Hong Kong: Shock Therapy9 min read

Antony Dapiran reviews Aftershock: Essays from Hong Kong, edited by Holmes Chan

“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.” – Frank Kafka, The Trial

Hong Kongers may feel they have good cause to invoke the name of Franz Kafka. They are becoming accustomed to the arbitrary exercise of state power in illogical and often absurd ways that would make even Kafka blush.

Since the imposition of the National Security Law on 30 June, Hong Kong has at times seemed to be descending inexorably into the Kafkaesque: teenagers arrested for their Facebook posts; people arrested for possessing wearing t-shirts or possessing flags that bear “illegal” slogans; police demanding that pro-democracy restaurants and stores tear down their Lennon Walls; songs banned in schools; Hong Kong police declaring that half a dozen people overseas are wanted under the new law (including activist Samuel Chu, a US citizen in the US apparently accused of the crime of lobbying his own government); Beijing’s leading official in Hong Kong warning that patriotism is “not a choice, but an obligation.”

Yet it is another aspect of Kafka that springs to mind on reading Aftershock: Essays from Hong Kong, a collection of essays reflecting on the events of 2019 by the city’s leading young journalists writing in English.

Kafka was a Czech Jew living in Prague, and writing in German, in the twilight years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This led post-structuralist philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to describe his work as a “minor literature” of deterritorialised language: a literature in which everything is political, and in which each individual work forms part of a common action, in solidarity with its community. This characterisation was intended not to diminish such literature but to re-centre it. Minor literature, Deleuze and Guattari argue, should be understood on its own terms, not forced into some pre-existing framework or category.

So too it is with Aftershock, which is consciously a work of Hong Kong writers writing in (deterritorialised) English. It is a project which re-centres the experience of its contributors, not as objective recorders of events in the mode of their professional role as journalists, but as subjective Hong Kong people.

The Hong Kong protests of 2019 were one of the most well-documented social movements in history. The best of the world’s media – the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and others – have large bureaus based here who covered the protests in depth, as did local outlets such as the South China Morning Post and numerous Chinese-language papers from across the political spectrum. Television stations from around the world sent crews to cover the visually arresting protests. Local media such as Apple Daily (whose founder Jimmy Lai was later arrested) and Stand News streamed thousands of hours of live video.

But for all of that global coverage, something seemed to be missing: the voices of the Hong Kong people themselves. Ironically, those best-placed to speak in the first-person to an international audience – the Hong Kongers working within those very media outlets – were constrained by their professional duties from doing so.

Something seemed to be missing: the voices of the Hong Kong people themselves”

Aftershock collects essays by eleven young writers (all under 30), all of them practicing journalists. Their names are familiar, having appeared in by-lines in all of the above media outlets, and beyond. Yet in this book we see a different, personal, side of these authors. As editor Holmes Chan writes in his introduction:

“I asked them to resist an instinct they learned early on, which was to take themselves out of the picture. … [T]he story of Hong Kong today cannot be separated from the way we navigate it, and the journalistic gaze needs to also be directed inwards, so we can understand the wreckage within.”

This exhortation to direct the gaze inwards might risk becoming a recipe for sentimentality or solipsism, yet these pieces resist that urge: their power emerges in their understatement, and in the ability of the work to give us glimpses of Hong Kong life, and to hear Hong Kong voices, that we have rarely heard articulated before, at least in an English language publication.

Take, for example, the beautiful essay ‘Feathery Down’ by Elaine Yu. The traditional Hong Kong high school girls’ cheongsam-style uniform is a universal sight on the streets of the city. Yu gives us an inside perspective on that uniform as she moves from a meditation on her own school years to the very different challenges faced by her younger successors today. In another essay, ‘The Cost of Living’, Nicolle Liu takes us table-side at a hotpot dinner with a group of young Hong Kongers – all middle-class kids, university graduates – who talk about their plans to emigrate as they tuck into an expensive meal of abalone.

Sum Lok-kei, in ‘Home Front’, describes the siege of Chinese University of Hong Kong from a very personal point of view: his parents are academics, and he grew up on the campus, living in university housing. For Sum, the campus siege is set between the idyllic years of his youth, and the wreckage of his home campus in the siege’s aftermath. 

Many of the pieces in Aftershock are self-reflexive, as these journalists examine their own role and responsibilities in reporting the protests. One contributor, reporting the siege of the Polytechnic University, writes:

“Outside the campus, I came across a young reporter who stood with her head down, sobbing. Both of us were in our press vests, but there was no way I could ignore her. … I wanted to comfort her, but couldn’t finish a sentence before I was crying myself.”

Aftershock also pulls back the curtain on how the news is produced, revealing the turmoil that may lie behind an apparently unified editorial line. Holmes Chan and Rachel Cheung in their essays take us into the struggles inside the newsrooms, with reporters battling editors as they try to balance telling their truth with the need for editorial balance and objectivity. Hsiuwen Liu, a Taiwanese journalist, examines her responsibility for enabling in Taiwan the convenient oversimplification of Hong Kong reporting captured in the slogan: “Today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan.”

The book is illustrated by quirky collage artworks by Hong Kong artist Jeffrey Yeung. It is a significant editorial decision: between them the authors have thousands of images captured at the front lines, and it would have been easy, and attention-grabbing, to use those images to illustrate the book. Yet these understated, fractured, pieces of collage – a broken-up and reassembled medium – says more about the state-of-mind of the authors and the nature of this project than just another image of a Hong Kong protester in yellow hard hat and gas mask.

As with the artwork, all aspects of the book are home-grown: Aftershock is a deliberately local project (although not localist, Hong Kong’s term for seperatist activism). The book was designed and published by Small Tune Press, a Hong Kong house known for its zine publications, and printed in Hong Kong. It was sold online locally and at independent Hong Kong book stores. All of this was a very conscious decision of the creators.

Many of the pieces are self-reflexive, with these journalists examining their own role and responsibilities in reporting the protests”

Which raises the question: who is this project for? Chan writes in his introduction that the book “exists because I wanted desperately to read it. … I don’t need to have my reality explained; I just want five minutes of honesty.” True to his word, Aftershock does not over-explain, and does not translate itself for the non-local reader. The pieces assume a certain level of familiarity with the events, sometimes with specific terms and details, as if they are written for the writers themselves.

This is not to say that the book is for insiders only. Rather, it takes a nuanced view of the world, and recognises the fact that, in the modern age, readers who need further background are capable of finding it themselves. The result is a level of insight, and emotional power, that would otherwise be lost. It is, in the best senses of Deleuze and Guattari’s term, a great collection of “minor literature”.

Prompted by the nation-building, identity-seeking spirit of the 2019 protest movement, Hong Kong appeared at the beginning of 2020 to be poised on the brink of a wave of cultural expression in art, literature, theatre, cinema and music, of which Aftershock could have been an early exemplar. It is one of Hong Kong’s tragedies that, at that moment of promise, the National Security Law now threatens to snuff it all out. In this context, it is tempting to view Aftershock not as an exemplar but as an artefact – a lost glimpse of what might have been.

But that would be mistaken. Hong Kongers continue to resist, and to write. Aftershock contributor Karen Cheung is writing a book of memoir and reportage on Hong Kong to be published by Random House. Hopefully, book projects by other Aftershock contributors will follow. Hong Kong poetry also continues to thrive: a bilingual collection of Hong Kong poetry, edited by Tammy Lai-ming Ho and Chris Song, will be published next year by Musical Stone Publishing (no link yet available); and poet Nicholas Wong will follow up his award-winning debut Crevasse with a new collection, Besiege Me, forthcoming in March 2021 from Noemi Press.

The protests of 2019 served to bring Hong Kong to the forefront of global attention, placing the city at the front lines of growing tensions between China and the world. That position has not necessarily been a comfortable, or beneficial, one for Hong Kong and its people. Perhaps we can seek some consolation in the thought that it might also bring with it more global prominence for Hong Kong’s homegrown literature. ∎

Holmes Chan (editor), Aftershock: Essays from Hong Kong  (Small Tune Press, May 2020).
Header: A Lennon Wall at the Hong Kong book fair, July 2019 (Wikicommons).