Mother-tongue Squeezed Out of the Chinese Classroom in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong

Several years ago, when I found out my daughter might not get into the primary school affiliated to her kindergarten, I panicked. I had only applied to one school and now, I had to look for alternatives.

I was not looking for a famous or prestigious school. Instead, I wanted to find a school that did not have a high-pressure test culture, one that instead stressed a more relaxed and joyful approach to learning. I was also looking for a school that used Chinese as a medium of instruction and taught Chinese in Cantonese.

This proved to be much harder than I imagined in a city where Cantonese is the main language spoken by around 90 per cent of the majority ethnic Chinese population.

According to a comprehensive survey of 512 primary schools and 454 secondary schools conducted in 2013, the Cantonese advocacy group Societas Linguistica Hongkongensis found that 71 per cent of primary schools and 25 percent of secondary schools were using Putonghua as the medium of instruction for Chinese language (PMI).  This meant anything between one and all Chinese classes in those schools are taught in Putonghua.

Today, whenever officials are asked about the government’s position on PMI for Chinese, they repeat the line that this is a “long-term goal”. In 2008 the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research (SCOLAR), a group set up to advise the government on language education, announced plans to allocate $200 million to help schools switch to PMI.

However, there is no timetable for full implementation of this long-term goal. This should make us  wonder, where did the goal come from and what are the reasons for adopting it? To try and answer these questions, I had to dig through some history.

The mysterious origins of the “long-term goal”

In 1982, the colonial government invited an international panel to conduct a review of Hong Kong’s education system.  The panel recommended that Cantonese be the medium of instruction for the first nine years of schooling, so that teaching and learning would be conducted in “the language of the heart”. The recommendation was supported by the volumes of evidence that show mother-tongue teaching to be more effective.

Where it did refer to Putonghua, the panel recommended it be taught as a publicly-funded but extra-curricular subject at primary level and built into the timetable as a separate subject at secondary level.

In 1996, a report by the Education Commission said Puthonghua should be part of the core curriculum at primary and secondary levels and offered as an independent subject for the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Exams in 2000.

It also called on SCOLAR to,

“study further the relationship between Putonghua and the Chinese Language subject in the school syllabus to ascertain whether it would be more appropriate for Putonghua to be taught as a separate subject or as part of the Chinese Language curriculum in both short term and the long term.”

Note that at this stage there is no mention that Putonghua be a medium for teaching Chinese language (PMI), let alone the sole medium.

A year after the handover, in 1998, a study was commissioned to examine the effectiveness of teaching Chinese in Putonghua, to be completed by 2001. But before the studies were even finished, the first mention of the “long-term goal” appeared.

In its October 1999 review of proposed education reforms, the Curriculum Development Council said it was a goal in “the long term to adopt Putonghua as medium of instruction in the Chinese language education.”

A SCOLAR document from 2003 goes on to

“…fully endorse the Curriculum Development Council’s long-term vision to use Putonghua to teach Chinese Language.”

Yet the same document states

“…there is as yet no conclusive evidence to support the argument that students’ general Chinese competence will be better if they learn Chinese Language in Putonghua.”

In fact, of three studies referred to in the report, two studies found students’ performed no better or worse when taught in Putonghua.

According to Sy Onna, a secondary school Chinese language teacher who has studied the topic extensively, the government has never given a satisfactory explanation of why PMI for Chinese was adopted as a long-term goal. Academic research shows mixed results for the effectiveness of PMI, and has found no overall improvement in Chinese language competence.

For Cantonese language advocates like Societas Linguistica Hongkongensis, the reasons for promoting this long-term goal are clearly political – to dilute Hongkongers’ attachment to their native language on the one hand and to promote greater cultural integration with the Mainland on the other.

However, publicly at least, most proponents of PMI are likelier to cite its economic advantages and, to an even greater extent, its educational advantages.

“My hand writes my mouth”

When I ask Professor Lam Kin-ping what the most compelling reasons are for PMI, he answers with the well-rehearsed assurance of someone who has answered the question many times before. Lam is Director of the Centre for Research and Development of Putonghua Education at the Faculty of Education at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, one of the organisations commissioned to carry out studies on the effectiveness of PMI in 1998.

He says he holds a fundamental “belief” that students learn better in PMI Chinese classes because they are listening, speaking, reading and writing in the same language code. Lam argues that in classrooms where Chinese teaching is conducted in Cantonese, students need to “switch codes”.

“The listening and speaking training is in Cantonese. Cantonese is at the end of the day a dialect, we can’t just write a dialect, so we have to adjust it internally, have to make it standard, switch some phrases and even sentences,” he says.

Lam thinks it makes sense to teach in Putonghua because it is very similar to written modern standard Chinese. Whereas Cantonese is a vernacular, a dialect that cannot easily be written or accepted in formal written contexts, says Lam.

For some people, this chimes with the idea of “my hand writes my [what my] mouth [utters]” – a slogan promoting the modernization of written Chinese, harking back to the May Fourth movement of 1919 when classical Chinese was still the written standard. This core idea has been used to justify the need for PMI by scholars, education professionals and schools who support it, and is accepted without question by many parents.

But this does not make it a universally accepted truth.

Professor Tse Shek-kam, Director of the Centre for Advancement of Chinese Language Education and Research at the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Education, rejects the idea that students learn better in PMI classrooms because they do not have to “code-switch”. Nor does he accept that the Cantonese used in Chinese lessons is so far removed from modern standard written Chinese as to necessitate mental gymnastics.

Tse points out text-books are written in standard Chinese, which can be read aloud in Cantonese. Besides, he says, Chinese teachers do not speak in slangy street Cantonese.

“Our Chinese teachers speak very good Cantonese, very good Chinese,” he says. If anything, formal Cantonese has preserved many aspects of what would be considered literary and “proper” Chinese, he adds.

The proximity between spoken Chinese and written Chinese, “depends on the person’s education level, their reading experience and cultural cultivation.”

Tse says that if speaking good Putonghua really put students at an advantage in writing good Chinese, then students from Northeast China  and Beijing, where the “purest” Putonghua is  spoken would score highest in Chinese in public examinations. Yet, he says students from Shandong and Jiangsu/Zhejiang score higher.

“Both Jiangsu and Zhejiang are areas where distinct dialects are spoken, but they also have a strong tradition for literature and well-established publishing sectors,” Tse says.

For him, the advantages of teaching Chinese in Cantonese outweigh the advantages of teaching it in what is essentially a foreign spoken language to most Hong Kong students. Teachers and students are more comfortable communicating in their mother-tongue, making for livelier and more critical discussions that facilitate deeper learning.

Conflicting evidence

In an interview with Ming Pao in April, one of the scholars tasked by the government to conduct longitudinal studies on the effectiveness of PMI, Professor Tang Shing-fung of the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said he had reservations about a wholesale switch to PMI, as evidence does not currently show PMI is a better way to teach Chinese language.

But PMI supporter Lam Kin-ping says his own observations in the classroom and reports from frontline teachers show students in PMI classes do perform better.

“We have seen improvements, for instance students can write longer articles, they consciously refrain from writing Cantonese terms  and phrases, it is very easy for them to adjust [to written Chinese],” says Lam.

Lam acknowledges it is difficult to find quantitative proof of the above from research data, but he says his experiences and those of teachers convince him that it is real.

Sy Onna, who teaches separate Chinese Language and Putonghua classes at a local secondary school and is a member of the Progressive Teachers Alliance, dismisses Lam’s observations. She says being able to write longer articles with fewer Cantonese colloquialisms are not necessarily a sign of better writing.

“These are only superficial improvements,” Sy says. “As Tang Shing-fung points out, argument setting, structure and composition are just as if not more important, and these have nothing to do with Putonghua.”

This may be one reason secondary schools that teach Chinese in Putonghua often switch back to Cantonese in senior classes, as students prepare for approaching public examinations (as shown in Societas Linguistica Hongkongensis’ survey).

In a study published in 2011 of a school that switched to PMI in 2000, CUHK professor Angela Choi Fung Tam found  school administrators were keen to push for PMI because they believed it would enhance the school’s reputation and help it to attract more academically able students.

This would support the view of both PMI advocate Lam Kin-ping and critic Tse Shek-kam that it is perhaps schools and parents, rather than the government who are taking the lead in pushing for the rapid switch to PMI.

But Tam’s study also found teachers were far more ambivalent – while they believed PMI would improve students’ Putonghua, they did not think it would raise their overall Chinese competence. Some senior teachers who experienced the switch said they had noticed a general decline in students’ language proficiency and school reports showed a drop in pass rates in public exams in Chinese language from 100 before PMI was introduced to around 90 afterwards.

 “I think the government knows it doesn’t work, there is no evidence it works. To this day they haven’t set a timetable,” says Tse.

Making informed choices

I began this article outlining the predicament I found myself in while searching for a suitable primary school for my daughter. Eventually, she was accepted by the primary school affiliated to her kindergarten and we enrolled her in the sole class that teaches Chinese in Cantonese in her year. The other four classes all use PMI for Chinese.

Most of my daughter’s classmates’ parents told me they consciously chose Cantonese because they thought it would be better for their children to learn in the language spoken at home. A few of them said Cantonese was an important part of Hong Kong culture and identity.

However one parent said she was advised to place her child in the Cantonese class by education professionals, and another said it was because the PMI classes were already full. Both said they would switch to a PMI class if they could.

As I was also curious about whether my daughter’s former kindergarten classmates had ended up learning Chinese in Cantonese or Putonghua, I contacted some of their parents too. Of the eleven who replied, six had children who were in PMI classes. In most of these cases, parents said they had chosen a PMI school or class because they wanted their child to speak “native” level Putonghua.  They also believed it would help their child to write better Chinese and be good for their future careers.

Three parents said they had yet to notice any changes in their children’s Chinese abilities and two said it had a positive impact. But two parents reported a negative impact. One, who I’ll call T, said her son would sometimes mix up the characters 的, 地 and 得, which are pronounced differently in Cantonese, but the same in Putonghua.

T told me, “I wish I had known then, what I know now, that writing good Chinese does not depend on Putonghua but on a person’s cultural and educational level and on how much they read.”

In terms of reading, it seems Hong Kong primary students are doing extremely well. In a study of reading literacy in primary school children in 49 countries and regions carried out in 2011, they ranked first – ahead of Taiwan which was seventh. So coming from a predominantly Cantonese speaking city does not seem to have affected Hong Kong school children’s reading abilities, a foundation for developing good writing skills.

The issue of PMI for Chinese has undoubtedly become a highly political and emotional one. But politics and emotions aside, the question we keep going back to is whether PMI is a better educational choice, and do we even have the information we need to make that judgment?

Any advantage gained through applying the principle of “my hand writes my mouth” needs to be balanced with the widely accepted principle that students learn better when taught in their mother tongue.

Through reviewing the evidence and speaking to experts, what I have learned is that PMI may improve students’ fluency in “native” Putonghua, but this can also be achieved through teaching Putonghua as a separate subject.  Students may use fewer Cantonese words, phrases and grammar in their writing, but PMI cannot be said to have raised their overall competence in Chinese.

For parents like me, the choices themselves appear to be shrinking. While not all the schools teaching Chinese in Putonghua do so exclusively, many of the parents I spoke to agree with me that increasingly, the classes that teach in Cantonese are being seen as somehow “inferior”.  Academically stronger kids will gravitate towards or be placed in PMI schools or PMI streams. Parents who worry their children may be labeled as less able may avoid putting them in the Cantonese Chinese class.

The government has offered incentives in the form of cash and personnel to help schools switch successfully to PMI. But school governing bodies and administrators, parents and an industry of extra-curricular literature and classes profiting from a transition to PMI are providing the momentum to push a long-term educational goal that lacks clear evidence, seemed to appear out of nowhere, and carries huge political implications.

July 2015

Parents Concern Group on National Education

This summer marks the 3rd anniversary of the anti-National Education movement. A number of organisations, including Scholarism, Progressive Teachers Alliance, Umbrella Parents and the Parents’ Concern Group on National Education will announce a joint statement on Saturday 25th July.

There will also be a series of three seminars on PMI, the Chinese History curriculum and extra-curricular activities respectively. The first seminar on PMI will be held on August 8th at 2.30 pm in Room 103 of the Duke of Windsor Social Service Building.


Protecting children in the news

As a journalist, a parent and a teacher, I was concerned and troubled by the handling of coverage of a protest at a Wong Tai Sin primary school this morning (23 May 2015) at which a pupil was photographed and recorded while crying and upset.

As a journalist and a journalism teacher, I firmly believe it is the duty of journalists and news organisations to seek truth and report it without fear or favour, I am also keenly aware of the need to minimize harm, especially when a story involves minors and other vulnerable people.

In this case, protesters demonstrated outside the primary school which had arranged an aptitude test for a 12 year-old mainland-born boy who has been given temporary papers to reside in Hong Kong. The boy claims to have been living illegally in Hong Kong for nine years.

Posters with slogans such as “Selling-out Hong Kong” and “My classmate is an illegal immigrant” on stuck to the exterior of the school. After the protesters left, some pupils tried to rip these slogans off. One girl, upset that her school had been targeted, faced the cameras of assembled news media in tears.

Photos and video of her have since been posted on numerous news websites and broadcast on television, with no attempt made to hide or disguise her appearance. She has now become a target of suspicion, vitriol, condemnation and even abuse online.

In Hong Kong’s current highly-charged political atmosphere, this is unsurprising, therefore, we urge the news media to be more aware of the potential harm such media exposure can have on young children. Primary students cannot be expected to be fully aware of the possible consequences of expressing their views in the media.

Journalists and editors should take this into consideration in covering this story and others involving children. It should be noted that the UNICEF guidelines on reporting on children states:

In interviewing and reporting on children, special attention is needed to ensure each child’s right to privacy and confidentiality, to have their opinions heard, to participate in decisions affecting them and to be protected from harm and retribution, including the potential of harm and retribution.

These principles should be a foundation for ethical reporting on children.

From the archive – Why Hongkongers are rooting for HKTV

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here and as a High Court judge ruled in favour of HKTV in its judicial review of the government’s decision to deny the company a free-to-air TV licence back in 2013, it seems timely to re-post something I wrote before this blog was up and running.

It might be a useful read for those coming to the story new and who might not be aware of why this development and this story mean so much to local people in Hong Kong.

The article was originally published on my Huffington Post blog on October 24 2013. Of course a lot has happened since then which are not covered in the article, including HKTV’s decision to broadcast via mobile TV and the government’s decision not to extend the licence for ailing terrestrial broadcaster ATV.

I Want to Watch TV! How the Hong Kong Government Killed Local Television and the Hong Kong Dream

A protester mocks government’s decision to reject HKTV licence bid in 2013

Even in a city where big street protests are regular events, last Sunday’s impromptu rally was extraordinary. Tens of thousands of people, many of them first-time protesters, were mobilized in just a few days, most of them by a Facebook page that attracted close to half a million followers in a city of only seven million.

They weren’t marching for the right to elect their own leader, to remove the latest scandal-hit official, or against human rights abuses in China. They were marching to demand the right to watch more and better TV drama, and for free.

For decades, the city that exported its TV culture to the world had to make do with two free terrestrial TV stations. Then, when the government decided to reform the television market, it announced it would move towards lifting the limit on the number of domestic free TV licenses. Studies were conducted, bids were invited.

After three years of deliberations and delays, the government suddenly announced last week it would approve new licenses for two of the three contenders. The winners were companies owned by two existing pay-TV operators, i-Cable and PCCW respectively, both of which are run by scions of Hong Kong business dynasties.

There was no room at table for the most attention-grabbing and ambitious bid, from Hong Kong Television (HKTV). The brainchild of self-made telecoms entrepreneur Ricky Wong Wai-kay, HKTV was also the only company intent on producing original drama. Not only that, it promised to produce Hong Kong dramas made in the style of the best American offerings.

The outrage at the rejection of HKTV’s license bid was almost visceral, united people across different sectors and generations of society and quickly became a major political issue.

This outpouring of public anger has to be understood against some background: First, the central place of television, and in particular TV drama in Hong Kong popular culture; and second, growing public discontent with Hong Kong’s most unpopular government and leader since the territory’s 1997 handover to China.

The Rise and Fall of Hong Kong Television

Television did not arrive in Hong Kong until 1967, and local TV drama began to take off in the 1970s. The locally born children of migrants who had fled war and revolution in mainland China came of age and the idea of a Hong Kong identity started to form. Television both reflected that emerging identity and shaped it.

At the time, China was a closed book to much of the world and Britain was a distant colonial master. My colleague Professor Eric Ma Kit-wai, a leading expert on Hong Kong television, points out that without a national identity and no binding high culture, television was the shared experience that brought Hong Kongers together.

Season finales of popular TV series were watched by up to 80 percent of the viewing public. Wedding banquets had to be planned to avoid them.

If the 1970s were the beginning, then the 1980s and 1990s were the golden age of Hong Kong TV. Some of the biggest Hong Kong movie stars cut their teeth in the television series of the era, Chow Yun-fat, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk to name just a few.

For two decades, Hong Kong TV drama was not just influential in Hong Kong — it more or less defined Chinese popular culture throughout the world, particularly among Chinese diaspora communities and in South East Asia.

Ma traces its decline to the falling fortunes of Asia Television (ATV), the smaller of the two terrestrial stations. Although ATV had always trailed its rival Television Broadcasts (TVB) in resources and ratings, it had presented a real challenge to TVB by being more willing to take risks and try new formats (disclosure: I worked in ATV’s news department between 1993 and 1998).

However, after a series of changes in ownership, the station all but ceased original drama production, adopted a doggedly pro-Beijing stance, and watched its credibility and ratings slide.

Once this happened, TVB strengthened its market dominance. “The lack of competition fostered complacency,” says Ma.

Critics and viewers now complain of unconvincing, recycled plots, fake-looking sets and hackneyed dialogue. But there is simply nowhere else to turn for local drama.

Both Actors and production staff have suffered, with low wages and restrictive contracts that bar them from taking on work outside TVB for extended periods even if they are on short-term contracts.

Into this picture walks Ricky Wong Wing-kay, a plucky 51-year-old who made his name as Hong Kong’s Telecoms boy wonder back in the 1990s.

After studying Electronic Engineering at university, Wong worked in sales and marketing for IBM in Hong Kong before migrating to Canada. There he saw how Canadians enjoyed cheap international telephone calls through using “callback” services.

Wong and his cousin set up City Telecom, secured government approval to bring callback to Hong Kong, slashed IDD prices and brought an early end to the monopoly on IDD services in Hong Kong.

Wong’s next move was even bolder. Despite market misgivings, he invested billions of Hong Kong dollars to build a huge fibre-optic network and launched fast speed broadband services for residential use. The company he founded, Hong Kong Broadband, is now the second biggest internet service provider in Hong Kong.

But even this does not match Wong’s decision to sell his telecoms business and invest the money in pursuing his TV Dream. Over three years, Wong spent HKD 900 million (USD 116 million), hired hundreds of actors, scriptwriters, production and technical staff and produced hundreds of hours of original programming.

Emulating American TV

One of Wong’s obsessions in raising the bar for local TV is to emulate the best of American television, as exemplified by the quality series produced by the likes of HBO and Showtime.

Earlier this year, he launched an American TV “bootcamp” for staff and made them study, break down, analyze and replicate scenes from shows such as House of Cards, Glee, Nikita and The Killing with local actors and using translated Cantonese dialogue.

For Cap Fung, a 28-year-old former journalist and novice scriptwriter, the workshops were a revelation. Wong gathered his creative staff, who were used to burning the midnight oil, and made them sit and watch American TV shows at 9 a.m.

“I was struggling to stay awake and hadn’t had time to eat any breakfast,” recalls Fung, “so I was watching and munching away on a frankfurter bread roll.”

The first screening of the day was a bloody fight scene from the Roman slave rebellion series Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

“Suddenly, a character had his leg hacked off. I looked from the screen to my sausage and just felt sick.”

Fung says Wong immersed himself in the workshops, analyzing the number of scenes and shots, the dialogue, the development of parallel plot lines and even the lighting, along with the staff.

I wondered if the professionals might bristle at this, view it as unnecessary meddling.
Fung answers that most colleagues didn’t see it that way and that Wong was willing to listen to and accept the opinions of others, even if they contradicted his own.

In fact, it is hard to find a member of HKTV staff who has a bad word to say about him. He seems to have united people at every level of the company, from the artists, to the creative and production staff to the catering staff, around his vision of a Hong Kong television renaissance.

Established TV veterans who made their name at TVB speak movingly of how working on HKTV productions pushed their creative buttons, allowed them to find pride and joy in their work for the first time in decades.

And now this sense, that Hong Kong deserves better TV, and perhaps deserves better in general, has spread into the streets.

It’s Not Just About TV

Many have speculated there are political reasons behind the move, that Beijing views Wong as an unpredictable maverick, that it fears his station would drive the obedient ATV out of business. But Wong himself has taken great pains to dismiss such claims.

He is a member of the Zhejiang province committee of China’s top advisory body, he has said he does not have “the whiff of politics” about him. He has also stressed that the production of news and current affairs would take a back seat to drama and infotainment at HKTV.

As yet, there are no obvious or compelling reasons for the rejection of HKTV’s bid. Despite rules of confidentiality, government officials and members of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s cabinet have been subtly and not-so-subtly distancing themselves from the decision.

Wong has announced he will challenge the decision in the courts. Public opinion is behind him.

For Hong Kongers, the lack of transparency and perceived lack of fairness over the decision is an affront to Hong Kong’s core values. They suspect the Beijing-backed Leung of riding roughshod over Hong Kong’s institutions and established rules.

And in restricting the people’s choice of TV programmes, the government has angered those Hong Kongers who always saw themselves as apolitical. It’s almost as if you can hear people shouting: “You can take away our voting rights, you can take away our press freedoms, but you can’t take away our TV!”

Ricky Wong and the End of the Hong Kong Dream

If anything has benefitted from this whole sorry saga, then it is the personal stock of Ricky Wong.

Many have joked that if there were a free election for the city’s Chief Executive today, Ricky Wong would win it. Here is a successful businessman who wants to entertain Hong Kong and who can move the masses. It is a joke the highly unpopular actual incumbent will not find funny.

If Li Ka-shing is the archetypal Hong Kong tycoon of the 20th century — a refugee from the mainland who built up an empire spanning property, telecoms, infrastructure and retail, then Ricky Wong is a model for the 21st century. The local boy made good, with an eye for opportunity, the guts to follow his instincts, the smarts to pull it off, modern management methods and personal charisma.

His Hong Kong success story is the kind of narrative marketing gurus would die for – a contemporary free-market fairytale with a hero who can walk with kings but not lose the common touch.

His failure is the failure of the mainstream Hong Kong narrative on its own terms. He who dares doesn’t win, hard work doesn’t pay off, the market is not free, the playing-field is not level.

For my colleague Eric Ma, the rejection of HKTV’s bid is tantamount to killing Hong Kong’s creativity, to killing Hong Kong in a cultural sense.

But it is even more than that. For years, Hong Kong’s establishment has peddled a Hong Kong dream based on enterprise and hard slog, with perhaps a lucky break along the way. That dream has now been exposed. The emperor has no clothes.

The government’s actions and the way it has bumbled and blustered through the aftermath is nothing short of the snuffing out of the spirit of enterprise in this bastion of capitalism.

The New Lion Rock Spirit – how a banner on a hillside redefined the Hong Kong Dream

Two days after the largest occupation site of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement was cleared by police and two days before the last one was returned to “normalcy”, a large yellow banner appeared on a mountain in Kowloon called Lion Rock. It bore the by now familiar image of an umbrella, along with the words “CY Step Down”, referring to Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying.

For supporters of the most significant pro-democracy movement in the territory’s history, it provided a brief uplifting moment. Many were reeling from disappointment that the 75 day occupation of the city’s main administrative district in Admiralty had ended without moving any closer to the goal of fair and direct elections for the territory’s leader in 2017.

In what has become a pattern, the banner was quickly removed. The pattern was established after a group of 14 climbers carried a 28 metre long yellow banner and 60 metres of rope to the top of Lion Rock on the morning of October 23, three and a half weeks after the occupation started. _D7K4276 Lion Rock is a 495 metre high mountain range whose shape reminds people of a crouching lion. The climbers unfurled the cloth banner and attached it to lion’s head. On it were five Chinese characters, “ 我要真普選” (I want genuine universal suffrage). Above the slogan was the image of an umbrella and below it, “#Umbrella Movement”. lion rock Reaction was instant and overwhelming. Images of the banner on the hill spread like wildfire on social media. Soon, hikers were making their way to see it for themselves. The climbers, who called themselves Hong Kong Spidie in a video explaining their actions, knew it would create a stir; they knew Lion Rock holds a special place in Hongkongers’ hearts and minds.  But even they were taken aback by scale and intensity of the response.

The government was also aware of the symbolism, and ordered in a helicopter and firefighters to remove it the next day.

Lion Rock’s iconic status derives from Below Lion Rock a television series produced by Hong Kong’s public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong. The show ran for four series in the 1970s and 1990s. Each episode was a stand-alone drama shot in social-realist style that told stories about the grassroots people who lived in the public housing estates and squatter huts in the working-class communities directly below Lion Rock.

The dramas captured the reality of everyday life for ordinary Hongkongers, many of whom were people or the children of people who had sought refuge in the colony from war and persecution in mainland China. The programmes helped to create the sense of a Hong Kong that was based on their experiences and the values embodied in the series.

Most Hongkongers, regardless of whether or not they have seen the programmes, are familiar with the Hong Kong that is portrayed in them – a community of hard-working, self-reliant people,  who help each other out in adversity and whose goal is to build a more stable and prosperous future. In this version of the Hong Kong dream, that goal can be achieved through hard work, and opportunity falls to those who are best prepared to grab it.

My colleague, Professor Eric Ma Kit-wai, who is an expert on Hong Kong identity and popular culture, says the symbolism of the banner on Lion Rock is emotionally charged and works on many levels. “It was using something Hongkongers are very familiar with, an icon, and it subverted it without seeming to subvert it. It both reinforced the legacy and changed it into something relevant to today.”

Last year, Ma conducted research with the materials in the RTHK archive and found the original proposal for the series.  What he discovered was that while the series is now remembered as a touchstone for the formation of a distinct Hong Kong identity, it was originally conceived as a vehicle for promoting colonial government policies.

The stories in the early episodes conveyed messages such as trusting the police force, the Clean Hong Kong campaign, the problems faced by unmarried mothers, and the dangers of illegal abortion and drugs.

By the late 1970s, as a generation emerged that was born and raised in Hong Kong and the city entered its golden age of popular culture, the tone of the series changed. It became more ”cutting edge” in both style and content, addressing social issues and becoming a sort of training ground for future Hong Kong filmmakers. By the 1980’s, the series had helped to both shape and reflect the nascent Hong Kong identity. It had also produced an unofficial Hong Kong anthem in its theme song of the same name.

In 2002, the then Financial Secretary, former banker Anthony Leung Kam-chung wrapped up a maiden budget speech full of gloomy economic forecasts by reciting the lyrics of the song. It was almost like the incantation of a sacred verse and set off a wave of nostalgia. Government and business leaders appealed to the “Lion Rock spirit” to pull Hong Kong out of hard economic times. In so doing, they were appropriating the vision of a Hong Kong built on the honest sweat and tears of grassroots, working-class Hong Kong.

But in the hands of the establishment in 2002, the vision rang hollow, as it does today. Social mobility has stagnated and property prices spiral ever upwards, pushing up the cost of living and the gap between rich and poor continues to grow.

When I meet Andreas, the young man wearing the ill-fitting Spiderman outfit in the Hong Kong Spidie video and who took part in the action, he tells me that as a teenager who supported social movements, he was sick of being told to live up to the Lion Rock spirit.

“They told me young people like myself didn’t work hard enough, only knew how to demand benefits from society,” said Andreas.  “They emphasize hard work, perseverance, sacrifice and mutual help but they don’t acknowledge the systematic and structural problems.”

Andreas says the group consciously set out to reframe the idea of Lion Rock when they hung up the banner. Under the new Lion Rock, Hong Kong would no longer be a place to put down roots and make a living; instead, it would be “a place that is already home, a home that we care about and want to change.”

And the change is not just about economic concerns. Andreas says Hong Kong people have finally realised that our political system has everything to do with our daily life. He connects the lack of a freely and directly elected leader and legislature with the wealth gap and policies that favour the rich.

That is not to say Andreas sees no merit in the old Lion Rock spirit. “We don’t need to throw it all away,” he says. “The values like hard work and mutual help are good but we need to build on them, to add a system that protects the disadvantaged and a level playing-ground that ensures fair rewards for that hard work. What we need is a new kind of justice.”

The other message Hong Kong Spidie wanted to convey is that everyone can participate in the Umbrella Movement by contributing in whatever way they can. Andreas and his associates happened to be hikers and rock-climbers. Others can speak out using other means, and in other locations.

In fact, he says one of the main motivations for hanging the banner on Lion Rock was to spread the message of the Umbrella Movement outside of the occupied areas.  This explains why Andreas was not much bothered when the banner was removed. “We can find Lion Rocks everywhere, each of us can even be a Lion Rock,” he says. schools Indeed, yellow banners have appeared all over the territory, hung up or stuck onto walkways and street railings, in country parks and in schools and other public buildings. And they have appeared around the world – from London to Machu Picchu to the base camp on Mount Everest. london Mostly, they are replicas of the original Lion Rock banner with its simple “I want real universal suffrage” message and plain design, although sometimes there are variations in the wording. They are always taken down soon after they are discovered.

The occupy phase of the Umbrella Movement may be over for now, but the banners are likely to keep appearing. Wherever they turn up, their power derives from the original banner on Lion Rock.

Eric Ma says the Lion Rock ethos has been deconstructed and reconstructed in a way that is both striking and subtle.  “Usually, sub-cultural symbols are very provocative and oppositional. This one is not.”

On the day the last Occupy holdout was cleared, a yellow banner appeared on Tai Ping Shan, also known as Victoria Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island. On it were four characters that can be translated as “don’t forget the original goal”.

The message was a fitting tribute to both the actions of the original Lion Rock climbers and to the Umbrella Movement itself. By going back to the beginning, Hongkongers have rediscovered the power of the Lion Rock legend. By transforming it, they moved it into a new era, gave it new life. In the difficult days ahead, Hong Kong will need to draw on the new Lion Rock spirit.

Words fail me

Why haven’t I written for so long? Well, for one thing it has been a difficult and crazy term. Despite the class boycott and then the occupation of Admiralty, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay, we decided we would stick to our normal Varsity schedule in producing two print editions and one multimedia edition. And we’ve done just that – December issue is online at http://varsity.com.cuhk.edu.hk, our multimedia projects are all completed and will be uploaded soon.

But away from work of all kinds and from Varsity, I found my words just failed me:

days filled with words, so many words
and so much I want to say,
are the days that took my words away.

Hopefully, that state of affairs has changed and I will be posting a new article here shortly.

Watch this space.


The crazy, inspirational, exhausting days of Occupy HK

democracy now

So much has happened since I last posted here. There is so much I want to say and yet I have so little time and energy to say it. I will write again, that much I know. But for now, in between editing Varsity, teaching and much more besides, this is all that would flow:

The days

the days we dare
to hope and deign
to despair

the same days
we hurriedly erase
love’s most sacred corner
lest we lose her

and yet again
brush off fear
as if an errant strand of hair

before the dread
sticks in the throat
rings in the ears
stokes barely hidden fears

the days
that turn into days
we cannot tell apart


Politics divides families, friends in Hong Kong

Generational divide across political lines lead to frayed tempers around the dinner table and arguments in WhatsApp groups

Hong Kong society more divided than ever under “uniter” C.Y.Leung

When Leung Chun-ying campaigned for Hong Kong’s top job against the doyenne of Hong Kong’s established moneyed elite, he stressed his humble beginnings as the son of a colonial policeman and his stated purpose of unifying Hong Kong society under the slogan “united in heart”.

After his rival was tarnished by revelations that there was illegal construction in his family home, Leung won the backing of Beijing, and 689 members of the 1200-strong committee that chose the leader of a city of more than seven million people.

Since then, Leung has become Hong Kong’s most unpopular leader since the territory was handed over to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, and society is increasingly polarized. Leung’s high-handed leadership style, Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in Hong Kong affairs and escalating tensions between Hongkongers and Mainlanders mean the city is now more divided than it has been since violent riots inspired by China’s Cultural Revolution pit “leftist” groups against the British colonial government in 1967.

For every group calling for more democracy, or against government policy on a range of issues from compulsory patriotic education to the development of rural lands, counter groups quickly spring up to support the government. Just recently, an alliance of pro-government groups was set up with the specific aim of opposing the Occupy Central movement, which advocates peaceful civil disobedience as a last resort to gain genuine universal suffrage.

While the provenance of some of these groups is questionable, a clash in values and worldviews within the community is undeniable. Nowhere is this more keenly felt than within individual households.

The generational divide

This was brought home to me recently when I read the Facebook status of a former student. “I honestly think politics shouldn’t be discussed at the dinner table with family,” she wrote. Within minutes she received a multitude of replies. There were messages of support, messages saluting her courage, messages that expressed incredulity that she had only just discovered this truth. But most of all the messages expressed resignation and a sense of recognition.

It seems that many young people have had similar experiences. Television news and current affairs programmes, which are often broadcast around dinnertime, are common triggers. It often starts with a parent or older family member criticizing pro-democratic protesters, politicians or academics for being too “radical” and a young person trying to explain the protestors’ points of view or express understanding for their methods.

The outcome is rarely pretty.

Victor, a 24 year-old secondary school teaching assistant says his father, a 65 year-old bus driver gets defensive. “He’ll say ‘you guys haven’t experienced the hardship of the (British) colonial days! When I was young, our lives were really hard. We’re much better off now. Are you young people qualified to say anything?’  I just end up keeping my mouth shut,” says Victor.

Sometimes, keeping silent becomes impossible. Ah Wai, a twenty-something journalist says he is a member of several WhatsApp groups, each comprising 10 to 20 people from his extended family, friends and colleagues.

The WhatsApp wars

WhatsApp, the smartphone app which is perhaps best known for being bought by Facebook for US$ 19 billion earlier this year, is hugely popular in Hong Kong. In 2012, the app, which allows users to share text messages, links, photos, videos and audio quickly and efficiently, had three million users in Hong Kong.

Ah Wai says he recently noticed a big change in the tone of the groups. Whereas members used to mainly discuss things like travel, shopping, music and food, older members suddenly started to share political articles that were sharply critical of pan-democrats. These posts would get many thumbs-up endorsements in the group.

WhatsApp message claiming to be text written by CUHK Vice-Chancellor Joseph Sung and criticising pro-democracy protesters. It was later confirmed to be fake (Source: USP)
WhatsApp message claiming to be text written by CUHK Vice-Chancellor Joseph Sung and criticising pro-democracy protesters. It was later confirmed to be fake (Source: USP)

Like other younger members, Ah Wai kept quiet, until he was directly challenged. “[Someone wrote] ‘Hey, you’re a reporter, you support the pan-democrats. Speak from your conscience’,” says Ah Wai. “[My] silence continued. Then they said: ‘You’ve nothing to say. That’s right, no comeback. It’s clear what’s black and what’s white. Shit-stirring is clearly wrong’.”

Ah Wai broke his silence and fought back for the first time, with a 1,971 character point by point rebuttal of one of the articles. Although his points were backed up with facts, they unleashed a stream of angry replies.  They included suggestions that he should emigrate if he was so anti-China and Hong Kong. There were calls for reality checks such as “Hong Kong has already returned to China, you have to depend on China or you’d be finished!”

One poster, who Ah Wai says is a police officer, even said “What’s the problem with politically-motivated prosecutions, political considerations? That’s just the way it is. Hong Kong is just like the Mainland now. Even if you’re put in a police car and beaten, there’s no problem.”

The whole experience has been a shock to Ah Wai, who says recent developments have pushed the conflicts in Hong Kong society to another level. “It is not just about the fight for universal suffrage. It’s about an ideological struggle between generations that we initially ignored. Older people have started to pick up smartphones, the internet, they have started to read WhatsApp messages … which is indeed a kind of Arab Spring for them.”

Social media and the internet may be fuelling youthful dissent but it also seems to be driving a conservative pushback from the older generation.  This tends to result in one of two scenarios: disputes and hurt feelings, or silence and simmering resentment.

Reaching across the divide

Ruby Lai, a 24 year-old graduate student hopes to facilitate a different outcome.  Lai says politics has become a wedge in Hong Kong society. It can no longer be ignored in everyday life, yet still has the aura of a taboo among friends and especially among family members. It is a taboo she believes must be broached. Lai, who is herself gay, likens stating one’s political views to “coming out”.

“I feel I have to state my mind, show them that there is another perspective. The key is how I handle this interaction with my family and friends.”

Lai has never seen eye to eye with her father on social and political issues.  When she rushed back from a trip abroad to take part in an unofficial civic referendum on the method for choosing nominees for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive election in 2017, he admonished her.

“He said ‘why are doing all this? It’s ruining Hong Kong’ and then he started talking about the riots in 1967 when people were killed and petrol bombs were thrown,” recalls Lai.

After a heated argument, Lai reflected on her experience and concluded conflict was unavoidable, so she needed to figure out how to limit the damage to both sides and how to try to understand her father’s experiences and thoughts.

She decided to set up a Facebook page for people to share strategies on how to discuss politics with relatives. She initially expected around 100 or so friends and friends of friends would join in. But without any promotion, the page has already received more than 1380 likes. Strangers have told her how glad they are to learn they are not alone and how grateful they are to have a platform for mutual support.

Ultimately, Lai is not hopeful that she can change her parents’ points of view and she says this is not her goal. However, she wants to create the possibility of communication and find a way to maintain relations between people across the divide.

“I just want them to accept that someone can have a different view to theirs and that just because their view is different, you cannot completely dismiss it.”

“Hong Kong’s values will continue to be eroded,” she says. “It may become an uninhabitable place, or it may become like just another mainland city. “ Even if some people are unwilling to protect and uphold those values today, Lai hopes that by communicating her views calmly and consistently, she can “maybe sow the seeds of resistance that may bear fruit when things deteriorate further and become more extreme.”

Postscript: Taiwan yesterday, Hong Kong tomorrow

The WhatsApp wars are not just being fought between the generations, but also among peers of the same generation. While the young people I know were talking about the inter-generational conflicts in their families, more and more of my friends were complaining about a similar phenomenon within their peer groups.

Chu Hon-keung, a 50 year-old former environmental campaigner says he noticed the tone began to change around six months ago in a WhatsApp group comprising his secondary schoolmates. Members of the group come from different sectors of society, including those in business, the police and civil servants.

Chu says posts and articles expressing strong views against socially liberal and pro-democratic politics appear every day, often more than once a day. Protests against government plans to push through funding for a huge redevelopment plan in a rural area near the border with the Mainland further inflamed emotions in the group. Chu was perceived as being sympathetic to the protests, in which some demonstrators broke through police lines and tried to storm the Legislative Council.

“I would be attacked by four of five people, it was very uncomfortable,” says Chu, who eventually left the group.

Chu, who studied and lived in Taiwan between 1983 and 1991, sees parallels between the Hong Kong of today and Taiwan during the immediate period after martial law ended in 1987. For years afterwards, the island was split between the pro-Kuomintang blue-camp and the opposition, pro-independence green-camp. The blue-green chasm was known to split families and even prevent people from marrying across the divide.

“Hong Kong is becoming more and more split, you can only take one of two sides, the voices in the middle are being extinguished,” he says. “There is no way to communicate or resolve problems .”

Tertiary Teachers’ Statement on Students Arrested in Chater Rd Sit-in

An unprecedented mass arrest of protesters who staged a sit-in in Chater Rd, in Hong Kong’s Central district after the annual July 1st protest, has set off alarm bells in the city. The protesters, many of them university students, were demanding the government pay heed to the community’s calls for genuine universal suffrage. This is a statement by teachers in tertiary education in support of the students.

Students and supporters take to the stage during the sit-in
Students and supporters take to the stage during the sit-in

In the early hours of July 2nd, more than 500 people were arrested as students staged a sit-in for democracy in Central. We, a group of teachers in tertiary education, feel we have a responsibility to support these students.

In a utilitarian society like today’s Hong Kong, many people are only willing to spend their time on money-making pursuits, or those that will further personal interests. That students are willing to set aside personal interest and risk being charged to fight for democracy and justice, is commendable and deserving of our recognition.

Throughout the police action to clear the street and carry out arrests, the students demonstrated utmost restraint and forbearance. Not only was there no physical confrontation, but there was also an absence of profanities and insults. Their behavior was civilized and rational, embodying the spirit of non-violent struggle. We, as teachers are proud that the students and other participants held steadfastly to their peaceful struggle for democracy and justice, despite personal sacrifice.

We hope the S.A.R. and central governments can understand the reason the students are willing to withstand the pressure of standing up in the face of legal consequences. It is because Hong Kong stands at a critical juncture – never before have Hong Kong people felt so much anxiety about whether real universal suffrage can be implemented, or even if one country, two systems can be upheld. Half a million people took part in the July 1st protest, 800,000 people voted in the civil referendum. The students, as the conscience of society, hope to persuade the central and S.A.R. government to address society’s demands through their own actions and sacrifice.

Therefore, we call on the central government and S.A.R. government to address these demands, to uphold the pledge of one country, two systems and to implement real universal suffrage without pre-selection in 2017. Otherwise, the students’ efforts and sacrifice will have been wasted and Hong Kong’s political situation will deteriorate further.



Facebook outage gives Hong Kong the jitters

First the cyber-attack on the e-voting platform for the 622 referendum, then the Apple Daily website. Hong Kongers were asking, “is Facebook next?”


I can pinpoint exactly when it happened because I was in the middle of a Facebook conversation when the error message popped up. Then my telephone rang and the person I’d been chatting with asked, “Is Facebook down?”.

A quick check on Twitter revealed that it was, and it wasn’t just in Hong Kong. It soon became apparent it was global.

But in the seconds that followed #Facebookdown, something strange, though predictable happened in Hong Kong. First of all, people thought the short must be directed at Hong Kong. They muttered about dark forces, hacking, the hand of the state.

When it could no longer be ignored that the outage was global, the questions turned to “what are we going to do now?” and even “are there going to be riots?”

This may sound over-the-top, and people have been swift to poke fun at the panic and fuss caused by what was, after all, a pretty short outage. They’re right to laugh that work productivity probably shot up and joke that now nobody will know what so-and-so had for breakfast.

But in Hong Kong, there was something else at work. People weren’t just upset that they couldn’t see what their friends ate for lunch.  They were concerned about the loss of an important platform for the exchange and dissemination of information and a tool for social mobilization.

For some reason, Twitter has never really taken off in Hong Kong, and Facebook is the social media platform of choice for everyone from K-pop chasing teens, to their mums and dads; from radical activists to their opposite numbers on the pro-government side.

That means Facebook is where people share news, views and gossip on politics and social movements in a city where social and political tensions have rarely been higher.

This year, the government will announce plans on the method for choosing the first Chief Executive to be voted by one person one vote in the territory. China has already said it will only accept candidates who “love Hong Kong and love the country” and who don’t oppose the central government.

Many people here reject the idea of pre-selection of candidates, some support calls for a mass campaign for civil disobedience to occupy the Central business district to win universal suffrage that meets international standards.

In response, Beijing has ratcheted up the pressure, culminating in (what is said to be a long-planned) White Paper on the practice of the “one country, two systems” policy in Hong Kong. In that document, the central government made it clear it is in total charge and that Hong Kong can only have as much autonomy as Beijing allowed it to have.

The mood was already dark when the online platform for an unofficial ballot on electoral reform that was due to run from today till Sunday was paralysed by a massive cyber-attack. If that wasn’t bad enough, it was followed by an attack on the website and YouTube and Instagram accounts of the mass circulation tabloid style Apple Daily newspaper, which had been vocal in its support of both the Occupy Central campaign and the unofficial referendum.

When this happened, people half-joked (on Facebook) that Facebook was the last man standing and speculated on when it too, would fall.

Then, the outage.

It fed into an almost apocalyptic sense of gloom that has been building up in Hong Kong city. A sense that may partly explain the popularity of the serialised online novel Lost on a red minibus to Tai Po which was turned into a film released a few months ago called The Midnight After.

The story describes survivors in a dystopian Hong Kong after a great and unidentified calamity. It paints a surreal and eerie picture of Hong Kong full of hidden (imagined?) conspiracies and real dangers.

With recent events, including the Facebook short, the red minibus vibe threatens to shroud the city.


Reclaiming Hong Kong’s June 4th

The commemoration of June 4th once united Hong Kong people, now it divides. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising when the number of people who identify as “Chinese” falls to new lows

Mainland dissident tells crowds at Victoria Park that without democracy in China, Hong Kong can't have real universal suffrage
Mainland rights lawyer Teng Biao tells crowds at Victoria Park that without democracy in China, Hong Kong can’t have real universal suffrage

On June 4th this year, tens of thousands of candles lit up Hong Kong’s Victoria Park to remember the fallen of June 4th 1989, just as they have done every year since China’s government sent in the army 25 years ago to crush a popular movement calling for an end to corruption, for greater freedoms and democratic reforms.

Organisers put the turnout at 180,000, higher than last year’s 150,000 and matching the record set in 2012. Hong Kong is the only place on Chinese soil where so many gather to mark June 4th without fear of retribution. For Hong Kong’ers, this makes their city different and special – proof Hong Kong is not the same as mainland China, not yet.

Victoria Park was not the only venue for June 4th commemorations. Several thousand (organisers say 7000) people gathered across the harbour in Tsim Sha Tsui under the banner of “localism, democracy and anti-communism”.

Another localist group held a protest at Sheung Shui train station, the stop before Lo Wu in China’s Shenzhen.  Sheung Shui has become a hotspot in the increasing tensions between locals and the 20,000 estimated “parallel traders” crossing the border daily to buy goods in Hong Kong for resale in the Mainland.

Yet another, smaller group of people with localist sympathies met in a small park opposite the barracks of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Central.

The number of events and groups this year reflects more than the diversity of opinion and free speech in Hong Kong, it also highlights a shift in the way Hong Kong society perceives the meaning of June 4th ,how it relates to both mainland China and the territory itself, and to the rise of localism.


Localism or “bun to” literally means “this earth” and generally refers to views and sentiments that take Hong Kong’s local language (Cantonese), culture, history and shared experience and values to be the core of the city’s identity.

The term came to prominence when young activists waged (ultimately unsuccessful) campaigns to protect historic Hong Kong landmarks in 2006 and to block funding for a new high speed railway linking Hong Kong to the Mainland in 2009. Despite identifying closely with Hong Kong, those activists weree sympathetic to democracy movements on the Mainland and to disadvantaged groups, including new immigrants from the Mainland.

More recently, forms of localism that reject the Mainland and mainlanders have emerged. Tensions caused by the impact of tens of millions of mainland tourists in this city of seven million people led some localists to brand mainlanders in Hong Kong as “locusts”. Some even advocate Hong Kong independence and wave flags based on the British colonial flag of Hong Kong.

These localists distrust the organizer of the Victoria Park protests, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China (The Alliance) and the pan-democratic political parties associated with it.

They accuse the Alliance and its allies of betraying Hong Kong’s interests by clinging to the ideal of a democratic China and demand that Beijing reverse its official verdict on the 1989 movement and the June 4th crackdown. Some have gone so far as to call those who attended the Victoria Park vigil as “Chinese”, in contrast to the true “Hong Kong’ers” who went to the alternative events.


Anthony Yiu addresses June 4th gathering in Central
Anthony Yiu addresses June 4th gathering in Central

Anthony Yiu, who organized the event opposite the PLA barracks is not interested in dividing people this way. However, the 39 year-old adverstising creative is sympathetic to the view that Hong Kong’s continued concern for June 4th is a kind of sentimental baggage obstructing the fight for Hong Kong’s autonomy.

“I also used to believe we needed democracy in China (to have democracy in Hong Kong). Around four years ago, I began to see it as a kind of fraud. We don’t have the ability to make it happen, it is a waste of our time to fight for Chinese democracy,” he says.

It was not always thus. In 1989, Yiu was a high school student who joined members of his family and over a million other Hong Kong people in rain-drenched protests against the bloody crackdown.

“I saw my Dad crying for one whole night. I was very young, I didn’t feel that sad, I didn’t feel any kind of Chinese identity. But I thought it was wrong, it was unreasonable,” he recalls.

As 1997 approached, Yiu felt neutral about the impending handover to Chinese rule, although by then, members of his family were setting off fireworks to celebrate. “But I wasn’t afraid either. I thought you know, we had a deal,” he says of the Sino-British Joint Declaration which guaranteed Hong Kong’s laws, institutions and way of life would remain unchanged for 50 years under Chinese rule.

By the new millennium, Yiu was upbeat about China. Its economy was booming and brought opportunities for Hong Kong. He began to wonder whether the government may not have been so wrong in 1989, after all economic reforms were accelerated afterwards.

“When China made it to the World Cup in 2002, I jumped in joy,” recalls Yiu with some embarrassment.

Even then, his China-friendly sentiments were complicated. He still attended the annual vigils in Victoria Park because, he says, “Remembering June 4th and telling the Chinese people and the world we remembered was in our blood as Hong Kong people.”

And he began to see China in a different light in around 2008. “Bejing hosted the Olympics, China had the world’s second largest economy. But I saw the way they treated Hong Kong. There was more interference,” he says.

His feelings towards Chinese people from the Mainland also began to change. “I used to hang out with mainlander friends, some of my relatives are Mainlanders. It was never a problem before. But I feel something has changed,” he says. “Under the regime, under the system of state and crony capitalism, people now are selfish.”

Yiu says he has come to the conclusion that Hong Kong’ers and mainland Chinese are “different kinds of people, with a different history and culture, experiences and values.”

These days, he  describes himself as a Hong Kong’er and as an ethnic Chinese (華人) rather than as a Chinese (中國人) and refers to China as “that country”, neither “my country” nor quite a foreign country

.Accordingly, he says, June 4th is no longer any of his business. “Of course, I will commemorate it, just as I would mourn for the people killed in Rwanda or in Egypt,” he adds.

I point out he has never attended any commemoration for people killed in Rwanda or Egypt, “That’s because no one has organized one. I would if they did,” he counters.

I gently remind him this is rather disingenuous. How can these other tragedies mean the same to him as killings that took place in “that” country, just over the border, where some of his friends and relatives come from?

“How can you say June 4th has nothing to do with you when the regime that crushed the 1989 movement is the same regime that you say is oppressing Hong Kong now?” I ask.

“Well, if you put it like that, then maybe,” he says.


Franklen Choi with wife and son in 2008
Franklen Choi with wife and son in 2008

Unlike Yiu, 44 year-old college lecturer Franklen Choi readily concedes that June 4th is his business. “June 4th has something to do with me because the regime responsible for June 4th has something to do with me. Even today, that regime is still standing in the way of our [Hong Kong’s] progress,” he says.

Choi, who teaches social policy and social studies, has taken part in every Victoria Park vigil and has taken his son there every year since he was born in 2008. But in May last year, he suddenly found himself at the centre of a storm when a Facebook status he posted went viral on social media.

In it, Choi said he had attended every candlelit vigil but the organiser’s theme of “Loving the country and the people is the spirit of Hong Kong” would keep him away. “I’m not going because I don’t love the country,” said Choi’s post.

Barely a year after mass demonstrations forced the government to shelve plans to mandate patriotic education in Hong Kong’s schools, Choi’s message struck a nerve. The Hong Kong Alliance quietly dropped “loving the country” from the theme.

While he admires Chinese philosophy, Choi says he has never really felt Chinese. He grew up working class “during the golden age of Hong Kong, in the 1970s and 80s when Hong Kong’s economy was taking off and popular culture was at its peak.”

Choi’s vision of Hong Kong is a diverse one made up of ethnic minorities and migrants alongside the majority ethnic Chinese. He has been involved in social activism and supports migrants’ rights. Although he is staunchly pro-Hong Kong, he is far removed from the stereotype of a xenophobic Mainlander-bashing Hong Kong’er sometimes portrayed in overseas media.

What he is angry about is the impact of the sheer scale of the flow of mainland visitors to Hong Kong on its culture and way of life; about Hong Kong’s lack of a say over who is permitted to settle here under the Mainland’s One-Way Permit immigration scheme; the creeping use of Puthonghua as a teaching language in Hong Kong’s schools and Beijing’s increasingly heavy-handed intervention in Hong Kong’s daily affairs.

“Since the handover, what we have seen is the re-colonisation of Hong Kong,” he says.

For Choi, the meaning of June 4th in Hong Kong needs to be more explicitly linked to Hong Kong’s own fight to preserve its autonomy and struggle for real democracy – something the Hong Kong Alliance and mainstream pro-democratic groups have failed to do.

“There is little we can do to further democracy in [mainland] China. We have to work on Hong Kong first. We need universal suffrage, we need democracy in everyday life,” he says.

Yiu and Choi’s discontent and disillusionment with the old ideas of pan-Chinese democracy are shared by a growing number of Hong Kong’ers, especially those from the younger generation, some of whom are attracted to the idea of Hong Kong independence.

Neither Yiu nor Choi will go that far. Although they would broadly describe themselves as localists, they refuse to call Mainlanders locusts or accuse Hong Kong’ers who support Chinese democracy movements of being “traitors”.

Both chose to mark June 4th in their own ways – Yiu arranged  a gathering of individuals who simply wanted to remember and pay their respects. Choi, despite his misgivings, attended the Victoria Park vigil, just as he eventually did last year.

In the end, Choi’s wavering over whether to attend was settled by his six year-old son, who insisted he wanted to go, “to commemorate the students who were killed by the government.”

Indeed in recent years, many of the faces at Victoria Park on June 4th, have been those of young people, born after the events of 1989 and increasingly, after the 1997 handover.

The localization of June 4th

Lingnan University scholar Law Wing-sang, who has written extensively about decolonization, says the story of June 4th in Hong Kong is a story of the struggle of memory over forgetfulness.  It is a process in which the meaning of June 4th in Hong Kong, to Hong Kong people, is being constantly remade. It means June 4th – its memory, its commemoration and its many meanings, is already localized.

The pro-democracy movement of 1989 and its crushing came at a time when Hong Kong’s future was being negotiated between the outgoing colonial power, Britain and the incoming sovereign power, China. For the city’s residents, the hopes, the anxieties and finally the fears of what that entailed were crystallised in the events of the night of June 3rd/June 4th 1989.

According to Law, June 4th 1989 marks the awakening of Hong Kong people’s sense of identity, as subjects in their own right. There had been social actions in Hong Kong before June 4th 1989, and many more since then. But the city has never been united – across all sectors and walks of life – in the same way.

The memory of that united response is so powerful that even today, leading public figures are periodically grilled on their views about June 4th, their responses held up for comparison with their past pronouncements.

But while June 4th may already be localized, Hong Kong’s pan-democrats have failed to adequately articulate this. They have struggled to spell out the link between June 4th and the development of Hong Kong’s sense of self, its struggle to maintain its autonomy and its fight for greater democracy.

As a result, they have failed to encourage development of  a non-isolationist “localism” that acknowledges the reality of the giant autocratic regime on the doorstep without subordinating Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy to the struggle for democracy in the Mainland.

For Law, Hong Kong people face two choices in coming to terms with its post-1997 identity. We can either try to cleanse the past and create a new identity or we can acknowledge and understand our legacy, discover ourselves anew from our accumulation of memories, experiences and values.

Hong Kong’s experience of June 4th is an important part of that legacy, says Law.  “Bidding farewell to June 4th, is like bidding farewell to ourselves, to who we are.”