Memory and Hong Kong

The reality of Hong Kong has always been subsidiary to its unreality.

That hilly, rugged terrain, murderously hot most of the year, was infested with things that bite. Over land slithered cobras, banded kraits, and pit vipers, while sea snakes and blue-ringed octopi swam with the tides. Skin divers of the Han dynasty, who scoured the bay for pearls and coral, came and went. They left the islands to stragglers and those landless refugees who could stand that jungle heat, who could hunker down under battering typhoons.

Early Hong Kong was left alone. It was a place for poets to float on sampans and read the dragons written in the clouds. It was an unreal place beyond the gaze of the great Empire whose strategic interests lay on the mainland to the North.

After being ignored for a thousand years how ignominious it must have been for the remnants of the Song Dynasty royal family to find themselves in such a place. Seeking shelter on those last jungle-covered rocks before the sea!

On stolen ships, the Song heirs escaped from Quanzhou to Canton. But the Mongol armies and navies pursued. In the year 1278, on Lantau Island, the seven year old heir to Song throne was declared Emperor. Within months, the remaining Song forces were driven to a last stand. In 1279, at the naval battle of Yamen, the Song fleet of a thousand ships was destroyed. In that fury of arrows and firebombs the Song Prime Minister saw that the end was nigh. He grabbed the boy emperor and leaped with him into the water, drowning them both. Thus, a mighty dynasty was reduced to a vast red tide of corpses floating out to sea.

The Song royalty experience was not a clarion call for new immigrants to flock into Lantau, Hong Kong and the peninsula. More than three centuries passed before circumnavigation of the globe at last, like mold growing over an orange rind, brought the foreigners. Unsurprisingly, the first to show up was a Portuguese sailor, who set up a trading post. It’s true that the fortifications he set up on Lantau Island were soon routed by Ming Imperial troops, but the Portuguese kept coming, as did the Dutch, and the British.

In order to preserve the purity of Chinese culture against the insidious influence of such foreign devils, the entire coastal area around the delta was relegated to become an official no-man’s land. Chinese subjects were discouraged from going there entirely.
The Qing Dynasty literally banned inhabitants and forcibly cleared the coastal area during the early years of the 17th Century. Subsequently, Hong Kong was reduced to a barely inhabited wasteland.

In this liminal space where the encroaching realm of modernity was lapping up towards the rocks of traditional China, the unreality of Hong Kong was born. The colonial powers that pressed their snouts into the official company troughs on Shamian Island could anchor and conduct themselves with relative impunity around Hong Kong.

That perfect deep water harbor was a trans-shipment point for various goods, including hundreds of tons of opium that were smuggled in every year by the British, to offset the cost of their own addiction to Chinese tea. A crossroads of addiction, the purpose of Hong Kong has always been to create an extra-territorial, extra-judicial, extra-cultural zone of pure speculation and pure fantasy.

Combine an unregulated physical space with unlimited human greed and you will end up with a powerful field of distortion where unreality flourishes. It rises up like a pipe dream, that fabled delirium induced by opium. The green tendrils of unreality flow over the contours of the real, unfurling new identities that are not limited by the concepts that currently prevail.

Into this ethereal space people began to flow. They built stone towers while dangling off shaky lattice works made of bamboo rods. They serviced mighty frigates from their tiny sampans, where they bobbed up and down like corks next to the hulls big enough to blot out the sky. Caught in between the gears of historical change, people arrived in wave after wave.

The a-historical and unreal space of Hong Kong absorbed all who came. It didn’t seem to matter if people were fleeing from empire, from civil war, from persecution. Hong Kong had a systematic method of bringing in the newcomers and carved out new spaces from the jungle, from the sea, and from the sky. Why stop there? Hong Kong can carve out space for itself from the gathering clouds of dangerous dreams!

If you could land a DC-10 at the air strip in Kai Tak, you could start an airline. If you could stack up enough money on the table, you could start a bank. If you could hold a camera long enough to film an opera, you could start a movietown. Hong Kong was (strangely) both the progenitor of and the direct descendent of the fever dream that exploded out of Republican Shanghai.

Those two cities (along with others such as Taipei, Singapore, and Rangoon) shared the experience of being invaded and occupied by the Imperial forces of Japan. At the end of the war, when Shanghai became closed to all the so-called concessions that had been imposed on it by foreign powers, Hong Kong remained open.

Well, partly open. Hong Kong was ruled by only one of those powers, under the terms of a dirty real estate deal that lasted for 99 years. But it was still open to the febrile distortions of unreality. You could still operate as pirates, as financiers, as mad scientists, and all you needed to get started was a business card and a shared bathroom flat on Johnston Road in Wanchai.

Hong Kong is the perennial city of fantasies. Impossible pressures inflate them all until they explode into smithereens. Go to Hong Kong, then, and feel all those distortions when you move around. Of course, you will never stumble across a venomous cobra slithering across the polished floors of Central.

But is it the cobra or the shopping plaza that is imaginary?

When the photographer Ho Fan turned his twin-lens Rolleiflex on the streets around him, was he able to see through the dream? As if stripping our delusions away, did Ho Fan show us how it feels to be inside the fragile mountain of humanity around which has been built the shell of a monster?

The burgeoning tide of a city that had already run away with itself was the Hong Kong that I landed in. Jumping onto the unofficial boat from Kennedy Town over to Pak Kok on Lamma Island, I was living in my own constructed dream of Hong Kong. I convinced myself that the damp cement floor of the Lamma Island bungalow, with it’s solitary ceiling fan, was somehow more real than the customary plastic roomlet overlooking Sogo in Causeway Bay. In my delirium, the snakes, the stinking hides being taken to the tannery, the anopheles mosquitoes, and the tropical parasites were more tangible than the neon ass cheeks shaking over Tsim Tsat Tsui. As far as I could tell, the golden Jaguars clogging Des Vouex Road in Central were exactly the same ones parked near the fly-ridden food alley of Jordan Road. In my deluded mind, I could inhabit both the original steaming jungle and the air-conditioned bubble. But that was illusory. I can no more inhabit Hong Kong, than I can fly into outer space on a dragon.

The sense of permanent dislocation and distortion that the Hong Kong people must navigate every day of their lives is the key, perhaps, to figuring out the role of individuals when the state has finally become a closed panopticon. By embracing the insignificance of our reality we might break through to the unreality. What if it turns out that the protesters in Hong Kong were our leaders in this action? What if the only thing left to do as the heel of autocracy descends on your neck, is to scream?