June 1, 2023

《Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong》书摘

Quote from “Acknowledgement”:

From my father, Poh Chye Lim, I have received the gift of steadfast support, offered in the face of his obvious skepticism about the sanity of this project.

So many highlights.

Author’s Note

However, my freedom must not come at the cost of my sources. Nowadays the act of writing about Hong Kong has become an exercise in subtraction. Though the interviews for this book, unless otherwise stated in the text, were carried out prior to the introduction of the national security legislation in June 2020, the broad and retrospective application of the legislation has compelled me to remove some names and details from the text nevertheless, to protect those with whom I spoke.


I’d always been fascinated by the audacity of the sign painters, but I had no idea who they were or how to get in touch with them. That morning, someone who knew of my obsession had contacted me out of the blue to invite me to watch them in action. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

There were seven sign painters. I had promised not to divulge any details that might expose their identities, but I was surprised that instead of the young, athletic radicals of my imagination, they were older men and women whose familiarity with one another was evident in the wordless efficiency of their interactions. Working quickly, they unfolded a gigantic bolt of thick black cotton, then used their feet to stamp the material flat on the roof in a brisk, communal dance. They placed rocks along the edges to hold the cloth still. Then an elderly calligrapher began sketching out the characters in white chalk. Moving with a fluid grace, the writer’s entire body mirrored the strokes of a calligraphy brush dancing across the fabric as the piece of chalk dipped and curved, tracing the outline of four enormous Chinese characters.

As the final ideogram took shape, I couldn’t help but snort with laughter. The words the calligrapher was so carefully inscribing on the banner were賀佢老母, a sweary and wholly untranslatable pun in Cantonese, the dominant language spoken in Hong Kong and parts of southern China…In other words, the slogan was calculated to cause maximum offense.

It was an irreverent slap in the face that was simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and deadly serious, not least because, if caught, the sign painters could face jail time.

We’d begun by wearing fluorescent vests and helmets marked press and記者, but it soon became horribly obvious that we were effectively putting targets on our heads and torsos.

Almost 90 percent of the population had been tear-gassed. It could happen while you waited for a late-night snack of fishball noodles, on a Sunday afternoon stroll along the waterfront, or even while sitting at home, as stinging clouds drifted up from the street, leaching through window frames and air-conditioning vents.

…and how it had managed to excise those killings from the collective memory.

But as I painted, I entered a kind of meditative daze, zeroing in on my small task to the extent that I forgot I was supposed to be interviewing the others. Quite literally, I was transfixed by the power of the word writ large.

His words were a celebration of originality and human imperfection with a who-gives-a-fuckness about them that was genuinely inspiring.

By the time the King died from a heart attack, in 2007, he had made an estimated 55,845 works in public space.

In some way they still think that Hong Kong is a colony, a colony of China.

Amid the scrolling whirligig of Hong Kong politics, I couldn’t help noticing a pattern emerging. When something big happened, I often already knew the main players through my pursuit of the King. When in 2016 an outspoken university lecturer named Chin Wan became the first academic to lose his job for his political views, I remembered that he’d written the first essay in a book about the King. When legislator Tanya Chan was put on trial for her role in the Umbrella Movement, the eleven-week-long 2014 street occupation seeking greater democracy, I already knew her because of our shared interest in the King. In 2020, when Hong Kong’s top satirical TV show, Headliners, was canceled for its political content, I messaged my condolences to its host, Tsang Chi-ho; we’d become friends after I interviewed him about a newspaper column he’d written on the King. Sometimes it seemed like the King was guiding me from beyond the grave, breadcrumbing my trail to Hong Kong’s most interesting thinkers.

Part 1: Dominion

Chapter 1: Words

…they feathered the walls with sorbet-colored declarations in black Chinese characters: We love Hong Kong! We are Hong Kong! Hong Kong never give up!

The protests sprang out of the massive opposition to proposed changes to Hong Kong’s extradition laws that would permit the rendition of alleged criminal suspects to China. This would put anyone, no matter their nationality, in danger of having to stand trial under a Communist Party–led legal system rife with abuse and with no presumption of innocence.

The British had not endowed their subjects with full citizenship, the right of abode in Britain, or universal suffrage, but they had inculcated them with civic values, including an almost religious respect for freedom, democracy, and human rights. And Hong Kongers were not going down without a fight.

…original ideogram used for “written character” zi字 is composed of two elements,子 “child” in a宀 “building,” which together literally mean “new baby in the house.” Thus the original meaning of字 was “to birth” or “to deliver” or “to bring into the world,” but that changed over time into “to raise,” “to love,” “to educate,” “to govern,” and “to administer.” To borrow from the late, great sinologist Simon Leys, in the Chinese beginning, there was the word, and the word was word.

Every mistake is indelible. There can be no do-overs, no second chances, no rescue missions. And weaknesses cannot be hidden or disguised. Its ascetic simplicity is extraordinarily punishing for beginners. I spent weeks—in all honesty, months—trying to master the single heng stroke.

My excitement at progressing past one heng was tempered by the fact that I was still only doing hengs, just more of them, which exponentially complicated the challenge. Not only did each stroke have to be perfectly balanced, they also had to work together in harmony.

Thus my inability to write a single perfect heng represented a full-spectrum failure not just of my artistic ability but also of my character, including my mental focus, moral fiber, and inner strength. I aspired to a nirvana-like state of calm and balance, but my monkey mind and shaky hands betrayed me.

When I took up calligraphy, my father had been quietly elated. His own father, Lim Keng-chew, had been a scholar, and my father had always hoped that one of his three daughters would somehow follow in his father’s footsteps. Our grandfather had left his home village of Xiamen in Fujian in the 1880s in disgust at corruption, and moved to Singapore, where he had been a founding member of Sun Yat-sen’s Tongmenghui, the movement that overthrew China’s last dynasty, the Qing. Our grandfather had helped bankroll the revolution, donating money and shoes from his shoe shop to the troops. He had been a patriarch with four wives—three simultaneously under one roof—and so many children that no one could ever quite manage to construct our family tree. Our father, Lim Poh-chye, was the youngest son of the fourth wife, and had six brothers and one sister of his own, not counting the half brothers and sisters. Family gatherings are epic; the last time I visited Singapore, a small meal for immediate family turned into a sixty-person get-together where the most popular pastime was good-humored bickering about the identity of those family members no one could recognize.

My salary was derisory, but I was so young that I still felt relatively rich.

In 2017, one of the last extant pieces—writing on an electricity signal box—was whitewashed by an overenthusiastic government contractor.

Indeed, one of the most famous pieces of writing on Hong Kong is by cultural critic Ackbar Abbas, who back in 1997 theorized that Hong Kong’s main characteristic was “a culture of disappearance whose appearance is posited on the immanence of its disappearance.”

Chapter 2: Ancestors

The name HongKong—香港, pronounced heung gong—first appears in the atlas on a late sixteenth-century map by Kwok Fei below four sharp rocks rearing up from the sea. This is the earliest known mention of Hong Kong in Chinese records.

As children of the colony, we never thought to question this version of its past. We absorbed the idea that without empire, Hong Kong would have remained a barren rock. Beijing’s narrative has gone similarly unquestioned by legions of Chinese schoolchildren. This version has Hong Kong as Chinese soil from time immemorial until it was snatched away by imperial aggressors who used gunboat diplomacy to enforce an “unequal treaty” that

a place where lost kings are still worshipped through Hong Kongers’ favorite activity, eating.

“Never, ever believe that archaeology can be apolitical,” Atha told me. “Fundamentally, the past is a political topic, and you’ve got to be careful how you package it and how you present it.”

The experience of visiting the Venetian casino, Macau’s most popular tourist attraction, visited by half the enclave’s tourists, almost undid me. Complete with indoor canals, fake sky, and Chinese gondoliers belting out Mandarin folk songs, the casino is a $2.4 billion copy of the Las Vegas Venetian, which is itself a facsimile of a Venetian town.

Ho wrote in an email to me, “The exhibition is not just about the local myth and reconstructing a local myth, it is about the rights to interpret history, and the definition of ‘real’ history and who has the rights to write history. It is also about the fake authority of confirming history of the cultural institution.”

The ambiguity and confusion was designed, Ho wrote, to challenge visitors. “The exact idea is about challenging: what is real history? In China, they have different history about June 4, and the 1197 massacre is erased from ‘history.’ ”

The final play was performed in Hong Kong in 2018, but it wasn’t until two years later, just after the national security legislation was imposed, that we spoke. Before our conversation, Wong asked if we could avoid talking about politics. I’d been used to hearing this kind of request while working in China, but this was the first time a Hong Konger had ever posed it. The very existence of the national security legislation restricted our conversation like a corset.

Chapter 3: Kowloon

We were variously called half-castes; the Eurasians; the mix-blood children, wan hyut yi; or half-Chinese barbarians, bun tong faan.

When my father left Singapore for Great Britain, his mother had pressed a mahjong set into his hands as a parting gift, along with a warning: “Don’t marry an English woman.”

My parents ended up joining a club born of social exclusion, consisting solely of white women with Chinese husbands. The group originally called themselves the Mix-up Club, but the name was hurriedly shortened to the M Club to avoid being mistaken for a cross-cultural swingers’ outfit. We often celebrated holidays with the other Mix-ups, the kids running wild while our fathers compared our exam results and our mothers swapped Chinese recipes.

In truth, what we were taught most thoroughly was whiteness, in particular how to sound white and think white.

What we know today as Hong Kong was acquired by the British in three separate tranches: Hong Kong island in the 1840s, the Kowloon peninsula in the 1860s, and finally the New Territories abutting mainland China, along with 235 outlying islands, on a ninety-nine-year lease in 1898. The full story of Britain’s acquisition of Hong Kong, however, is more complicated, capricious, and cruel than this tidy summary conveys; indeed, it is one of the most shameful episodes in British history. Each of the three phases of acquisition was accompanied by a war; the three tranches of territory that we know as Hong Kong were the spoils of those wars.

The Opium Wars were hugely controversial at the time. Of the first, William Gladstone, who would become prime minister, said in Parliament: “A war more unjust in its origins, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know and I have not read of.” It

The emperor, an opium addict himself, tasked Commissioner Lin Zexu, a man of legendary integrity, with ending the opium trade. Lin wasted no time.

The battle for Chusan on July 4, 1840, took precisely nine minutes, leaving some 280 Chinese dead and 462 wounded, with no British deaths. The treaty negotiations, however, dragged on for six fruitless months while the Chinese plenipotentiary Qishan stalled for time.

He offers Elliot a choice between the two, but not both. It took Elliot a single night to decide on Hong Kong. In his reply, written in the same hasty hand, the phrase “a site in Hong Kong” has been changed to “the island of Hong Kong,” indicating a last-minute upgrade in British demands, according to Chinese historians. The choice of Hong Kong, in other words, was almost accidental.

The Qing government was equally outraged, recalling Qishan to Peking (now Beijing) in chains and charging him with treasonably alienating Chinese soil.

Even where they recognized existing claims on the land, the British made fundamental errors. They failed to understand traditional Chinese land-owning practices, whereby small topsoil renters leased land from subsoil owners who paid taxes on the land to the Chinese government. The British instead viewed the subsoil landowners as tax lords taking “irregular squeezes,” so they often rejected their claims to the land, instead recognizing the topsoil lessees as the owners. This resulted in subsistence farmers who had rented topsoil rights cheaply suddenly being burdened with punitive land taxes they were unable to pay. At the same time, traditional landowners were suddenly dispossessed, chief among them the powerful Tang clan, who had settled in Kam Tin in the New Territories as early as 973 CE and for centuries had been collecting rent and paying tax to the Chinese government on large swaths of Hong Kong, Kowloon, and the New Territories. The cost of expropriating their land would explode at the end of the century.

To the British, ruling meant control and regulation of the local population rather than governance. The first completed building in the new colony was an enormous jail, finished two months after the land sale. In the first city plan, the magistracy and jail loom over the entire settlement, taking up the biggest single plot by far. Hong Kong gained a reputation as a safe harbor for those fleeing trouble on the mainland, attracting all kinds of undesirables, and in the first three decades of its existence as a British colony, more than 8 percent of the population appeared before the local courts. The British preoccupation with justice brought order to the new colony, but it also cemented in British minds a view of the incoming Chinese migrants as deplorable.

London, still vacillating about the cost of keeping an island, had ordered a halt to construction, but Elliot’s replacement, a hawkish major general named Henry Pottinger, who was Hong Kong’s first governor, argued that the settlement was too advanced to restore it to China without damaging British honor. He later admitted that he had “intentionally exceeded my modified instructions” on the retention of Hong Kong due to its desirability. Pottinger also pressed his military advantage, fighting all the way up the Yangtze River until he threatened to destroy the city of Nanjing. Faced with Britain’s military superiority, the Chinese signed the Treaty of Nanjing, ceding Hong Kong to the British in perpetuity.

To this day, Hong Kong’s street names reflect an astonishing sleight of hand whereby early colonial administrators stamped their mark on public space while simultaneously expunging the memory of their extraordinarily unpleasant legacies. Johnston Road, which we’d walk down to go to my father’s favorite Shanghainese dumpling restaurant, was named after Acting Administrator Alexander Johnston, who in 1842 introduced a curfew banning all Chinese except night watchmen from venturing outside after eleven p.m. on pain of arrest. That curfew was to remain in place for most of the next half century. Bonham Road, which we’d drive down to go to the hospital, was named after Hong Kong’s third governor, Sir George Bonham, who believed the study of the Chinese language to be “warping to the mind.” Hennessy Road, where I had worked at a stultifying job sitting in a cubicle teaching English to schoolchildren, was named after the eighth governor, John Pope Hennessy, who gave voice to the popular view of Chinese as “dishonest, potentially dangerous, malevolent, entangled in mysterious secret societies, foolish in their religious beliefs and only suitable to be clerks, shroffs, amahs, houseboys and coolies.” This knowledge changed the way I thought about Hong Kong, overlaying familiar streets with a cartography of colonial domination and racial prejudice.

After writing two cultural heritage guidebooks, she moved on to the graveyard. When she could find no books about it, she decided to write her own.

In the brand-new colony, where social mores were suspended, opium traders became the elite businessmen, and those who worked with them profited greatly.

The segregation even persisted into the afterlife. For decades, Chinese were banned from entering the cemetery, let alone being buried there. In the early years of the colony, Hong Kong’s Chinese population mainly consisted of migrants fleeing the turbulence of the Taiping Rebellion or floods and famine in China.

The executor of Lovett’s will subsequently put the bulldog up for sale, asking fifty dollars for it, a sum which she described as “a lot to pay for a dog, at a time when a gold watch and chain had cost John Wright $23.” I recognized this as the same tone she used to chide me for wasting my pocket money. My

she went to the doctor, who told her that she’d suffered a potentially fatal coronary event while lying on the grave. We joked that her death in the cemetery would have had a certain poetic justice; she joked it might have boosted book sales.

In his diary, he recorded the astonishingly casual nature of the deal with the acting viceroy in Canton, Lau Tsung-kwan, after what sounded like an alcoholic tiffin with the British generals and their ladyships. He wrote, “In the afternoon to Lau, with my letter in my pocket, and got him to agree to the whole of the scheme whereat I felt jolly in mind though seedy in body.” The lease of Kowloon cost just 500 taels of silver, and Parkes held the land in his name for nine months. In retrospect, everything about this episode seems extraordinary; the two parties were at war, and the British were seeking land to train troops to fight the Chinese, and the man they sent to conclude the deal was the very figure responsible for the escalation of that war. And yet Parkes prevailed.

In his book, he wrote, “In spite of the pretensions of our diplomatists, every concession made by the Chinese government has been wrung from them by our soldiers and our sailors, and it remains to be seen what will become their attitude when military pressure shall be removed, and ministers and consuls left to their own devices for maintaining or enforcing treaty obligations.” This exact question—of how to ensure that Beijing honors its obligations—has always been at the heart of Hong Kong’s plight.

Hong Kong was becoming a cosmopolitan port city, where schools and colleges founded by Christian missionaries offered a Western education. One who took advantage of this was Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, who began conspiring to overthrow the Qing dynasty while a medical student in Hong Kong. As a refuge for ideas that could not be discussed in China, Hong Kong offered a different vision of what China could be.

This land—known as the New Territories—makes up 92 percent of Hong Kong’s present-day landmass. The negotiations took only two months and were concluded on July 1, 1898, with the Second Convention of Peking. The speed of the negotiations may have been in part due to the slapdash attitude of MacDonald, who began talks without even possessing an up-to-date map of the land. Facing nationalist sentiment, the Chinese were adamant that they would not allow any more permanent cessions, but they were willing to extend more territory on a ninety-nine-year lease in line with other Western concessions in China. MacDonald may have believed such a lease was a permanent cession in disguise. He signed the agreement without addressing the future status of the land, likely because he could not envisage China growing powerful enough to demand its return. MacDonald’s assumptions were to have outsized consequences for Hong Kong’s residents a century later.

Four days later, the governor, Sir Henry Blake, issued a proclamation promising that land usage and customs would remain unchanged. Few believed it. On April 14, the rebel force of New Territories villagers, spearheaded by the Tang clan, launched its first strike by again burning the Flagstaff Hill mat-sheds and occupying a couple of nearby hills, shouting, beating gongs, and firing off bombs and firecrackers.

However, there was no loss of life on the British side, and Governor Blake withdrew the military almost immediately. He believed “the rowdies” had been taught a lesson and it was time to “pass a sponge over the events of the past month, and leave them to discover, as they will in a short time, that our rule is not the grinding tyranny that they expected.” From the villagers’ point of view, this worked; many were willing to put the uprising behind them to move ahead with life under British rule. This strategy proved successful in wiping the war from the collective memory and from colonial historical records. But the episode is mentioned in Communist Chinese accounts, where it is described as “a glorious page in Hong Kong’s history of resistance to foreign aggression,” with the villagers seen as patriots determined to preserve national dignity.

Despite his role in triggering the Six-Day War, my relative Henry May continued to rise up the hierarchy until, in 1912, he became governor of Hong Kong. He was the only governor to be the target of an assassination attempt, which happened the very day he was inaugurated, when a man with a grudge from his police years fired on him. May was unhurt, but the bullet landed in the sedan chair of his wife, Lady Helena May, who was a cousin of my mother’s by marriage. May was remembered as the most racist governor of them all, owning a racing pony called Yellow Skin. His predecessor, Sir Frederick Lugard, described Henry May by saying, “I like him very much, he is white right through.” May made it illegal for Chinese people to live on the Peak. He stopped mixed-race children from being accepted into Peak schools, writing, “It would be little short of a calamity if an alien, and by European standards, a semicivilized race were allowed to drive the white man from the one area in Hong Kong, in which he can live with his wife and children in a white man’s healthy surroundings.”

That same character yung勇 , or “brave,” was often heard on Hong Kong’s streets in 2019, because frontliners were called yung mou勇武, or “brave warriors.”

Part 2: Dispossession

Chapter 4: New Territories

High on her success in the Falklands War just three months earlier, Thatcher had gone in hoping to convince Deng to strike a deal whereby Hong Kong could be returned to China in 1997 but Britain could continue to administer the territory beyond that deadline.

The entire territory was dependent on China for food and water. Thatcher’s position stemmed from her argument that only British control would guarantee Hong Kong’s stability. Three years earlier, Deng had indicated this wouldn’t be possible, and the point had been reiterated the day before the leaders’ summit, by Premier Zhao Ziyang, but Thatcher, full of self-confidence, hadn’t been listening.

He wrong-footed her by smoking through the talks and periodically spitting in a white enamel spittoon placed near his feet.

Just as Britain and China have dueling versions of Hong Kong’s past, the two powers also wrote bifurcating narratives about its retrocession. One of the few things those accounts have in common is how they wash over Hong Kong’s return to China with barely a mention of Hong Kong’s people. Thatcher features Hong Kong in just ten of the 914 pages of her autobiography. John Major, the prime minister who presided over the colony’s 1997 return to China, mentions it on five of his 774 pages. The divestment of the last British colony and its millions of inhabitants was barely a half thought in the great sweep of their lives.

The agreement to hold the documents for thirty years effectively freed the interviewees from the Official Secrets Act that muzzled them from confiding even in their families. Liberated to speak for the first time, they unburdened themselves to Tsang so candidly that his role sometimes felt more like confessor than interviewer.

If I live and do not leave HK, then this disclosure could lead me into trouble with the Chinese government. In the middle of an anecdote, he would sometimes seek reassurance: Thank you for the interview and I hope someone would find it useful. This anxiety seeded in me a low-level nervousness; what would he have thought if he had realized that his words had been sitting on a library shelf, largely unread and unnoticed, all these years?

In the seventies, Hong Kong faced an influx of an estimated 213,000 Vietnamese fleeing their civil war in rickety wooden junks. Hong Kong was left on its own to set up and fund camps for the boat people. When asked what type of pressure was placed on Hong Kong from London, one Unofficial, the banker Li Fook-wo, simply replied, “I don’t think we faced any pressure from Whitehall or Westminster because at that time, to put it crudely, HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] never cared for those details.”

but he told Tsang that none existed for Hong Kong, and he was told to write his own: “They didn’t really have a policy towards Hong Kong. That’s the truth of the matter.” This was one of the reasons MacLehose agreed to be interviewed. In a declassified 1988 letter to the Foreign Office seeking permission to take part, he fretted that historians would be faced with a dearth of information about Hong Kong. He wrote, “In the seventies there was extraordinarily little official dialogue with London about why things were done in Hong Kong. You might be surprised to hear that a Deputy Under Secretary admonished me, ‘Your job is to keep Hong Kong out of the Secretary of State’s hair.’ ” To London, Hong Kong—and its inhabitants—was at best a distraction.

through the New Territories public housing estates whose construction he’d overseen. These housed 1.6 million of Hong Kong’s rapidly growing population, which had been boosted by the Vietnamese boat people and Chinese fleeing the Cultural Revolution who increasingly saw Hong Kong as a permanent home rather than a sojourn.

The spotty red-green dragon was the public face of MacLehose’s Keep Hong Kong Clean campaign, which expanded to a series of apocalyptic ads—they haunted my nightmares for years—urging Hong Kongers to stop throwing their beer bottles, television sets, and air conditioners from the windows of their high-rise blocks.

The larger significance of the dragon, I learned from the papers, was MacLehose’s insistence that such civic campaigns could serve as a substitute for democracy. He told Tsang, “Though history might deny Hong Kong an elected democracy, an effective and more immediate substitute could be ‘participation.’ . . . As successive campaigns took effect and became established—often doing more or different things to those that were originally envisaged—they demonstrated how ‘democratic’ a Government could be in how it acted and responded to public requirements without an elected legislature.” Governors like MacLehose, who firmly opposed opening the “Pandora’s box of drastic constitutional reform” and believed Hong Kong’s system could outperform electoral politics, were one key reason why the British did not introduce democratic reform to Hong Kong. In these paternalistic instincts, they were often supported by their local Exco advisers.

It was MacLehose who decided it was time to break that code of silence. The ninety-nine-year lease on the New Territories struck by Lord MacDonald with his out-of-date map would run out in 1997.

To MacLehose, 1997 represented “an inescapable source of crisis” if it were not addressed and planned for well in advance. It was, he believed, grossly irresponsible, indeed indefensible, to wait for China to raise the subject. He decided it was time to breach the taboo.

In March 1979, MacLehose made a historic trip to Beijing, the first ever by a Hong Kong governor. It served as the first official Chinese acknowledgment of British administration over Hong Kong. The governor had formulated a carefully thought-out plan with a small handful of close advisers, including then ambassador in Beijing Sir Percy Cradock; it was not, he maintained, an idea that had been cooked up at the last minute. His strategy was to back into the subject in a roundabout manner by bringing up the individual land leases in the New Territories. He wanted to explore whether China would be open to an agreement whereby Britain could continue to administer the whole of Hong Kong even if sovereignty of the New Territories reverted to China. It was framed as a “leaseback” agreement, or a “management contract,” extending British administration regardless of sovereignty. MacLehose hoped to use the technical and commercial matter of blurring the deadline on the land leases as a trial balloon to investigate Beijing’s intentions.

The Unofficials continued to be firmly in favor of a continued British presence, in part because they were almost as uninformed as everyone else. With the exception of senior Exco member Y. K. Kan, they were not told, either before or after it happened, about the conversation regarding land leases, since MacLehose was concerned that, should this influential group know the truth, they might sell their assets in Hong Kong, which would devastate confidence in the territory.

S.Y. was suspicious. He told Tsang, “Now my own feeling was that Y. K. Kan knew something I did not and he was in a hurry to withdraw early.”

That distrust, and the silence surrounding it, seeped into the Unofficials’ interactions with MacLehose, as described by Sir Roger Lobo, a Portuguese businessman who spent thirteen years as an Unofficial. “I remember some occasions when some of us wanted to know if indeed there was something else said [during the Deng meeting] that we were not told, or if there was something that it was not appropriate to say at that time, but should be said now. Nobody would ask the Governor: ‘Are you lying to me?’ It’s difficult.” From that moment onward, the pattern was set: the Unofficials were left out of the loop. Information that was central to their own future was intentionally kept from them, and they often suffered the humiliation of learning major developments from news stories. Their enforced ignorance was not casually done; it was a considered British government strategy, memorialized in diplomatic notes. Since they had not been told of Deng Xiaoping’s position, the Unofficials continued to lobby for an extension of British administration for two more years.

It started in 1980, when Britain published a white paper on immigration. This policy document, setting out proposals for future legislation, assigned Hong Kongers the new status of “British Dependent Territories Citizen.” To Hong Kongers, this was a second-class citizenship presaging Britain’s looming disengagement from Hong Kong. Incredibly, no copies of the paper were made available in Hong Kong. The Unofficials wanted to go to London ahead of the final parliamentary debate, in October 1981, to lobby for an amendment that would give Hong Kongers the status of British Nationals. Having been trained to defer to authority, however, they sought MacLehose’s advice. His answer was uncompromising: nationality was a dead issue, the vote had already been decided, and going to London would be a terrible waste of their time.

The Unofficials did not learn the details of the meeting until a couple of weeks later, when they, like everyone else, read them in a story in The Observer revealing Beijing’s blueprint for Hong Kong. This time they were fuming, especially S.Y., who was stung at being left “inside a drum,” in Chinese slang.

But he did not resign, and the pattern continued. Indeed, when diplomatic negotiations over Hong Kong’s future began in Beijing in October 1982, it was without any Hong Kong representation. The British would not even permit the Unofficials to be present in Beijing while the talks were underway, calling it inappropriate. The Unofficials were in a peculiarly powerless and paradoxical position. To Beijing, they were nonexistent though sometimes sought for their views, while to Britain they were consulted, then ignored.

“Finesse” is a bridge term, and I could not help noticing the extent to which the language of card playing suffused both the diplomatic memos and the oral accounts, as if the negotiations over Hong Kong’s future were little more than a high-stakes game.

The Unofficials sometimes strategized about how to put pressure on the negotiators, the prime minister, or the foreign minister to act. With no ethnic Chinese on the British negotiating team, S. Y. Chung feared they might be missing the nuances of spoken Mandarin. Then there was the bigger problem: he feared the Foreign Office mandarins simply failed to understand the down-and-dirty nature of haggling with the Chinese. Chung spilled his frustration to Tsang: “When I come to England and go shopping I must adopt the British mentality—I do not bargain, you cannot bargain in Harrods—but when you come to Chinese territory and go shopping, if you do not bargain you are paying too much, you will be overcharged. You must realize the Chinese mentality expects you to bargain, and you must have that kind of mentality when you negotiate with the Chinese. They are making opening bids, not the final offer.”

But there were no mechanisms to monitor or ensure Chinese compliance, and the agreement rested on Beijing’s acting in good faith.

reminded Thatcher of her own assessment of the Chinese, as one diplomatic memo from their meeting noted: “[NAME REDACTED] recalled that at the first meeting in 1982 Mrs Thatcher had said the Chinese were Marxist/Leninist and could not be trusted.” The only reassurance Thatcher could give was that she suspected that China would not wish to lose face in the world by violating any agreement.

This moment emboldened the Unofficials, who had agonized about their own complicity in an agreement they found unsatisfactory. Finally liberated from their silence, they launched into full-throated campaigning mode, taking their concerns public. In an unusually courageous move, they issued a thousand-word statement in May, raising questions about what Britain would do if Beijing did not comply with its treaty obligations, what would happen to those holding the British Dependent Territory Citizen passports, and what would happen if Hong Kongers did not accept the agreement. They were publicly drawing attention to the weaknesses in the agreement by raising the questions Britain did not want to tackle openly, fearing they might anger Beijing and complicate the negotiations.

Even Howe chided them, saying that since they were not elected, it was hard to claim that their views were representative.

To Chung, this criticism—coming from the same authority that had appointed him to represent the Hong Kong view—was unforgivable. A decade and a half later, he told Tsang, “I shall never forget the words of the MPs who criticised us saying that the Unofficial members of the two Councils were not elected so how could they represent Hong Kong? I said to them that I agreed with them; we never claimed to represent Hong Kong. We only claimed to reflect the views of Hong Kong people because we are Hong Kong people ourselves and know our people’s feelings better than you do. I said to them: ‘How can you claim that you can negotiate for us? You have no mandate from us either; I never elected you. If we cannot reflect the views of Hong Kong people, you have no right to represent us in Beijing in the first place.’ That I will never forget. I will never forgive them.”

since a session of China’s National People’s Congress allowed them to be denounced simultaneously by London and Beijing. Chung’s answer was to turn to the people of Hong Kong for vindication, warning them, “If you don’t speak up now, you may not have another chance to do so.” In the next few days, the Unofficials received more than eight thousand letters and telegrams, almost all endorsing their views unconditionally. It was a vindication for the unelected Unofficials, proving their claim that, in outlining their concerns with the agreement foisted upon them, they were reflecting the views of Hong Kong people. The messages showed just how closely Hong Kongers had been watching events in London. One read, “Kindly ask Lord MacLehose to jump into a lake.”

When the Unofficials attended a dinner with Howe, Chung arranged for each member of the delegation to stand up and read out ten telegrams, clearly enunciating every word of support. By the time the third member had started, Howe could no longer bear it. “Enough!” he conceded. “You don’t have to go on. You do reflect the true views of the Hong Kong people.” The acknowledgment was, S.Y. later told friends, the highlight of all his trips to London. It

but at the very last moment they were informed that they could only visit as private citizens since Beijing did not recognize Exco or Legco. They did, however, receive an audience with Deng Xiaoping. Right from the start, Deng laid out his position firmly, telling them there was no role for them in negotiations over Hong Kong’s future. He said, “You know the Sino-British talks well. Britain and China will settle Hong Kong’s future without any interference. There have been references to a ‘three-legged stool.’ There are no three legs, only two.”

In his autobiography, S.Y. remembers the words he chose: “There are three main worries. First, people are worried that instead of genuinely being administered by the people of Hong Kong, the future government of the Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) would actually be governed from Beijing. Second, people fear that the middle and lower level cadres who are responsible for the implementation of China’s policy over the HKSAR may not be able to accept the capitalist systems and lifestyle of Hong Kong. Third, while people have faith in Chairman Deng and the present leadership, people are concerned that the future policy of China may change and future leaders may revert to extreme left policies.” In retrospect, S.Y.’s words were darkly prophetic. Thirty-five years later, each of those three worries has come true.

Deng did not welcome such bluntness, and his answer targeted S.Y. personally. “Generally speaking, you said Hong Kong people don’t have confidence. Actually it is your opinion. It is you who have no faith in the People’s Republic of China.”

Beijing’s and London’s interests had finally aligned, with the shared goal being to sign an agreement quickly. Once again, Hong Kongers were sidelined.

The pile of letters and telegrams they read out loud to Geoffrey Howe demonstrated the tangible existence of the Hong Kong people as a political community. Their repeated demands for democracy, accountability, and transparency served to embarrass the British and irk the Chinese, both of whom were hoping to sweep the whole issue of Hong Kong under the carpet.

Chapter 5: Hong Kong Government

They cast me back into a different era, that of pre-handover Hong Kong, when I was just starting out in journalism. As the most junior reporter in the newsroom, I was always assigned the least important stories; my very first, which gave me more satisfaction than just about anything I’ve done since, was about fake Ferrero Rocher chocolates.

He told Tsang he did not know how the stalemate over political reform would be resolved: “The Chinese cannot resolve it; the political system is still a major problem and the major worry I have is that with all the attention paid to keeping the other systems unchanged, if we cannot devise the right political system, then Hong Kong may not survive. If Hong Kong cannot survive, the Chinese will interfere.” Yet again, his warning was prophetic.

His prodigious appetite quickly won him the affectionate nickname of Fei Pang, or Fat Pang, using a phonetic Chinese rendering of his surname. He soon became the most popular leader Hong Kong had ever had, one who would not be surpassed by his successors.

Patten faced an impossibly tricky challenge: how to increase democracy to shield Britain against accusations that it had left Hong Kong without universal suffrage, while avoiding a breakdown in ties with Beijing. The British had signally failed to bring democracy to Hong Kong for more than a century. World War II had derailed an earlier effort by Governor Mark Young. Since then, British governors had been content, like MacLehose, to prioritize effective governance, strong social services, and a veneer of consultation over widening the democratic mandate.

After close study of the documents, he believed he had found wiggle room in the detail of how functional constituencies should be formed. His plan was to vastly expand the functional constituencies by introducing nine new superconstituencies, such as “Finance, Insurance, Real Estate and Business Services,” which embraced large swaths of the population who’d not previously been able to vote in functional sectors. Though Patten repeatedly described his reforms as “embarrassingly moderate,” their effect was to widen the functional constituency voter base by a factor of five, to 2.7 million out of a population of around 6 million. The outcome was still far from true universal suffrage, but it did make the electorate more representative. Beijing was, predictably, outraged. It unleashed an escalating stream of vituperative insults at Patten—the prostitute, the tango dancer, and the sinner for a thousand years—which provided much joy to newsroom headline writers.

His underlying assumption was that China’s economic reforms would inexorably lead to political liberalization, bending the arc in his favor over time. “I don’t think you can open up the Chinese economy and keep an absolutely tight grip on political structures,” he told his biographer Jonathan Dimbleby. He believed that if Hong Kong could prove its worth to Beijing, it would be safe. Those closer to Beijing had a far bleaker assessment.

After months of stalled negotiations, Patten decided to press ahead unilaterally. The 1995 Legislative Council elections were held according to his reforms, producing the first fully elected legislature in Hong Kong’s history. Those allied to the Democratic Party, known as the pan-Democratic camp, came out victorious, with the largest bloc of seats: nineteen out of sixty seats, including sixteen of the twenty directly elected seats. After this, Beijing acted on its threat and began replacing the through train with a shadow legislature—known as the Provisional Legislature—which met across the border in Shenzhen. That group of sixty politicians, handpicked by a Selection Committee, would take the place of the elected legislature after the change in sovereignty.

When I look back, I’m astonished by our arrogance in believing we were equipped to report on Hong Kong. Though there were local Cantonese-speaking reporters, the news desk was heavily populated by young, aggressive expats who spoke only English. In those pre-internet days, when we wanted to research a story, we’d order up English-language clippings from the newspaper library.

For the show, Lau decided to reconceptualize the King’s work, since his normal canvas—the city itself—could not be moved into an art gallery. So he brought smaller, more saleable items to the King to paint, such as paper lanterns, glass bottles, a copper thermos, and even an umbrella, an object that later seemed prophetic. Lau knew he would face a storm of criticism for tampering with Tsang’s art practice, but he believed these objects allowed Tsang to “link his calligraphy with reality.”

“He was mentally retarded. He wasn’t even competent. If someone treated him nice and asked him to do things, he would do it. So there are several problems here—not just artistic ones, but ethical ones.”

It was a defining moment, the start of a visual Hong Kong aesthetic that summed up the island’s sense of itself: modern, hybrid, streetwise, confident, and utterly distinctive.

When I met Tang in 2019, he was tall and astonishingly boyish looking for sixty, dressed totally in black. When I asked him to sum up the impact of the collection, he smiled. It was, he asserted, the most—really the only—memorable collection in Hong Kong’s fashion history. The King’s calligraphy had reminded the designer of the ancestral tablets listing generations of Tangs in his family’s clan hall. Tang had grown up spending his weekends in a traditional village house in Ping Shan in the New Territories. It was there that he had learned to draw, using the broken terra-cotta tiles from the roofs instead of crayons to sketch on the flat open terraces where villagers laid their crops to dry. To him, the King’s calligraphy invoked the tablets by exposing death and loss, personal tragedies that would traditionally be corralled within private records, not shared with the world. Tang found the King’s public display discomfiting, but he also knew the lopsided words spoke to him in a way he could articulate only through fashion. For Hong Kongers, the engagement of William Tang with the King of Kowloon’s work sent a message with deep historical resonances.

but the real reason I didn’t want to go was that I couldn’t bear not being in Hong Kong for this extraordinary moment in its history. I knew it wasn’t very professional to prioritize my own desires, but I didn’t care. I made up a lame excuse and, perhaps remembering my woeful live shot, the station sent someone else to Beijing. Having gotten my wish, I’d hoped to be out and about in Hong Kong, but instead I was assigned to remain in the fridge-like bowels of TV City. It didn’t matter.

“We shall not forget you, and we shall watch with the closest interest as you embark on this new era of your remarkable history.” With those carefully chosen words, Great Britain effectively washed its hands of its last major colony. There were no guarantees, no monitoring, no oversight, just a vague promise that Great Britain would watch from afar, putting its faith in a government that had just eight years before turned its army on its own people.

At 11:59 p.m., the Union flag was lowered for the last time. The ten silent seconds that followed were, people later joked, the only moments that Hong Kong truly existed. Then, on the stroke of midnight, the red Chinese flag with its five yellow stars glided up the flagpole to the strains of the Chinese national anthem. Alongside it, a smaller flag was hoisted featuring a stylized depiction of Hong Kong’s emblem, a white Bauhinia blakeana flower set against a red background. Another moment of unwitting symbolism: the Bauhinia blakeana is a sterile hybrid that cannot reproduce naturally.

The Democratic Party chairman, Martin Lee, took the microphone and, speaking in English, said, “We are Chinese. We are proud to be Chinese and that Hong Kong is no longer ruled by Britain. But we ask ourselves this question: Why must we pay such a high price to become Chinese again?” He finished with a solemn pledge. “We hereby give to the world a promise: We promise to our people that we will fight all the way. We will continue to be your voice. We will continue to be the voice of Hong Kong.” He could not have known what that pledge would cost him.

Although retired from politics, he was still a politician through and through, and he knew how to play a crowd. I was granted a tight half hour for an interview. Despite all the years I’d spent watching him from a distance, it was the first time I’d ever spoken to him. I knew that his press handling was so deft that my biggest challenge would be getting anything new from him. As he sat down, my worries were confirmed. He was smooth and confident, launching into his favorite anecdotes and talking about de Tocqueville, dipping and rolling away from my questions with the intellectual acuity that I knew so well. He’d been talking for eight minutes when I decided to interrupt.

He interrupted me curtly. “I know the words very well.” “ ‘Now Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong,’ ” I went on. He joined in with me, “ ‘That is the destiny—’ ” I corrected him. “ ‘That is the unshakable destiny.’ ” He shook his head. “It’s been shaken, unfortunately.” I pressed on. “How does it make you feel, seeing that photograph?” Suddenly the flood of words stopped. He was silent, and he lowered his head right down to the table for a long moment before he answered. “Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad.” Then he gathered himself up and was off again, talking about the challenge that China’s behavior posed to the international community.

Chapter 6: King

In the first few years after the handover, just as Deng Xiaoping had promised, the horses still raced, the stock market sizzled, and the nightclub dancers continued to writhe and grind through the night.

he was chosen in late 1996 by a four-hundred-strong Selection Committee of Hong Kongers, but everyone knew that actually he’d been anointed a year earlier, when Chinese president Jiang Zemin—also a Shanghainese—sought him out, deliberately crossing a room in front of television cameras to shake hands with him. In fact, there had been a still earlier approach, through Sir Run Shaw, the Shanghainese founder of my former employer, TVB. As Tung later described in a newspaper interview, “He sat down and spoke to me in Shanghainese. He said, ‘Heh, I think you are going to be CE.’ I said, ‘What? Come on, you are kidding. I am so busy with my business. I don’t know anything about that stuff.’ ” Language was key; Shanghainese is not the tongue of Hong Kong. Through Tung Chee-hwa, Beijing was—like London before it—governing by indirect rule, using local elites as a proxy.

A group of prominent lawyers began a concern group, which later morphed into the Civic Party, and a body called the Civil Human Rights Front coalesced as its mobilizing arm, bringing people out into the streets to demonstrate. A decade and a half later, it would organize the massive street protests that brought the city to a standstill.

Hong Kongers heeded the call. Half a million of them—8 percent of the population—came out to protest, wearing black T-shirts to symbolize the death of their freedoms.

It was a stunning rebuff for the government, and it torpedoed the bill, leading to its indefinite withdrawal. The political risk was simply too high. So Article 23, along with the demands for democracy, was simply kicked into the future. Once again, the people had spoken, and once again, the administration wasn’t listening.

Tung Chee-hwa was mortally damaged by the Article 23 debacle, although it took another two years for him to resign, citing ill health. He was replaced by his deputy, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, the homegrown British-trained chief secretary of the administration, who was famous for always wearing a bow tie.

CUSEF had also paid large retainers to several American lobbyists to place Tung’s Beijing-friendly op-eds in American newspapers, to cultivate a stable of “third-party supporters” in the US, and to review US high school textbook content on Tibet. A single lobbyist, Brown Lloyd James, or BLJ, was being paid almost $250,000 a year to place an average of three articles per week favorable to China in US publications like The Wall Street Journal.

The economic aspect of Tung’s story was instructive, too: his shipping company, Orient Overseas, had been bailed out of bankruptcy in the 1980s, with Chinese banks offering half of the $120 million (HK$923 million) funding. By 2017, it was the world’s seventh-largest shipping firm. Then it was acquired by China’s state-run shipping company, COSCO. The Hong Kong press described it as a $6.3 billion (HK$49 billion) godfather deal that couldn’t be refused, an agreement that simultaneously created the third-biggest shipping giant in the world and delivered another Hong Kong firm into mainland hands. But while Tung’s company was headquartered in Hong Kong, he had never been a native son, and his loyalty had always been to Beijing. In retrospect, his term marked Beijing’s first failure to live up to its promise to allow “Hong Kong people to rule Hong Kong.”

In 2004, China’s top legal body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, ruled that an eight-hundred-person Selection Committee would pick candidates for the top job in 2007, effectively ruling out any change before 2012. Then in 2007, the same body vetoed direct elections in 2012, broadening the Selection Committee to 1,200 people and again kicking the can down the road. This time, the body issued a resolution mentioning specific dates but falling short of any firm commitments: it said the chief executive “may be” elected by universal suffrage in 2017, after which the legislature “may be” chosen by universal suffrage, in a reference to the 2020 election. To Hong Kongers, who had no choice but to trust in Beijing’s sincerity, these became talismanic dates.

The group came to the tentative conclusion that Hong Kongness was defined by a Weberian sense of meritocracy, whereby hard work would be rewarded with success, as well as a respect for Britain’s institutional legacy, such as the rule of law and professionalism. It was no coincidence that these values were exactly what China was missing. But the Hong Kong and Chinese identities could still overlap and elide. In those years, many Hong Kongers had business and family in China. They crossed the border regularly, and saw themselves as both Hong Kongers and Chinese, or Hong Kong Chinese.

The Beijing Olympics in 2008 served as the high-water mark for Hong Kong’s Chinese identity. Hong Kong’s first gold medal winner—Lee Lai-shan, who won for windsurfing in 1996—was an Olympic torchbearer, and there was a glow of pride in being part of a nation that had pulled off such a spectacular games, though this was still underpinned by an ever-present undercurrent of unease.

Some linguists see it as closer to classical Chinese than Mandarin, deploying archaic participles, ancient sounds, and traditional complex characters rather than the simplified ones used on the mainland. Unlike standardized Mandarin, Cantonese is gloriously irregular, its rules of pronunciation so casual that some words can be pronounced with either an initial n or l sound, used interchangeably. Cantonese didn’t even get a romanization system until the 1950s, a full century after Mandarin was romanized by Thomas Wade. To this day, there’s still no consensus about which of two romanization systems should be used or even how many tones Cantonese has; the range is five to eleven, depending on whom you ask.

Though I speak Mandarin fluently, my Cantonese is shamefully basic. We never spoke it at home since my father, who spoke different languages with each of his mothers, ended up speaking the language of school, English, as his first tongue. My tone-deaf mother speaks execrable Cantonese the same way she speaks French: with a posh British accent and the unflinching determination that she will command understanding through force of will alone.

I switched focus to Mandarin for many years, and when I went back to studying Cantonese—this time in Melbourne—I discovered that the state-backed Confucius Institutes had established a stranglehold on Chinese language teaching, crowding out other language providers. The

where our teacher, a cheerful, exhausted man called Mr. Wu, gently schooled us in the ways of Hong Kong people. “Hobby—ngoi hou,” he’d intone, with a wry chuckle. “Hong Kong people don’t have hobbies. We get up early. We work all day. We work all night. Then we come home and sleep. And then we get up and start again. Weekend—jaomut—let’s use it to make a sentence. Mine is, ‘I am working all weekend. I work every weekend.’ ” Here was the renowned Lion Rock Spirit, the key to Hong Kongers’ vision of themselves.

All the other students were young, single, upwardly mobile mainlanders—bankers, engineers, IT workers—and the class felt like a massive dating club, as we spent each session flirting madly and ineptly. The women loved teasing the best-looking young man in the class, interrogating him for his address and personal details until he flushed all the way to the tips of his ears, then pointing this out to uproarious laughter.

My fellow students were part of that one-way flow. In the classroom, we wah-ed and lor-ed, inviting each other to dinner and acting out elaborate skits involving losing our wallets at the vegetable market.

The tiny explosions of emotion in the language—the violent declamatory force and wonderful lewdness of Cantonese—helped break down barriers. As the weeks passed, I noticed that in the pause between sessions we had begun talking about sensitive topics that mainlanders generally avoid. I wondered whether just speaking Cantonese was a small act of linguistic defiance for the regimented mainlanders. Or maybe they were learning to think like Hong Kongers. Hong Kong had traditionally been a place of refuge and free thinking. It was a sanctuary for Chinese dissidents and revolutionaries, a place where taboo topics could be discussed and forbidden books sold in tiny bookshops tucked up narrow staircases.

Back in Beijing, I could not speak about my book at home or in the office, since I assumed they were bugged. I didn’t mention it on the phone or in emails. I worked on a computer that I kept offline and locked in a safe in my bedroom when I wasn’t writing. Every so often, I carried hard drives of material to Hong Kong for safety, and it was only there that I could speak to my editor in New York. Indeed, Hong Kong had always been the only place on Chinese soil to hold an annual June 4 vigil in memory of the 1989 killings.

On one visit, I met a young mainland student at the Tiananmen Museum who summed up how the city made him feel: it was, he said, a place where you “dare to speak out, dare to do stuff, dare to criticise, and dare to think.” I’d never tried to put the difference between Hong Kong and the mainland into words before, but I realized I felt exactly the same.

Even in post-handover Hong Kong, his assertions of sovereignty, which could be considered sedition in China, were shrugged off as eccentricity. He was often stopped by the police—who would then become the target of his incoherent rage—and occasionally fined for criminal damage, but while his writings were routinely cleaned away, he himself was generally left alone.

“It’s good to clean your house. I suppose your house will never be as big as mine.” The subtext was understandable to all Hong Kongers. “His home is the entire Hong Kong!” said director Alfred Hau, who shot the commercial.

He balked when the crew asked him to write on teapots, tables, and chairs, since his practice was to write only upon government property.

One factor that made the King so comforting was the sheer constancy of his behavior even as the world changed around him. His content was unerring and repetitive: an assertion of sovereignty that was also a wail of anguish for his loss and the failure of his duty to his ancestors. But over time, people began to pick up and amplify his message. In 2001, the rap group MP4 penned a song to him that opened, “I’m the King of Kowloon. Kowloon and the New Territories are mine.”

He was accompanied by his beloved pug, Gudiii, who was, he informed me, not just a Buddhist but the reincarnation of a Tibetan monk who had been punished by being reborn as a dog. I asked how he could tell. He replied that Gudiii ate Tibetan medicine every day, had never been ill, and excelled at animal release ceremonies. “He never barks unless he really has something to say,” MC Yan told me, without a hint of irony. “He’s a commander. He feels superior. He never hangs out with dogs, only humans.”

Chung was confused. “You’re not the King?” The answer was good-natured but firm. “I’m not doing it. I’m not the King! Let someone else do it!” Afterward, Chung realized that Tsang had signed the back of the terra-cotta warrior not with his usual “King of Kowloon” but with a scrawled “Tsang Tsou-choi.” It was the last time Chung saw him, and he would come to think of this as the moment when the King of Kowloon abdicated his throne.

even the Communist-sympathizing Wenweipo. The Apple Daily printed a full-color commemorative edition with a wraparound front page announcing “The King Is Dead!” Even the choice of vocabulary was distinctive, using a form of Chinesecharacters—駕崩—reserved for the death of a monarch.

It was believed that the emperor’s ability to rule was predicated on the support of the people. As the philosopher Mengzi wrote, heaven sees with the eyes of the people and hears through the ears of the people. Thus an unpopular ruler who loses the support of the people forgoes the Mandate of Heaven. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa’s precipitous fall from grace was one example; his approval rating dropped from 64.5 percent in 1997 by almost half around the time of the Article 23 protest in 2003. His successor, Donald Tsang, who ended up being imprisoned for corruption, had experienced an even more precipitous descent. Hong Kongers desperately wanted to believe in their leaders, but each time, it seemed, they were disappointed. The King, however, was another story: he had become only more beloved. The newspaper coverage was not so much positive as fawning. His misshapen words were lauded as墨寶, or “ink treasures.”

He was “not living above others but among the despised and ordinary people” and “a moral teacher, who lives a frugal life, without the least itching desire for Gucci, Prada, and shark-fin soup.” It was perhaps MC Yan who best summed up the King’s importance when he said to a reporter, “No matter if he’s a true or fake [king], he was very sure of his own identity, unlike Hong Kong people who don’t know if they’re from the East or the West.” The King’s work had become a defining memory of Hong Kongness, and he himself was an exemplar of a distinct Hong Kong identity.

There was no doubt that Hong Kong’s economy was being lifted by the influx of mainland money, but Chin Wan feared this was benefiting property developers and conglomerates at the expense of ordinary people, who could not afford the sky-high property prices.

I was also realizing that the more I wrote about Hong Kong’s identity crisis, the less of a Hong Konger I felt myself to be. Localists like Chin Wan defined Hong Kongers as those who were born in Hong Kong and spoke a cosmopolitan style of Cantonese. Where was the place for someone like me, who was not a local and who still, despite my efforts, spoke horrible Cantonese? I’d always instinctively felt Hong Kong was my home, but I suddenly realized how little I fit in. The truth was that I was a postcolonial relic writing about an imaginary place, a dinosaur whose borrowed time had been handed back. People like me—the half-castes and mixed-bloods—had never really fit anywhere, but Hong Kong’s own hybrid status had made it feel like a place where we could thrive. Now the forces that were changing Hong Kong were leaving me behind. It was around this time I stopped calling myself a Hong Konger. But I didn’t really know what else I was.

In July 2012, a new chief executive had been sworn in: Leung Chun-ying, a millionaire property developer rumored to be an underground Communist. He had been chosen with just 689 votes from the 1,200-member Selection Committee, leaving him with a legitimacy crisis from the very start. Almost straightaway, he hit his first crisis when he tried to push through a new curriculum mandating Communist-style Moral and National Education in local schools. This was seen as political indoctrination, threatening the freedoms that Hong Kongers hold dear. Within days, Hong Kong’s teenagers, mobilized by Joshua Wong, who was fifteen years old at this point, had begun protesting.

Twice, in the cases of Article 23 and patriotic education, the government had withdrawn unpopular proposals after massive displays of people power. The legislature might be toothless, but street politics was not, so long as the numbers were large enough. The King of Kowloon might be dead, but his descendants increasingly wanted a government that saw with the eyes of the people and heard with their ears.

Part 3: Defiance

Chapter 7: The First Generation

Two years had passed since mass protests had forced the government to withdraw the proposals for patriotic education. Now Hong Kongers’ pent-up demands had burst out into the Umbrella Movement, which was an explosion of discontent, desire, and, above all, hope. An A4-sized poster tacked up on a wall said it all: “This is NOT a revolution.” Hong Kongers wanted to hold their rulers to the promise that Hong Kongers would rule Hong Kong. It was, at heart, an expression of pure political idealism. The nonrevolution was as polite and reasonable as an occupation could be, with the occupiers building a study hall for students, organizing trash recycling, and even planting small vegetable patches in the ornamental flower beds.

Until the Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong’s protest repertoire had been polite and predictable, consisting of orderly marches for which police permission had been granted in the form of a Letter of No Objection, as required under the archaic Public Order Ordinance. The political system allowed so few avenues for effecting change that street protests had become utterly routine, with more than three marches per day. No issue seemed too petty.

One day at the Legislative Council I saw a spirited bunch of protestors waving a large caricature of the chairman of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, Ronald Arculli, dressed in Nazi regalia. They turned out to be stockbrokers protesting that their two-hour lunch break was being cut to ninety minutes. The act of protest had become so ritualized that it was almost meaningless. But all that was about to change.

Yellow posters declaring “I want genuine universal suffrage” were everywhere, including one carefully placed on top of a sleeping occupier, allowing him to continue protesting even as he napped.

A number of private transport companies—taxi, minibus, and tour coach—filed injunctions blaming the road obstructions for disrupting their business, and the High Court found in their favor, ordering the clearance of all the sites. As well as aiding their own commercial imperatives, the transport unions were using the veil of legality provided by Hong Kong’s independent courts to serve the interests of both the Hong Kong and the Beijing governments. This was what people called “lawfare,” the weaponization of the common law for repressive ends.

When the study hall finally closed at daylight, the sign on the entrance read, “We will be back.” Another warning on the Lennon Wall read, “The clearing of the site is not the end, but the start of Round Two. Government are you ready?” Scrawled in black Sharpie on a highway divider were the words “Sand does not fear the wind. One day it will inevitably pile up.” The biggest sign of all—a big orange banner erected for the bailiffs on a bamboo lattice over jerry-built barricades—simply read: “It’s just the beginning.” To me, the signs seemed like bravado. The occupation was ending without even a symbolic victory. The disruption to everyday life had eroded public support, with 80 percent of Hong Kongers supporting an end to the action by this point. When the bailiffs marched in that morning, they were accompanied by five thousand policemen who helped dismantle the site, breaking only for lunch. By the end of the occupation, a total of 955 people had been arrested, including some of Hong Kong’s best-known lawmakers, who sat cross-legged in the road, waiting to be carried away by police, as the Occupy planners had originally envisaged. But now the politicians’ actions only earned them the contempt of the students, who accused them of grandstanding without having bothered to suffer through the occupation.

Although he had been arrested, he was confident about his own fate. He’d researched the precedents and felt sure that he would be let off with a fine. “We have independent courts in Hong Kong, so it’s very unlikely that we will be subject to imprisonment,” he told me. “Even for all the organizers, they cannot lock us up in jail, as that is not the Hong Kong law—unless they want to give up the whole of One Country, Two Systems. Hong Kong laws provide the protection for us to have this kind of movement. I can continue to talk about all these things freely in Hong Kong. No one can stop us. I still have three columns in the newspaper and so I can continue to advocate. I cannot see that I will be stopped.”

Two years passed before I saw Benny Tai again. By then, his faith in the legal system to which he had devoted his entire career was wavering. “We find that the law is not a very secure protection to our rights now,” he said. “Because the law can be interpreted in any way, if the authorities think that is the way they want to interpret it.” It was chastening to hear the shift in his views.

One incident that shook Hong Kongers to their very core was the disappearance of five men who became known as the Causeway Bay Booksellers. One of them, Gui Minhai, co-owned a publishing company called Mighty Current, which printed gossipy muckraking books about Chinese politics that had once crowded airport bookstores but were now becoming hard to buy. The other four worked at a small, independent bookstore called Causeway Bay Books, which mailed such books to customers in China. The five booksellers disappeared one by one between October and December 2015, mysteriously reappearing in custody in mainland China. The most frightening case was that of Gui Minhai, who disappeared from the city of Pattaya, near Bangkok, and surfaced in China, though there was no record of him leaving Thailand. He then appeared on Chinese television, confessing to having unintentionally killed someone in a drunk driving accident thirteen years earlier.

One of the men, Lam Wing-kee, managed to escape China through a combination of chance, error, and guts.

He described the experience of being detained in Shenzhen in October 2015, as he tried to cross the border. When he asked what he’d done to warrant detention, he was simply told, “Whatever law you’ve broken, we won’t tell you. You can guess.” After a full day of questioning, his papers were confiscated and he was coerced into signing an agreement not to inform family members or to retain a lawyer. He was then blindfolded and taken on a train to Ningbo, where he was kept under twenty-four-hour surveillance for three months. At first he was interrogated several times a day, but gradually the sessions became less frequent. Eventually Lam was told that he’d been accused of the “illegal sales of books,” though he still couldn’t really understand why the mighty Communist Party was focusing its efforts on a tiny bookshop. He felt that he had no choice but to confess, and to allow himself to be filmed delivering a statement of remorse scripted by his captors.

They had freedom and dignity. It was an absolutely banal scene—people sitting around at night, drinking beer and eating spicy clams—yet the contrast to that strained, surveilled, sumptuous meal he’d shared with his former colleagues could not have been greater.

He thought about how he would be expected to betray his fellow Hong Kongers, and that made him think of the six thousand Hong Kongers who’d protested for him. They should be his role models, and he should not let them down. He spent the second night awake, thinking. Then he started his journey back toward the border. He was about to cross back into China when he stopped to smoke one last cigarette.

He knew this could lead to punishment for his girlfriend and his coworkers still in China on bail, but he also knew that he was the only one who could speak out, since the others all had relatives in China who could be used as leverage. He didn’t. “They couldn’t do this, but I could,” he told me. Instead of returning to China, he called a very public press conference in Legco. It was an act of courage from someone who describes himself as not at all brave. For a while, Lam Wing-kee lived in a safe house, protected by Hong Kong police from the mainland authorities. He was a living embodiment of the impossible contradictions of One Country, Two Systems. His colleagues remained unfree as well, a reminder that mainland security services were now operating with impunity in Hong Kong.

In 2017, this kind of rendition happened again. Xiao Jianhua, a Chinese tycoon who’d been a student leader in 1989, was snatched from a luxury hotel in Hong Kong, from which he was escorted in a wheelchair, with a blanket over his head. The city, which had for so long offered a refuge for dissidents and dangerous ideas, was no longer a safe haven.

When they tried to stand for election, a new rule was introduced requiring candidates to attest that they saw Hong Kong as an inalienable part of China. Six of those who signed the pledge were barred from running anyway. Another six localist candidates who ended up being elected were unceremoniously expelled from the legislature for breaking rules that hadn’t even existed at the time they broke them.

The next batch of those disqualified included Nathan Law, the student activist who at twenty-three had been the youngest lawmaker ever elected. His offenses included saying the words “People’s Republic of China” in a questioning tone, and reading out a quote from Mahatma Gandhi after taking his oath. The quotation he’d chosen was, “You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy my body, but you will never imprison my mind.” “I consulted legal opinion beforehand,” he told me. “It was actually a tradition of Hong Kong legislators to speak up before they took the oath, so I think the Beijing government has been abusing the power of reinterpretation, destroying our tradition in the council.”

She hadn’t added anything to her oath or used any props. She’d been disqualified for speaking too slowly. She had paused six seconds between each word of her oath.

The pattern was clear: if Beijing didn’t like Hong Kong’s laws, it would simply reinterpret them.

Yet here we were, playing our assigned roles. The press pack was pretending to report news, while the judge was writing his own lines in a play ultimately directed by Beijing. It was a world where lawmakers pretended to be lawmakers even though everyone knew they had no real lawmaking powers, the public pretended they were taking part in elections even though the results were largely predictable, and the chief executive pretended to have autonomy though everyone knew he had almost none.

Hong Kong students in London requested and copied documents from the National Archives in Kew, where I’d read the letters between Elliot and Qishan. Then they’d share them with volunteers in Hong Kong, who would work on them. The trio lit up with enthusiasm as they described one session when a roomful of volunteers had charted eight thousand pages—“the entire PREM19 series,” as one put it in hushed tones—chronicling the sequence of events from the start of talks until the day the Joint Declaration was signed. The volunteers created a timeline, cross-referencing it to other material such as biographies and autobiographies to record different interpretations of events. It was the archivists’ equivalent of a rock concert.

Nerdy or not, what the young archivists were doing was surprisingly perilous, since they were fundamentally challenging Beijing’s narrative. “When you try to touch on history issues and local identity, the Chinese Communist Party will always try to attack you,” one of the three said.

As we spoke, he laid out the failings of the Umbrella Movement: it went on too long, it was geographically concentrated in just three spots, internal communication was poor, and there was no mechanism to bring it to an end.

When I arrived, I found him peering into the back of his computer, along with a university IT worker. His computer had been hacked again, but for the first time he’d received a warning that the hacking might be state sponsored.

Chan Kin-man also warned of the possibility of a second, more serious round of social unrest. “This is a vicious cycle. I expect there’s going to be very serious riots coming. Once they feel they are completely rejected by the institutions, of course they will resort to more noninstitutional or even violent means, because they’re young, they’re angry. It’s quite dangerous.” I was so deaf to these warnings that I didn’t even bother to report them at the time. I’d been having conversations with Umbrella activists who were so despondent that I couldn’t imagine them going down the same path again.

He had protest fatigue, and everything seemed hopeless. He’d stopped going to any demonstrations at all, including the June 4 Tiananmen vigils; they all seemed pointless. All his friends were trying to figure out how to leave Hong Kong.

I asked an innocuous question about calligraphy, and he suddenly fell silent. He passed his hand over his face, and his shoulders shook. A long minute passed as he wept painfully. Then he said, “This government is not composed of Hong Kongers. They’re outsiders. They don’t work for Hong Kong.”

all three Occupy cofounders, including the frail septuagenarian Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, were facing colonial-era public order charges: inciting public nuisance, conspiracy to incite public nuisance, and the extraordinary charge of incitement to incite public nuisance.

By then Law, at twenty-five, had been a student activist, started a political party, been elected as a legislator, been disqualified from the legislature, jailed, then released after the Court of Final Appeal overturned his sentence. So turbulent was Law’s life that he described his six months in jail sharing a cell with triad members as peaceful.

It seemed like another lurch toward the bottom, hearing the young ex-prisoner giving advice to another political-prisoner-in-waiting.

He attributed his attitude to the fact that Hong Kong activists had suffered less than their mainland counterparts, but to me, it was related to agency. Mainland dissidents are stuck in a bleak and Kafkaesque no-man’s-land from which they are sometimes even forbidden from fleeing into exile. Chan, on the other hand, had received offers of political asylum from other countries, which he had rejected. He’d decided that he would stand trial, and that he’d also take the witness stand during that trial, even though lawyers warned him not to, saying the possibility of self-incrimination was extremely high.

Chan was the only one out of the nine Umbrella leaders who would do so, but he’d given the decision much thought. He explained it, saying, “I choose to give testimony in the witness box because if we don’t do it, then we only have one version of the story. That is the government version, saying that we were creating a public nuisance. So I believe that it is our responsibility to retell the story, to restore history.”

One reason Chan was so sure he would be imprisoned was the extraordinary and unprecedented charge of “incitement to incite.” It was an Alice in Wonderland–style charge so broad it seemed meaningless, except as a deterrent.

Numbers were key; more than thirty people could constitute a public procession, requiring police permission. But being beneath that threshold wasn’t necessarily a safeguard if the event was political in nature; illegal assembly was increasingly being used against activists as a catchall charge.

He was cleared of incitement to incite public nuisance, though five others were found guilty of this charge.

Benny Tai was wrong again; the laws that were supposed to protect the movement had instead been used to stop him. It was the ultimate insult to a law professor.

It was at this moment that I realized my role as an unwitting publicist for this artwork. My value to the team was in my Twitter following of sixty thousand people. I’d thought I was attending as a journalist, but in tweeting the work I was participating as effectively as if I’d been carrying a sign or shouting a slogan.

Chapter 8: Country

Hong Kong’s chief executive, the humorless former civil servant Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, decided to use this case as a pretext to change the extradition law. The proposed legislation would permit suspects from Hong Kong to be extradited to stand trial in jurisdictions including mainland China, where the justice system was rife with arbitrary detention, unfair trials, and even torture.

The administration had honed the art of holding public consultations that were almost mockeries of the process. Sometimes it announced its final decision before the consultation period had even finished, or it rigged the process or ensured that it generated so few responses they could be ignored. This time, despite the far-reaching ramifications of the proposed changes to the extradition law, the government had shrunk the consultation period to a measly twenty days.

Although I was living in Hong Kong at the time, true to form, I had failed to register the significance of the extradition law. My two adolescent children and I were living in a four-hundred-square-foot apartment on an outlying island, getting up at 5:45 every morning in order to catch the ferry that would get the kids to school on time. Our days passed in a daze of exhaustion, against an interminable soundtrack of squabbling. Our flat was so small and the children growing so fast that we were covered in bruises from bumping into furniture and each other. We learned to shrink ourselves to live in such a densely populated place; no singing, no dancing, no talking in loud voices. Exuberance was no longer possible, enthusiasm had to be tempered. Most of the public spaces near us—tiled squares outside supermarkets and children’s playgrounds—were privately managed, with all kinds of interdictions. We had to moderate our personalities until the weekends, when we could unleash ourselves on the mountain hillsides that by default had become our backyard. When the children complained about the lack of space, I’d remind them we had exactly the average for public rental housing: just over 140 square feet per person.

I’d come to Hong Kong to write about politics, yet the very act of living was sapping all my energy. All this was a by-product of Hong Kong’s economic system, whereby a few fabulously wealthy family-owned conglomerates controlled large blocks of land as well as key services such as telecommunications companies, public transport services, and utilities. I paid my mobile phone bill to one property developer and my electricity bill to another. When I rode on the bus, shopped in a mall, sipped coffee at Starbucks, or even bought the overpriced bread from my local supermarket, the tycoons ended up profiting. The city was an oligopoly whose economy was sliced up into sectors controlled in an almost feudal manner. This system had begun under the British and continued after the return of sovereignty. Beijing depended on the tycoons, and sometimes leaned on them, summoning them at times of political tension to ensure they kept the ship steady.

Further back, during British rule, there had also been long-forgotten political protests, including a coolie strike against the population tax in 1844, just two years after British occupation, the Six-Day War of 1899, and sporadic labor strikes against unjust laws.

Another clambered over a barrier brandishing a homemade poster that read, “Policemen, aren’t you Hong Kong people too?”

new sign read, “Teargas Me. I dare you.” The spontaneous organization that had sprung up was impressive, with people along the route thrusting water bottles into our hands, fanning us, spritzing our faces, refilling our water bottles, then taking the empty bottles to recycle.

When I wasn’t in Hong Kong, I spent my nights hooked to a website that played nine different livestreams on a single screen, showing a perpetual panopticon of police brutality.

Reality seemed to merge with fiction in the most appalling ways, such as when police began impersonating protestors.

“The first and second time I was really scared, but now I’m not,” one told me. “Of course I’m scared, but we have no choice. We have to stand out here and fight for Hong Kong,” said the other. I had sometimes suspected the young protestors were drawn in by the video game glamour of a movement that offered adrenaline, camaraderie, and a kind of political Tinder all rolled up in one, along with the highest stakes possible. Speaking to these two made me ashamed of those thoughts.

Sometimes the protestors acted with frightening and incomprehensible violence. In August, they descended en masse on the international airport, turning on two mainland Chinese men they believed were government agents. They surrounded them, beating them and even zip-tying one man to a luggage trolley. This act of mob justice carried on until the man, who turned out to be a journalist for China’s state-run media, seemed close to death. The next day, the protestors apologized. Standing in the arrivals hall, they held up a handwritten poster reading: “Our police shot us, government betrayed us, social institutions failed us. Please give us a second chance.” But a spokesman in Beijing was already describing the protests as showing “characteristics of terrorism.”

The spiral of escalation was feeding off itself, with each act of violence begetting a mirroring response. The frontliners began picking up tear gas canisters and lobbing them back, then graduated to throwing bricks at police and setting fires in the streets. Then came Molotov cocktails.

at one point, just 0.3 percent of Hong Kongers aged between eighteen and twenty-nine identified as Chinese. This was not a matter of birthright; some of the movement’s most famous faces, like Nathan Law and Edward Leung, had been born in China but educated in Hong Kong, showing that it was possible to become a Hong Konger by embracing Hong Kong values.

To be a Hong Konger was no longer race based or even location based. It was an imagined political community united by suffering.

The movement was also pouring its imagination into innovating the act of protest. Boys and girls so young they were sometimes too shy to hold hands gripped either end of a pen—“pen-zoning,” as it became known—to form human chains around their schools before class or during lunch break. A human chain almost sixty kilometers long snaked around the whole of Hong Kong, straggling up the craggy ridge of Lion Rock to illuminate the entire territory with points of light from mobile phone screens. The “Ten O’Clock Call” became a nightly event, with people shouting protest slogans from the anonymity of their apartments.

As the risks escalated, I’d upgraded my half-face mask to an expensive full-face respirator. In August, I’d been slightly embarrassed to wear it. By October I was offering silent prayers of gratitude for my purchase. I got used to being tear-gassed, but being pepper-sprayed was a shock. The first time it happened, I was videoing the arrest of a man in Causeway Bay.

News organizations began withdrawing reporters from the street after a radio journalist was wounded in the head. It was clear that the accepted laws of war did not apply in this conflict zone. It was time to head home. As I walked, I saw a metal door open, and an elderly man poked his head out to scan in all directions. When he saw that the coast was clear, he ducked back in. A long line of young people in colorful clothes hurried out the same door, their faces pale and pinched with fear. I understood straightaway what I was seeing; the man had been sheltering the protestors from the police, who were arresting anyone wearing black clothes.

In November, police and student protestors fought a twenty-four-hour battle over a footbridge at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. This was straight-up urban warfare, with police firing endless fusillades of tear gas at students, who responded with petrol bombs and bows and arrows. By the end of the week, the students had moved to the Polytechnic University, blocking the entrance to the vitally important Cross Harbor Tunnel. Police locked down the university, arresting volunteer first-aiders who were trying to leave. A delegation of high school principals entered, to escort more than a hundred minors from the site under an amnesty arrangement. I spoke to one later, a seventeen-year-old. He didn’t believe the promise that there would be no repercussions. “I’m on the list to be arrested,” he told me, without flinching. “I’m just waiting.”

A policeman throwing a tear gas canister vertically so it fell straight back down on the policeman himself. It was a sign of how normalized tear gas had become that this made us laugh. But we could not look away. Witnessing was necessary so that we should all know—and remember—what the government had done.

Carrie Lam called the protestors “enemies of the people,” a chilling phrase straight from the Chinese Communist Party lexicon. But it was hard to know who were the enemies and who were the people. Then, out of the bleakness, came a moment of clarity. For months, government officials had talked about a silent majority who supported their actions. The district elections in November 2019 offered a way of testing this assertion. When the results came in, it turned out that—yet again—the government had been deaf to the people; the silent majority supported the protest movement, which won in a landslide. Seventeen of the eighteen district councils flipped from pro-Beijing control to pan-democratic forces. But this did not change a government that had never been answerable to the people.

“I am already dead,” she told me. “I’ve already done that, so I would be brave enough to do whatever. I know I’m not going to commit suicide because I did that already.”

Another day I met a friend involved in garment manufacturing. He had been unable to import black T-shirts from China. Although they hadn’t been officially banned, everyone working in fashion knew about the curbs. (Rumor had it that Post-it Notes and yellow helmets were also on the banned list.) “The government is so nonsensical,” he said. “They can ban all black outfits—black T-shirts, black pants—and they really think they can solve the problem? It’s so stupid.” Words had been disappearing, and now colors were starting to disappear, too.

But people had slowly stopped talking about certain topics. First tear-gassing had become so run-of-the-mill that it hardly rated a mention, then the outrage at mass arrests had become blunted. It was hard to function with a perpetual sense of anger, yet the muting of emotion that accompanied the normalization of the abnormal was alarming.

Their cohort, born around the time of the 1997 handover, had been nicknamed the Cursed Generation. The class of 2003 kindergarten graduation had been canceled because of the outbreak of SARS; their primary school graduation in 2009 was called off because of swine flu; their last year of secondary school had been interrupted by the Umbrella Movement. Now some of their university graduations had been canceled. “Are you hopeful?” I asked. “No.” “Not at all?” “Not at all.” They all felt the movement was doomed, but that didn’t change their determination to continue.

got police disguised as protestors starting to burn things. Because they want to capture violent scenes and provide it to the Chinese television channels.”

Erasure was his greatest fear, not just of the past but of the present, too.

But that was only half the story, he told me. In fact, he’d taken measures to protect the King’s calligraphy by covering it with a layer of plastic wrap, and then painting on top of that. The “destruction” was a trompe l’oeil, he said with satisfaction. He’d spray-painted his new picture on top of the plastic wrap, using a stencil, and after taking photos of it, he’d pulled off the plastic wrap, leaving the King’s calligraphy unharmed.

This, it turned out, was Joel Chung’s biggest project. As I goggled in disbelief, hardly able to take in what he was saying, he explained what he was doing. Chung said that he’d been with the King when he originally painted the pillar, and he’d noted its location on a spreadsheet. When the original work was covered up by a government contractor sloshing gray paint on top, he’d marked that down, too. Now he was methodically chipping away at the gray paint to expose the calligraphy underneath. It was slow and tedious work, and he’d already spent more than a week on this pillar. Once the whole work was visible, he’d cover it in a transparent oil to preserve it. Then, he’d paint over it with a fresh coat of gray paint, leaving no one any the wiser. As he slowly revealed his secret enterprise, he grew more and more delighted, beaming with the sly joy of a small child who has stolen and hidden his Christmas gift.

It was hard to understand why Chung was going to all that effort just to cover up the calligraphy again. “It’s because I think this is not the right moment to discover all the work in the public space,” he said. He feared the government’s lack of commitment to preserving the King’s work meant that any new pieces could end up being erased again. “They have a lot of excuses,” he told me darkly. “They will say it’s a ‘communication mistake.’ ”

For a decade, working from his spreadsheet, he had been slowly, methodically uncovering the King’s hidden works, chipping away their coating of paint, restoring them, then painting over them again. He said he’d already restored six works, generally picking one a year, around the anniversary of the King’s death. He was creating a clandestine museum of the King’s work, known only to himself. It was the most quixotic, most secretive, most extraordinary act of preservation that I’d ever seen.

I wasn’t sure how to fact-check this, but before we parted, Chung shared the locations of two more pieces that he’d uncovered, one partially and one fully. I went to both places and the calligraphy was exactly where he said it would be.

Sometimes the government contractors painted over the characters so carefully that they ended up emphasizing each word in boldface. In this way the characters光復香港時代革命, “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times,” could still be read on highway dividers, and香港人, “Hong Kong People,” loomed out from a tram stop. They reminded me of the words of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat: “I cross out words so you will see them more.”


The very means by which the national security legislation was enacted underlined Beijing’s continued disregard for Hong Kongers. It had already been made amply clear that Beijing wasn’t respecting its pledge to leave Hong Kong unchanged for fifty years.

This time, however, no one in Hong Kong—not even Carrie Lam—had so much as seen the law before it was put into effect.

From that day on, it seemed the most popular protest slogans had suddenly been deemed illegal, and so the few remaining Lennon Walls were hastily dismantled. The image that stayed with me from that day was of eight people standing in the street, each holding up a blank sheet of paper.

The vagueness of the law made self-protection impossible, and the worries she voiced soon became ubiquitous. “You don’t know when you will step into these traps or even when you will step on these red lines, because red lines are everywhere, and they move constantly.”

The impact was intense and immediate. My phone, which had buzzed incessantly with notifications from the dozens of Telegram groups that Hong Kongers had used to communicate and plan protest actions, fell silent. People were so fearful of China’s internet surveillance capabilities that they were shutting down their accounts and asking contacts to delete their chat records. They began worrying about what they were posting on Facebook and Twitter, so they deleted those, too. This was more than self-censorship.

Something else was happening that was even harder to process. Hong Kong’s government officials had generally been respected and trusted as colorless but competent bureaucrats whose efficiency allowed the city to function smoothly. But now the most senior officials were regularly telling outlandish, barefaced, verifiable lies in their press conferences, right from the very top down. Carrie Lam’s public statements were a case in point, almost every time she spoke in public. In December 2019, she insisted that Hong Kong’s freedoms had not been eroded even as police banned protest marches. In September 2020, she argued that Hong Kong’s system of government provided for no separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The refutation could be found in any Hong Kong secondary schoolers’ textbooks, but Lam said the textbooks needed rewriting to correct what she called a historical misunderstanding. In March 2021, when Beijing rewrote Hong Kong’s electoral system to reduce the number of directly elected seats and allow police to vet electoral candidates, Carrie Lam even framed it as a move toward greater democracy. It wasn’t just history that was being revised; the present itself was being rewritten, even as it happened. She knew what she was saying was patently untrue, and she knew that everyone knew she was lying. These acts of mass gaslighting served as a raw exercise of power, forcing the population to swallow statements that blatantly contradicted themselves. But it went deeper; these attempts to muddy the epistemological waters seeded doubts about the nature of reality and knowledge itself. It was a tried-and-tested move straight out of the authoritarian playbook, and an uncanny echo of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to rewrite the history of the Tiananmen killings of June 4, 1989.

Back then it had mounted a massive campaign to change the narrative. It was a multistep process, with the Communist Party first flooding the population with propaganda presenting the events of that night as counterrevolutionary rioting rather than peaceful protests in an attempt to rewrite memories of a moment many had witnessed. Over time, the propaganda leaflets disappeared from library shelves, the television stations stopped running scenes of fugitives being arrested, and silence took over, first eroding, then excising those implanted memories. The party-state has been so successful in this effort that many young Chinese had no idea anything had happened on June 4, 1989. While writing my book, I’d also uncovered a second bloody crackdown on the same day in the city of Chengdu that had been wiped from the record, sponged out rather like the Six-Day War of 1899. I knew that type of historical erasure happened in Communist China, where the state controlled information so tightly, but I’d never imagined I would see the same process beginning to unfold in Hong Kong, with its highly educated, highly networked global population.

When the movement started, I’d initially resisted drawing parallels with the Tiananmen crackdown, but the similarities kept mounting. Right at the very beginning, Carrie Lam’s description of largely peaceful protests as “riots” recalled a famous People’s Daily editorial in 1989 that labeled the student protests as “turmoil.” These moments were, in Confucian terms, acts that “rectified the names,” ensuring that the proper name was attached to an event to signal the correct political stance. When Hong Kong officials blamed the protests on “black hands” backed by hostile foreign forces, I recognized this vocabulary as coming straight from the Tiananmen lexicon. Even the use of police to beat protestors, rather than having the army open fire on them, replayed the quelling of the Chengdu protests with horrible familiarity to me. Massive civil unrest in Chengdu had been crushed not with tanks but by riot police, known as Paramilitary Armed Police, using water cannons and the brute force of truncheons. In the streets of Hong Kong, the weaponry had been updated to include water cannons that shot blue liquid laced with chemicals, sonar devices, and huge quantities of tear gas. But the tactics were the same, including violent beatings given to protestors by the police.

In 2020, the June 4 candlelight vigil in Hong Kong—which had been the only such memorial on Chinese soil—was forbidden for the first time, on the grounds of Covid safety. Despite the ban, Hong Kongers turned out anyway. The instinct to remember en masse was so ingrained that they didn’t know what else to do. Their feet carried them to Victoria Park, where they sat quietly in socially distanced clumps, or to local parks where small groups coalesced organically to mourn together. This represented an about-turn, since in recent years many young Hong Kongers had refused to attend the June 4 vigil, arguing that what happened so many years before in China had nothing to do with their lives. Now the events of three decades ago had become horribly, undeniably relevant.

I sometimes thought back to the day when I’d been having lunch with a lawyer friend, years before, when he’d used the term “dissident” to refer to a prominent Hong Konger. Then he stopped and corrected himself. “Not a dissident,” he said. “A popularly elected lawmaker.” China’s moves had turned so many Hong Kongers into dissidents.

I felt as though the flag was speaking to me as a journalist. To stand up is not to kneel, or to crouch, or to hide behind the convenient shield of reportorial neutrality. In circumstances where morality demands a stance, evenhandedness is an act of cowardice.

Now we all were Kings of Kowloon,

Throughout the long Melbourne Covid lockdown, we met once a week on Zoom to read relevant academic papers. We were on one such call when the national security legislation was announced. After that, we stopped meeting, stopped reading papers, stopped discussing Hong Kong identity at all.

The day after the law went into effect, I put the flat in Hong Kong that I’d always hoped to live in again on the market. It wasn’t only the risk of arbitrary detention, which would soon make other countries warn against travel to the region; it was that I instinctively understood that this was no longer a place to raise my children.

When lifted up to the sun, the gray smudges faded and thick black words began to take shape, shining straight through the paper. They read: “Hong Kong will see light again,”香港重光.


The seeds of this book were planted long before I even began thinking about it by my mother, Patricia Lim, as she dragged her reluctant brood around the study halls and walled villages of the New Territories. I have learned from her boundless curiosity and her perseverance. From my father, Poh Chye Lim, I have received the gift of steadfast support, offered in the face of his obvious skepticism about the sanity of this project.