Fiction, Films, and the Hong Kong Protests of 2014-2019: Three Vignettes

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Cover of Jeffrey Wasserstrom's book "Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink."

I would like to use the opportunity of contributing to this site to introduce my latest book, Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, in an unusual way—by offering up a trio of vignettes. My academic training was in archive-based historical work, but these vignettes illustrate how, in my effort to link study of the past with analysis of current upheavals, I have done things I was never trained to do, in an effort to use stories based on observations and conversations help illuminate the dynamics of protest and repression.

First, some basic background is in order. Vigil is a short book on protests and repression in Hong Kong that I wrote between June and October of last year, and that Columbia Global Reports published in February. One theme in the book is that Hong Kong has a long history of making fools of forecasters. This makes it appropriate that the book I ended up writing was very different from the one I initially planned to write, due to a series of unexpected events. When I signed my contract with CGR a little over a year ago, I thought my book would be mostly about the recent past and end with a discussion of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, which at the time was the biggest sustained urban social movement to take place in the People’s Republic of China since 1989. It would then end with some analysis of the sense of discouragement that set in after the struggle ended and Beijing made distressing moves to tighten controls over Hong Kong. Then, just as I began writing, a dramatic series of protest began, and there was a new set of repressive moves, too. As a result, many aspects of Vigil changed. One thing that did not was my interest in finding ways to weave cultural themes together with political ones. The following vignettes illustrate this interest.

The American Academic and the British Lord

Even though my training is in history, I’ve occasionally brought techniques associated with other fields into my writing on topics ranging from global cities to social movements and revolutions. Often, when I move outside of standard modes of historical work, I draw on other scholarly disciplines, ranging from sociology and political science to literary studies and ethnography. Occasionally, though, I veer off into still different sorts of domains, such as memoir, travel writing, and journalism. A good case in point is the eclectic way that I went about researching and writing Vigil. Though it is partly about events of the past, it deals in part, as noted above, with the dramatic massive marches and street clashes that took place last year during a struggle that has now displaced the Umbrella Movement as the longest lasting and most significant urban-based movement to take place in the PRC since Tiananmen.

Umbrellas hanging between two footbridges in Hong Kong.
Umbrella art strung between two footbridges

Not surprisingly, given that the book is partly about the present, Vigil is not a straightforward work of history by any means. It includes forays into modes of comparative analysis associated with the social sciences, sections that read like analyses of breaking news, and it includes first-person vignettes. In addition, it makes use of interviews. Some of these were done by me in an unsystematic and vaguely journalistic fashion. Others, though, were done by a bona fide journalist: Amy Hawkins, who at the time was freelancing and now has a fellowship position with the Economist. Columbia Global Reports gave me funding to hire Amy to help with Vigil, and she did so much for the book that she ended up getting a well-deserved “with contributions by” credit on its title page.

Between us, we interviewed an eclectic set of people. Those Amy spoke to included Hong Kong activists, a member of Macau’s legislature, and the novelist Ma Jian, a scathing critic of China’s Communist Party who lived and worked in Beijing before and during the Tiananmen protests, and then, after his political stances made it impossible for him to stay on the Chinese mainland, moved to first Hong Kong, then Germany, and finally London, where he is now based.

One person I talked to was Jeffrey Ngo, a graduate student in history at Georgetown and a commentator on political issues who has co-written opinion pieces with Joshua Wong. Another was Didi Kirsten Tatlow, a journalist who has been based in Beijing for much of her career and now lives in Germany but has noted on social media that she has every right to wear a shirt reading “Made in Hong Kong,” as she was born and grew up there when it was a British colony and still considers it her true home. A third was Hana Meihan Davis, still another Hong Kong native now living abroad, in her case completing her undergraduate studies at Yale and writing about the city of her birth for newspapers. Hana, the youngest person I interviewed for Vigil, was born after the 1997 Handover made Hong Kong a Special Administrative Region of the PRC.

The first excerpt from Vigil I want to provide (p.36) tells the story of my encounter with the most famous person I interviewed: Chris Patten, the last colonial governor of Hong Kong:

I met Patten—formally Lord Patten of Barnes, a leafy suburb in southwest London—in May of 2019, in his home. As an American whose view of British lords comes from period dramas, I thought that a butler might answer the door, but he greeted me instead, and we proceeded to have a lively and wide-ranging discussion touching on everything from our shared admiration for Orwell’s dystopian fiction and le Carré’s spy novels, to our shared worries about the directions that Xi Jinping and Donald Trump, as nationalistic strongman leaders, had been taking the People’s Republic of China and the United States.

He told me that since his governorship had ended, he had been surprised many times by events in Hong Kong. I asked him to give me his reaction to a proposition that had formed in my mind: Historians of the future may well claim it was surprising both how light a touch the Chinese Communist Party used when dealing with Hong Kong in the immediate wake of 1997, and by how quickly Beijing tightened the screws on the city from the mid-2010s on. He pondered this for a moment, then nodded in assent. It was then that Lord Patten made a comment that has stuck with me more than anything that anyone else I have inter- viewed for this book has said: “When the snow starts melting, it melts quickly.”

Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet in the Pearl River Delta

One question that I did not ask Lord Patten, but that I asked most of the other people I interviewed was this: Can you think of a novel or film that has special relevance for or can help shed light on Hong Kong’s current situation? Amy, at my urging, asked the same question of everyone she interviewed. We both stressed when we asked the question that, while they should feel free to bring up a work created in or about Hong Kong, they need not do so. Our interviewees often expressed surprise that we asked them this, but all found something to say—usually something quite interesting. Many brought up more than one work. Some drew attention to works that others also mentioned, while some brought up a novel or film that only they found interesting.

Movie poster featuring Agnes Chow as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games.
Agnes Chow, as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. Image circulated by Demosisto.

The dystopian film “Ten Years” (2015), in which several local directors imagined what the city might be like in 2025, was mentioned by several people. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was singled out by two: Ma Jian brought it up when Amy talked to him in London, and Victor Mallet, a Financial Times reporter who a couple of years ago became the first employee of a major Western news publication expelled from Hong Kong for political reasons, brought it up when I talked to him in Paris. Hana Meihan Davis flagged the importance of the Hunger Games series for local residents of her generation and noted that a line from it, “If We Burn, You Burn with Us,” had become a Hong Kong protest slogan in 2019. Our conversation on the topic last fall went in such interesting directions that early this year, after I had seen a Hunger Games-themed poster at a massive march I checked out during a weeklong December visit to Hong Kong, we picked up the thread of it and co-wrote an essay for The Millions on the value of using the Suzanne Collins novels and films as a lens through which to view the city’s struggles.

The second excerpt I want to share (p. 20) describes an unusual answer Amy got to the question—one that made me laugh when she told me about it, despite the dark implications of the response. It helps to know two things before reading the excerpt. First, the blockbuster Hollywood film that comes up is enormously popular in East Asia as well as in the United States and many other places. Second, in the book, this excerpt comes just after a paragraph about my interview with Didi Kirsten Tatlow, who gave an intriguing explanation for choosing the great Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love” as the film that, for metaphoric reasons, resonates with her most when she thinks about the situation in the city of her birth to which she remains so attached:

Wong Yeung-tat, a leader of a political organization called Civic Passion and publisher of its affiliated Passion Times newspaper, brought up a very different sort of film: the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic. Interviewed by Amy Hawkins in May, he said that Hong Kong made him think of a setting where “the ship is sinking” but many onboard are “just enjoying the party,” even as the vessel disappears under the waves.

Reading Kafka in Kowloon

Where did the idea of asking our interview subjects about fiction and films come from? The roots of this notion, like so much about the book, goes back to the Umbrella Movement. While spending a brief period of time in Hong Kong observing that struggle first hand in November 2014 and tracking it from afar both before and after that point, I became fascinated by the references to films and works of fiction that kept coming up. For example, before heading to Hong Kong, I came across an article online about student activists getting together to discuss George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Then, when I was near the Admiralty subways stop on Hong Kong Island visiting the largest of the three tent-filled occupy zones that were the main hubs of protest activity in 2014, I saw a banner emblazoned with a famous line from that novella about some animals being more equal than others. Then, in December, when I was back in California following events from afar again, I read a great piece in the New Yorker by journalist Louisa Lim that included a quote by an activist who told her that recent acts of repression in Hong Kong had been eye opening, like the scene in The Matrix when taking one pill rather than another reveals the oppressive nature of what had previously seemed like a glittering world.

Thinking about allusion to literary and cinematic works like these helped plant the idea in my head of asking people to talk about novels and films. Two other less obviously relevant experiences also played a role. One is that I had once heard a former Iowa University colleague of Linda Kerber, a specialist in U.S. history I admire, tell me that the author of works such as No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship always made it a point of asking job candidates to tell her about a novel they had read recently. Kerber apparently did this in part to just get a sense of how their minds worked and to break the ice. This idea caught my fancy, and I thought it might prove interesting to try something similar in this very different interview context.

A final reason I was drawn to the question is even more convoluted. When I went to a second occupy zone in 2014, the one in the Mongkok district of Kowloon, I saw a copy of Franz Kafka stories on a shelf of the “People’s Library” that some activists had set up. While chatting with the young couple who volunteering as librarians, I meant to ask them if anyone had borrowed the Kafka volume, feeling it would be interesting it they had, as many things about Hong Kong politics connected to themes in his fiction. I realized after I had left the occupy zone that I had never gotten around to asking them my Kafka question. I became determined after that not to miss out on any future opportunities to ask literary questions.

I began by noting that Vigil turned out to be a different book than I thought it would be. I want to note in ending that, if I had decided to complete the manuscript  around now  as opposed to last fall, the book would have turned out differently than it actually did. A lot has happened since I finished working on Vigil, some of it inspiring (pro-democracy forces won a major victory in local elections in November in Hong Kong) but much of it distressing (including a series of arrests in mid-April of senior stalwarts in the long struggle for freedom).

This is not the place to go into any details about how I would have done things differently overall if I had extra months to keep revising and updating. I do have four thoughts, though, about additions I would make that relate to what I have written above.

First, I would get in touch with Lord Patten—by email this time, as traveling back to Barnes is definitely not in the cards in this time of sheltering in place—and ask him if he thinks the ice is still melting quickly. I think he would say it is.

Second, I would see if Amy could get Wong Yueng-tat to provide a quote for the book about whether he had any new thoughts about the relevance of Titanic, after seeing how much determination Hong Kong people had shown during the second half of 2019 to fight for the city they care about so deeply.

Third, I would try to find a way to include segments from some interviews that did not make it into the published version of Vigil, perhaps via putting new questions to two people, Jeffrey Ngo and Victor Mallet, who I meant to quote in the book somewhere but for reasons of space and flow did not in the end.

Finally, I would definitely bring Kafka into the book at some point, for the only way to describe one recent twist in the Hong Kong political story is as Kafkaesque. In the fall, the Hong Kong authorities, in an effort to help the police arrest protesters, issued an edict making it illegal to wear masks in public. This was immediately challenged in the courts. Early this year, as a move to combat the spread of COVID-19, these same Hong Kong authorities issued an edict requiring that masks be worn in public. So far, this may seem merely an ironic turnabout. What makes it Kafkaesque is that even after issuing rules requiring masks to be worn, the Hong Kong government has continued the court battle to defend its edict banning the wearing of masks.


Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine. In addition to Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, 2020), he is the author of Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China: The View from Shanghai (Stanford, 1991) and three other books, as well as the co-author, with Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, of the third edition of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Title image: A community screening of Ten Years on 1 April 2016 in front of Sha Tin Town Hall.

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