[REVIEW] “Traces that Haunt the Scene: A Review of Aftershock” by Cherrie Kwok

{Written by Cherrie Kwok, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Holmes Chan (editor), Aftershock: Essays from Hong Kong, Small Tune Press, 2020. 93 pgs.

The cover of Aftershock: Essays from Hong Kong (Small Tune Press, 2020) greets the reader with a crisp photograph of concrete that has been poured over a section of the city’s brick-layered pavements. Although the cover image seems quotidian, its significance is instantly recognisable to any Hongkonger who took part in, or bore witness to, the massive pro-democracy demonstrations that have fractured the city and its seven million people over the last few years. It captures the moment when, after thousands of protestors ripped paving bricks out of the ground to arm themselves against the city’s police force, furious authorities responded by pouring concrete in the holes left behind (and over some of the remaining bricks). Etched across this raw, no-frills snapshot of the city’s urban wounds is the book’s title, wrought in reflective material so that the reader can see it most clearly only when the physical book is tilted at a slant rather than read straight-on, in which case the title is almost invisible and blends into the cover’s image.

This subtle interplay between the seen and unseen in Aftershock’s suggestive cover sets the tone for much of the book’s eleven essays, written by young journalists who performed on-the-ground reporting about the protests. As one contributor, Frances Sit, puts it, the book’s cover image is “an appropriate allegory for Hong Kong… There were still old bricks, untouched, feeding the illusion that all was well, that it was business as usual. But the newly poured cement [tells] a different story: the rushed work left uneven surfaces, with footprints and other marks left here and there”. Aftershock’s essays dwell precisely on what Sit calls “a different story” about the protests—experiences that are too personal, fleeting, and unadulterated for the manicured news media outlets that these journalists usually serve. Although many of the essays cite widely publicised moments in the city’s protest history—like the first time tear gas was fired at protestors in 2014 to the violent clashes at Hong Kong’s universities in 2019—they do not launch into abstract socio-political critiques about such events or mount a call to action. Rather, these essays, momentarily freed from the pressure of reporting for a specific outlet, turn the journalistic gaze inwards so that, as the volume’s editor Holmes Chan explains, “we can understand the wreckage within”.

And what a wreckage it is. As mainland China’s grip over the former British colony continues to tighten, Aftershock suggests that it is the young who will fight for Hong Kong’s autonomous future—but it is also the young who will have to pay a price. Through Elaine Yu’s eyes, we watch secondary-school students transform their uniforms into ones of war, donning gas masks as they button their cheongsams. Through Sum Lok-kei’s eyes, we watch him wish—silently and perhaps futilely—that his younger sister will never have to grow up and live through what he has. And, through Jessie Pang’s eyes, we watch a college protester at Polytechnic University of Hong Kong (PolyU) ask for a pen before he surrenders himself to the police, so that he can record, in writing, that he would never commit suicide. If he should die, the world must know that it was not by choice—or, rather, by his choice.

Yet, as much as writing is an instrument for truth-telling, the book also examines, at length, the growing suspicion that the conventions which define a career in journalism are not necessarily compatible with ethical behaviour. After all, what good is being “on the ground” if you can’t change anything on that ground? The question haunts Chan’s harrowing essay about breaching journalistic protocol to intervene, even if only verbally, in an especially violent encounter during the protests. What good are journalistic principles if—as Rachel Cheung discovers when tussling with her editor—they are weaponised for an editorial agenda that seems to promote state-sponsored violence? What good is produced when reports about the Hong Kong protests are, as Hsiuwen Liu observes from her home in Taiwan, only used by other democratic parties abroad to reinforce political support within their own countries, rather than to understand the city’s struggle on its own terms? And, what good is writing anything at all if, as the anonymous author of “Voiceless” conveys to us, one cannot ever really speak?

As Aftershock destabilises the journalistic eye, it also leaves open the question of whom the book seeks to address. Sprung out of a desire to escape the sensationalist narratives that the international and mainstream news media have used to describe the protests, Aftershock positions itself as providing “five minutes of honesty” about the city from journalists who have been told to “write for [them]selves”. On one hand, then, it would seem that the book is really for the writers and other Hongkongers, more so than it is for the rest of the world. Indeed, as someone who was born and raised in the city, the familiar Cantonese phrases woven into the book’s English prose, in addition to frequent references to quintessentially Hong Kong objects and locations—lemon tea cartons, congee, MTR stations, Causeway Bay—tugged at my heartstrings as I sat 8,000 miles away in the United States, wondering what would become of the postcolonial city that myself and my family had for three generations called home.

On the other hand, however, that the book is written primarily in English also suggests that Aftershock aspires, however reluctantly, toward a wider audience—and so it should. When writing about how the protests have both subverted and exacerbated class divisions in Hong Kong, Nicolle Liu concludes her piece with a revealing autobiographical vignette. After having tea with an affluent businessman, she swaps her skirt and heels for a gas mask and helmet. As she steps out into the fray, she thinks that things will only change when people like that businessman who “live on The Peak start caring about the future of the city—when they are finally willing to risk more.” The Peak is one of Hong Kong’s better-known summits, to which tourists flock to see the city’s skyline in all of its glory. It is also where some of Hong Kong’s wealthiest people live. When I was growing up in Hong Kong, I lived opposite it, and therefore had much time to contemplate all that it stood for. To be clear, in my childhood I was much luckier, and much more privileged—at that time at least—than most. Yet, still, for years I watched the lights flicker on and off in those houses on The Peak and wondered who lived there.

Later, a summer job required me, by chance, to examine some of the records of the mysterious people who lived on The Peak. I discovered that in addition to the wealthiest 1 per cent of the city’s Chinese population, many of The Peak’s residents were—as it had been during the city’s colonial era—also people from Europe and North America. Before the protests took hold, large financial companies and consultancies in the West had, for decades, relocated a steady stream of their employees to Hong Kong to oversee their Asian branches. The move came with incentives like automatic memberships to the city’s country clubs for their spouses, placements at top schools for their children, sometimes a yacht or two, and, of course, a fully furnished house or an apartment in neighbourhoods like The Peak. Sometimes, even the younger associates and interns in these companies were rotated into the city with similar gifts. Of course, after the protests started, many of them, along with other wealthier Hongkongers, began to leave. But as they return home to the West, what stories will they—and their children—tell of the city? What will they remember? What will they dismiss? When the protests were discussed one day at a predominantly white university in the United States, I watched an American-born undergraduate student scoff when it was mentioned that people his age had been—like the protester at PolyU in Pang’s essay—writing makeshift wills, claiming that they would never commit suicide. “How do we even know that?” he asked sceptically. “How do we know that this really happened? I haven’t seen it anywhere on the news.”

The lesson taught that day was the same one that Aftershock conveys to its readers, whether those readers are from Hong Kong and—perhaps most especially—when they are not: that you’ll rarely see what really happened if you go after it straight-on, scouring the loudest by-lines, the official records, or the splashiest media stories of the day. In times like these, to see what happened often requires tilting the picture to catch the strange, quiet, and uneven traces that haunt the scene. A torn black flag blowing in the wind. Graffiti fading on the campus walls. Fresh cement poured again and again into brick-shaped holes.

Also see these reviews in Cha:

How to cite: Kwok, Cherrie. “Traces that Haunt the Scene: A Review of Aftershock.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 27 Apr. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/04/27/hong-kong-aftershock/ 

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Cherrie Kwok was born and raised in Hong Kong. She is currently a PhD Candidate and an Elizabeth Arendall Tilley and Schuyler Merritt Tilney Jefferson Fellow at the University of Virginia, where she studies literature. Follow her on Twitter @cherriekwok.

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