In late 2019, journalist and author Louisa Lim found herself standing on top of a Hong Kong skyscraper as a band of calligraphers painted a giant protest slogan onto a bolt of fabric. The journalist, who had grown up in Hong Kong, found herself torn. She was there in a professional capacity, chasing an interview – her role was supposed to be that of observer. But as she watched the group working, using ink and fabric to fight for their shared home town, she was compelled to pick up a brush and join in.
Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong is an ambitious project and a grand achievement, blending reportage and memoir to tell the story of a city caught between two competing narratives. It makes sense that the book begins with an image of calligraphy written large enough to be seen from far away. Much of Indelible City is dedicated to the exploration and dissection of words – not simply their literal meanings, but the gaps between them, their malleability – and what they say through how they are written and where they are displayed.
Threaded throughout the book is the story of Tsang Tsou-choi, the “King of Kowloon”. Tsang believed that a vast swath of land had been stolen from his family by the British in the 1800s and, starting in the 1950s, dedicated his life to a graffiti campaign of calligraphy detailing his claim. With only two years of formal schooling, says Lim, “his shonky, wonky characters laid bare all the flaws and idiosyncrasies a proper calligrapher would have tried to suppress”.
Indelible City demonstrates the power of words in ways readers might not expect. Lim explores the use of calligraphy as a power move, as a marker of culture and intelligence, as protest, as art. As she digs through Hong Kong’s history, taking apart the British story that Hong Kong was simply a “barren rock” before colonisation, and the mainland narrative that it was just another Chinese city, Tsang comes to stand as an embodiment of the Hong Konger spirit – of the struggle to carve out its own story and identity.
Lim grapples with her own identity and position throughout the book. While her reportage, research and interviews offer up facts and insights, it is her personal lens that makes the book so impactful. From the first pages, when she joins the activists in painting protest slogans, she is taking a stance. Though authors often don’t have a say in how their book is packaged, it is unlikely to be a coincidence that yellow – the colour of the pro-democracy movement – is the only colour to feature on Indelible City’s cover. Nor that it features Chinese characters spelling out heung gong ga yau (Hong Kong, add oil), a popular protest slogan. But Indelible City doesn’t aim to persuade readers to one side or the other – it’s a book that seeks truth in a history littered with twisted words and political agendas.
Indelible City is filled with interviews, as well as Lim’s memories of growing up in Hong Kong and working as a reporter during some of the most fraught periods in the city’s recent history. She visits historical sites and interviews archaeologists. She speaks to politicians and artists, to activists and lawyers. She identifies the gaps in official stories and attempts to fill them.
In one of the most striking sections, Lim comes across a collection of interviews conducted across the 1980s and 1990s, kept confidential until 30 years had passed from the last incident described. They illuminate the deals and conversations in the lead-up to Hong Kong being handed back to China – and most pertinently, show how Hong Kongers themselves were kept out of discussions concerning their future. She outlines how locals raised their – now seemingly prophetic – fears that Beijing wouldn’t keep their promises about Hong Kong being afforded autonomy, that vague wording and lack of time lines would keep the door open to the erosion of freedoms. Despite this, the joint declaration – the agreement that shaped Hong Kong’s fate after the handover – ended up only being slightly longer than this review. “There were no mechanisms to monitor or ensure Chinese compliance, and the agreement rested on Beijing’s acting in good faith,” Lim writes.
My first instinct was to call this a timely book – and it is – but in some ways it would have been just as timely had it been released in 1997, when Hong Kong was handed back to mainland China. It would have been timely in 2014 when the fight for universal suffrage in the city kicked off the Umbrella Movement, or in 2019 when millions took to the streets to protest against a proposed extradition law and to fight for more rights. As Lim lays out in her book, Hong Kong is a city marked by struggle and peaceful protest, and its people have fought to keep whatever independence they can to maintain the Hong Konger identity.
What makes this book urgent is how in the past few years Hong Kong has rapidly moved from a mostly free city to authoritarian rule. This new reality bookends Indelible City. Lim begins with an author’s note explaining how the national security legislation introduced in June 2020 poses such a threat that she has changed and removed names and details in order to protect some of the people she spoke to. The epilogue looks at how the city – once a refuge for those escaping political persecution – has now been silenced. She lists arrests for crimes that are almost laughable. The king is gone, the protests have stopped and self-censorship keeps thoughts silent. In Hong Kong now, words – spoken and written – are dangerous.
Text Publishing, 320pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2022 as "Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong, Louisa Lim".
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