Smells like Hong Kong Spirit

By Shaun Tan

By Shaun Tan

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Staff Writer


When I arrived at boarding school at Tonbridge in the UK, I found that I’d become, inadvertently, the “bad Asian.”


That was new for me – I’d never been known to be much of a troublemaker before, but Tonbridge was far stricter than my old school in Kuala Lumpur. Coupled with this was the fact that something like 95% of the other Asians at Tonbridge were from Hong Kong, and they were all a bunch of nerdy goody-two-shoes, and compared to them I, with my careless ways and Malaysian insouciance towards authority, was the devil incarnate.


Once, another Malaysian and I got kicked out of Chemistry class for playing tic-tac-toe whilst the teacher was lecturing. As we stood outside, a group of Hong Kong students walked past. I still remember their looks of horror when they saw us. The subtext was clear: since the two of us were Malaysian-Chinese, with our reckless antics we had brought shame upon the Chinese people.

With our reckless antics we had brought shame upon the Chinese people.

One of the Hong Kong students I came to know best was a guy called Chris, who was in the same year and the same boarding house. Chris was an overachiever, and the most insufferably rigid person I’d ever met. (Everyone joked that he was actually a robot). He never put a foot out of line, and he was a stickler for rules. He refused to let me copy his homework, even after I’d given him some of my instant noodles. He once berated me for talking back to a teacher.


He was almost always deadly serious. At first, he seemed to possess no sense of humor, and my jokes bounced off the ice of his glasses. Once, he stormed into my room and yelled at me because I’d gotten him suspected of drinking (a bunch of friends and I had been drinking the night before; after my housemaster found the empty vodka bottles in the trash, he hilariously chose to suspect the one person in the boarding house that weekend who’d been innocent). Another time, I’d told him I’d swap rooms with the guy in the room beneath his (Chris found that guy too noisy). When the time came to move, however, I realized I couldn’t be bothered to move all my stuff and tried to get out of our arrangement. “NO!” Chris thundered. “HAVE SOME HONOR! YOU MADE A PROMISE! KEEP YOUR WORD!” A lawyer might have argued that I’d received no consideration (i.e. gotten nothing in return) for my promise, and so was not bound to keep it, but I was so awed by his righteous wrath that I moved rooms.


He could sometimes surprise you, though. One summer when I visited Hong Kong, he brought me to see a Hong Kong history exhibition in Wan Chai. At one point, he pointed to some photographs of the 2003 marches. Chris proudly told me how back then hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers came out and marched through the streets of the city to protest the government’s plans to pass a draconian national security law against treason, secession, sedition, and subversion. So great were their numbers and so strong their resolve that the government was forced to give in and shelve the bill.

Hong Kong 2003 march

Who the hell was this guy, and what had he done with Chris? This guy who had probably never broken a rule in his entire buttoned-down life was speaking with pride about a mass act of civil disobedience? He who never put a foot out of line supported 500,000 people blocking the roads of one of the world’s busiest cities? He who would never dream of breaking or speaking out against any of the many authoritarian rules at our authoritarian boarding school approved of brazenly defying the government?


I would later realize that in this respect, at least, Chris reflected the Hong Kong spirit. Now, Hong Kongers are coming out to protest again, this time against the government’s attempt to pass a law allowing extradition to mainland China, something completely contrary to the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s constitution), which guarantee that Hong Kong will retain its own legal system and way of life independent from the mainland under the “one country, two systems” concept until 2047 (50 years after the handover).


This is of course not an isolated incident, but comes against the backdrop of Beijing reneging on its promise to give Hong Kongers genuine universal suffrage, and its repeated attempts to erode the special freedoms Hong Kong enjoys (the freedoms it’s supposed to keep until 2047), including banning pro-independence political parties, abducting booksellers, and expelling foreign journalists. Many suspect, and with good reason, that this extradition law will be abused to enable Chinese authorities to persecute their political opponents and critics in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s abducted booksellers

After an estimated 1 million people (a seventh of Hong Kong’s population) blocked roads over the past week or so to protest the extradition bill, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, who many view as a puppet of the Chinese Communist Party, announced that debate on the bill would be suspended indefinitely. Hong Kong people are not buying this: they know that voting on it could be resumed at any time, and came out in force yesterday to demand its complete withdrawal.


I know the stereotypes of Hong Kong people – that they’re mercenary and materialistic – but they’ve also proven time and again that they care deeply about their freedom. After living in Hong Kong for the past four years, and living and studying alongside Hong Kongers for even longer, I know this much about them. They usually stay in line and stick to the rules. They are not fond of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” as the Chinese crime goes. But they have a pretty strong bullshit detector. They’re shrewd bargainers (try haggling with a Hong Kong shopkeeper). They know when they’ve got something valuable (in this case, a special tradition of liberty and rule of law), and if someone tries to take it from them, they’ll fight like dogs to keep it. And they know when they’re being cheated.

Hong Kongers know when they’ve got something valuable, and if someone tries to take it from them, they’ll fight like dogs to keep it.

50 years, Beijing promised them, and it’s only been 22.


And so, when I see Hong Kongers coming out in their hundreds of thousands in the sweltering heat, braving water cannons and tear gas and rubber bullets, I think of Chris storming into my room all those years ago: “HAVE SOME HONOR! YOU MADE A PROMISE! KEEP YOUR WORD!”


Indeed, before the handover, Beijing promised “one country, two systems” to the British and the people of Hong Kong. It has broken this promise. Even if Britain will not fight to hold Beijing to its word, you can be sure the people of Hong Kong will.