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Louisa Lim's 'Indelible City' examines the U.K.'s handover of Hong Kong to China

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Our former colleague Louisa Lim has been exploring a world that's fading. Louisa is NPR's former Beijing correspondent, and she grew up in Hong Kong. In those days, Hong Kong was a British colony separated by a border from mainland China.

LOUISA LIM: I went to school at an English-language school. We never learned any history of Hong Kong or of China. You know, we learned about the British prime ministers and the kings and queens. We did Victorian musicals and wore crinolines and, you know, did "Oliver Twist" and things like that. We could have been in the U.K. But, you know, the world outside, of course, was a Chinese world.

INSKEEP: Louisa Lim set out to write the history of Hong Kong in a book called "Indelible City." She writes of the British trading port seized from China in the 1800s. The U.K. eventually returned it in exchange for a promise to preserve British-style freedoms. China largely erased those freedoms after democratic protests in recent years, which caused Lim to research the U.K.'s handover of power back in 1997.

LIM: Hong Kong has had no place at the table. They were not part of the negotiations. There was no referendum. They were never allowed to even vote whether they wanted to be handed over or not. And as part of that kind of archive of interviews that I found, there were some incredible interviews with the most senior Hong Kong advisers to the British, and they really kind of unleashed the way that they felt about this agreement. And, you know, it was always clear that the Hong Kongers were not going to be considered. It was a colony. It was treated as a colonial possession and handed back with the people.

INSKEEP: Weren't they supposed to get 50 years' worth of freedom and civil rights out of it, though?

LIM: That's right. So the original agreement that was signed, the joint declaration, in it China agreed to allow Hong Kong's way of life to be preserved for 50 years, and Hong Kong was supposed to have a high degree of autonomy and Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong. And now this year, we're heading to the 25th year - so the halfway point. And in the last couple of years, all of those things have been lost with the national security legislation that we saw passed in 2020. That has completely changed Hong Kong's way of life and the freedoms that Hong Kong had allowed. It's not they've been eroded; they've been completely dismantled and destroyed. Civil society organizations have been forced to disband. The Legislature has been reconstituted. The electoral system - everything has been changed.

And because of the way the British negotiated the agreement, the Hong Kongers had always wanted some kind of monitoring mechanism that there would be some kind of redress if there was a violation of the agreement, but because they weren't listened to and maybe 'cause the British thought that would be too tricky, that never happened. Of course, it's too late now.

INSKEEP: How do the people you talk with in Hong Kong think about the different ways that you could tell the story of Hong Kong? You can tell the story the way that communist China does, that it's a story of racism and colonialism, or you can tell it the way that a lot of people in the West would, as a place of freedom that is now losing its freedoms. How do people there wrestle with that contradiction?

LIM: Yeah, it's a really interesting question, and that's something that I tried to explore partly because the history that we grew up with as children was so different from the history that is now taught in schools. There's almost, you know, no points of reference. And what I had wanted to do was really center the voices of Hong Kong people to ask how they tell their own history. And that's actually really a tricky question in a place which has basically been a colony twice over. And it's a place, as one of my interviewees, a playwright, said, you know, because of the colonial history, there are no war heroes. There are no statesmen. There are no myths and legends. He said, metaphorically, it's a barren rock. So the thing that I was interested in is the way in which certain local heroes and icons were made and who was chosen.

INSKEEP: Who's an icon of Hong Kong, then?

LIM: Well, the person that I write about is a man who is known throughout Hong Kong as the King of Kowloon, and he was this extraordinary character. He died in 2007, but he was an elderly, disabled trash collector of quite questionable mental competence. But he believed the peninsula of Kowloon had been stolen from his family all the way back in 1860, when it was given to the British. And he spent half a century writing on the city's walls and the postboxes and the flyovers and the letterboxes and the lampposts, and he was writing his family tree and their claims on the land. His writing was really ugly. It's quite sort of unsightly calligraphy. It's not balanced. It's like, you know, the writing of a 6- or 7-year-old but very, very distinctive. And he became over the years this kind of cultural icon.

So, you know, lounge singers and rap groups sang songs to him. Poets wrote poems to him. He starred in TV adverts. He played cameos in films. And he became Hong Kong's most valuable artist. He even represented Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale. I was fascinated by him because the themes that he was thinking about, these ideas of dispossession and territory and sovereignty and loss, they're themes that really have been at the heart of Hong Kong's struggles and particularly the movement of 2019, and yet he was thinking about them so long before.

INSKEEP: Is it possible that 50 years from now that it will just be some of the same buildings but effectively a different city, and there's nobody really around anymore who remembers how things used to be?

LIM: So during the movement of 2019, there was this phrase going around that Beijing, the mainlanders, they wanted to keep the fishbowl and change the fish. They were not happy with this very demanding population that was always pushing for more. They wanted a more compliant population. And so I think, you know, Beijing's plans for Hong Kong are that it should be part of the Greater Bay Area, just one of a city - of a number of cities along China's south coast. And, you know, the exodus that we see today might move Hong Kong faster towards that. But I think we're also seeing - because this exodus is quite large, we're also seeing these new communities of Hong Kongers that are growing in various places around the world. And Hong Kong has excellent migrants. They're very, very motivated. And I think they will make their mark in other places.

INSKEEP: Louisa Lim is the author of "Indelible City." Thanks so much.

LIM: Thank you, Steve. It's always such a pleasure to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.