[REVIEW] “Unique Strength of Hong Kong People: A Review of Antony Dapiran’s City on Fire” by Susan Blumberg-Kason

{Written by Susan Blumberg-Kason, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Antony Dapiran, City on Fire: the Fight for Hong Kong, Scribe, 2020. 336 pgs.

In June 1987, my father and I flew from Chicago to Seoul the day South Korea’s June Democratic Struggle began. A student at Yonsei University was seriously injured by a tear gas canister and later died. The protests that resulted brought out millions of people demanding change, namely democratic elections. For a country with unique security issues, it seemed unlikely the government would allow any loosening of its control. Yet, by the end of 1987, South Korea had had its first ever democratic election. In City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong, Antony Dapiran begins his book with the subject of tear gas. He chronicles the 2019 Hong Kong protests and compares them to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, another hot spot of contention in the 1980s. So, if South Korea and Northern Ireland can achieve peace, is there hope for Hong Kong?

City on Fire offers a potted modern history of Hong Kong, going back to the 1922 seamen’s strike, in which the colonial government first enacted the Emergency Regulations Ordinance (ERO). A lawyer by trade, Dapiran includes in his book the laws that have governed Hong Kong and the bills that have threatened to strip its autonomy, laws and bills that have been at the centre of the protests.

Much has been written in the press about the 2019 protests—and Dapiran is one of the foremost English language reporters on the ground in Hong Kong—so his book will be of interest to people who would like to understand the background of the protests as well as those well-versed in the movement and searching for answers about Hong Kong’s future. After all, it’s books we turn to when we often feel the most hopeless.

That said, Dapiran’s first-hand account of the 2019 protests—and the 2014 Umbrella Movement—make this book special. He shows how tensions have built up since 2014 and ended up splitting Hong Kong people into two camps: yellow supporting the protestors and blue supporting the police and government. While he writes mostly about the yellow camp, he also tries to understand government supporters. So in 2019 he attended a pro-police rally, somewhat of an anomaly during a year of heated demonstrations and sieges across the territory.

At the entrances to the rally, participants were handed free copies of the pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao, its front page containing an aggressively anti-violence message: ‘Kick Out Violence!’ read the headline—oxymoronically and apparently unironically—with a cartoon of a black-shoed foot kicking a caricature of a yellow-hard-hatted protestor through the air; sending him flying across Victoria Harbour. Much of the crowd seemed to be elderly, and either rural or working class.

Antony Dapiran, City on Fire.

After a large protest on 1 October 2019—China’s National Day, Dapiran worried about finding his way home. Much of the MTR had closed, in obedience of the government’s attempt to keep protesters at home, and he worried he wouldn’t find a taxi in the early evening. Just then, a van pulled up next to him.

A woman leaned out the passenger window and asked, ‘Where are you going?’ I told her, and she conferred with her partner in the driver’s seat, and then turned back, opening the rear door and saying, ‘Get in!’ It was then I realized that this was a school bus.

Antony Dapiran, City on Fire.

These were volunteer drivers, who would shuttle people, often protesters but also journalists and other members of the public home, in the absence of public transport. This spirit of community and camaraderie is what makes Hong Kong special, particularly during the 2014 Umbrella Movement and later in 2019, in what many would call, violent protest.

Yet Dapiran explains with great empathy that the vandalism from protestors has been targeted at businesses that support the establishment and not at people, as is the case with the police. It’s important to remember the difference between random acts of violence and targeted frustration against broken promises.

The disciplined nature of this vandalism, the lack of looting—and the fact that it was violence against property, not violence against persons—may have been the reason why it attracted little criticism from supporters of the protestors. After all, referring to property damage as violence may ultimately say more about how we view property than how we view violence.

Antony Dapiran, City on Fire.

Dapiran finished his book before COVID-19 broke out in early 2020 and before China passed its National Security Law, which applies to Hong Kong residents in the territory and abroad, as well as foreign nationals anywhere in the world. Recent developments notwithstanding, his book still serves as a comprehensive look at the 2019 protests, how they came to happen, and what is at stake for Hong Kong’s future. Contention in Hong Kong won’t be resolved as quickly as it was in South Korea after the June Struggle began and I hope it won’t take as long as it took in Northern Ireland. But at the end of City on Fire Dapiran seems hopeful, attesting to the unique strength of Hong Kong people.

However, Hong Kong is no Tibet or Xinjiang, and any strategy to assimilate Hong Kong through migration would be based on flawed logic. Hong Kong has a long history of absorbing and assimilating immigrant populations, particularly those coming from China. When people come from the mainland to Hong Kong, it is not Hong Kong that becomes more like the mainland: those mainland people become Hongkongers.

Antony Dapiran, City on Fire.

How to cite: Blumberg-Kason, Susan. “Unique Strength of Hong Kong People: A Review of Antony Dapiran’s City on Fire.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 30 Sept. 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/09/30/fire.

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Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone WrongHer writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)

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