Ka-Lee Wong reviews an assessment of Hong Kong and its culture two decades after its reversion to China.

Chu Yiu-Wai, Found in Transition: Hong Kong Studies in the Age of China (State University of New York Press, 2018), 308pp.

Chu Yiu-Wai’s Found in Transition: Hong Kong Studies in the Age of China is a follow-up to his Lost in Transition: Hong Kong Culture in the Age of China, published in 2013. But whereas Lost in Transition focused on the ways in which local Hong Kong culture gradually lost its uniqueness at the time the city transitioned from a British colony to the Special Administrative Region under mainland China’s rule, the analysis that Chu conducts in Found in Transition is contextualised by more recent events – specifically the aftermath of the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Indeed, Chu’s analysis centers on various critical issues regarding local Hong Kong culture, including discussions of cinema and popular music, where he sees the fate of culture entangled with the configuration of Hong Kong identity. As emphasized in the subtitle, Chu interrogates the dilemmas and hopes faced by Hong Kong Studies, which can be seen as a critical response to the looming presence of mainland Chinese influence in the city after the Umbrella Movement. By “found in transition”, Chu highlights his core idea – that rather than thinking of Hong Kong (studies) as that which can be found at the time of a “continuous disappearance of Hong Kong and its culture”, rather Hong Kong’s transition can be seen as “a metaphor to critically reflect on the present and to imagine possible tactics for the future”. These tactics, as he argues, include the ways that Hong Kong studies keeps itself “visible” by visualizing what has been or is under the threat of erased.

Found in Transition opens with the sense of an ending. Here Chu appropriates catchphrases like “the city is dying” from popular media like the Hong Kong television serial When Heaven Burns, as well as “are we dead yet?” from Jia Zhangke’s film World in order to convey his allegorical interpretation of the popular anxieties in Hong Kong. These anxieties can be understood at a time when Hong Kong’s future is tied with a China whose “unstable capitalism and socialism” exerts unforeseen impacts on the city. Such impacts not only include the loss of transparent law and order as a legacy of British colonization, but also the loss of political autonomy and creative freedom (given the increasing pressures from mainland Chinese censorship and the willingness of Hong Kong’s culture industries to cater to and for a mainland audience). This decline of a sense of uniqueness in Hong Kong politics and culture, as Chu sees it, leads to the rise of a “last generation mentality”.

Regarding this anxiety from “the last generation” of Hong Kongers, Chu’s chapters steer toward a hopeful goal of navigating a way out of this dilemma – as he says, “a politic of despair” and “a politic of hope” are just two sides of the same coin. In Chapter 1, Chu problematizes the sense of belonging of Hong Kongers after the 1997 Handover. As he writes, even though “to belong” has become a luxury for local Hong Kongers under globalization, neoliberalism and Mainlandization, the sense of belonging should not just be defined from the “top-down” (as in the national education campaigns pushed forward by the government). Rather, “bottom-up” lived experiences and citizenship are what give the local a sense of agency in defining their own identity. Chapter 2 further elaborates where the potentials of “lived citizenship” lie in negotiating Hong Kong’s local identity in the context of postcolonial studies. On one hand, many postcolonial scholars indicate that Hong Kong is hopelessly stuck in between Britain and China and it can never be decolonized; on the other, Chu appropriates Rey Chow’s idea of “self-writing” as a specter to disavow both dominant powers. By this, Chu calls for using an alternative approach, such as that of Shih Shu-mei and David Wang Der-wei’s Sinophone studies, to find its own voice so as to “free itself” and “haunt the complicity between ‘nation’ and ‘capital’”.

While in Chapter 3 Chu elaborates how the aforementioned “self-writing” deploys Cantonese as the primary vehicle for activist opposition to Mainlandization through the imposition of Mandarin, he uses examples from Hong Kong cinema and the Cantopop industry in Chapters 4 and 5 to discuss various creative strategies of “self-writing” despite the increasing pressure for the Hong Kong entertainment industry to integrate with that of mainland China. In Chu’s analysis, these strategies are critical in the articulation of “Hong Kong Studies as method”. In tracing the theoretical trajectory of “Asia as method” first proposed by Takeuchi Yoshimi in the 1960s and Chen Kuan-Hsing in the 2010s, Chu contends that contemporary Hong Kong has much to learn from this model in her search for her own subjectivity independent of the traditional understanding of postcolonial Asia.

Chu’s proposition of “Hong Kong Studies as method” calls for a re-examination of what “Chineseness” means and does for Hong Kong. Indeed, this is exactly the same question which sparks off the emergence of Shih Shu-mei’s Sinophone Studies in the late 2000s. Shih’s approach has triggered heated debates in the realm of modern Chinese cultural studies ever since she problematized the homogeneous and dominant view of “Chineseness” with the Sinophonic dissonance found within those geopolitical sites that have complicated or difficult relations with China. Chu’s discussion here can be seen as a response to this controversy by revisiting and responding to some of the key arguments. For example, one of his key propositions in Found in Transition is to rethink “Chineseness” in Hong Kong as “Chinesenesses”, by which he strategically uses the strike-through to visualize the erasure of the plurality of Chineseness. Using the local Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s Three as an example, he discusses how Hong Kong’s inevitable entanglement with mainland China does not necessarily mean the immediate and complete dissipation of Hong Kong’s local culture. Rather, like To, Chu argues that Hong Kongers can work through the challenges imposed by the integration of China by strategically recognizing the limitations it imposes (such as censorship in the case of Hong Kong-mainland co-production) and then by creatively making visible what has to be forcefully erased.

Currently, Hong Kong faces increasing pressure to integrate with China – to a certain extent, what is happening in the city now may exceed Chu’s prediction as stated in Found in Transition: participants in the Umbrella Movement have just been found guilty and sentenced to jail; politicians who openly support the popular movement and were elected to the Legislative Council were disqualified; the Hong Kong government is pushing to pass the national security law, political extradition law as well as the national anthem law in favor of the control by the Chinese Central government. Taking this current political development into consideration, Chu’s call in his new book is timely and practical – if Hong Kong has no choice but to succumb to mainland Chinese integration, rather than giving up, one can still work through the limitations and find his or her voice by strategically visualizing what has been forcefully silenced.

Ka-Lee Wong is a PhD candidate in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Southern California.

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