We are Hong Kong and Hong Kong is us (continued)
NEW YORK—With Beijing baring its fangs, growing numbers of Hong Kongers no longer identify as Chinese. Instead, they proudly proclaim themselves as Hong Kongers. And while Hong Kong as a democratic enclave within a totalitarian system may appear to be an impossible dream, impossible dreams have materialized in the past. Outraged Filipinos chased the Marcoses out of the country in 1986. Popularly known as the “People Power Revolution,” the massive nonviolent uprising against the hated regime Is believed to have inspired other regime-changing, albeit peaceful, protests elsewhere.
The brutal Baby Doc Duvalier fled Haiti, also in 1986. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then came the Arab Spring of 2011, though only Tunisia seems to have succeeded in instituting democratic governance. Sadly, as inspiring as these peaceful demonstrations were, much ground has been retaken by increasingly fascist elements, Duterte’s and Putin’s strongman rule being prime examples.
A friend remarked that once Beijing flexes its muscle (she believes it inevitable), the crackdown will make the 1986 People Power uprising look like a picnic—akin to the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square, but bloodier.
Beijing no doubt wishes that Hong Kong were as orderly as Singapore, the Lion City, so that everyone can just turn their attention to making money and enjoying life’s pleasures. Paradoxically the lion in Lion City seems to have been put to sleep, even euthanized. As prosperous and orderly as Singapore is, it lacks the democratic space and vibrant civic culture of Hong Kong. That city-state’s Internal Security Department, for instance, administers the Internal Security Act, by which indefinite detention—without benefit of judicial processes—is used to silence political opposition. Moreover, in terms of a free press, last year, in its Worldwide Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders, ranked Singapore 151st out of 180 countries.
Singapore is clean, orderly, rich—and a bore.
My interest in Hong Kong’s fate is personal as well. For more than a decade, until the late nineties, I was a stringer for two Hong Kong-based newsmagazines: Asiaweek and The Far Eastern Economic Review, which meant frequent trips to Hong Kong on my way to or from Manila. I did have a lot of friends living there, most of whom have since left.
I usually wrote about issues concerning Asians in New York, and occasionally covered events in Manila and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. I covered Imelda Marcos’ 1990 federal trial in downtown Manhattan (verdict: not guilty, alas) and interviewed Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon when she was released from house arrest in 1995. Unfortunately, the Lady, as she was admiringly called then, has failed to speak out against the genocidal campaign against the Rohingya, invalidating, in the view of many (mine included) the Nobel Peace Prize awarded her in 1991.
For a period of five years, from 2010 to 2015, I taught poetry and creative nonfiction workshops at the City University of Hong Kong, as a faculty member of its MFA Program, founded and headed by the novelist and nonfiction writer Xu Xi, originally from Hong Kong but now living in New York.
It was the first such program in Asia to focus on international outreach. Faculty and students, forming a kind of benign Foreign Legion, came from all over—Australia, the UK, the Philippines, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, India, Norway, Italy, the United States, Israel, and Canada.
The highly successful program came to an abrupt end in 2015, when the university administration shut it down for the spurious reason that it was in the red, when in truth the program had turned the corner and began showing a profit, modest but a profit, nonetheless. Students and faculty protested vigorously, but for naught. We suspected the real reason for the shutdown was as retaliation for the student-led Umbrella Movement the year before. I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised; invariably, any government veering towards authoritarianism will have the writer in its crosshairs. By so doing the little men inadvertently confirm their abiding fear that the pen will prove mightier than the sword.
A toast to Hong Kong and its brave citizens: may you persevere in the face of such daunting odds!
Two who spoke truth to power passed away recently: Nelson Navarro in Manila, and Carlos Celdran in Madrid. Nelson was 71 years of age and had been in poor health for quite a while, so his demise was not unexpected. Carlos, however, was only 46 years old, and suffered a fatal heart attack.
Nelson was a student activist and former editor-in-chief of the University of the Philippines Collegian and lived in exile in New York, not long after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972. For a while he edited the 1970s-era Ningas Cogon (Brushfire), published in New York by Loida Nicolas Lewis, and for which I was one of the original writers. Nelson’s witty columns poked fun at the Marcos regime, enlivened by the brilliant satirist Nonoy Marcelo’s wickedly funny drawings. The indie magazine was a thorn in the side of the stateside Marcos minions, resulting in all of the Ningas contributors being blacklisted by the regime.
Carlos was a performance artist who treated his justly famous tours of Intramuros as living theatre, giving life to a history that for many of those who signed up was simply something you read but never felt. He was forced to flee Manila for Madrid earlier his year when he was convicted on the absurd charge of blasphemy against the Catholic Church. His supposed blasphemous act? Dressing up as Jose Rizal in 2010 and holding up a placard that read “Damaso” (the lustful, corrupt friar portrayed by Rizal so vividly in his classic Noli Me Tangere) inside the Manila Cathedral, where were gathered notables of the church. Before he was escorted out, Carlos admonished the prelates not to interfere in politics, referring to the reproductive health bill that was then being discussed in Congress and to which the Church was vehemently opposed. The bill eventually passed.
Bravo, Nelson and Carlos! You will be missed.
Copyright L.H. Francia 2019