[Review] Locked Potential: Antony Dapiran’s City of Protest

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

Antony Dapiran, City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong, Penguin, 134 pgs. 2017.

City of Protest

Antony Dapiran’s book, City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong, has merit for its succinct overview of Hong Kong’s post-2000 demonstrations, which will be especially beneficial for readers who know little about the city’s history. In the meantime, for readers who are interested in a more nuanced overview of Hong Kong history, the book provides a timely opportunity to reflect on some of the challenges presented by the short length of the books in the Penguin Specials Hong Kong Series.

Dapiran devotes the first two chapters of six to pre-1997 protests, exploring two significant moments in Hong Kong’s history: the 1967 communist-inspired anti-colonial riots and the 1989 rallies in support of the Tiananmen Square students. The rest of the book focuses on the post-1997 scene, paying close attention to the 2003 July 1st March and the 2014 Umbrella Movement, with cameos by challenges against the urban renewal of Lee Tung Street (aka Wedding Card Street) in 2004 and the Star Ferry and Queen’s Piers removal in 2006–2007. He also pays due attention to post-Umbrella Movement developments, spending part of the last chapter introducing the radical localist movement, the protest against the infringement of academic freedom at the University of Hong Kong and the disappearance of the Causeway Bay booksellers in 2016.

On the whole, Dapiran’s weaves a fluid narrative, writing in an informed voice mixed with a tinge of personal affect. The strength of the book lies in its useful summaries and sketches of the post-2000 protests. At times, Dapiran shows penetrating knowledge about the deeper issues that plague Hong Kong’s political system, such as: “it was not only Hong Kong’s unsentimental ‘development at all costs’ ethos that was the problem, but also the imbalanced governance system in which corporate and business interests were privileged by the LegCo [Legislative Council] functional constituency system and the chief executive election committee.” In one sentence, Dapiran addresses two interrelated issues (Hong Kong’s aggressive focus on economic development and unequal political system), and highlights correctly how functional constituencies impede the progress of Hong Kong’s democracy.

While the book usefully articulates the last fifteen years of Hong Kong in a more coherent way than the sporadic and event-driven coverage of Western media, there is still a tendency at times to handpick only the major protest moments, rather than taking advantage of the book form to present a more fluid evolution of Hong Kong’s protest culture. For example, in seeking to contextualise the Umbrella Movement by going back to the 1967 riots, Dapiran could have mentioned that the riots were an anomaly within a wide-spread belief in post-war Hong Kong that Hong Kong people were politically apathetic (sometimes also termed “utilitarian familism”). In contrast, the 2014 movement was the culmination of a growing manifestation of political participation. On the other hand, to avoid misrepresenting the 1967 riots as a “major break” in Hong Kong’s protest culture, Dapiran could also have spared, say, a couple of paragraphs outlining moments of earlier anti-colonial resistance, such as the armed resistance waged by indigenous villagers in the New Territories in 1899, or the 1920s territory-wide strike in protest against German colonisation of Shandong Province. After all, the book’s focus on “recent” moments may be a somewhat misleading gesture given that Hong Kong has barely two centuries of “history.”

Even when the book addresses the post-1997 era, Dapiran misses out the dockers’ strike of 2013, which was a golden opportunity for Hong Kong’s social activists—including many from younger generations—to share resistance tactics with Hong Kong’s working class and win their respect, sympathy and understanding about the importance of protest. When discussing the Umbrella Movement, Dapiran displays an overwhelming bias towards the Admiralty occupation, while mostly side-lining the occupiers in Mongkok (who were characterised by a more “localist” working-class flavour) and their disapproval of the Admiralty protests.

As a result of omitting these aspects, the book ends up dovetailing the facile portrayal of Hong Kong as already seen through Western media. Some passing mention of them would have at least enabled the book to embed the idea of dissent in Hong Kong history as a deep-seated trend influenced by the city’s shifting sociocultural development.

However, these shortcomings are probably more the result of the limitations of the Penguin Specials Hong Kong Series than Dapiran’s own abilities. As a commercial publisher, Penguin is perhaps less interested in providing deeply nuanced and sophisticated insights into Hong Kong affairs than producing short, pocket-sized books designed for a quick read. Unlike bitesize translations of Hong Kong literature such as Dung Kai-Cheung’s Cantonese Love Stories, the very different nature of this book—tackling a topic as serious as protest—shows that considerations for market and readership can sometimes fetter attempts to provide more refined contextualisations for readers. As this issue of Cha celebrates the thriving of Hong Kong writing, we should also reflect on ourselves: are we content with our potential being locked by the broad strokes of Hong Kong we paint for the world?

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Michael Tsang.jpg

Michael Tsang is a native of Hong Kong, and holds a PhD from the University of Warwick, researching on Hong Kong English writing. His broader research interests are on postcolonial and world literature with an Asian focus. He writes stories and poems in his spare time, and is always interested in languages, literatures and cultures. Michael is a Staff Reviewer for Cha and a co-editor of Hong Kong Studies. Visit his Warwick profile for more information.

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