I've hung out with Hong Kong's punk rockers and artists and dancers and I've come to know its soul through my work as an arts writer there - one of ancient fishing village meets Bladerunner futurism. One of killer movie industries, 4am cha cha tengs, Beyond, and a resilient and utterly unique culture that has grown from its ancient Chinese roots despite all the crap that colonialism has thrown its way.
Maybe I can't leave my Twitter feed because in 1989, I was a young student in Hong Kong. And I distinctly remember sitting on a sofa in our home in Pokfulam and watching the unfolding events on the TV in Beijing. That leaves a certain scar on one's psyche. When that event happened, Hong Kong was the only place in the whole of China where it was legal to go out on the street and bear witness. And the people went, in their hundreds of thousands.
My heart and mind has been expanding to the concrete overpasses of Admiralty and Central and Mongkok these past 48 hours. I have been transported to 2003, when I stood on the corner of where Queen's Road Central meets Ice House Street, amid the glitzy glass towers of Central long after the sun had set. The roads that night had been finally filled with the people for the first time - not just the bankers and the wealthy gweilos who normally fill the rich streets of Central, but the people. From all ends and all 300+ islands of this remarkable place - from bus drivers, to teachers, to the eldery to students - all taking to the streets and making their voices heard.
Why? Because Article 23 was being administered by the mainland government, a sinister anti-spying piece of legislation that would have seriously hit the rights of HK people. That night, I stood on this grassy knoll by the side of that three laned road, and felt all of humanity flow past me - I breathed in that sweaty air and rejoiced in its earthiness. Absolute solidarity. As I stood there, a man leaned over, assuming me to be a tourist, and said to me: "Look. Look closely. This is Hong Kong's people. We are peaceful."
In the years since I moved to the US in 2009, I have taken regular trips back to Hong Kong to work on it's art stories. The arts has been on the rise in Hong Kong precisely because of its freedoms: it's tax freedoms, it's censorship freedoms. It caused the monumental art fair Art Basel to take up a post there in 2013. It began to feel like Hong Kong's unique character was going to survive and thrive, it was going to become a beacon, a spot of New York edginess in China - a promise of China's great potential for expansive minds and compassion.
But with each trip, I was also noticing a growing tension filling the air. You could smell it in the MTR stations and in the bus stops. It felt like a rice cooker, the bubbles overflowing and threatening an imminent explosion. A huge tapestry of reasons were coming together, a lot of it due to China's huge new wealth and the way that billionaires north of the border were snapping up many of the apartments in the city, meaning that rent prices were tripling, quadrupling. Hong Kong is tiny - and there is nowhere to go to when this happens. People can't afford their lives anymore. This creates stress. There's been the massive influx of tourists over the border. When you're earning hardly anything and have to take a long subway ride home, it's stressful to not be able to fit into any of the passing trains anymore.
But I think, at the root of it, it's been the fear that Hong Kong culture is about to disappear.
When Hong Kong's intellectual Ackbar Abbas wrote Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance in 1997, he was writing about the upcoming Handover. He mused on how Hong Kong has always had to deal with a deadline, a threat of near-dissappearance. What a wierd situation to be in, he pointed out. What other cities on earth have had to deal with this threat of near-extinction? New York will always be New York. London will always be London. But Hong Kong won't necessarily always be Hong Kong.
Why? Perhaps it's because Hong Kong is a state of mind. It's a Cantonese opera theater. And a Wong Kar-wai film. It's an artistic expression. It's the voice and minds of its people. And it's not like Hong Kong is anti-China, it's just pro-freedom.
Wong’s conclusion is that Hong Kong’s lineage with Chinese culture is very much intact – the city’s resilient Cantonese culture wasn’t wiped out during the Cultural Revolution but was strangely incubated under
Colonial rule. “Before, I was like, okay, we are like this kind of outcast and not authentic. But if you study it more clearly, you can see that even the Cantonese language we speak, you can trace all the way back to the Tong
Dynasty,” he says. “The writing, the script that we use, traditional script, the so-called Chinese components, all go directly to the classics.”
Earlier this year, Wong created an art fortune-telling booth on the grounds of the Hong Kong Museum of Art, where he offered I Ching-esque readings with art world quotes. “We have preserved our Confucianism much better than the Chinese under the communist regime, so we can be proud of that,” he says. “We can stand tall and be proud as Hongkongese.”