Hong Kong Outsiders

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The Best China XVIII

The following essay was inspired by Ying Liang’s 應亮 recently released film A Family Tour 自由行. It appeared on 21 December 2018 in ‘Ways of the World’ 世道人生, the regular column Lee Yee 李怡 writes for Apple Daily 蘋果日報.


In The Best China we introduced readers to essays, literary works and art predominantly produced in Hong Kong. The veteran journalist Lee Yee 李怡 (李秉堯) was the founding editor of The Seventies Monthly 七十年代月刊 (later renamed The Nineties Monthly). He has been a prominent commentator on Chinese, Hong Kong and Taiwan politics, as well as the global scene, for over forty-five years. His position has gone from that of being a sympathetic interlocutor with the People’s Republic in the late 1970s to that of outspoken rebel and man of conscience from the early 1980s. For decades Lee has analysed Hong Kong politics and society with a clarity of vision, and in a clarion voice, rare among the territory’s writers.

— The Editor
China Heritage
26 December 2018


Lee Yee

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé


Towards the end of the film A Family Tour, a Taiwanese journalists asks the protagonist, Yang Shu — a mainland film director living in self-imposed exile in Hong Kong:

You’ve said that Hong Kong is now your home. Does that mean you think of yourself as a Mainlander or as a Hong Kong person?


The journalist is expecting Yang to say that she thinks of herself as a ‘Hong Konger’, but instead she replies:

I’m an Outsider.


This gave me pause to consider broader issues. The scenario of the film, as well as the character Yang Shu, lead the viewer to assume that she is a Hong Kong person. In fact, since moving to Hong Kong five years earlier her mother — who still lives on the Mainland — has often said that she’s ‘increasingly like a Hong Kong person’. But what, precisely, is a Hong Kong person? I would say that it’s the kind of person who has not been assimilated to think and act within the Mainland system. Then why does Yang Shu declared that she is an Outsider?


A Family Tour is a feature film by Ying Liang, a mainland director who has himself been living in self-exile in Hong Kong. He can’t return to the Mainland for fear being arrested for having made When Darkness Falls 我還有話要說, a film about the 2008 Yang Jia case in Shanghai. In the wake of the Umbrella Movement of 2014 Ying made a short work titled A Sunny Day [2016]. It reflected a range of social and personal concerns felt by Hong Kong people at the time of the movement; it was, for all intents and purposes, a film about Hong Kong made by a Hong Kong person.

In A Family Tour Ying Liang embodies his own experience in the character of a female film director who takes advantage of her participation in a Taiwanese film festival to travel with her husband and son to meet up with her mother, who visits the island as a member in a mainland tour group. The backdrop and mis-en-scène is Taiwan, but from the dialogue and characters it is evident that the Mainland looms behind the Mother, while Hong Kong is the home of the small family of the director. It is a powerful evocation of three completely different places whose cultures, no, whose very civilisation, are at odds.


Prior to the 1997 Handover, people I met from the Mainland, Taiwan, Singapore, and even from Europe and the USA, found themselves readily enthralled  by the general atmosphere of Hong Kong: its kind of rule of law, freedom, efficiency, convenience and overall ambience. Many remarked that Hong Kong was the best city they had experienced; many who moved there for work soon regarded themselves as belonging, including people in official or quasi-official jobs from the Mainland, Taiwan or other places.


During the late 1980s, there was a wave of hysteria in response to the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration; the political fate of the place was sealed and people started immigrating. At the time, I remarked in the media that if, as a journalist, I could continue to report factually after 1997, or if as a teacher one could impart one’s knowledge to students unhindered, or people could pursue business according to their own wishes as before, without having to think about being politically correct, or being embroiled in politics, then I was willing to be a Chinese. However, if by being Chinese I was no longer able to act according to my understanding of the world or in keeping with my personal inclinations, I’d rather just be an individual, and not Chinese.


At the time, like so many others, I did not envisage a future for Hong Kong in which these things didn’t change, so I decided to preserve my sense of self worth and relocate. After 1997, even thought I could see that the temper of Hong Kong was undergoing constant change, the legal system still provided a solid grounding for the place, and there proved to be enough room for self-expression, so I decided to return. I remain mindful of US president Thomas Jefferson’s line that ‘Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty’. I believed that since Hong Kong had made me, so I felt obliged to do whatever I could, and regardless of the cost, to give expression to my sense of Vigilance


Hong Kong is in the flux of change; conditions are deteriorating, evolving in a way that someone who has lived here for seventy years like me finds alienating. The Outsider experiences alienation. The female protagonist of Ying Liang’s film starts out saying that Hong Kong is her home, but later she remarks that she is an Outsider, or a Stranger in a Familiar Land. This succinctly captures just how Hong Kong has changed. For someone who has regarded themselves as a Hong Kong person for many decades, the sense I now have of being an Outsider is overwhelming, it is also heart-rending.


A Family Tour is made by someone who is not from Hong Kong and it is not even set in Hong Kong, but this film reflects the muted despondency and grief that exemplifies Hong Kong today.


— Lee Yee 李怡, 世道人生:異鄉人
蘋果日報, 2018年12月21日


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