[Review] Ben Bland’s Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow

{Written by Jason Y. Ng, this review is part of the “Writing Hong Kong” Issue (December 2017) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films}

Ben Bland, Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow, Penguin, 2017. 100 pgs.

Generation HK Ben BlandUnpacking the young generation in Hong Kong is a tall order, not least because a singular, archetypical “Hong Kong youth” does not exist. The cohort is as diverse and divergent as it comes, from socioeconomic background and upbringing to education and exposure to the wider world, to values, ideals and aspirations. It defies stereotypes and generalisations.

Ben Bland, a British correspondent for The Financial Times, is in a unique position to take on that ambitious project. Whereas Bland’s extensive experience reporting in Asia—including stints in Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar—has given him a broad field of view, his relatively short tenure in Hong Kong—just over two years—allows him to look at its people through a long-range lens.

It is that unadulterated objectivity and his unquenched curiosity that make Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow a discerning and refreshing read. Released last summer under Penguin Book’s inaugural “Hong Kong series” to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover, the book zeroes in on the demographic that came of age in the two decades since the city’s return to Chinese rule. It profiles six groups of young men and women who began from vastly different starting points in life and chosen vastly different paths for themselves to get to vastly different finishing lines.

Yet their challenges are similar: they must negotiate their way through a Fragrant Harbour muddied by limited upward mobility, skyrocketing property prices, simmering cross-border tensions and the ever-tightening grip of the Chinese government on every aspect of civil society.

“For many young people, being a Hong Konger means not being a Mainlander,” Bland observes. “[D]efending the city’s autonomy from Beijing and moving toward a more democratic future [are] aspirations … shared by all.”

It is apt that the book begins with Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Agnes Chow—student leaders of the Umbrella Movement and founding members of a new political party called Demosistō. The Yakult-drinking, brownie-munching and iPhone-thumbing trio shared their motivation for risking prison and personal safety to stand on the frontlines of the city’s pro-democracy battle against China. Bland’s conversations with them are honest, quirky and straight to the point.

They are also cutting.

“A lot of people think we don’t know China, so we hate them,” Law tells Bland. “Actually, we know China, so that’s why we hate them.” Those simple words have taken on new meaning after Law and Wong were recently thrown into jail for unlawful assembly thanks to the Department of Justice’s appeal for harsher sentences. The DOJ’s decision is widely seen as a political move to pursue legal action against prominent activists at the behest of Beijing.

Bland’s many-coloured coming-of-age story continues, as he turns his focus to a menagerie of young characters: a pair of financially successful but morally agnostic star tutors, a trio of professionals who earn their keep by day and dabble in local politics by night and a group of artists who create under growing state censorship and commercial self-censorship.

But it is his coverage of the super-rich that piques the most attention. The chapter titled “The Rich Kids” promises to lift the veil on the little seen and even less understood psyche of local princelings. Dubbed fuerdai, they are scions of the city’s wealthiest families who wallow in extreme opulence but shy away from the public eye. “Getting them to talk openly and honestly about the problems facing Hong Kong was a much bigger task,” Bland confesses, “even if I promised not to use their names.”

Not surprisingly, the only young tycoon who is willing to speak to a foreign correspondent is Lau Ming-wai, the camera-ready heir to one of the city’s largest property developers. Nevertheless, readers hoping Lau will shine a rare light on how a fuerdai feels about the city’s existential angst will be disappointed, for the thirty-something New York-qualified attorney is a one-man public relations machine. Lau fields Bland’s questions with practiced savviness and polished rhetoric, making the interview read less like a candid dialogue on identity than the opening monologue of a nakedly ambitious politician-in-waiting.

Generation HK ends with student leaders from the fledgling pro-independence camp: Edward Leung, Chan Ho-tin and Baggio Leung. Defiant, brash and all-talk-and-little-action, the three are a facsimile of the radicalised youth emerging from the Umbrella Movement. “A Hong Kong nation is growing in the minds of many young people. But no one has a realistic plan to bring [an independent Hong Kong] nation to life,” Bland accurately concludes after speaking with the seditionists.

While the push for independence is far-fetched, the frustrations that underlie it are not. “We like [to win]. It’s in our DNA. But now we’re losing. Hong Kong is not Hong Kong anymore,” Baggio Leung tells Bland at one point. No keen observer of Hong Kong’s political landscape will disagree with that sentiment.

Written with a journalist’s precision and sense of urgency, Generation HK is a welcome addition to the growing discourse on Hong Kong’s emerging, elusive and ever-evolving identity. That identity continues to be shaped and reshaped by its restless youth— rightful heirs to a city that is, as Bland puts it, “uncomfortable with its history, unhappy with its present and unsure of its future.”

The book invites comparison to Alec Ash’s Wish Lantern: Young Lives in New China (Macmillan, 2016), which looks at another fast-changing society through the eyes of a half-dozen youngsters. Both works offer a small window on a big issue, using the story of some to lay bare a struggle for all.

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Jason Y. Ng

Jason Y. Ng is an author and columnist. His latest book, Umbrellas in Bloom: Hong Kong’s Occupy Movement Uncovered, documents the Umbrella Movement of 2014. He is the president of PEN Hong Kong and an adjunct law professor at the University of Hong Kong.

 

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