Louisa Lim, Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong, Text Publishing Melbourne Australia, 2022. 306 pgs.
Louisa Lim’s 2022 book Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong is an investigation and exploration of Hong Kong identity set against the backdrop of the anti-extradition bill movement of 2019 and the imposition of the National Security Law on 30 June 2020. The book traces Hong Kong history from its pre-colonial days to the present, focusing on an iconic figure, Tsang Tsou-choi, who earned the title “King of Kowloon” for his relentless effort to reclaim the territory of Kowloon for his ancestors by leaving his calligraphy on public buildings and structures over the course of 50 years. Lim’s excavation of Tsang’s past awakens the collective memory of Hong Kong and reveals the ever-evolving Hong Kong identity amid the geopolitical conflicts of the last century. She demonstrates that the core of Hong Kong identity is an unwavering spirit of defiance while facing unassailable powers and the refusal to give in, even when there is no hope of winning. This spirit of defiance is the characteristic of this indelible city, from its past to the present.
Lim is a preserver of memories, especially memories of ordinary people whose deeds are unsung, whose lived experiences are in danger of being erased by state censorship. Her first book The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited (2015) rescued the eyewitness accounts of the 1989 massacre, not only in Beijing, but also Chengdu (Deng Xiaoping’s home city) from state-imposed amnesia and it gave voice to those who were forever silenced by the crushing weight of communist tanks. Writing at the pivotal moment of Hong Kong history, as an eyewitness to the 2019 protests, Lim discovers that history is repeating itself.
I watched a Hong Kong cop casually breaking the arm of a protestor who was lying face down on the ground. Then a scene of mass arrest, with rows of young people kneeling on the pavement, their hands behind their backs. […] I suddenly realized that all these were scenes I’d already written, as I set down on paper eyewitnesses’ description of what they’d seen in Chengdu.—p. 256
Similar scenes were also played in Lhasa in 1959 and in Ürümqi in 2009. Over the past seven decades, the People’s Republic of China has imposed a uniform national identity while obliterating other ways of life and other identities. Lim’s book does not dwell on the brutality of police violence, which is already widely recorded in media reports and documentary films. Rather, the book tackles another force, even more sinister—the force of erasure. The book explores Hong Kong’s hidden past and elevates the voices of the dispossessed. It forges a Hong Kong identity that is beyond birth, blood, and soil.
In chapter two, “Ancestors”, Lim traces Hong Kong’s past and imagines its future in the form of ever-changing maps. She points out that the seafaring Ming Dynasty explorer Zheng He did not mark out Hong Kong on his map of his voyage in 1425. The earliest marking of Hong Kong appeared in the late sixteenth century on a map made by a Ming Dynasty official named Kwok Fei (郭棐 1529–1605). In the following centuries, Hong Kong drifted in and out of maps, existing as a territory far from the reaches of empires, largely unknown to ruling monarchs, be they Chinese, British or otherwise. Under British rule, the concept of Hong Kong expanded from a single island in 1842 to the territory encompassing Hong Kong, Kowloon, the New Territories and 263 outer islands in 1898. Later in the same chapter, she marvels at the rapid transformation of Macau in the past decade, where a forest of casinos rose on reclaimed land that completely changed the cityscape, economic structure, culture and lifestyle of the former Portuguese colony. She writes of the governments’ grand plan of making Hong Kong, Macau and a string of cities in neighbouring Guangdong province into the Greater Bay Area, dissolving Hong Kong’s borders by making it “a way station on China’s Maritime Silk Road” (p. 59). She concludes by stating that “[l]ike the Hong Kong of the maps, the very concept of Hong Kong seemed phantasmagorical, like a shimmering chimera that was constantly changing shape depending on the angle of viewing” (p. 60). Clearly, what is indelible about this city is not its borders or its cityscape. Lim’s indelible Hong Kong is a concept not rooted in soil, but one which rests in the minds of its people.
Lim’s investigation of Hong Kong’s past shows that prosperous communities existed on the islands of Lamma, Lantau and Ma Wan as early as the Neolithic period. The archaeological findings suggest that some of the earliest inhabitants of Hong Kong were a seafaring people, different to the denizens of the land-based agrarian society in inland Guangdong (p. 52). For these boat-dwellers, the coast was not the periphery, but the centre of their world. To resist the colonial narrative that Hong Kong was a barren rock before the British Empire brought trade and commerce to it, Hong Kong artists have created their own creation myth, the legend of the Lo Ting. The Lo Ting people are believed to be the followers of Lu Xun, a Guangdong general who rebelled against the Western Jin Dynasty in 411 CE and settled in Lantau Island after their rebellion was brutally crushed. According to folklore, “[t]hey ate so much raw fish that they turned into a species of fish-headed men” (p.41).
In 2018, the Hong Kong playwright Wong Kwok-kui staged the Lo Ting rebellion by showing fish-headed mermen wielding umbrellas being gunned down by their oppressors. “[N]aive, gullible and trusting”, the Lo Ting was “taught to speak by his rulers and then used by them for their own purposes”. In Wong’s play, the Lo Ting, tired of human politics, amputates his arms and legs to live as a fish again, only to be forced back into human form when Victoria Harbour dries up (p. 64). Lim observes, the Lo Ting is Hongkongers’ self-invented icon, they are “antiheroes in the form of discriminated-against outsiders and bullied misfits, people who resisted and continued to do so despite the overwhelming forces rallied against them” (p. 64).
The theme of resistance is reinforced in chapter three, “Kowloon”, when Lim recounts early colonial history of Hong Kong. Lim learned much of this local history not from schools or history books, but from the notes of her mother, Patricia Lim, a historian obsessed with Hong Kong’s local heritage. She spent a decade recording stories told by local gravestones. These stories highlighted the conflicts between the colonisers and their defiant subjects, including that of Charles Markwick, an auctioneer who was strangled by a servant; and Henry Lovett, a sea captain who was disembowelled by his mutinous crew (p. 83).
Lim writes of the Six-Day War, a war raised by the powerful Tang clan who felt their identities threatened when the British took over the New Territories and dispossessed them of their lands. The war was triggered when the British built a police station behind the Tang’s ancestral halls at Ping Shan in April 1899. The conflict cost the lives of 500 villagers, including half of the ringleaders, but there were no British casualties. As retribution, the colonial governor Henry Arthur Blake removed the gates of Kam Tin Walled Village and used them to decorate the gardens of his home, Myrtle Grove, in Ireland. Lim juxtaposes the Six-Day War with the anti-extradition bill protests of 2019 by highlighting their similarities—an outside power threatening the core of local way of life, local identity. The rallying song of the New Territories villagers claimed, “[t]his nation [Britain] cares nothing for our culture” (p. 89). A photograph of the time featured two young men clad in dark cotton clothes with white characters 壯勇, strong and brave, painted on their chests. Lim remarked on the wariness in their eyes; she saw the same wariness in the eyes of the 2019 frontliners. These young men, a century apart, were putting up a fight against a power they had no chance of defeating, “like a valiant mantis trying to stop a cart with its front paws” (p.92).
The quest for an identity, both personal and societal, is the central focus of this book. Lim is one of three children of a Singaporean Chinese father and a British mother. The family moved to Hong Kong when she was five years old. Although she spent her childhood and much of her adult life in Hong Kong, her Eurasian origin and her limited Cantonese set her apart from native Hongkongers. In the prologue, she takes the perspective of a journalist residing in Hong Kong, struggling but failing to preserve her neutrality. In chapter three, she recounts her childhood memory of visiting a local tea shop with her British mother. The elderly Chinese women threw wet tealeaves at her to signal their disapproval. She confesses that the education she received at the English Schools Foundation did not teach local history or cultivate a sense of belonging, but rather made her long to be a blonde-haired blue-eyed Louisa de Fonblanque. In 1997, she worked so intently as a journalist witnessing and recording the Handover that she didn’t have the mental space to process what it meant for her emotionally. She wrote memorably of the anticlimactic day after the Handover, when newsrooms were emptied of white journalists. She was assigned a cameraman for the first time and was dispatched to the Convention Centre. She recalls her astonishment at discovering Hong Kong’s general unpreparedness for the new era. “It was as if our minds—and our news agendas—had been colonised into believing that the departure of the British would be the end of our story” (p.142).
This was the same year the self-proclaimed King-of-Kowloon, Tsang Tsou-choi, gained international recognition. Starting in the 1950’s, Tsang painted on public properties his accusations of the British stealing his land. His acts continued after the Handover. He painted on government buildings, claiming sovereignty over the territory. His persistence in his belief, and his unfailing insistence on his quixotic mission despite his words being constantly erased made him a voice for Hong Kong. “He broke all the rules, repudiating traditional Chinese behaviour. This too, was a facet of Hong Kongness: Hong Kong was an in-between space, a site of transgression, a refuge where behaviour not acceptable in mainland China was permitted and even celebrated” (p.7-8). His misshapen calligraphy became a visual icon of Hong Kong, exhibited in international art shows, featured in films and fashion designs. He became a true uncrowned King whose death in 2007 was mourned by the entire city. The paradox of Tsang Tsou-choi, the toothless disabled trash collector whose sheer belief and decades of public proclamation of his sovereignty made him a King, whose works were erased and therefore rarefied and immortalised because of the erasure, is a perfect symbol for Lim’s indelible city.
In the final chapters of the book, a Hong Kong identity is forged and erased like Tsang Tsou-choi’s calligraphy. Lim recalls the 2014 Umbrella Movement, naming the youths who continued their studies in the tents on the streets of Admiralty “the first generation”. “By day they went to university or worked at their office jobs, and by night slept in tents on the flyover” (p.183). The youths who occupied the tents of what became known as Tung Village formed a protest community. They wanted their voices to be heard, even though they knew full well that their rulers did not depend on their votes. This non-revolution was polite and reasonable, marked by hope and idealism. Yet the occupier’s faith in their institutions was misplaced. The legal system thought to be a protection of freedom of expression against unchecked power turned into a tool of oppression. The leaders of Occupy Central were arrested and jailed. A more volatile explosion of the confrontation between the discontent and the dispossessors loomed ahead.
In 2019, when Lim joined the march on June 9, she was asked by an elderly man why foreigners were marching with the locals. She told him that Hong Kong is her home, and she was welcomed and thanked. Lim titled this chapter “Country”, because a broader, more inclusive Hong Kong identity emerged that day—Hong Kong people are those “who elevated principle over pragmatism, hope over experience” (p. 211). This is an identity not bound by birth, blood or soil, but by a shared faith in human dignity, in resistance to authoritarian oppression. In the epilogue of her book, Lim knows she is a Hongkonger residing in Melbourne, and although she has listed her physical home in Hong Kong for sale, she believes she has the moral responsibility to help forge a Hong Kong into existence through perseverance and public proclamation. This is a book of loss and dispossession, but also one of hope and belief in the power of words and the immortality of ideas. Like the King’s indelible calligraphy, Hong Kong identity, erased at the moment of its emergence, continues to exist and inspire despite its invisibility.
How to cite: Zhang, Emma. “Beyond Birth, Blood, and Soil: Reading Louisa Lim’s Indelible City.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 02 Sept. 2022, chajournal.blog/2022/09/02/indelible-city
Emma Zhang teaches in the Language Centre at Hong Kong Baptist University. Her research interests include comparative literature and comparative mythology. Her doctoral dissertation Domination, Alienation and Freedom in Ha Jin’s Novels (2015) analyses Ha Jin’s novels in connection with contemporary Chinese society. Her other works include “Father’s Journey into Night” (2013), “No End in Sight—the myth of Nezha and the ultra-stable authoritarian political order in China” (2018), and “The Taming of the White Snake—The oppression of female sexuality in the Legend of the White Snake”. She is currently working on translating ancient Chinese legends Nezha and The Legend of the White Snake.