Women Who Travel

Women Who Travel Podcast: Telling Hong Kong's Story, Despite the Consequences

Host Lale Arikoglu sits down with journalist Louisa Lim to chat about the city's past and present.
Louisa Lim on Telling Hong Kong's Story Despite the Consequences

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Lale chats with journalist and author Louisa Lim about her recent book, Indelible City, which dives deep into the untold stories of Hong Kong, both past and present, through a cast of calligraphers, street artists, and more, while also reflecting on her own personal connection with a place she long-called home.

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Lale Ariokglu: Hello, I'm Lale Arikoglu. And in today's Women Who Travel, we're visiting Hong Kong with Louisa Lim. Her book, Indelible City, is both memoir and journalism.

Louisa Lim: I thought, you know, I want to write a history of Hong Kong or book about Hong Kong where Hong Kongers are the main players. They're not just sort of nameless, faceless people handed over by one power to another, but they're actual people.

Speaker 3: Free Hong Kong!

Protesters: Free Hong Kong!

Speaker 3: Free Hong Kong!

Protesters: Free Hong Kong! Whoo!

LA: We're going to chat about uncovering the real Hong Kong and how to discover it as a traveler. You know, you grew up in Hong Kong, you live in Melbourne. How often do you go back to Hong Kong right now?

LL: I can't go back to Hong Kong since the book came out. So, you know, even when I was writing that book, I was always erasing it in the knowledge that this book would make it hard for me to go back to the city that I was writing about, the city that I think of as my hometown. In many ways the book, it was a love letter, it was a farewell letter, it was a, [laughs] a pretty hard book to write.

LA: How certain were you that you were going to just... that the book was more important than being able to return again, like that's a really difficult decision to make.

LL: I mean, well, I started writing the book a long time ago. I'm a pretty slow writer and it took me eight years to write this book. And I never, obviously, [laughs] meant it to be that long. And of course, when I started, you know, it was a really low risk project.

LA: Well, I was gonna say, eight years ago, that's a very different time in Hong Kong's recent history.

LL: That's right. And I never imagined that, you know, there would be any consequences. My children, um, said to me, "Oh, mom, mom, we really love Hong Kong, you know, don't say anything bad. You know, we [laughs] we want to be able to go back." And I was like, "Of course, it'll be fine. You know, Hong Kong's completely different, you know, none of that applies." And then, of course, everything changed.

LA: Your dad is Chinese, your mom is British and she was maybe responsible for you really starting to get hooked on history.

LL: That's exactly right. Um, my mother, um, is British and she, uh, she actually, she went to Cambridge and studied history, and she became a [laughs] Latin teacher. We moved to Hong Kong when I was five and, you know, she taught Latin, but she retired when she was 60. And she had always wanted a cultural heritage guidebook to Hong Kong, and she couldn't find one. So when she, uh, retired, she decided that she would write her own, which she promised would be a little pamphlet about a graveyard. I hated it. It was really boring, because we were always spending our weekends going to look at things that I just thought were really dull. But I think my mother sewed in me the seeds of this book very early on.

I'll do this reading and I'll, I'll do this bit now. "Thus it was that my siblings and I spent childhood weekends trailing sullenly behind our mother as she barreled past snarling dogs and uncommunicative locals in the New Territories. We were bored by the dusty ancestral halls, where we kicked our feet and slapped at the mosquitoes reconnoitering our legs, as our mother slowly examined endless altars stacked with tiers of ancestral tablets noting the clan's male descendants. We were wildly jealous of our peers who spent their weekends sunbathing on jugs or playing tennis at the ladies' recreation club."

"But my mother was on a mission. She wanted to re-situate local heritage and history, shifting it away from the colonial ruling class and toward ordinary people by charting how they lived and died. My Chinese father was deeply disapproving of the burial ground with superstitious horror, but my mother assured him she was only intending to write a short pamphlet. By the time she was finished, a decade later, her little leaflet had ballooned into a 600-page tome."

LA: It sounds like your mum was instilling a questioning in you that maybe you weren't being shown the whole picture or it was one skewed version of a history.

LL: No, that's absolutely what she was doing. So the colonial history books, that was what I was taught at school, 'cause I went to school in Hong Kong when it was a British colony. And there were, you know, a lot of the stories that were familiar to me, but I didn't, you know, I didn't notice that there were no Chinese names or faces in these whole history books. And then the Chinese version of history was totally different. And then, you know, that third version, the, you know, the stories that I had known from my mother, you know, different again.

One example is a village that she took me to when I was very young called Kam Tin, a walled village, and it had these big iron gates. And the iron gates had been removed, and the reason they'd been removed was Kam Tin was the site of a rebellion against the British takeover in 1898. And there was this... it was... I mean it was called the Six-Day War, it was a war but it really almost never turned up in British history books at all. And in order to humiliate the villagers of Kam Tin, the gardener at the time, he removed the defensive iron gates and he actually shipped them back to Ireland and put them in his garden as decoration [laughs].

LA: I mean, our British history books are... they le- they leave out some big parts-

LL: [laughs].

LA: ... of our history and what we did as a nation.

LL: My aim was to really re-center Hong Kong's history and have it told by Hong Kong people.

LA: After the break, Louisa's fascination with an activist artist, the King of Kowloon. Your goal from this book, I guess, both tell this, I guess, third history. I mean, so many, I imagine, more stories of the individual as well. One local figure that you have a... I don't know whether to say fascination or obsession. A-

LL: I think it's an obsession [laughs].

LA: [laughs] It's also the subject of your podcast, um, described as the King of Kowloon. Who is he and what is his story?

LL: So the King of Kowloon, um, he was this extraordinary figure. Uh, when I was growing up in Hong Kong, he was a legendary figure, almost like a sort of boogeyman kind of figure. You know, kids would tease each other in the playgrounds and say, "You're the King of Kowloon, you know." And it was an insult. And he was this... And again, because Hong Kong is so small, everybody knew who he was. Everybody had seen him at one point or another. Um, he was this elderly disabled trash sorter and he believed that his family, his clan, had originally owned the Peninsula of Kowloon which was handed over to the British in the 1860s.

And he believed that it had been stolen from them when it was given to the British and then he spent half a century, uh, going around Hong Kong and Kowloon and writing on the walls these sort of screeds, these angry screeds where he'd write out his family's genealogy, all 20 generations, and then he'd write the places that were stolen from them, and then sometimes he'd write something like, "Fuck the queen in the ass," at the end of it [laughs]. Um, and he would always write, "I'm the king, you know, the King of Kowloon," in these really big letters. And, um, it was really noticeable because his writing was terrible, his calligraphy. He'd only been to school for two years.

And you know, Chinese calligraphy is meant to be beautiful and balanced and artistic and his was sort of wonky and all sort of square and not balanced at all, but really, really distinctive, and he became this iconic figure. He had an art exhibition, and at first, you know, everybody was outraged and nothing sold. But then his work started gaining in value. And over time, he became Hong Kong's most valuable artist. And, you know, poets were writing poems about him, singers were singing about him. You know, the Hong Kong design businesses started using his designs on sort of underwear and whiskey bottles and duvet covers.

LA: God, it's, it's always amazing when you see something that starts out as sort of grassroots cause or even just like a myth, a myth suddenly just sort of falling to the hands of capitalism and ending up on a pair of underwear.

LL: [laughs] That's right.

LA: [laughs].

LL: And I mean, you know, I, I was just really fascinated by him. I was fascinated by the fact that, you know, he was so marketable. Why did people wanna wear these clothes covered with this calligraphy? And I think it's because he spoke to Hong Kong people and in a way, I think he spoke for Hong Kong people as well. And, you know, he got arrested many times for vandalism. Some people thought he was quite, uh, mentally incompetent. Some people thought he was completely crazy. Some people said he was totally normal. I started tracking down all the people who had worked with him and they were all very eccentric as [laughs] well.

LA: [laughs].

LL: And, you know, it was a long and winding sort of rabbit hole of extraordinary people, you know, like a hip hop star who'd become a Tibetan, uh, monk and, you know, all these artists, uh, that did all these sort of really interesting artwork and politicians. And, you know, and then I, you know, I started thinking about the core message of his work, this idea that the land had been his and that it was taken away from him. He died but, you know, in 2007. But those themes that he was thinking about and writing about, you know, he was really the first.

LA: As you were describing that, I was like, "It really sounds like the protest marches of 2019. People were connecting with him in ways they hadn't before."

Speaker 3: [foreign language 00:11:05].

Protesters: [foreign language 00:11:05].

Speaker 3: [foreign language 00:11:07].

Protesters: [foreign language 00:11:11].

LL: The protests started, uh, in June in 2019, and I don't think anybody had any idea how big they were going to be. So to begin with, they were against, uh, an extradition law that Hong Kong people did not like. They thought that it would, um, undermine all their freedoms and this one country, two systems formula under which they've been governed since 1997 when they returned to Chinese rule.

The first day of the protest, the order was, "Come to the protest, wear a white T-shirt." And I remember because, you know, nobody drives in Hong Kong or very few people drive 'cause it's so small and public transport is very good. And I just remember getting onto the underground and looking down the carriage and everybody on the carriage was wearing white-

LA: Wow.

LL: ... the whole train. And, you know, we were all looking at each other and everybody was just so surprised and shocked. And then when we arrived at the train station, where the march was supposed to begin, we couldn't even, for a long time, leave the train station or move on the street because it was just so packed full of people. And that day a million people came out. That's s- about a seventh of the population. So it was just this extraordinary feeling because you have these very tall buildings, it was through the heart of Hong Kong, and then the streets were just packed tight of, of people in white shirts, and it was just like the sort of sea, a river of white running through and filling all the space.

LA: What did it sound like? Um, 'cause, you know, uh, when I think of the protests that I've been to, the sound is sort of as memorable and electric as what you'll see.

LL: The sound was extraordinary, and there was... a week later there was another march where everyone was told to wear black and 2 million people went to that march. And I remember that day, I went up onto a flyover just to take a picture of the people coming underneath. And while I was up there, there was this protest chant. Everybody was shouting, "Uh, [foreign language 00:13:36]," which means go or add oil. It's a sort of shout of encouragement. And I just remember how that sound rolled through the people. And it was... I was recording it and you could hear the sound moving and sort of carrying the city. I remember that I actually, standing on th- o- o- on that flyover, I actually had to hold on because my legs were all shaking [laughs]. And, uh, it was, you know, I actually had a physical reaction to the sound.

LA: You said you were recording it, as a, as a good reporter does. Wh- How did you go from journalist to getting involved in the protests? And would you de- describe yourself as a protester or did you stay a journalist?

LL: So for the first protest I, um, wanted to report it as a journalist, and then I remember by the time the second protest came around I was already beginning to think, "You know, do I really need to choose?" 'Cause I've been trained at the BBC, and I've, you know, been a journalist for decades, and I've always followed that very traditional model where, you know, we... the stand-back model, as we used to call it. I was, you know, writing these stand-back pieces where you're, uh, not involved, you're, you know, you're very neutral. There would be these police reports talking about rioting on the ground and, you know, I would have been at those protests.

There were, you know, there were [laughs]... I would not have seen any rioting or the police would say, uh... you know, or things would happen like they would give permission for a protest march and then halfway through while people on the streets, the police would withdraw permission and then they would call it an illegal march and all the reporting would say this was an i- an Illegal march, but having been there we all would have known that it began as a legal march. So, you know, I was very torn and I began to think that as a Hong Kong journalist what I wanted to do is just to reflect as truly as possible what I was seeing.

LA: In your book you definitely, and during the protests, spoke to the less powerful and, and, and the everyday, the, you know, the everyday citizens. Did you ever worry about putting them in danger? 'Cause I think that's something as a writer and a journalist, you know, is something you have to kind of... That's part of the reporting, right? It's thinking about your sources. How did you kind of go about that?

LL: The honest truth is the national security law is designed to muzzle voices, it's designed to stop stories from being told. And for me, personally, I knew that one of the reasons I had to leave Hong Kong to write this book was so that I could be free to write what I wanted. But I was in a very privileged position to be able to do that. A lot of the people who I spoke to, they have family in Hong Kong or they're still living in Hong Kong, and they had to be a lot more careful. And I've really tried to be as careful as I can without losing the sense of what they were saying.

LA: After the break, more from Louisa about what she envisions as Hong Kong's future. I think when people think of Hong Kong and I count myself as this person too, 'cause I've never been there, you think of the skyscrapers, you think of this sort of Blade Runner style city on the water. But it's actually a lot more than that. What's the layout and what are the contrasts? I know there's a city, but there's also beaches and there's hills.

LL: Oh, you must go there [laughs].

LA: Oh my God, I mean, I'm desperate. Absolutely. I'm like, "Condé Nast Traveler, send me, please."

LL: Well, it is one of the world's great cities because it contains so much geographically such a tiny area. You know, the island of Hong Kong itself is very small, I think seven miles from end to end. And that is your kind of futuristic city, but it also has beaches and amazing, beautiful walks. And then opposite it is the Peninsula of Kowloon, which sort of abuts the mainland. It joins China proper. And Kowloon has a more working class background. There are docks [laughs] and sort of warehouses and, you know, factories and all that kind of stuff.

And then next to that is the New Territories. And the New Territories is the largest area. It's a lot more rural villages and countryside and even crops and stuff like that.

You know, it has everything. Sort of extraordinary country parts, this Blade Runner-like city and everything else. I have to admit that I too, before I... even though I lived... I grew up in Hong Kong and I lived there and I reported there as a, as a young journalist, I too realized when I was writing the book that I who thought I knew Hong Kong so well, I didn't... you know, there were lots of parts of Hong Kong that I had never been to.

LA: You know, since those protests and since the COVID lockdown, which were incredibly strict in Hong Kong. It has started to open up to the world again. And we had an editor from Traveler go there a few months ago, and it was the first time she'd been there in about, I think about a decade, 15... maybe 15 years. And I know that she had a wonderful time and she was getting reacquainted with the city and also a changed city. You know, obviously you haven't been there like super recently, but how... What is Hong Kong today? What is the Hong Kong of 2023? Is it becoming more of a Chinese city or what, what is it like?

LL: I mean it's definitely becoming more of a Chinese city. At the moment, on October the 1st, they just had China's National Day and all the streets have been covered with, you know, Chinese, flags, red flags and sort of patriotic signs. And those have been up, you know, for several weeks. So I think there's more overt signaling of China's presence and China's control. And so many Hong Kongers have left, but it is, you know, it is still a fantastic city. You know, Hong Kong is still a great travel destination. But I think, you know, travelers who go there should just... You know, [laughs] it's a tricky thing, isn't it? Because particularly travel writers and journalists are being given free trips to go there and to report on it and to say, "You know, Hong Kong's back to normal. Everything's fine. It's still a great city." But it's never, [laughs] it has changed.

LA: Yeah.

LL: And, you know, something has shifted. The center of gravity has shifted. And that I, I think, is quite irrevocable.

LA: What's it like crossing between Hong Kong and China as a tourist? I mean, I guess that's not an experience that you necessarily quite had, but what- what's it like to go between the two?

LL: Well, when I was younger, the difference was so marked. So I actually used to cross a lot over the land border, and go by train. I'd often go from Hong Kong to Beijing by train 'cause I love train journeys.

LA: And objectively, that sounds like a fantastic train journey [laughs].

LL: [laughs] It's a great train journey. And you know, so long to read and talk to people and just hang out. It's just a really good way to see China. But in those days, when you crossed the border, it felt so different. You know, Hong Kong was this sort of bustling, massive, sort of a modern metropolis. And when you got over the border, everything felt shabbier. It felt smaller. It felt older. Uh, a little bit, you know, all the infrastructure was kind of falling apart. It was louder. [laughs] It was just different.

And then in recent years, what has happened has been China has invested a lot of money building up those cities along, um, the south coast, places like Zhuhai and those border cities. And now if you stand in Hong Kong and look over the border to China, it's almost like it's been reversed. You're looking at these sort of massive gleaming cities with skyscrapers built like people... by people like, you know, Norman Foster, you know, these world-famous architects. And, uh, you know, a- as Hong Kongers, [laughs] you know, you... there's almost this displacement, this idea, "Oh," [laughs] you know, uh, our situations seem to be a little bit reverse, at least sort of in terms of, um, how the cities look. So I think, um, that is shifting and it will continue to shift.

LA: A little bit earlier when we were talking about the protests and the national security law. The, um, goalposts are always moving in terms of what's legal and what's not. As a visitor and as a tourist, what should people know before they visit Hong Kong, and is it safe as a tourist or, or is it one set of rules for visitors and another for residents?

LL: I mean, a lot of those rules were designed to stop political protests and stop, uh, political mobilization. And so I think they're less likely to apply to tourists unless you're going there to [laughs] protest or mobilize with people. There have been cases, um, where tourists who took part in the protests in 2019 have been arrested and prosecuted for that. But, uh, you know, given the fact that there's almost no protests in Hong Kong now, I think the likelihood of that happening moving forward i- i- i- i- is quite, is quite low. You know, I think it's safe to go as a tourist. I just ask that people read more widely, maybe they get a little bit acquainted with the city's recent history when they go there.

LA: Your book is called Indelible City and the way you describe it does make it sound like it is a place of such character and such individual identity. What do you see in its future?

LL: I would like to see Hong Kong people having the same rights and, you know, the same freedoms as people in, uh, other places as well. You know, it's impossible really to practice any kind of politics in Hong Kong today. And for a city that is actually a deeply political city that's impoverishing, I guess, uh, one of the stories that Hong Kongers were told about themselves by both British and Chinese rules is they're not political people, they're economic people, they only care about money. And that's not true. It's actually never been true.

Speaker 3: Free Hong Kong!

Protesters: Free Hong Kong!

Speaker 3: Free Hong Kong!

Protesters: Free Hong Kong!

LA: Louisa, thank you so much. I feel like you've brought Hong Kong alive for me in so many different ways that are both joyful and heartbreaking. And I hope I get to visit soon.

LL: [laughs] I hope you do too.

LA: Next week, we're taking a break for Thanksgiving, and we'll be back after that with a story from a writer who retraces the journey of two women who braved the Colorado River in the 1930s. See you then. I'm Lale Arikoglu and you can find me on Instagram @lalehannah. Our engineers are Jake Lummus and Gabe Quiroga. The show is mixed by Amar Lal. Jude Kampfner from Corporation for Independent Media is our producer. See you next week.