Indelible City, by Luisa Lim. Riverhead Books, New York, 2022.
We have no choice but to reinvent ourselves.
Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong is an immersive, captivating story. For thousands of years, Hong Kong was a rocky fisherman’s island. Then in the mid-1800s, it became a British colony through the spoils of the Opium Wars and gunboat diplomacy; and then again in 1997, handed back to China in fulfillment of agreements penned a hundred years prior, and then again in 2020 or so, absorbed into China with the dissolution of its political parties and erasure of its independence.
Throughout this history, though, Hong Kongers’ identity has been conditional, in-between, and uncertain. Hong Kongers were not part of the negotiations during the British occupation and colonization; they were equally not part of the negotiations for the colony’s return. Hong Kongers are uniquely in-between. Neither British citizens nor mainland Chinese, their unique Cantonese language is nearly incomprehensible to mainland Mandarin speakers, and their freedom-loving, non-conforming culture flourished in the space between the great powers.
Lim seems the perfect writer to capture this sense of cultural identity and in-betweenness: Raised in HK and half English, half Chinese, she’s a journalist, a researcher, a teacher, a protester, and a Hong Konger at heart. She tells the story through the work of the “King of Kowloon,” a prolific graffiti artist who claimed ancestral ownership over the lands and made more than 55,000+ rough calligraphy works across the city, always on public property. His work captures something of the essence of what Kong Kong was: fantastic, prolific, rebellious, and, sadly, disempowered.
As his work fades away, so do the freedoms, independence, and rights of Hong Kongers. The promises of 1997 — “One Country, Two Systems” — were dismantled by China piece by piece, gradually “peeled away like a meat slicer.” Lim documents the dashed hopes of the Umbrella protest movements, initially enormous and peaceful marches that gave way to entrenched positions, tear gas, and violence. The book ends in the current day, where China uses COVID restrictions to silence protests or gatherings. The creation and imposition of “the correct history” is underway, with books removed from libraries, teachers jailed, and new “correct histories” taught in schools.
Very highly recommended.