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Jason Ng recommends the best books on

Hong Kong

Hong Kong continues to simmer with tension, two years on from the ‘Umbrella Protests’ that made news around the world. But will it lead to advances in democracy or crackdowns by Beijing? Jason Ng, lawyer and author of Umbrellas in Bloom, chooses five of the best books for understanding China’s ‘foster child’ city.

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    1

    Hong Kong
    by Jan Morris

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    2

    Hong Kong Noir: Fifteen true tales from the dark side of the city
    by Feng Chi-shun

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    3

    Hotel China
    by the Hong Kong Writers Circle

  • A4 size

    4

    The Heritage Hiker’s Guide to Hong Kong
    by Pete Spurrier

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    5

    Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong
    by Gordon Mathews

Jason Ng

Born in Hong Kong, Jason Y. Ng is a lawyer and the author of Hong Kong State of Mind, No City for Slow Men and most recently Umbrellas in Bloom, the first book published in English to chronicle the Umbrella Movement. He is a member of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club and the Hong Kong Writers Circle, and an adjunct associate professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Hong Kong. For more, visit www.asiseeithk.com.

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Jason Ng

Born in Hong Kong, Jason Y. Ng is a lawyer and the author of Hong Kong State of Mind, No City for Slow Men and most recently Umbrellas in Bloom, the first book published in English to chronicle the Umbrella Movement. He is a member of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club and the Hong Kong Writers Circle, and an adjunct associate professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Hong Kong. For more, visit www.asiseeithk.com.

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You’re going to pick some more unusual books about Hong Kong to bring your home city to life. But before that, what are the books that everyone in Hong Kong knows and loves?

There are three books that everybody would put on a list about Hong Kong. The first is Gweilo by Martin Booth, which is an autobiographical account of his childhood growing up in Hong Kong as an expat. The second is The Piano Teacher by Janice YK Lee, a novel about cross-cultural experience and a love story that transcends generations and borders. And the last is Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang, a classic collection of short stories set in Hong Kong in the post-war era. Every student in Hong Kong is encouraged to read it in the original Chinese, although it’s just as wonderful in the English translation.

Tell us also about your own book, Umbrellas in Bloom.Why did you want to write a detailed account of the 2014 ‘Umbrella’ protests?

During the Umbrella Movement, for 79 days in the autumn of 2014, I spent nearly every day at the protest sites. It was history in the making, and begged to be written about. Since the movement ended, however, Chinese language bookstores in Hong Kong have been flooded with pro-Beijing propaganda attacking the movement, and to date there hasn’t been any book written in English about it. So I felt duty bound as a writer and also as a Hong Kong citizen to record such a critical turning point in our post-handover history, when all of the frustrations and pent-up anger in the city finally bubbled up to the surface and erupted.

What is the mood in Hong Kong a year and a half later?

Since the movement ended, the protest has been under increasing attack – not just by the pro-establishment forces in Hong Kong but by the very people who participated in it. The protesters, who spent weeks sleeping on the streets,  now call the movement a waste of time and a farce. These are the same students who were politically awoken by the movement, and to see their change of heart is quite shocking. But it is also understandable perhaps. After defying their parents and teachers to go out onto the streets, none of their political demands were met and they had to go home with empty hands, which filled them with a deep sense of failure.

Can you tell us about more recent turns of events, with the ‘localist’ fringe movement that is more actively anti-Beijing, and the violence we saw on Hong Kong streets last Chinese new year?

Disillusionment with the Umbrella protests created the environment for the localist movement to emerge, which appeals to many young, radical protesters. They argue that peaceful demonstrations are useless: that the government will only back down if they see blood. They think that a political movement must escalate and radicalise – throwing bricks, taking over government buildings and resorting to violence – in order to grab newspaper headlines and gain international attention. The localists stopped talking about ‘One Country, Two Systems’ a long time ago. They demand independence, and reject that Hong Kong is a part of China.

“They argue that peaceful demonstrations are useless: that the government will only back down if they see blood.”

Interestingly enough, there’s a conspiracy theory that the localist movement is funded by Beijing, because it’s in Beijing’s interests to have radical kids burning cars so that they can justify a more aggressive political agenda.

Was the detention of the five Hong Kong booksellers, one of them illegally taken to mainland China earlier this year, a sign of the times?

It has become symbolic of an evil empire coming to Hong Kong and trampling on our way of life – and a talking point that if we don’t do something about it, Beijing will only act with greater impunity. It has also given the localist movement more fuel, as another piece of evidence that Beijing will stop at nothing to turn Hong Kong into another Chinese city. To a degree they’re right. We used to talk about a slow encroachment on Hong Kong’s rights, but now it’s so blatant that we can take the word ‘slow’ out.

Let’s widen our lens and look at more of Hong Kong’s history and culture through the five books you’ve selected. Jan Morris is a well-loved Welsh travel writer known for her city profiles that also include Oxford and New York. What does she say in her book Hong Kong?

Jan Morris has an interesting background. She’s a transgender travel writer, and I had already read her books about Venice and Trieste when I discovered a book by her about Hong Kong. It was written in 1997, just before the handover, and the book gives you a good impression of colonial Hong Kong. It’s a collection of her observations about its history and culture, focusing on the expat communities and how they interacted with the locals as well as her quirky observations about the Cantonese way of life. Although some of the characters can be stereotypical, I read it with great interest as it offers a different perspective from my own. I particularly like the way she portrays Hong Kong as a land of contradictions. One of her observations is that there’s such wealth in the city – the rich who lived on the Peak or by the bay – and then there’s abject poverty on the streets, and the two simply coexisted. I also love her prose, which I find beautiful and fluid.

One of the most enjoyable elements of the book for me was the potted histories of Hong Kong she sprinkles throughout it, from the 1840s, 1880s, 1920s and 1940s. The city has gone through a lot of change in that time.

Not long ago, Hong Kong was no more than a sleepy fishing village. The name means “fragrant harbour,” and the fragrance came from a particular type of tree called Agarwood that people harvested for its fragrant resins. Even now there are smugglers who come from mainland China to chop down the trees and take them back to sell. That was the origin of Hong Kong, but in 1842 it was ceded to Britain after the Second Opium War. For over 150 years the city was a British colony, and that has influenced everything from our food to our architecture and language, but most importantly our government.

“Our biological parents are Chinese, but we were given to white foster parents for 150 years”

Looking back, that is the one thing I think the people of Hong Kong appreciated the most – the Western constructs of governance that wouldn’t have emerged if we had stayed part of China. I think of us as a foster child. Our biological parents are Chinese but then we were given to white foster parents for 150 years – after which we were told we had to go back. You can imagine the upheaval of that.

It’s as if Hong Kong has never truly had the chance to just be itself.

A few years ago there was a scandal when Jackie Chan said in a TV interview that the Chinese people “need to be controlled.” He said that to justify some of the heavy-handed policies by Beijing, and he came under a lot of criticism for it. Well, Hong Kong has always been controlled as a colony, and so those comments felt quite ironic to me. It can feel like Hong Kong is always destined to be controlled by people who don’t understand us.

Why don’t we delve into the darker side of the city with your second book choice, Hong Kong Noir by Feng Chi-shun.

Most people, when they think of Hong Kong, picture shopping malls and glitzy hotels, but the city has another side and that’s what makes it interesting. There are seedy areas in Wanchai and Tsim Sha Tsui which are run openly by the local mafia or Triads. There are prostitution and gambling rings that fly underneath the police’s radar, and Hong Kong Noir sheds light on that darkness. It’s a collection of fifteen true stories about the underbelly of Hong Kong, including stories about prostitution, murder, and dismemberment by Triad members – the colourful side of Hong Kong, if you will. Feng Chi-shun is a retired pathologist so he had access to hospital records, and was personally in charge of some of the cases that he writes about in this fascinating book.

So the Triads are still active?

They’re very active, although over the years they have expanded their business from the underworld to the upper world. They’re now best known for their role in the entertainment industry and they almost monopolise the movie business. That’s why a lot of movies in Hong Kong glorify the Triads, such as Infernal Affairs – which was later made into a Hollywood movie – or Election and the Young & Dangerous series. In those movies, Triad leaders are portrayed as heroes with their own code of conduct, treating each other like brothers. But now they are more likely to be businessmen who operate high-end retail chains across the city.

That leads us to your third pick, Hotel China, a selection of fiction from the Hong Kong Writers Circle.

The Hong Kong Writers Circle is an organisation that gives aspiring writers a platform to network, cut their teeth and get published. Every year they put out an anthology and this is one of them, published in 2009. I like the title, because in many ways Hong Kong is like a hotel. It captures the transience, especially for expats who feel they’re only here for a short stint. Hotel China is a fictitious hotel in Wanchai, and the anthology is comprised of 26 short fiction stories all set inside. There’s one clever one about an American tourist who chats up a beautiful woman next to him in the bar, never realising that the woman is taking his personal information and texting it back to her accomplices in America so that they can burgle his house while he’s on vacation. The quality of the stories can be uneven, but there is some creative stuff in there.

Wanchai has had a reputation as a seedier area of town. Can you tell us about the other areas of Hong Kong and how they differ?

That’s right, although if you try to rent a flat in Wanchai now you would be shocked at how expensive it is. Hong Kong’s geography is divided into four parts. There is Hong Kong Island, which is the heart of the city. There is Kowloon, the peninsula on the other side of Victoria harbour. To the north of Kowloon is the New Territories, which is primarily residential and very mountainous, with a lot of country parks. And finally there are the outlying islands – Lantau, Lamma, Cheung Chau and so on, which are more about beaches, fishing and the old way of life.

Talking of Hong Kong’s natural beauty is a good segue to Pete Spurrier’s book The Heritage Hiker’s Guide to Hong Kong

.

A lot of people outside of Hong Kong call the city a concrete jungle, but actually about 70% of land in Hong Kong’s territories are country parks. We are blessed with amazing hiking trails, the best in the world. It’s the contrast that is so stunning. One moment you can be shopping at a megamall, and five minutes later you can find an entrance point to a hiking trail. I live near Hong Kong University and I have a hiking trail right next to my apartment building. I can get up on a Sunday morning, go out the door and be on the trail in thirty seconds.

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This is Pete Spurrier’s third hiking book about Hong Kong, following the Leisurely Hiking Guide and the Serious Hiking Guide. The Heritage Guide is my favourite of the three, as it takes you on a historical journey through Hong Kong. It marries history and exercise. For example, if you’ve watched the Ang Lee film Lust, Caution, the student rebels check into a rich man’s home and spend weeks there training to act like tycoons. That house is featured in the book, although it has since been redeveloped. A lot of the other places you find in the book won’t be around much longer too, so best go visit now.

History aside, some of those mountain ridge trails, with names like “the Dragon’s Back,” are just gorgeous.

Everyone complains about air quality in Hong Kong. Hiking allows us to escape the polluted air, if only for a few hours. For a visitor, it’s the perfect way to get a feel for the geography of Hong Kong. When you’re hiking on trails like the Dragon’s Back, at any time you can still see the skyline of the city. I’m biased, but I think it’s one of the most dramatic and beautiful skylines in the world.

Somewhere hidden in that skyline is the infamous Chungking Mansions. Tell us about your final selection, Ghetto in the Centre of the World.

My fifth book selection is about Chungking Mansions, which, as you mentioned, is infamous as a microcosm not just of Hong Kong but of the world. If you go, you will be surprised by how many African, Indian and Pakistani traders there are, buying cheap smart phones and clothes to resell in their home countries. Chungking Mansions gets a lot of bad press because it’s such a self-governing area, just like the Walled City of Kowloon that preceded it. There aren’t many police around, and there are a lot of hash sellers. It’s known for cheap backpackers’ hotels, when tourists don’t want to spend an arm and a leg at the Four Seasons or the Ritz. Chungking Mansions is also known for its authentic Indian curry.

I’ve read that it’s the building with the densest concentration of different ethnicities in the world.

That’s right, and there are a lot of colourful characters in there. It’s not for the faint of heart, and a lot of women are discouraged from going. But that didn’t stop Professor Gordon Mathews from bringing a team of university students into the building to do research. He himself spent decades befriending traders inside the building. The book is quite academic, but the main message is that Chungking Mansions is what he calls “low-end globalisation.” It’s a cheap marketplace, a global crossroads and a salvation for the emerging markets in Africa and South Asia.

Would it also stand up as a symbol for Hong Kong itself as an international and globalised “world city”?

Yes, and a symbol of Hong Kong’s diversity – not just culturally and ethnically, but in terms of its ways of life. Tsim Sha Tsui is one of the most expensive shopping areas in the world, with high rents and glitzy malls. Chungking Mansions is right in the middle those malls – a self-enclosed, weird, seedy building that sticks out like a sore thumb. There are rumours that it is slated for redevelopment, which was the fate that befell the old Walled City of Kowloon. One of Mathews’s purposes in writing the book is to bring to our attention that Chungking Mansions is an important cultural heritage of Hong Kong that ought to be preserved.

We’ve talked about so many different facets of the city. How would you characterise what the identity of Hong Kong is as a whole?

At the most superficial level, Hong Kong is the classic contradiction of East meets West. But that almost seems stereotypical. If you scratch deeper, I think at its core Hong Kong is the embodiment of survival and can-do spirit. If someone has an idea that works, it will happen because we don’t have any ideological baggage that prevents us from pursuing it. It’s that ‘Why not?’ attitude that I love about Hong Kong.

And what does the city hope for its uncertain future?

Hong Kong just wants to be left alone. The post-handover government doesn’t understand that, and it has made every attempt to control Hong Kong, for instance, by promoting it as the art hub of Asia or the Silicon Valley of the East. But every good thing that happened to Hong Kong happened organically, because of its bottom-up spirit instead of a top-down government directive. We don’t function that way. Maybe it works well for China or Singapore, but that’s not how we work. Like I said, we just want to be left alone.

But you’re not.

No, we aren’t, and so we will continue to see a battle – on the legislative floor, on the streets, on university campuses and on the international stage. Next year, 2017, is the year we were supposed to be able to democratically elect our leader, the Chief Executive, but the electoral reform to achieve that has failed. So we will have another election by committee that will no doubt reopen old wounds as we once again witness an undemocratic process in action. And there is another date that nobody wants to mention: 2047. That’s when the fifty years of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ [established after the handover in 1997] expires. The best case scenario is that Beijing keeps things the way they are, seeing no reason to change what has worked in the past. The worst case scenario is that they completely merge Hong Kong and Beijing in political terms, which will mean the end of Hong Kong. We will see which way it goes.

Interview by Alec Ash

July 7, 2016

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