The Bauhinia Project, Hong Kong Without Us: A People’s Poetry, University of Georgia Press, 2021. 120 pgs.
Figures take shape insofar as we can recognise, in passing discourse, something that has been read, heard, felt. The figure is outlined (like a sign) and memorable (like an image or a tale). A figure is established if at least someone can say: ‘That’s so true! I recognise that scene of language’… Confronting each of these incidents (what ‘befalls’ him), the amorous subject draws on the reservoir (the thesaurus?) of figures, depending on the needs, the injunctions, or the pleasures of his image-repertoire. Each figure explodes, vibrates in and of itself like a sound severed from any tune—or is repeated to satiety, like the motifs of a hovering music.—Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments.
There can be no cliché without culture, and culture implies time accumulated. In the build-up of culture by those who imagine the future as catastrophe, time is necessarily stayed in the ever-narrowing present-continuous, a sound severed from any tune.
Between the pressing of the recent past (2014), present (2019) and catastrophe (30 June 2020), out came the Czech-inspired Lennon Wall in 2014 (and a revived interest among Hong Kong youth in the reading of Vaclav Havel—as well Aldous Huxley and Albert Camus) during the local Umbrella Movement, buoyed by the borrowed spirit of the Occupy Movement.
In 2019, borrowing from its own recent cultural history of 2014 to rally against the proposed Extradition Bill, Lennon Walls cropped up once again, this time all over the city—in pedestrian tunnels, on walls of pro-democratic shops and restaurants, bulletin boards of legal clinics—supported by a citizenry angry enough to elect Pan-Democratic councils in 17 of the city’s 18 electoral districts, a last pyrrhic victory within Hong Kong’s electoral system.
At 11 pm on 30 June 2020, the Hong Kong National Security Law was passed in Beijing and came into immediate effect, the final draft of which no Hongkonger had seen at the time. From the following morning on, Hongkongers have been taking a crash course in what the law might or might not mean… repeated to satiety, like the motifs of a hovering music. It is against this ethereal background Hong Kong Without Us: A People’s Poetry came to be.
Figures take shape insofar as we can recognise, in passing discourse, something that has been read, heard, felt.
The anthology stands out immediately in its composition. Its back-cover description evinces succinctly its compilation method (which I will take a closer look at later):
Hong Kong Without Us is a decentralised book of revolutionary poetry. Drawn directly from the voices of Hong Kong during its anti-extradition protests, the poems consist of submitted testimonies and found materials—and are all anonymous from end to end, from first speech to translated curation. This collected poetic documentation of protest is thus an authorless work that brings together many voices.
The editors themselves are anonymous poets acting through the Bauhinia Project, an organisation created to bring Hong Kong’s struggles to the stage of transnational activism through lyric and language, in the same spirit of leaderlessness as the protests. This book is a glimpse into the movement’s lives and voices. The poems here were either submitted as testimonies to the Bauhinia Project at an encrypted email address or collected as “found poems” from testimonies and protest materials on the streets, on social media, and on the news. Each was from an anonymous source in Chinese. They are a people’s poetry: nameless, lowbrow, temporally bound, squeezed out from moments of gravity and strife. They are meant to reach out across the silence of oceans, through differences in language and culture.—Hong Kong Without Us
The overarching narrative is divided into five sections: 1) “起 . rise”, 2) “投 . cast”, 3) “執 . hold”, 4) “滅 . extinguish”, and 5) “生 . birth”, and a prosaic interlude between the third and the fourth, with the whole thing rounded off with an afterword. They largely follow the evolution of cultural moods from the beginning of the protests in 2019 (which spanned half a year from roughly June to December, depending on who you ask, and which occurred almost daily if one knew where to look or found tear gas wafting through your apartment windows) to an unspecified future after it was all but certain that all five of the protest movement’s demands for democratic reforms would not be met. These demands were:
- The complete withdrawal of the extradition bill
- The revoking of the labelling of protesters as rioters, the latter of which carries the possibility of criminal prosecution
- An amnesty for arrested protesters
- The creation of an independent commission of inquiry with the power to investigate and prosecute police misconduct
- Universal suffrage for legislative council and chief executive elections.
Two major incidents foreshadowed the protests. One was the Occupy Central protests of 2014 (which later became popularly known as the Umbrella Movement), which rejected attempts at reorganising Hong Kong’s electoral system, and the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers in 2015 who sold publications critical of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The anonymous Hongkongers who submitted their writing and “found” items to the Bauhinia Project knew that it was imperative to get the attention of a Trump-led America for any sort of reforms to have even a minuscule chance of happening, a David versus Goliath storyline undercut by a Faustian bargain. And possible arrest.
if at least someone can say: “That’s so true! I recognise that scene of language:
Against this backdrop, certain leitmotifs emerged. In the first section (“起 . rise”) of the book, a heart-wrenching naivete informs the perspective, one which was the main driver of Hong Kong youth who spearheaded the protests.
Allow me a second to play a guessing game. Guess the age behind these lines:
- I have no fear. / Better to shoot at me than at girls. / A girl’s face is very important. / Better I’m in trouble than someone else. (p. 4)
- I’m afraid / of cops beating me up / but you can’t stop / just because of fear. // Democracy for the people! (p. 7)
- Well, we come to this world alone / and leave alone. We are always alone. / Why be afraid? // This summer taught me / nothing’s absolute. (p. 12)
- It’s not politics anymore just conscience. Yes the government can do anything now, imprison, torture, sue, but they can’t go back to how things were. (p. 17)
The first is a 15-year-old, the second is 10, the third 14, while the age of the fourth—a self-avowed former drug dealer—is unknown.
The second section (“投 . cast”) reverberates with some of the youthful perspectives established in the first, and amplifies a sense of collective civic responsibility via a cross-sectional chorus of Hong Kong’s citizenry, among them a police officer (p. 22), a mainland-born Hongkonger (p. 23), a self-identified South Asian coming into self-acceptance as a Hongkonger (p. 26), and a mainlander in China who identifies with the spirit of the protests and the way they are reminiscent of 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Massacre, and silently laments his inability to show support (p. 30).
The third (“執 . hold”) focuses less on the individual identities/political bodies the speakers inhabit and highlights rather the inter-relational “hivemind”, so to speak, whether that be interpersonal/communal responsibility and worry for others (p. 46), guilt in not doing enough (p. 38), accidental joy (p. 56), and small but precious witnessing of human kindnesses (pp. 52, 59).
Each figure explodes, vibrates in and of itself like a sound severed from any tune—
Lastly, the fourth (“滅 . extinguish”), related in the present tense, similar to the denouements of Shakespearean tragedies: familial alienation, deaths, missed connections and too-late well-wishing, red-eyed monologues uttered by the living.
or is repeated to satiety
There is a postscript fifth section, (“生 . birth”), of hopes and dreams, and pre-emptive last words, all in future tense, for Hongkongers, internal use only, but one can glean.
The editors of the anthology have broken the material down into four categories, each one denoted by a typographical symbol:
And my responses:
(») The second least frequent in terms of numbers of submissions. These were likely written with the Bauhinia Project in mind, i.e. a direct, personal address to an imaginary Western readership.
(~) It isn’t made clear how these were reproduced (was it a photograph, a verbatim record, or paraphrasing?). The Lennon Walls were meant as message boards of sorts, produced by its original author for internal Hong Kong readership, that take the forms of testimony, confession, cheerleading slogans, euphemisms, etc.; they are anonymous conversations, existing in real time (because their authors are not sure when their messages may be erased) among Hongkongers, somewhat close in essence to the #MeToo hashtag. They were most likely written without anticipation of western readers.
(“) The most common in the anthology—found utterances, whether caught on camera in moments of exasperation, or uttered by a person in front of traditional news media personnel, who may be cautious in their words and presentation for fear of future reprisal of the National Security Law’s ill-defined yet monolithic red line. Also, it is unlikely that the speaker of these utterances were the same people who submitted to the Bauhinia Project, again, for fear of recrimination.
(=) Social media platforms have their own cultures. For example, Facebook tends to foster conversations among those who already know one another in real life. LIHKG is Hong Kong’s version of Reddit, i.e. more anonymous and whose participants use pseudonyms rather than their real names. Telegram is an app popular during the protests that, in some cases, can automatically erase messages after a self-destruct timer set by the user. Most such messages were likely not meant for the external eyes, let alone the western gaze.
The one choice that impressed most upon me is editor Jeffrey Yang’s aesthetic directions made in translating these ephemera. He made a pragmatic and smart choice to preserve the essential impetus behind the speech of each piece, those notes Hongkongers collectively sang and would immediately recognise, the inter-relational chorus and echoes Hongkongers found in each other and within themselves. The transmutation of “That’s so true! I recognise that scene of language” to Western ears is one that this anthology has captured exceptionally well; I have heard the same timbre of those trembling voices in conversations during the protests.
That said (and Yang expounded somewhat the difficulty of translating Hong Kong Cantonese into English in the foreword), I wanted either an attempt at capturing in English the impossible or a reproduction of the submissions in Chinese as is. Let me preface this by saying how impossible such a task the former would be. Ask an Anglo friend who has lived and/or taught in China about how hard it was to learn to speak Mandarin and write in simplified Chinese. Mandarin has four tones; simplified Chinese is, well, simplified. Cantonese has nine tones, written in more complex traditional Chinese. There is also a great deal of borrowed words, especially from English, and Hongkongers delight in wit. A fair number of Cantonese words mean nothing except to serve as tonal punctuation. Every single character mouthed has the potential to be punned upon, depending on those nine tones. Some English words are transliterated into Cantonese phonetics, while some are not. Sometimes English words are used as is; sometimes they have been appropriated to mean something completely divorced from their native meaning. All of those are potential subjects to nine-tone punning, in and out between Cantonese and English.
So it really is an impossible task, but also one that flattens the playfulness of a language that is central to Hong Kong identity. Guangzhou, just north of Hong Kong, is the only Chinese province that speaks Cantonese with any regularity, and its Cantonese is noticeably different. To bypass that linguistic fabric would be akin to removing the background of photos by Fan Ho—dubbed the “Bresson of the East”—none of the chiaroscuro play, none of the “commodity” background noise, just pure interiority and intersecting human relationships fixed by their distance in limbo blankness.
I am also curious about the decision to reform these anonymous offerings into poems. The form has a longer shelf life, so to speak, but that doesn’t seem largely to be its original makers’ intention (except for submission of actual poems), and it can also potentially alienate in the Western imagination, as something haughty, something high-brow, to be deciphered, when poetry can be found in everyday life in Hong Kong, its practice commonplace, means in its form differently than the West. That said, I am partial to poetry, so I liked that method of delivery, and the line breaks were never intrusive, never enjambed, but it does seem to impose a will for permanence that is at odds with most texts’ one-off utterance or programmed expiration date. Who owns the meaning of the texts, having gone through so many handlers, is hard to say.
The best way about it, which may be the bias of someone bilingual in each language, may be to reproduce the original submissions on the same page. There is plenty of blank space on each page to accommodate that, and I must admit it was an engaging exercise to reimagine what the original text might look like in my head.
This is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it.—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time.
Consider this anthology a time capsule and a seed. Not to mourn for a lost past (but it can be that), rather a chapter among many in a love story. Hong Kong Without Us is an anthology both fixed in time and tactile, for future Hongkongers to return to, or serve as a stepping stone, solid ground, from which to step into the next chapter.
For Western readers, this too is a chapter of another story, a mirage of a city in their imagination that tried its best and lost its fight between the gigantomachy of different ideological persuasions. What can be gleaned in the everyday struggles among these voices amid the chaos is one that may soon wash upon their shores.
Also see this review in Cha:
How to cite: Cheuk, Sam. “A Time Capsule and a Seed: Reviewing Hong Kong Without Us.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 24 Apr. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/04/24/hk-without-us/.
Sam Cheuk is the author of Love Figures and Deus et Machina. His next book, Postscripts from a City Burning, is forthcoming in October 2021.