Annalee Newitz: This is the On the Media Podcast extra, and I'm Annalee Newitz. I'm an author and the co-host of the podcast, Our Opinions Are Correct, and I have been helping out around On the Media for the past couple of weeks.
I recently read a great book about Hong Kong that hit some sweet spots for me, history, myth, activism, and what it means to call a place home. It's by reporter, Louisa Lim, who grew up in Hong Kong and has covered China for NPR and the BBC. The book is called Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong.
Lim's work feels particularly relevant now because this fall, students in Hong Kong will learn a new version of history. One that erases the fact that Hong Kong was ever a British colony. According to four history books now under development in China, Hong Kong has always been a part of China, despite 156 years of British dominion. China has promoted this narrative ever since 1997 when the British left the hundreds of islands and one peninsula that make up the territory of Hong Kong.
However, many Hong Kongers cannot forget their colonial history. One such Hong Konger was the so-called King of Kowloon. Lim describes him as a graffiti artist who went from being a 'toothless' often shirtless disabled trash collector, to a symbol of Hong Kong's defiance by the time he died in 2007. He believed that the peninsula of Kowloon rightfully belonged to his family, and that the British had stolen it in the 1860's. In 1956, he took to the streets, painting calligraphy on the walls of Hong Kong in his shaky, stilted handwriting. He raged against the British empire, scribbling down his entire family tree, and the names of places he believed his family had lost.
Louisa Lim: He'd write on the walls, electricity boxes, the lamp posts, the flyovers, all these bits of street furniture that you don't normally notice, and the government cleaners would clean away his work, and he'd often come back the next day and write at the same place.
Annalee Newitz: In her book, Lim explains that the history of her city has always been shrouded in many contradictory myths. In defiance of these narratives, the King of Kowloon created his own personal history of the place, capturing the imagination of Louisa Lim and her fellow Hong Kongers.
Louisa Lim: His calligraphy became a real collective memory for Hong Kongers when the future was really uncertain. No one knew what going back to China would mean, but day after day, there was the King of Kowloon. Over time, he became an iconic figure. There were songs sung about him, rap songs and jazz ballads, and poets wrote poems to him, and he appeared in local films, in adverts. He went on to represent Hong Kong in the Venice Biennale.
Annalee Newitz: Here's a clip from your podcast called The King of Kowloon.
Speaker 3: I was looking at him as a spectacle rather than prophet.
Speaker 4: He was completely mad, completely bonkers. He was incoherent. He was so defiable.
Speaker 5: Only when you go crazy, you can see the truth.
Speaker 6: The King of Kowloon.
Louisa Lim: Decades after his death in 2007, the themes that he was writing about, dispossession and sovereignty, territory and loss, these are themes that are right at the very heart of Hong Kong's political crisis.
Annalee Newitz: As you were investigating his life, you encountered a lot of conflicting and overlapping stories about Hong Kong and its history, and the King of Kowloon's story challenges the history of Hong Kong that you were taught as a child attending school there under British sovereignty, and that version of history was dreamed up in 1841 by Lord Palmerston, Britain's former prime minister at the height of British Imperial power, and obviously it served the British interests. What does this version of the story deliberately leave out?
Louisa Lim: The British version says that Hong Kong was a barren rock before the British arrival. A barren rock with nary a house on it, as Lord Palmerston famously wrote. It makes it sound like there was nothing there, and that solely through British intervention, Hong Kong became this international center of commerce. Britain was a civilizing force, that wasn't true. Hong Kong has an extremely long previous history going all the way back to the middle and neolithic era. The British censuses, on arrival, said that Hong Kong had thousands of inhabitants. It simply wasn't true, but that didn't mean that that's not the version that was so popular, and I think still is in people's imaginations.
Annalee Newitz: In 1997, the British handover sovereignty of Hong Kong to China, and there's this elaborate ceremony where the British flag was lowered, followed by a few seconds of silence, and then the Chinese flag was raised.
Speaker 7: Speaking for the British monarchy, which had ruled 800 million people only 50 years ago, the prince of Wales.
The Prince of Wales: The eyes of the world are on Hong Kong today. I wish you all a successful transition, and a prosperous and peaceful future.
Annalee Newitz: In those early years after the British evacuated the island, we see a new historical narrative emerging from Beijing, and that's one that explicitly rejects this barren rock idea.
Louisa Lim: The Chinese version of Hong Kong history claims that Hong Kong has been a part of Chinese soil since time immemorial. That Hong Kong's culture is the same as Chinese culture. Basically this agrarian grain-growing, rice-eating culture. The interesting thing is that version of history is influx. Just over the last couple of weeks, it's emerged that China's rewritten Hong Kong's textbooks yet again. Now they're claiming that Hong Kong never was a British colony. They're saying that when the British took over Hong Kong, there were these series of treaties which the Chinese call unequal treaties. They say they were forced upon them by gun vote diplomacy-- by violence, and they never actually agreed to any of these treaties. Sovereignty was never seeded.
It's a crazy argument when you think of all those governors and the British administration of Hong Kong to claim that it was never a colony, but it also shows you the mutability of history.
Annalee Newitz: Then, of course, there's this other story about Hong Kong that originates with Hong Kongers themselves. It's deliberately mythical, and involves a race of fish-headed mermen called Lo Ting. You quote Roland Bart, the French philosopher, saying the best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify it in turn and produce an artificial myth.
Louisa Lim: The Lo Ting myth is the idea that Hong Kongers are descended from this race of fish-headed mermen. In Chinese texts, there are some references to the Lo Ting. There were this race of fishmen who live in caves, and the myth that emerges were these were the ancestors of a general in 512 AD who fought the emperor and was defeated and withdrew with his army of a hundred thousand men to caves in Lantau where they ate so many fish that they became fishman. It was a myth that many people liked because it felt as real as any other version of Hong Kong's history, or perhaps even more real to them.
Annalee Newitz: The other thing that was so interesting about this myth is that it suggests that there's a long history of insurrection and resistance in Hong Kong.
Louisa Lim: There's been this idea that's really just been imposed on Hong Kongers, that Hong Kongers are economic actors, not that interested in politics, only interested in making money. It was an idea that the British used to propagate all the time, and it continued under the Chinese. The Lo Ting really challenges that idea because these fishmen were mythically descended from a rebel. There's actually a long history of rebellion in Hong Kong. In the 12th century, there were uprisings against China's salt monopoly in Lantau, the same island. They were by villages who were illegally harvesting salt, who didn't want to pay taxes on it.
Then over the years, there've been a series of protests, strikes and boycotts, and all kinds of political action, and even a six-day war against British colonial takeover of the new territories in 1898. Actually, Hong Kongers have always been a political people, and I think the myth of the Lo Ting maybe one of the reasons it speaks to them, is it recognizes the actual nature of Hong Kongers.
Annalee Newitz: Hong Kong's history has been wiped out, dug up, repainted, and even reinvented completely countless times. What kind of an impact has that had on the organization of the pro-democracy movement over the last decade in crafting a shared political and cultural identity among Hong Kongers?
Louisa Lim: The fact is that when the British left in 1997, they even took a lot of Hong Kong's records with them, the archives. [laughs] Not only did Hong Kongers have histories imposed on them, they also had histories removed. They lost access to their own history. One of the foundations of identity is having a shared history. Certainly from the British perspective, it was a very calculated decision not to teach Hong Kongers about their own history. It was never taught in schools when I was growing up because they thought if Hong Kongers knew how Hong Kong became British, they'd feel angry because the way in which it became British was so unethical, so immoral. The opium wars were fought over Britain's rights to sell an illegal drug into China. Hong Kong's history was deliberately obscured by the British.
Annalee Newitz: What are you hearing from activists about how they retain a sense of momentum despite the crackdowns? Where do they want their movement to go next?
Louisa Lim: It's a very, very dark time. Hong Kong is deciding that they would rather go into exile, and what we're seeing is Hong Kong is leaving in huge numbers, hundreds of thousands that would rather live overseas in places with more freedom than stay in their homes. I think we are seeing the birth of Hong Kong activist's communities in exile. For Hong Kongers who stay behind, there's just a great deal of PTSD. The talk is not of momentum, the talk is of survival.
Annalee Newitz: Which of Hong Kong's histories do you find yourself returning to, and why?
Louisa Lim: I'm opposed to the idea of the imposition of a singular history that must be followed. That's also why I was interested in the King of Kowloon because this is a person who was a self-appointed king. He had no actual claim over the land as far as I was able to see. Yet he became a self-appointed monarch and people accepted him as that. When he died, the newspapers went crazy. There were wraparound tributes to him. His funeral was a sensation. When I wrote this book, it was to tell stories that centered Hong Kong voices, because these colonial histories, they never had Hong Kong faces, Hong Kong voices in them. I wanted to change that.
Annalee Newitz: Thank you so much for joining us, Louisa.
Louisa Lim: Oh, it's been such a pleasure.
Annalee Newitz: Louisa Lim reported from China for a decade for NPR and the BBC. She's also the author of Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong.
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