——Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
I was destined to be a Hong Konger when my grandfather risked his life in the early 1950s to take refuge in colonial Hong Kong. He was one of the very few members of his large, landowning family to survive the catastrophic Three-anti and Five-anti Campaigns, which Mao Zedong had launched across China shortly after the communist victory 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 did 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 himself and his children.
Then four decades or so flew by. A last-generation British Hong Konger, I was born during the waning years before the transfer on July 1, 1997, of our territory’s sovereignty from Britain to China in accordance with a 1984 deal the two powers had reached behind closed doors. Handover day came to pass when I was only a little child: 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, two years after we did. Like the former Portuguese colony, Hong Kong had preserved the long-existing Cantonese language and the use of Traditional Chinese characters as it’d been unaffected by oppressive communist rule. Similarly, we adopted the British common law system, contingent upon the separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. 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 wished to 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 its travel warning from us in May, Hong Kong remained virtually paralyzed for months. All classes were suspended. Seldom going outdoors, I spent most of my break sitting around to follow the news. It was an eventful time not just in Hong Kong but also abroad; watching the American-led invasion of Iraq was especially unforgettable. This helped cultivate my interest in current affairs that has since stayed with me.
By the time I was eight or nine, 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 prohibited 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, and I remember working 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 wrote prefects up for misbehavior, the latter could dodge lunchtime detention by invoking their shift duties, no matter how apathetic they generally were about their position or how infrequent they’d been showing up to their stints. But when prefects in turn sought revenge by writing class monitors like me up, then I’d be in trouble: Not only must I face punishment, my competence would also be in doubt. This policy, I tried repeatedly in vain to argue, made no sense. I was perhaps 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 in the value of democracy.
Not only was the government of Hong Kong unrepresentative of its people, it also repeatedly pushed for economic, political, and social integration with China. Taxpayer money was often spent on large, overpriced infrastructure projects to facilitate 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 with a colonial heritage were demolished one after another in the name of urban development. Although Hong Kongers took to the streets more frequently, the power of demonstrations altogether seemed to have weakened. Among the protest movements I participated were those between late 2009 and early 2010 against the construction of the Hong Kong Express Rail Link, which was unable to overturn the project.
Without a doubt, 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 2008 when I first started out, and back then I didn’t do much other than delivering McDonald’s takeaways to my senior members. Rising through the ranks took hard work and integrity, a passion to grab each and every opportunity that arose. I loved working with my team. Together we would 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 was so unique, but if there was one thing in common among all of us, it’d be that with enough diligence even the most flawed of speakers could rise up to be strong.
Our best year 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, and then 5:0 in the final, making us the undisputed gold medalist. Many have always 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 belief to push others forward regardless of skill or experience.
At the age of 17, I bade Hong Kong farewell and moved halfway across the world to attend New York University in the Big Apple, where I’d since considered my home away from home. I initially planned to double major in journalism and politics, but it was not long before I discovered history was where my interests truly lied. Coincidentally, I hadn’t been 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 gaining some experience in political journalism, but as luck would have it, I was only accepted by one place: the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
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 in scale on Chinese soil since the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, ended soon thereafter without gaining any concessions from Beijing. To me it signaled the end of an era: 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.
I started to become more politically active, but for quite some time in the post-Umbrella era, Hong Kong’s democracy crusade seemed directionless and miserable. No one had in mind a long-term plan on how to keep the fire burning. Amid the stalemate, core students leaders of the Umbrella Movement, including my friends Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, came together in April 2016 to form Demosisto — a progressive, movement-based youth political party. It was around the same time when Joshua first seriously brought up to me, during our conversations about the party’s vision, the uncertainty of July 1, 2047: The Basic Law guarantees our capitalist system to remain unchanged for 50 years but indicates nothing after that point. I’d always known about this, but felt until then that it was too early to think seriously about the issue.
That summer, I returned to Hong Kong again to campaign for Nathan, 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.
We spoke increasingly more about fighting for a referendum to resolve Hong Kong’s 2047 crisis. But to me, that raised a crucial question: Why was there no referendum in the first place to decide how the territory would decolonize in 1997? Thus since resuming my studies at N.Y.U., now as a full-time graduate student, I expanded my scope of research from cultural history to legal and diplomatic history. I proposed to write my master’s thesis investigating how Hong Kongers, as a formerly colonized people, came to lose our right to 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 for many years to come.
As the debate gained traction, Joshua and I traded rhetorical blows in a series of newspaper editorials with Chinese government officials. In one Wall Street Journal article, we argued Beijing inverted history to deny self-determination as a universal right, and in another published by the Hong Kong Free Press, we used archival documents to show how Hong Kong was wrongly removed in 1972 from the U.N. list of Non-Self-Governing Territories.
Driven by the desire to promote historical consciousness among Hong Kongers, Joshua and I in November 2016 began collaborating with the Liber Research Community, a local think-tank comprised of young scholars, to launch “Decoding Hong Kong’s History.” An ambitious, long-term venture to collect, digitize, and analyze declassified files about related to Hong Kong from archives around the world, it received 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 of the Hong Kong Economic Journal. Since it was officially unveiled in February 2017, the project has crowdfunded over US$25,000 from public donations. It enabled us to frequently visit records collections such as the U.K. National Archives in Outer London, the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Md., as well as the Nixon and Reagan Libraries in the Los Angeles area.
It’s never been easy to advocate freedom in the face of authoritarianism, but the months that followed were especially grueling. On March 26, Beijing selected Carrie Lam, who had served as Hong Kong’s 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 called for U.S. support of 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, the most severe since the Mao years, 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.”
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 three of Hong Kong’s first political prisoners since 1997. I’ve since then been translating for Joshua his monthly column, “Protests from Prison,” that he writes behind bars for the Guardian. Upon graduation, I moved to Toronto to begin my term for the 2017–18 academic year as a visiting scholar to the University of Toronto, where I’m currently expanding on my own research on the history of Hong Kong’s sovereignty at the Richard Charles Lee Canada-Hong Kong Library.
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 a place called Hong Kong I’ll forever call home.