Hong Kong: A City of Disappearances
by Shui-yin Sharon Yam
As a former British colony and later a Special Administrative Region under Beijing’s now-broken promise of “50 years unchanged”, disappearances have always been a motif of Hong Kong. From Ackbar Abbas’s book on decolonisation and disappearance in Hong Kong culture, to the dystopian film Ten Years, Hongkongers have been contemplating and navigating disappearances and loss since 1997.
Since the Hong Kong government implemented the National Security Law at the end of June 2020, disappearances in the city intensified in a quiet, unsettling way. Overnight, pro-democracy social media content on the internet vanished as Hongkongers, anticipating a widespread government crackdown, scrambled to scrub their digital footprints clean. Books written by activists like Joshua Wong (co-written with Jason Y. Ng) and Tanya Chan were abruptly removed from schools and public libraries. The colourful and spectacular Lennon Walls that once adorned public spaces were swiftly taken down by storeowners and the police. The protest anthem, Glory to Hong Kong, could no longer be heard in the city’s shopping malls. Protest placards and banners were replaced with blank sheets of paper. More recently, the Education Bureau ordered textbook publishers to remove any references to civil disobedience, the 2019 protests in Hong Kong, and the iconic Tank Man image from the 1989 Tiananmen Incident.
Eerily, these disappearances mirror the plot of a 1994 Japanese novel, The Memory Police. Written by Yōko Ogawa (translated into English by Stephen Snyder), the novel is set on an unnamed dystopian island, where objects disappear at random overnight. First, small objects like hats and ribbons are gone. Later, birds, roses, and fruits also disappear. When an object vanishes from people’s lives, so do any memories people have of it. Soon after, the people would forget about the memory of having a loss altogether. After photographs, calendars, maps, and boats all vanish, people on the island no longer know where they are in time and space. To enforce these disappearances, the draconian Memory Police surveil the island, raiding people’s houses to confiscate any artefacts that might remind people of the disappeared objects. For the select few on the island who have the ability to preserve their memories, they must go into hiding or risk being apprehended and disappeared by the Memory Police. As more objects disappear, people’s everyday lives on the island become more difficult. But because they cannot remember what they have lost, and hence do not feel grief, the islanders in Ogawa’s novel accept their new realities in resignation—even when their body parts start to disappear, and all that is left of them is their whisper of a voice.
Unlike the islanders in The Memory Police, Hongkongers astutely understand the significance of memories, especially memories that bear collective trauma and loss. 6.12, 7.21, 8.31, 9.28, 10.1. To Hongkongers, each of these dates is an occasion for commemoration and mourning. Even before the enactment of the National Security Law, and before the widespread disappearances of protest symbols, Hongkongers had developed the habit of commemorating these dates every month. On 8 and 15 June, Hongkongers gathered at Sheung Tak Estate and Pacific Place respectively to pay tribute to student Chow Tse-Lok and “raincoat man” Leung Ling-Kit—each of whom died during the 2019 anti-extradition protests. With bouquet of white flowers, Hongkongers create makeshift shrines to commemorate those who have lost their lives or were victimised by police in the past year.
This year, under the National Security Law, the police attempt to disappear even the white flowers and rituals of commemoration. Like the Memory Police in Ogawa’s novel, the Hong Kong police criminalises the people’s memories because any recollection of the trauma inflicted by state violence can further undermine the government’s authority and control.
On the first anniversary of the 8.31 Prince Edward police attack, Hongkongers gathered in Mong Kok and at Prince Edward MTR station to commemorate victims who were brutalised. About a dozen people, including pensioners and children, were arrested for paying tribute to victims of police brutality. As people continued to gather and began chanting protest slogans that have been made illegal by the new law, the police threatened to use force to disperse the crowd.
The narrator of The Memory Police muses, “It’s subtle but [the disappearance of objects] seems to be speeding up, and we have to watch out. If it goes on like this and we can’t compensate for the things that get lost, the island will soon be nothing but absences and holes, and when it’s completely hollowed out, we’ll all disappear without a trace.” Hong Kong protesters were never hopeful that they would prevail against the Hong Kong and Chinese governments. Knowing full well that authoritarian state regimes can enact selective forgetting, one of their biggest worries was that the movement and their struggle would be erased from history. Their fear was not unfounded: journalist Louisa Lim and others have documented how Beijing has successfully induced mass amnesia regarding the Tiananmen Massacre. Lim writes, “Memory is dangerous in a country that was built to function on national amnesia. A single act of public remembrance might expose the frailty of the state’s carefully constructed edifice of accepted history, scaffolded in place over a generation and kept aloft by a brittle structure of strict censorship, blatant falsehood and wilful forgetting.”
Forgetting, however, comes with a human cost. As a character in The Memory Police whose livelihood has disappeared laments, “As things got thinner, more full of holes, our hearts got thinner, too, diluted somehow.” Without memories and artefacts that remind people of their loss, the people on the island are unable to grief and mourn. As objects disappear and their memories deteriorate, so do their drive and desires to lead a more fulfilling life.
In Hong Kong, the erasure of collective memories is enforced partly through overt suppression, and partly through blatant rewriting of history. A year after the 7.21 Yuen Long attack, in which hundreds of white-clad thugs indiscriminately attacked protesters, commuters, bystanders and journalists with metal rods and rattan sticks, the Hong Kong police announced that the incident was “a gang fight…involving participants from both sides”. Despite ample video footage from journalists and civilians that proved the contrary, the police denied the incident was an organised mob attack against unsuspecting victims. As Gwyneth Ho, who was present as a journalist that night, writes:
“It is not possible for the authority to distort the facts of the 721 incident unless the government of Hong Kong shut down Facebook and YouTube in Hong Kong. As long as all the video clips of that day are still accessible to the public, their attempts will always be futile.”—Gwyneth Ho
While Ho’s words are meant to provide solace, they may serve as a harbinger of further police suppression. If the Memory Police from Ogawa’s novel exists in Hong Kong, they will without a doubt erase all traces of not just the 721 incident, but all others that prove them to be a violent proxy of an oppressive state regime. And perhaps this already exists outside of a dystopian novel. Former student activist Tony Chung was arrested abruptly under the National Security Law. He was released only after he agreed to delete several old Facebook posts that called for Hong Kong independence.
While the Hong Kong police resemble the Memory Police with their draconian attempts to suppress and erase collective memories, Hongkongers are not the same silent compliant subjects on Ogawa’s dystopian island. When the police started cracking down on the Lennon Walls in pro-democracy stores and restaurants, people devised creative tactics to circumvent suppression. While some have replaced pro-democracy messages with colourful blank Post-it notes, others display Maoist propaganda posters that have been repurposed in support of grassroots revolutions. After the police raided the headquarter of anti-government newspaper Apple Daily, people took out advertisements in the newspaper to post pro-democracy messages, essentially turning the publication into another Lennon Wall.
Memories are elusive and fluid, just like the ethos of the 2019 movement where protesters are encouraged to “be like water”. As collective memories of the protest continue to percolate, they are grafted onto digital and material artefacts that circulate both locally and transnationally outside of Hong Kong. While to remember is to recall, and partially to relive, the trauma, the cost is far too high for us to forget.
Author’s Note: This essay was written in response to livestreams of police actions in Mong Kok during the 8.31 commemoration on Monday 31 August 2020.
How to cite: Yam, Shui-yin Sharon. “Hong Kong: A City of Disappearances.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 1 Sept. 2020, hkprotesting.com/2020/09/01/disappearances/.
Header photograph © Studio Incento.
Shui-yin Sharon Yam is a diasporic Hongkonger in the US. She is Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky. Her book Inconvenient Strangers: Transnational Subjects and the Politics of Citizenship examines racial and gender politics in Hong Kong. She is a columnist for Hong Kong Free Press. Her writing has also appeared in Lausan and Foreign Policy.