Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement was galvanised after the region’s governing body passed restrictive electoral reforms in August 2014. Here, writer and assistant professor Dorothy Tse investigates the role of literature in the movement, and asks what the future of Hong Kong literature is in light of rapid sociopolitical changes taking place.
Translated from the Chinese by Michael Day.
Streets lined with umbrella sculptures of all shapes and sizes. Lennon Wall, a patchwork of sticky notes. Art installations, graffiti, performance art: this was Hong Kong during the 2014 Umbrella Movement, whose links with artistic and creative activity were on full display to the public. Literature, however, is a private act that does not occur in an open space, so its relationship with the performative, expressive Umbrella Movement is not so obvious.
The Occupy Central campaign was initiated in 2013 in order to pressure the government for universal suffrage. However, no one foresaw the rise of the Umbrella Movement, in which protesters occupied areas as widespread as Central, Admiralty, Causeway, Wanchai, Tsim Sha Tsui and Mongkok. The movement utterly transformed the city for more than two months, and of course, it encompassed literary activities. These were not limited to the poetry written and recited during the movement. I myself, for instance, visited Admiralty several times to give lectures on literature to the protesters. There is a tendency to think of ‘literature’ as something gentle and pliant, yet its power wowed the crowds in the occupied area. It is unlikely that many of the participants had read the works of Lu Xun or Xi Xi, but their passion and dedication surpassed that of many students of literature. I also noticed that as the occupation went on, the participants began to expect these classes to offer them something more concrete. They wanted to know, for instance, what step the movement should take next.
Literature, of course, cannot answer questions like, ‘should we mount an assault on government headquarters?’ In fact, the contradiction between the silent, pondering qualities of literature and the very idea of a social movement was apparent early on. At the Hong Kong Book Fair held in July 2014, articles and speeches by writer of the year Dung Kai-cheung expressed his concern that, in the context of Hong Kong’s political struggles, ‘language has become nothing more than a tool for gaining particular ends, a weapon used to aggressively pursue goals by any means necessary,’ as well as his hope that ‘the openness of the linguistic domain can be preserved.’ At a time of revolutionary zeal in which everybody was expected to take sides, these remarks proved controversial both inside and outside literary circles.
Dung Kai-cheung’s statements are easily understood when situated in the cultural and historical context of Hong Kong. From the 1950s until the mid-to-late 1980s, Hong Kong ‘benefitted’ from the British government’s policy of neither encouraging nor interfering with local arts and culture, and Hong Kong came to occupy a unique position as the sole Chinese territory where diverse cultural activities were tolerated and authors enjoyed considerable artistic freedom. Also, in a society where apathy toward literature was widespread, authors generally accepted that there was no hope of gaining anything concrete from literary pursuits and thus felt free to brazenly challenge literary norms. The experimentation and pioneering approach of Hong Kong authors like Kun Nan, Liu Yichang, Xi Xi, Yesi, Dung Kai-cheung, and others cannot be understood without reference to Hong Kong’s unique cultural environment.
Sympathy for the Umbrella Movement is widespread in Hong Kong literary circles. The literary journal Fleurs des Lettres put out a call for online submissions during the occupation and published authors’ records of the movement under the title ‘Witnesses Speak’; after the movement concluded, the magazine published a special issue called Encyclopedia of the Occupation and a collection of photographs and poetry by Liao Wei Tang entitled Umbrellatopia: Day and Night in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. Even so, the increasing politicisation of Hong Kong society and the reduction of cultural discourse to political bickering have caused widespread apprehension among authors. Based on recent events, there is concern that the Chinese Communist Party will eventually extend its threats and enticements to Hong Kong writers. It must be understood that what we are facing is a cultural context in the midst of transformation.
Hong Kong authors should carefully study the plight of their counterparts in mainland China. On the one hand, it is inevitable that literature produced under a repressive regime will be interpreted in a narrow political fashion and mistrusted by those with opposing views. It is easy to understand why many mainland authors are fed up with being interpreted along political lines, to the point that it interferes with their literary activities and they prefer to speak of literature rather than politics. On the other hand, the majority of mainland authors are willing participants in the system, partaking of the benefits offered by the regime while nurturing a flimsy illusion of independence. The challenge currently facing Hong Kong authors is how to carve out an independent position in the midst of all this pressure, temptation, and noise.