As appeared in Prospect Magazine – April 2016

Hong Kong – Metropolis to Gotham

Everyone Could Be Batman. The plea had been scribbled on a large banner hung above Harcourt Road at the outset of Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Revolution street protests. More than other slogans that channelled John Lennon and Les Miserables, this one became a populist call to action, like a searchlight sweeping across a darkened Gotham City. Over two and a half extraordinary months, tent villages populated by hundreds of black T-shirted students and ordinary citizens sprouted up to shut down three of Hong Kong’s most important commercial districts. Though ending with no clear resolution, the movement was widely viewed as the most significant act of civil disobedience in modern Hong Kong history.

More troubles ensued into 2015. When a creative writing Masters of Fine Arts program at City University was abruptly cancelled and the re-appointment of a popular pro-vice-chancellor at Hong Kong University was denied by a government-controlled council, clamorous cries of protest rang out. Earlier this year, street vendors selling fishballs – a longstanding Chinese New Year holiday tradition – clashed with police aiming to clamp down on the unlicensed activity. Meanwhile, the mysterious disappearance and re-emergence of five book publishers critical of China’s leaders raised alarm bells across the city. The accumulating fears have prompted calls for Hong Kong’s outright independence from the Mainland. Joshua Wong, the now-famous teenage activist who resembles an undernourished, pre-pubescent Robin, has announced the launching of a new political party, Demosisto, to promote Hong Kong’s self-determination.

For decades, a local version of Superman has been the ruler of Hong Kong’s hearts and minds. Instead of a cape and immaculately brilliantined hair, Hong Kong’s superhero – in the person of billionaire Li Ka-shing – sports a tailored business suit, oversized horn-rimmed eyeglasses and receding hairline. He has been the city’s patron saint, the personification of all that the SAR has to offer. If a humble plastic flower peddler can rise up to become Asia’s richest man, then there is hope for anyone.

During the twentieth century, Hong Kong’s promise to its people was straightforward – here was a place where fortunes could be made. Regulations were light, as were taxes. There was a functioning rule of law and a competent, independent central bank. Many flavours of English as the lingua franca intermingled. Individuals could say what they wanted without fear of persecution. For a populace with single-minded focus on creating wealth, Hong Kong was indeed a shining Metropolis. And the doctrine of ‘one-country two-systems’ would keep Hong Kong as such, at least until 2047. Sure, living conditions were shockingly cramped, political self-determination had never existed and arts and culture lacked diversity or depth. But ah, to drive a Lamborghini faster than a speeding bullet… To leap your own tall building in a single bound…

But Superman and his league of business tycoons and political leaders have proven to be anything but heroic. As their power consolidated, they squeezed out economic opportunities for small businesses, catering instead to global luxury brands. They quelled dissent, sometimes through intimidation. They allowed foreigners, particularly Mainland ‘locusts’, to horde essentials such as baby formula and hospital beds, and raise property prices far beyond the reach of locals. In the meantime, Chief Executive CY Leung exposed himself as a tin-eared yes-man to Beijing who belittled his own people. At one point, he publicly took exception to handing voting power to ‘half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than US$1,800 per month.’

Hong Kong people are generally polite and earnest. More than anything else, they simply want the freedom and opportunity to work towards improving their lots in life. Public protests and street violence are frowned upon as disruptive towards that aim. The riots of 1967 – when pro-communist forces battled against British colonial rule while the Cultural Revolution ran amok across China – seem to belong to a different place and time. Observance of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown takes place each year on June 4, but it tends to be a solemn and reflective candlelit affair inside Victoria Park. In 2005, protests related to a World Trade Organization conference held in the city turned violent, but the protesters were principally Korean farmers who had flown in with well-practiced aggressiveness. The tear-gas and water cannon clashes were mesmerizing, as if they were a foreign blood sport.

However, a fundamental shift has occurred in the city. The threats that Hong Kong people now face are much more local and tear at the heart of their livelihood. The leaders have shredded a social contract with their constituency. Promises have not been kept. Superpowers appear illusory. Feeling disenfranchised, ordinary people become what they must. They lack special powers or body armour, and may be armed only with books, umbrellas or fishball skewers, as if each is a tiny nugget of kryptonite. They engage in thousands of small but significant acts in defence of identity, economic fairness, and now political justice. The citizens swarm like bats defending their colony, their home. Their energy emanates from a desperate desire to ensure that their city, if no longer a shining Metropolis, does not decay into an urban detritus that too closely resembles Gotham.

TVB Appearance in Hong Kong

The Forum – Making it Big in Hong Kong: A Matter of Good Fortune?
– BBC Sounds

November 2013, at the Hong Kong Literary Festival. The BBC’s Bridget Kendall asks if this dynamic yet conservative city, could in future, measure up creatively to its neighbour China and other countries in the region.

Perspectives from myself, neo-Victorian specialist Liz Ho, screenwriter Ivy Ho and designer Danielle Huthart.