A Singular Territory
Fintan O’Toole on the way Hong Kong has come to think of itself
In 1925, Sir Cecil Clementi, the British Governor of Hong Kong, wrote a rapturous ode to the colony at night, evoking the illumined streets, the ships glimmering in the harbour, the threads of light circling the Peak that looms above the city, ‘ending where the roadways touch the mountain-crest’. As soon as he had written the word ‘ending’, however, its utter absurdity struck him:
Ending? No! For human aspiration
Passes here to starry consummation,
Mountain roads into the Milky Way.
Earth is strewn with Danae’s golden dower.
Grandly here the Master Builder’s power
Crowns the work of England in Cathay.
Now that Clementi’s poem has become an Ozymandian folly, and the end of England in Cathay, which he thought unimaginable, has arrived, the urge to snigger is almost irresistible. Hong Kong was created by imperial violence and governed for most of its existence with utter contempt for the political rights of its overwhelmingly Chinese population. Its return to China has a sense of historic justice about it. It belongs to a now familiar narrative of Empire, in which the lowering of the Union Jack may not always be a happy ending, but is at least a satisfyingly inevitable one.
In a recent reply to Clementi, the Hong Kong poet Leung Ping Kwan (in John Minford’s translation) resists the urge to gloat and tempers anger with ruefulness:
That rhapsodic rhetoric of yours
takes the measure of us,
trusses us tight in a wire cage of tradition,
strews a little casual scholar’s ink on us,
no match for your aspirations,
for all this fulsome praise.
In all seriousness
without a snigger,
we watch silently by your sickbed.
Leung’s suppression of sniggers is in its own way as eloquent as what he actually says about the English dismissal of Hong Kong’s population of ‘Westernised’ Chinese as cultural waifs. Britain condescended to the Hong Kong Chinese, but so does China. Clementi’s sonorous rhetoric of imperial destiny could be matched cliché for cliché in the bombast of the Chinese state. For most of the Hong Kong intelligentsia, the urge to celebrate at the sickbed of one empire is held in check by the knowledge that another is on the way. In truth, there is nothing much to snigger about.
One of Hong Kong’s most profound problems is also one of its greatest achievements. This anomalous place, this odd margin between East and West, has in the last decade acquired a cultural and artistic life of its own. In the ritual exchange of flags and empires, this extraordinary fact may be overlooked. And it is all the easier to overlook because Hong Kong’s culture has emerged in the absence of all the things that are supposed to make cultures happen.
It doesn’t have much of a history – 155 years at most – and what it has is largely invisible: the city is in a state of relentless flux, its historic buildings torn down, its street-scapes altered, so that no accumulation of resonances is possible. Even the map of the physical territory is utterly unstable: small islands have been annexed to the larger one by filling in the harbour; frantic reclamation has remoulded the shape of the surrounding seas. Hong Kong is neither a state nor a nation, and even the word that came closest to defining it – ‘colony’ – was dropped over the last few decades, to be replaced with the more neutral and meaningless ‘territory’. It doesn’t have a stable population: it is, in essence, a society of refugees, with a million people in 1938, over five million by 1990. And it lacks a coherent political tradition – even the refugees were not fleeing for the same reasons – and the imprint of most of China’s 20th-century turbulence can be traced in the fissures within Hong Kong society.
What Hong Kong most powerfully suggests is that it is no longer possible to define a culture by the presence or absence of any or all of these markings. For the first time anywhere a vibrant culture has emerged almost entirely from within the elements of mass consumerism. The vast bulk of Hong Kong’s population may have come from China bringing language, lore and learning with it. But what is going back to China is patently not what was extracted. It is something else altogether – an identity forged through popular culture.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.