Lyric Up the Hills: Postcard Poems from Hong Kong

Before they took Hong Kong in the nineteenth century, the British described it as a “barren rock with hardly a house upon it.” Now it is a place of tremendous height and stone, worthy of Sisyphus’s fruitless toil. The colonial history says it all, for Hong Kong was colonized twice: first in 1842 as a possession bartered away by the British, and then in 1997 as a possession bartered back by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The result was not a reunion between Hong Kong and its mother country. By that time the Chinese Kingdom had become a foreign entity, had established a new nation-state following two revolutions and a radical overhaul of the old language. Hong Kong was thus a new possession, with a distinct language and culture but sharing a distant genealogy. And during both transfers of sovereignty, Hong Kong was absent from the bargaining table. Worse, the 1997 transfer came with a promise of fifty years’ autonomy before assimilation into the PRC’s totalitarian regime. It is hard to imagine a political token more absurd.

Albert Camus gave us an icon of the absurd in his image of Sisyphus: the king stripped of all social meaning, reduced to a labor without end, left to exalt nothing but the very labor of that laboring. While Hong Kong still has hardly a house, it has become one of the most densely populated places on earth with its towers and four-walled boxes rising up the slopes. As space dwindles and prices skyrocket, families of four or more cram into two-hundred-square-foot apartments, sharing a showerhead flushing over a toilet in a closet. This situation is the apex of alienation between work and meaning. People live on the highest floors in the smallest rooms and work some of the longest, cheapest hours for an empty, unaffordable future. Add to that the ticking clock toward 2047, and the result is something more circuitously desperate than bare life.

But James Joyce gave us a little more: his image of Sisyphus was one of pure emotion, of rhythmic strain and song as he heaves the boulder to the peak, that distorted breath at the brink between triumph and futility—the origin of the lyric. In this issue of The Georgia Review, we offer such a lyric. You will find them in eight perforated postcard-poems featuring anonymous cries from the streets of Hong Kong. Since June of this year, Hongkongers have been taking to the streets after their Chief Executive proposed an extradition bill, which would have allowed almost anyone present in Hong Kong to be sent across the border and subjected to the PRC’s dubious criminal system, signaling an irreparable early end to the illusion of fifty years’ autonomy. At least two million—of Hong Kong’s population of seven million—have come out in nonviolent demonstrations. They have been met with mass arrest, false charges of rioting, and a sweeping campaign of misinformation by the government that caused even Facebook and Twitter to step in. As of this writing, the police have fired 3,100 canisters of tear gas, many of which are expired, at times into enclosed buildings. Two people have lost eyes from rubber bullets and bean-bag rounds fired as headshots; medical personnel have been barred from administering aid, and young teenagers have been left permanently paralyzed; one female protester was restrained by four police officers, who then stripped off her skirt and underwear and carried her away with her limbs spread open. The people have continued to take the streets in guerrilla protest all across Hong Kong’s districts, throughout the transit system, and in the airport. They have formed a human chain inspired by the Baltic Way, with two hundred thousand participants stretching across thirty miles and along mountain slopes. Fourteen hundred and fifty-three have been arrested, some facing a decade or more in prison; the youngest is twelve years old. Nine protesters have committed suicide. Others have disappeared, or have been disappeared.

These postcard-poems are a glimpse into their lives and voices. The poems were submitted anonymously to the Bauhinia Project through an encrypted email address, then translated into English, condensed into a few lines, and hand-made into postcards; some were initially collected as “found poems” from protest materials and testimonials. They are a people’s poetry: nameless, lowbrow, temporally bound, squeezed out from moments of great gravity and strife. They are meant for distribution across the silence of oceans, to reach through differences in language and culture. A Hongkonger abroad founded the Bauhinia Project when the crisis in Hong Kong escalated and it became clear that international media outlets were unable to grasp its complexities. Because the movement is leaderless, there is no representative voice to give a coherent interview. But for the same reason, every voice is representative. Now that the extradition bill has been withdrawn but the demonstrations persist with a harder edge, it is necessary to understand the movement not only for its politics but for its humanity. The people demand accountability through suffrage, independent investigations of the police, amnesty for the imprisoned, and correction of the official narrative. More than that, they demand a dignified life. They are done dragging the stone up the slope just to see it roll down again. They demand their future back, a future beyond the fifty-year absurd. They demand to tell their story on their own terms.

We are suspicious when the arts consume social action, archiving or capitalizing that action while it remains ongoing and urgent. For the Bauhinia Project, art is an ordinary insight. Our work is only to underscore the elemental. We do not believe that Hong Kong is merely a flash in the news, or another notch on the gun of Western democratization. We believe it is no coincidence that, when Hongkongers rose against the beginning of a police state in 2014, people in Ferguson and Bangkok were also rising against the long arm of their respective states. We believe that families in Kashmir and Palestine are being silenced by one force that is masked by different faces and insignia. We believe that when the elders in Hawai‘i taught us to hold our hands up in a triangle and said, “You are all Mauna Kea,” we were learning about much more than the politics of a science project. We believe the seas are rising too fast and bring with them a generation that will no longer roll stones; we believe Greta Thunberg said it best when she asked, why go to school at all, when world leaders choose to ignore the conclusions of scientific knowledge? All of this is one struggle. Real solidarity will demand that we see each other clearly through the smoke.

So, we do not present these lyric voices from Hong Kong for you to gulp down in America. We present them as a mirror. We present them as the promise of a people coming into being, a promise for what that can mean to a tired world. We are reminded of Aeneas washing ashore in Carthage, after fleeing the Trojan War, after a shipwreck of years. In the temple there he is astonished to see depictions of his own friends’ deaths in battle. “Sunt lacrimae rerum,” he says. And he tells his crew to ease their fears: they have arrived safely among a people of compassion, for whom the mortality of things cuts to the heart. They have at last found rest on their long way to founding home. With the Carthaginians they can forge new strength, because their stories were told before their coming. 

 

September 2019
Berkeley–Hong Kong

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bauhinia Project was founded in Berkeley in 2019 to bring Hong Kong’s struggles to the stage of transnational activism through lyric and language. The Bauhinia Project has been featured on KPFA Radio, KTSF Television, and the Hong Kong–based Apple Daily and Stand News. They have collaborated with Moe’s Books, the Center for Political Education, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, the Oakland Public Library, and student groups at Berkeley Law.