Review: Indelible City by Louisa Lim

Something indelible can’t be removed or forgotten, usually referring to ink. Fittingly journalist Louisa Lim begins this gripping and frightening account of Hong Kong’s recent history with writing. She’s standing on top of a tower in the city with protestors, watching them paint enormous signs with words of freedom and defiance. She wrings her hands about journalistic ethics and then makes a fateful decision: to take up a brush and participate. It’s autumn 2019 and an enormous new wave of protests is sweeping the city against extradition laws that would see people suspected of breaking the law removed to mainland China, to be tried under the country’s opaque and draconian judicial system.

Writing, particularly in protest, is central to Lim’s account. Initially, she describes, she had set out to write a book about Tsang-tsou Choi, the King of Kowloon, a “toothless, often shirtless, disabled trash collector with mental health issues” who scrawled his uneven calligraphy all over the city’s public places for 50 years, claiming the land as his own by right of his genealogy. Much of his work was painted over as soon as it was put up, and Lim, who wrote a Phd on him, sees the King as a symbol of both the city’s identity and its existential dilemma. In Chinese culture calligraphy is the “apogee of all art forms” but also “a tool of power”. She describes her own muddling attempts to learn the art (her bemused teacher unwilling to let her progress beyond a single horizontal stroke); and in her sloppy lines and the King’s highly unconventional approach she sees her own and the city’s subversive, defiant identity.

Lim traces a potted history of Hong Kong from the Neolithic to the present before arriving at the protest movement of 2019. It’s as much about how history is told and who gets to tell it. She explores the the city’s foundation myths, the British colonial version of the “barren rock” or China’s story of an island stolen at gunpoint. Neither fully account for the richness of Hong Kong’s history, and Lim describes how Hong Kongers have embraced the myth of the Lo Ting, merfolk-type people descended from rebels fleeing the mainland. She revisits the colonisation of Hong Kong by the British, which isn’t taught in Hong Kong schools, and in one enlightening chapter pores over sealed archives of the negotiations between Britain and China, which Hong Kongers were largely excluded from, that would see Hong Kong returned to China in 1997. It was this agreement and its too easily reinterpreted Basic Law that set the scene for the tumult to come. One Hong Kong legislator lamented that “the house we were now building was not only roofless but had no foundations”.

The book continues through the transfer and the inevitable delays on China’s part to fully implement the Basic Law, which included provisions for universal suffrage. Hong Kongers’ discontent with these endless delays would eventually lead to the 2014 Umbrella Movement, so-called for the protection protestors used against tear gas. Continuing attempts to erode Hong Kongers’ freedoms ultimately led to the widescale outbreak of protests in 2019, and China’s horrifying response in the form of the 2020 National Security Law which overrode the Basic Law and swiftly brought the city into the mainland’s dominion. Lim follows and interviews protestors, activists, artists and academics through the protests as their hope fades but their grim determination to see it out to the end strengthens. Protesters disappear and reappear in Chinese gaols. One prisoner abjectly describes how “he was never beaten … because it wasn’t necessary”; his padded cell “had been designed to prevent suicide”. Politician and democracy activist Clara Cheung tells Lim about how she’d staged a performance artwork in which she buried herself so that “I am already dead … I’ve already done that, so I would be brave enough to do whatever”. And the protestors are so young; Lim interviews two teenagers who she’d imagined were drawn to the movement due to its glamour:

Speaking to these two made me ashamed of those thoughts. When I asked them about the prospect of spending ten years … in jail, one replied, “I know what I’m doing. And I know if I was arrested what I will face. But we are fighting for freedom, democracy, and justice”. They were only a year older than my son, and as we spoke, I remembered his clammy hand in mine the day we’d fled the riot police.

Indelible City draws attention to way that places and identities are in some way always fictional, and all the more powerful for being so. “Like the Hong Kong of the maps, the very concept of Hong Kong seemed phantasmagorical, like a shimmering chimera that was constantly changing shape depending on the angle of viewing”, she writes, which could describe many places, including Australia. Trying to pin down any place’s identity is slippery business; in Hong Kong particularly so when so much of the city’s identity is defined by what it’s not. The closest scholars have got is a certain faith in meritocracy and a certain regard for the institutions left by the British (although Lim alludes to it, she doesn’t delve fully into the much-lauded neoliberal experiment conducted in Hong Kong and how that contributes to discontent). One activist quips that “the only time that Hong Kong truly existed” were “the ten seconds that followed” the lowering of the British flag in 1997. Lim argues that a Hong Konger identity only flowered in the recent protests, an impossible position that now means it is a distributed identity, spread across the world wherever Hong Kongers have sought refuge.

For Lim, Hong Kong seems to stand for freedom, but Indelible City doesn’t really explore who for and how much. The city may laud hustle and grind, and the faith that this will be duly rewarded, but how free can one be really among one of the highest rates of inequality in the world? There’s something unnerving about how the King’s once-derided writing suddenly became a hot commodity and selling at the world’s richest art markets for tens of thousands of dollars. The tragedy is the city’s people now cannot democratically attempt to determine the answers themselves. This makes for a impassioned, powerful plea for self-determination, all the more so because Lim comes to understand she has skin in the struggle. Through aspects of memoir, she explores how her own identity mirrors that of the city — hard to pin down, sometimes slighted by those who don’t understand what it means to live between cultures. Lim evokes the mood of defiance: the gallows humour, the exclamatory expression, the language of the streets and students. This is a compelling first draft of the latest episode in Hong Kong’s saga.

Gay rating: not gay.


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