——Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
I was destined to be a Hong Konger when my grandfather risked his life to take refuge in colonial Hong Kong in the early 1950s. He was one of the very few in his large, landowning family to survive the catastrophic Three-anti and Five-anti Campaigns, which Mao Zedong had launched across mainland China shortly after the communist takeover. Born some four decades later, I was the last of British Hong Kongers before the inevitable transfer on July 1, 1997, of our city’s sovereignty from Britain to China.
The day of the handover had finally come when I was only a little child: the colonial flag fell and the red flag rose; Hong Kong ceased to be a colony and instead became a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China; Governor Chris Patten waved goodbye, and Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa took office. Chinese authorities and pro-Beijing voices in Hong Kong celebrated it as a tearful reunion. Except I never really understood how a colony initially seized in 1841 because of a war between two long-bygone imperial powers could possibly “return” to a nation-state founded more than a century later, in 1949.
Unfortunately most of these good things, just like my childhood, had slowly come to an end. To me—and perhaps to most Hong Kongers—the turning point was 2003: it was the first realization of crisis. The devastating SARS epidemic struck our city early that year and spread very quickly, taking away hundreds of lives. Until the World Health Organization lifted its travel warning from us, Hong Kong remained virtually paralyzed for months. Classes were suspended. I stayed home and spent hours following the news, both local and global. Seeing American troops began their invasion of Iraq was especially unforgettable. All this left a mark on me: to be more conscious of our society and our world.
That year also saw the Hong Kong government’s infamous attempt to legislate Article 23—known as the “national security law”—which deeply threatened what we had for many years, even under colonial rule, enjoyed: the freedom of speech and press. If passed, those voicing opposition could potentially be arrested, without a court warrant, for committing acts of “treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government.” It was tremendously unpopular. A huge demonstration took place on July 1, immediately leading to the bill’s withdrawal. Two top government officials resigned, eventually followed by Tung. It was a victory of the people. I am proud to have been, as a primary schoolboy, one of the half-million Hong Kongers who stood up that day.
Not only was the government of Hong Kong unrepresentative of its people, it has also repeatedly pushed for economic, political, and social integration with mainland China. Taxpayer money was often spent on large, overpriced infrastructure projects that facilitated transportation between these two places, rather than on eliminating such urgent local problems as housing storage and inadequate healthcare. Simultaneously, the culture of Hong Kong was diminishing, for even the most historical landmarks were demolished one after the other in the name of urban development. Although Hong Kongers took to the streets more frequently, the power of demonstrations altogether had weakened. Among the protest movements I participated were those from late 2009 to early 2010 against the construction of the Hong Kong Express Rail Link, which were unable to overturn the project.
Among my most memorable times in secondary school were certainly my five years as a Chinese debater, the latter three of which I served as team captain. For every debate, my teammates and I researched materials, wrote speeches, honed arguments, and practiced speaking to present a convincing case on numerous different issues. In June 2012, we were qualified to compete in the prestigious Asia Pacific Chinese-English Bilingual Debate Competition held in Taipei—my first overseas competition. There I managed to lead my team in winning every single debate from the preliminaries to the final, making us the champion. Many have always wondered about my deep commitment to debate, but what I have learned from it carried meaning throughout my life: the importance of determination and the belief to push others forward regardless of skill or experience.
At the age of 17, I bade farewell and moved halfway across the world to New York—where I have since considered my home away from home. Although I initially planned to study journalism and politics at New York University, it was not long before I discovered history was where my interests lied. When Beijing denied democracy in Hong Kong for the third time in August 2014, I had just arrived in Washington, D.C. for my study-away semester. The large-scale Umbrella Movement broke out a month later, which would occupy the streets in Hong Kong for 79 days. During that time I interned at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History during the week and traveled back to New York almost every weekend to help organize rallies in solidarity with Hong Kong.
Although the movement eventually failed to achieve genuine universal suffrage, it left a mark on many, just as it had on me. The feeling of consciously being a part of history as it unfolded was compelling; yet the worry that one day this may all become a part of the forgotten past was unsettling. It was the intertwining of these sentiments that inspired me to become a historian—one who would uncover and retell stories that contextualize the many problems we face as a society today.
I returned to Hong Kong again over the past summer to campaign for my friend Nathan Law, one of the core student leaders of the Umbrella Movement, who was running for the Legislative Council election of September 2016. I worked as part of a team of idealistic and enthusiastic student-activists, many of whom were, from successfully fighting in 2012 against Beijing’s plan for political indoctrination through introducing Moral and National Education in public schools to leading the Umbrella Movement in 2014, used to making history. Indeed history was made again when Nathan received 50,818 votes in the traditionally more conservative-leaning Hong Kong Island constituency and was elected, at age 23, as the youngest member ever in the city’s legislature.
Since resuming my studies at N.Y.U., now as a full-time graduate student, I have expanded my scope of research from cultural history to legal and diplomatic history. Currently, I am working on my M.A. thesis, in which I explore how Hong Kongers, as a former colonized people, came to lose their right to self-determination as a result of political competition between great powers. These findings, I believe, will be important not only for my own historical work but for shaping the political discourse in Hong Kong for many years to come.
The path ahead is rough, but never will I forget what has motivated me to come this far—a genuine love for the city I will forever call home.