I was destined to be a Hong Konger when my grandfather risked his life in 1953 to take refuge in colonial Hong Kong. He was one of the few members of his landowning family to have survived the catastrophic Three-Anti and Five-Anti Campaigns, which Mao Zedong had launched all across China shortly after the communist victory four years earlier to rid his party of political opponents on a national scale. As China plunged into the dark ages famine, repression, and power struggle, my grandfather would do in the British colony — a thriving capitalist paradise and safe haven from Beijing’s authoritarianism — what refugees of his time could never have done back in China: working hard to secure a better future for his four children.
Then some four decades flew by. A last-generation British Hong Konger, I was born during the waning years before the transfer of our territory’s sovereignty on July 1, 1997, from Britain to China in accordance with a 1984 deal the two great powers had reached behind closed doors. Handover Day came to pass when I was a little kid: The Union Jack fell and the Five-Star Red Flag rose; Governor Chris Patten waved goodbye and Chief Executive Tung Chee-Hwa was sworn into office; Hong Kong ceased to be a Crown Colony and became a Chinese Special Administrative Region.
Our neighbor Macau followed suit and became a part of China in December 1999. Pro-Beijing voices celebrated these episodes as a tearful reunion. On television and in the classroom, I’d be encouraged to embrace a Chinese identity. I’d be taught how to sing the “March of the Volunteers.” I’d be told to be proud of China’s so-called “peaceful rise.” Except I never really understood how a colony initially seized in 1841 resulting from a war between two long-bygone empires could possibly “return,” without even the consent of its people, to a nation-state founded more than a century later, in 1949. Hong Kong and China couldn’t be more different.
Growing up in this vibrant international metropolis nicknamed the “Pearl of the Orient” where east met west was a dream. Below the Lion Rock — as the now-obsolete saying went — were unlimited opportunity up for grabs. I came to learn that the place I grew up in was unique because of its diversity and “in-betweenness.” Like the former Portuguese colony, Hong Kong had been able to preserve the Cantonese language and Traditional Chinese characters as it’d been unaffected by oppressive communist rule. Similarly, it’d adopted the British common law system and the separation of powers. All this was supposed to be kept unchanged by Hong Kong’s “One Country, Two Systems” constitutional framework, formulated by Deng Xiaoping to lure Taiwan into unification. Albeit worried, we had at least some reason to believe China would leave us alone.
Like my childhood, unfortunately, the miracle of Hong Kong came slowly to an end. To me — and perhaps to most Hong Kongers — the turning point was 2003. The devastating SARS epidemic spread over from China early that year and disseminated quickly, taking away hundreds of lives. Until the World Health Organization lifted the travel advisory in late May against Hong Kong, it remained virtually paralyzed for months. All classes were suspended. Seldom going outdoors, I spent most of my accidental break following the news. It was an eventful time not just locally but also abroad, and watching the American-led invasion of Iraq play out was especially haunting. It helped cultivate my interest in current affairs that has since stuck with me.
That same year saw the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government’s notorious attempt to legislate a “national security” law, which deeply threatened what we had for decades, even under colonial rule, enjoyed: the freedom of speech, press, protest, and association. Known as Article 23, it would, if passed, allow authorities to arrest dissidents — for committing acts of “treason, secession, sedition, [and] subversion” — without a court warrant. It wasn’t popular.
A huge demonstration took place on the handover’s sixth anniversary, leading to the bill’s immediate withdrawal. Anger was also directed at the economic downturn and the administration’s poor handling of the SARS outbreak. Two cabinet officials resigned, followed eventually by Tung before the completion of his term. It was a decisive victory for the people. I’m proud to have been, as a primary schoolboy, one of the half-million Hong Kongers who wore black and stood up against Chinese tyranny in that hot summer afternoon of July 1, 2003.
By the time I was eight or nine, I remember we were old enough at school to elect our own class monitors, whose main job was to maintain classroom discipline. And then there were the prefects, who enforced school-wide regulations around campus to catch others breaking rules like running indoors, riding the elevator, or entering forbidden floors. They were more formidable and appointed based on “conduct grades.” Loud, defiant, and full of questions, I was never the “model student” in the eyes of my teachers and hence didn’t qualify to become a prefect. But I was passionate about running for office, so I worked hard to canvass every vote from my classmates, winning most elections — some more contentious than others — to become a class monitor.
Except the system was rigged. When class monitors like me wrote prefects up for misbehavior, the latter could dodge lunchtime detention by invoking their shift duties, no matter how apathetic they usually were about their position or how infrequent they’d been showing up to their stints. But when prefects, in turn, sought revenge by writing me up, then I’d be in trouble: Not only must I face punishment, my integrity and competence would also be in doubt. This policy, I tried in vain to argue, made no sense. I was still too young to grasp just how inherently unjust it was to give unelected officials complete power to override elected ones, but I knew something wasn’t right. It was my lesson through firsthand experience on the value of democracy.
Transferring to Renaissance College, an international school, in August 2006 didn’t detach me from local politics. In retrospect, I consider witnessing the continuous downfall of Hong Kong a significant part of my adolescence. Although the Basic Law — the territory’s constitutional document — guaranteed universal suffrage “in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress,” that promise would be broken twice, in 2007 and again in 2012. Likewise, Beijing also insisted on retaining a British-era arrangement in Hong Kong that permitted only half of the Legislative Council to be directly elected, so while the opposition camp consistently received a majority of votes, it consistently won a minority of seats.
Not only was the Hong Kong government unrepresentative of its people, it also stubbornly pushed for economic, political, and social integration with China. Taxpayer money was often spent on large, overpriced infrastructure projects to facilitate transportation across the border, rather than on eliminating more urgent local problems like housing shortage and inadequate healthcare. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s cultural life was diminishing, for even the most historic landmarks with a colonial heritage were demolished one after another in the name of urban redevelopment. Although Hong Kongers took to the streets more frequently, the power of protests altogether seemed to have weakened. Among the demonstrations I participated were those between late 2009 and early 2010 against the construction of the Hong Kong Express Rail Link connecting Guangzhou and Shenzhen, which proved fruitless.
My most memorable times in secondary school were my five years as a Chinese debater, the latter three of which I served as team captain. But I wasn’t always the best and the brightest. It was in late 2008 when I first started out, and back then I didn’t do much other than delivering McDonald’s takeaways to senior members. Rising through the ranks took hard work and a passion to grab each and every opportunity that arose. I loved collaborating with my team; together we’d research materials, write speeches, and hone arguments in order to present a convincing case for the wide range of debate motions we were given. Each of my teammate’s style and personality were unique, but if there was one thing in common among all of us, it’d be our belief that with enough diligence, even the most flawed of speakers could rise up to be strong.
Our best season was 2011–12, when I led the team to victory in the Hong Kong International Schools Chinese Debating Tournament. That qualified us to visit Taipei in June 2012 where we competed in the prestigious Asia Pacific Chinese-English Bilingual Debate Championship — my first overseas competition. There we managed to win every single debate from the preliminaries to the semifinal, followed by a conclusive 5:0 in the final, making us the undisputed gold medalist. Many have wondered about my deep commitment to debate, but what I’ve learned from those hours practicing alone in front of the mirror has carried meaning throughout my life: the importance of determination and the tenacity to push others forward regardless of skill.
At the age of 17, I bade Hong Kong farewell and moved halfway across the world to attend New York University. I initially planned to double major in journalism and politics, though I soon realized I was no fan of the latter’s overemphasis on theoretical frameworks and quantitative approaches. History, which I’d taken as an I.B. Higher Level subject, was where my interests truly lay. Coincidentally, I wasn’t too successful in landing reporting internships. I applied to study away at N.Y.U.’s Washington, D.C. satellite campus for Fall 2014 in hopes of breaking into political journalism in the nation’s capital, but as luck would have it, I was only accepted to work at one place: the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
I’d just arrived in the heart of the American Empire when Beijing denied universal suffrage in Hong Kong for the third time in late August 2014. It sparked the large-scale Umbrella Movement within a month, which would shut down the city’s major throughways for 79 days. On the night of October 1, I co-organized a demonstration to the White House from the local branch of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office with fellow Hong Kongers, backing the fight for democracy at home and calling for U.S. support.
Throughout the rest of the semester, I took classes and conducted research at the museum on weekdays then went back to New York almost every weekend to help coordinate rallies in solidarity with Hong Kong. The Greyhound rides along I-95 were exhausting, but it was about standing up for human rights and democracy, which made it all worthwhile.
Alas, not all stories have happy endings. On December 11, following a prolonged struggle, police cleared the Harcourt Road bastion in Admiralty, the largest and most symbolic of the three major sit-in protest sites. My grandfather, 87, died of pneumonia on that very same day. The Umbrella Movement, although unprecedented on Chinese soil since the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, ended quietly without winning any concessions. To me it marked the end of an epoch: My grandfather and his generation of refugees left everything behind for Hong Kong to escape the Chinese Communist Party; our generation resisted the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong but our efforts came to naught. This all came as a rude political awakening to many, and it left a mark 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 affirmed my aspiration to become a historian — one who’d uncover and retell stories to contextualize the problems we face today. After taking “Global Asia” with David Ludden in early 2015, I embarked upon my first major project under his supervision as my senior honors thesis that investigated how the rise and evolution of Cantopop reflected four transformative decades in Hong Kong. Above all, I wanted to counter Beijing’s effort to undermine the unique culture of my hometown.
With full support from a DURF Grant, I traveled back to Hong Kong over the winter break of 2015–16 where I visited several libraries and collections. My final work, entitled “Music Below the Lion Rock: Social and Political Change through the Lens of Transnational Cantopop, 1964–2004,” received two additional accolades: the Helen M. Jones Prize in History and the N.Y.U. Best History Honors Thesis Award of 2016.
For quite some time in the post-Umbrella era, Hong Kong’s democracy crusade seemed directionless and miserable. No one had a long-term plan in mind. Amid the stalemate, core student leaders of the protests, including my friends Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, came together in April 2016 to establish a progressive, movement-based youth political party named Demosisto. It was in our conversations about its vision around that time when Joshua first brought up the uncertainty of July 1, 2047, to me: The Basic Law guarantees Hong Kong’s capitalist system to remain unchanged for 50 years but indicates nothing after that point. The issue was always at the back of my mind, but until then I’d felt that it was too early to think seriously about it.
That summer, I returned to Hong Kong again to campaign for Nathan, who was running for the Legislative Council election in September. I worked as part of a team of idealistic and enthusiastic student-activists, many of whom — from successfully fighting against Moral and National Education in 2012 to leading the Umbrella Movement in 2014 — were 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 territory’s legislature.
We spoke increasingly more about a potential referendum to resolve Hong Kong’s 2047 crisis. But that raised a crucial question: Why was there no referendum in the first place to decide Hong Kong’s fate in 1997? I thought it worthy of investigation, so since resuming my studies at N.Y.U. in Fall 2016, now as a graduate student, I expanded my scope of research from cultural history to legal and diplomatic history. I proposed to write my master’s thesis on how Hong Kongers, as a colonized people, came to lose our right of self-determination against the backdrop of global decolonization and the Cold War. Advised by Jane Burbank, who co-taught my “Empires, States, and Political Imagination” class, the project would make an important contribution not only to the historical literature but also to Hong Kong’s political discourse.
As the debate gained traction in late 2016, Joshua and I traded rhetorical blows in a series of newspaper editorials with Chinese government officials. In one Wall Street Journal article, we argued that Beijing inverted history to deny self-determination as a universal right, and in another published by the Hong Kong Free Press, we cited archival documents to show how, in 1972, Hong Kong was wrongly removed from the U.N. list of Non-Self-Governing Territories.
At around the same time, Joshua and I began working with the Liber Research Community, a local think tank founded by young scholars, to launch “Decoding Hong Kong’s History.” It aimed to promote historical consciousness among Hong Kongers by collecting, digitizing, and analyzing declassified files related to Hong Kong’s complicated past. We were very glad to receive endorsements from acclaimed scholars and public intellectuals including Jerome Cohen of N.Y.U., Larry Diamond of Stanford, Benny Tai of H.K.U., and Lian Yi-zheng, former editor-in-chief for the Hong Kong Economic Journal. Since it was officially unveiled in February 2017, the public history project has crowdfunded over HK$202,000, enabling us to frequently visit archival collections around the world.
Most students of history, I think, have dreamed of being in the same room as the historical figures they study — not necessarily to interrogate them for facts, but just to get to know them a little better as human beings beyond who they are in books. I’m lucky to have done that a few times.
Having met Patten the year before, I had a conversation in February 2017 with his immediate predecessor, Lord David Wilson, 81, who is the only other living former Governor of Hong Kong. He continues to be remembered by pro-democracy Hong Kongers for doing Beijing a favor when he delayed direct Legislative Council elections from 1988 to 1991 — after the Basic Law was adopted — so that the future constitution of Hong Kong would provide fewer provisions for democratization. Despite our profound differences, the exchange was a nice reminder for me that in the age of Trump and Twitter, people with political disagreements could still have a polite discussion in real life.
It’s never been easy to defend freedom in the face of authoritarianism, but the months that followed were especially grueling. On March 26, 2017, Beijing selected Carrie Lam, who’d served five years as Hong Kong’s hardliner No. 2, to be our next chief executive. In light of this and Trump’s isolationism, I co-authored a New York Times op-ed with Joshua on May 3 that demanded more U.S. support for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act — a bipartisan bill introduced by Senators Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, and Ben Cardin — to ensure our hometown would remain at least the freest territory under Chinese control. But President Xi Jinping’s relentless crackdown on civil society persisted. “Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government . . . or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland,” he warned on Hong Kong’s 20th handover anniversary, “is an act that crosses the red line.”
Then, on July 14, the Hong Kong government mounted a successful legal challenge — just one day after the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo died of liver cancer in jail — to remove Nathan from the legislature for quoting Mahatma Gandhi when he was sworn into office the previous October. Citing Beijing’s “interpretation” of the Basic Law, the High Court also disqualified five other opposition lawmakers for not “sincerely and solemnly” pledging allegiance to the Chinese regime. Outraged yet helpless, I watched it all unfold from Los Angeles, where I was writing and completing some archival research.
I submitted the final version of my master’s thesis, entitled “Pearl of the Orient Reconstructed: How Great Power Politics Shaped Hong Kong’s Sovereignty” on August 16, less than ten hours before the Court of Appeal back home overturned an earlier ruling and sent Joshua, Nathan, along with our friend Alex Chow, to jail for six to eight months. For their leadership in 2014 of the Umbrella Movement, the trio became Hong Kong’s first political prisoners since 1997.
After graduating from N.Y.U., I moved to Toronto in September 2017. I was invited as a visiting scholar for one year to the University of Toronto. Since then, I’ve been working independently at the Richard Charles Lee Canada-Hong Kong Library, which is the largest overseas collection of books, periodicals, and documents related to Hong Kong. The wonderful opportunity gives me the much needed flexibility and resources to further my own research on Hong Kong without the burden of attending classes, doing required readings, and chasing coursework deadlines. For the most part, I’m working to expand on my master’s thesis to take a longer-view on Hong Kong’s relation with the world. Meanwhile, before his temporary release, Joshua has been writing a Guardian column, “Protests from Prison,” from behind bars, which I’ve helped edit and translate.
Like many, I’ve always falsely conceived Canada of little more than an American backyard and overlooked its fascinating history. Coming here to learn about the nation’s pivotal role in influencing Hong Kong’s past has changed my view. Many Canadians, with unique visions of what kind of country Canada should be on the international stage, has charted its course in extraordinary ways. One such larger-than-life figure was Brian Mulroney, with whom I had a chance to meet in April 2018.
Almost three decades earlier, the prime minister emerged as one of Beijing’s harshest critics in the wake of Tiananmen and subsequently opened Canadian doors to Hong Kongers horrified by the then-impending handover. He made a daring point of protest two years after the slaughter by not going to China but to Hong Kong and stayed — unusually long for a sitting head of government — five days. Paying homage to this episode, a Festival Canada ′91 poster inscribing the names of Mulroney and Wilson hangs in my office at the library. For all that he was doing, the South China Morning Post proclaimed Mulroney “a friend in time of need” on May 25, 1991. “It was vital that Beijing be sent a signal that the course they follow in the former British colony when it came to human rights was a real concern to the West,” as he wrote in his 2007 memoirs. “I like to think that this well-timed visit raised Canada’s profile in Hong Kong at an important point in its history.”
In May 2018, I was elected as a member of Demosisto’s eight-member standing committee. Separately, having received a generous, renewable five-year fellowship, I’ll begin a Ph.D. in History at Georgetown University in August to study with James A. Millward. My proposed topic of dissertation research, “Exodus,” examines an international humanitarian disaster that has troubled Mulroney, Wilson, and many other political leaders of their time: the impact of the three Indochina Wars — especially the Vietnamese boat people refugee crisis from 1975 to 2000 — on Hong Kong. I look forward once again to living in Washington, D.C. at such a turbulent time that is today.
The path ahead for me as both a historian and an activist is full of challenges, but never will I forget what has motivated me to come this far — a genuine love for the place I’ll forever call home: Hong Kong.