Four Poets in Hong Kong | Saturday 7 November 2015

From left to right: Nicholas Wong, Collier Nogues, James Shea (my co-panellists) and me. Polly Ho was the moderator of the session. Photo by Holden Liang Qichao.

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming

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Four Poets in Hong Kong

‘A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines. You can never get rid of ants because they form an animal rhizome that can rebound time and again after most of it has been destroyed.’ —Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, qtd. in Eddie Tay’s “The Poetics of the Umbrella Movement”, Cha, September 2015.

I would like to begin by saying that in many ways, I feel quite ambivalent about my role as poet, editor, educator and HK citizen in fighting for democracy in the city. I feel helpless and do not think I have done much, or enough, to actively engage in campaigns for political reform. I also can’t help but feel disappointed and deflated as the movement is increasingly being seen as something belonging to the past. Added to this feeling is that the movement is now becoming something to study, discuss, lecture on, as opposed to an active political and social movement. I say these things not because I am dubious about the continuous interest in the movement by panels such as this one but because I don’t know where we can go from here. What is it that we are doing now that can concretely contribute to the political reform? I do hope, however, that discussion and writing about the Umbrella Movement will help extend the lifespan of the ideas that first gave it life.

Thinking back, I remember going to the sites, sometimes with students, sometimes on my own, and feeling very impressed and inspired by the protesters and their dedication and commitment. People have talked a lot about the involvement and leadership of younger people, and it is certainly true that the protests derived most of its energy and passion from the students but from my experience of being at those sites, I have to say that there were many middle-aged and older people as well, showing their support and proclaiming their affiliation.

At Admiralty

Compared to them, my own efforts seem insignificant and I am even slightly embarrassed about how I felt while at the protests. For example, I remember not wanting to be caught on film, because I was very worried that my family, who had mixed or even critical views about the movement, might spot my face on TV. It was certainly complicated for my family as one of my brothers-in-law is a police officer. At that time, even the tiny gesture of changing my FB profile picture to a yellow ribbon affected how my family and I interacted. Even this smallest act of speaking up was enough to create a division. And so we fell into a kind of silence for the duration of the movement. They knew my views, and I knew theirs equally well, and thus to avoid explosive arguments, an unwritten contract seemed to have been written between us not to touch on the topic. In retrospect, I wish I had not chosen family peace over being more outspoken about my views.

Instead, my role in the movement involved writing, curating, editing and translating. And I would like to now discuss and read a poem I wrote at that time.

In this poem, “How the Narratives Of Hong Kong Are Written With China In Sight”, I rework a number of recognizable first lines from Western literary texts. I chose this device partly because I felt it represented something about Hong Kong identity. The city has a somewhat fluid character as it is made up of elements adapted from both Western and Chinese culture and so I tried to reflect this by incorporating Western literary references to a Hong Kong context but one which always has its eye on the political realities dictated by China. I think this device might also have accidentally provided a kind of reflection of the Umbrella Movement, whose motivational slogans borrowed extensively from international pop culture, and historical and political references, such as quotes from John Lennon, Nelson Mandela, Les Mis, the students’ uprising in Paris in the 1960s, the protest against the Vietnam War, the Velvet Revolution, and of course, the Tiananmen protests of 1989. Lastly, the fragmentary form of the poem perhaps also reflects the as of yet impossibility of fabricating a coherent narrative about Hong Kong and the Umbrella Movement, hence the title ‘narratives’.


1. Call me One Country, Two Systems.

2. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the democracy fighters in Hong Kong must be genomically modified by the West.

3. Hong Kong and democracy — it was love at first sight.

4. An order from the PRC comes and never leaves.

5. Many years later, as the Hong Kong people remembered the ‘generosity’ of the Chinese government for not shooting them or overrunning them with tanks, they would be forced to cry in gratitude.

6. China, non-light of my life, non-fire of my loins.

7. Happy cities are all alike; every unhappy city is unhappy in its own way. Hong Kong is unhappy because it wants happiness too much. It believes that the right to vote for its own leader would contribute to its happiness. It believes.

8. democracyriverrun, past Mongkok, Causeway Bay, Admiralty and Central…

9. Hot days in September. Some rainy nights in October. Tick-tock tick-tock tick-tock the clocks were striking and Big Brother was watching. Let him watch. Let the whole world watch.

10. It was the best of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the epoch of belief. It was the season of Light. It was the spring of hope. We had everything before us – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest Chinese authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

11. You are about to begin reading the story of Hong Kong, “One Country, Two Systems”, when you realise that such a story doesn’t exist. Keep the ‘country’, remove the plural marker in ‘systems’ and replace ‘two’ by ‘one’, then you are truly beginning to read the story of Hong Kong. (One and one is always one.)

12. Someone must have slandered Joshua Wong… for one evening, without having done anything outrageously wrong, he was arrested.

13. Whether Hong Kong shall turn out to be the hero of the international fight for democracy, or whether it will be utterly defeated, the pages of history must show.

14. It was a broken promise that started it. The students returned to the streets day after day. And the voice on the other side of the border responded with contempt, scorn.

15. Through the facial masks, between the crooked handles of umbrellas, people could be seen fighting, in their own way, which is the best way.

16. 689 was spiteful.

17. In the beginning there was the Party and the Party was with the Country and the Party was the Country.

18. There is a spectre haunting China — the spectre of Umbrellaism.

19. The Hong Kong people said they would fight for the city’s future themselves and they would bring umbrellas.

20. They say the past is a foreign country and people do things differently there. We say the past is always upon us.

21. Hong Kong was born many times: first, as a fishing village; and then, as a British colony. After that, it became a Special Administrative Region. And then one summer, it became very special indeed.

22. Where now? Who now? When now? Hong Kong now. We now. Now now.

{See also “Short Works, Big Ideas”}