignty, and responded forcefully whenever it was threatened. For example, in 1899, after the Chinese government leased Hong Kong’s “New Territories” to the British for ninety-nine years, local clans revolted. While this Six-Day War has been largely forgotten today, Lim highlights a compelling parallel between this earlier uprising and today’s protests: “Both were leaderless, grassroots movements aimed at defending Hong Kongers from an all-powerful colonizing force. Both used popular culture to mobilize support, with the bamboo clapper songs of 1899 prefiguring the protest anthems of 2019.”