Struggling With The Censor Within

As the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China approaches, two longtime participants in the city’s cultural scene reflect on how it’s changed.

An anti-extradition protester waves a black flag outside Hong Kong's Legislative Council Complex on July 1, 2019. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

Anne Henochowicz is a writer and translator living in the Washington, D.C. area. Her work has appeared in Dissent, Mānoa, and The Washington Post. She is the former Translations Editor at China Digital Times.

July 1 has traditionally been a day of protest in Hong Kong — in past years, the anniversary of the former British colony’s handover to China has drawn hundreds of thousands onto the streets. In 2003, half a million people came out to protest proposed anti-subversion legislation. In 2012, protesters succeeded in staving off proposed “national education” in Hong Kong schools. Protesters occupied the Legislative Council floor for several hours on July 1, 2019, in demonstrations against an extradition bill that were cut short by COVID-19. Then, amid the lockdowns, the PRC passed the National Security Law on June 30, 2020, with immediate repercussions for political organizations, the media, activists and protesters. Now for many, simply deciding whether to stay in the city they call home has become a day-by-day proposition.

Still, the creative life of the city goes on, even as it is diminished by the political climate. Raids and arrests have shut down the independent media outlets Apple Daily and Stand News, but writers are still publishing their work any way they can, in Hong Kong or overseas. Indie musicians keep playing shows, shaking off unwelcome visits from city officials. Miniature replicas of the Goddess of Democracy popped up at Chinese University, in remembrance of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the larger version of the statue that was removed from campus last year.

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the handover to China, two longtime members of Hong Kong’s cultural scene spoke to me about how life in the city has changed.

Karen Cheung is a journalist formerly with Hong Kong Free Press, and the author of “The Impossible City,” a new memoir that grapples with her identity as a Hong Konger and what that means as Beijing subsumes the city under its authoritarian rule.

Hon Lai Chu, a 2010 resident of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is best known for her award-winning, hyperreal fiction, including the short story collection “The Kite Family,” translated into English by Andrea Lingenfelter; she also writes essays and newspaper columns about everyday life in the city.

Anne Henochowicz: What do you want someone who knows nothing about Hong Kong to know about it?

Hon Lai Chu: I think Hong Kong culture has really changed since [the Umbrella Movement of] 2014, or even earlier, before the handover in 1997. When I was in elementary school, there were so many newspapers in Hong Kong.

Every paper, just like the Oriental Daily nowadays, would have a supplement, and that of course would have more popular fiction, but also literary work, like [work by] Xi Xi. The editors knew how to balance their cultural offerings.

So I think Hong Kong culture was more diverse before 1997. After that, it really changed. Of course, this was also in part because people’s reading habits changed as they gravitated away from physical papers and books and toward the internet. 

Karen Cheung: When I was growing up, I was too busy studying to know anything else. The grown-ups would say, “Hong Kong is a cultural desert,” because they remembered how big Hong Kong’s pop culture was in the ’80s. That gradually petered out over the following two decades.

I had a professor at Hong Kong University who invited all these writers and musicians [to class] to show you just how much there is here. One year they invited Jacky Cheung [one of the “Four Heavenly Kings” of Cantopop music] to speak, and for some reason they asked me to host. I think my parents were proudest of me then!

“I am worried about the next generation of people who will grow up with those preexisting lines in their head about what they can and can’t say.”
Karen Cheung

An entire chapter of my book is about the underground music scene. People are like, I don’t understand why you put in all these interviews with bands. Actually, there’s no reason, I just really wanted to do it. They’ve been a very big part of my life for the past ten years.

Henochowicz: I love that you put that in there. When I finished reading your book I went and listened to David Boring, and now I’m obsessed. I followed them on Instagram, and I saw that one of their shows was raided by the police last year. It’s not clear why. Maybe there’s no reason why.

Cheung: So I was a journalist, but I also started an independent arts and music magazine with friends that lasted for about two and a half years. Then in June 2019 [when protests began against a bill that would permit extradition to mainland China] no one had the motivation to do it anymore. But we interviewed a lot of independent artists, and some were involved in both art and activism.

Henochowicz: You could say that art is a form of activism.

Cheung: A lot of the musicians I interviewed are politically aligned with the movements in 2014 or 2019, but some of them started from the 2011 Occupy Movement under the HSBC building, so their roots are more anarchist. And other people are younger and they’re more what the state would like to call “radical” in terms of their ideology.

It’s not that they wear their politics on their sleeve or anything. It’s just that the authorities have always hated and targeted these underground music shows. There was really no need to send a bunch of undercover food and hygiene officers to raid their shows. We see that more often now, the authorities cracking down on anything they want.

Henochowicz: Hon, do you see this sort of alignment with protest movements in the literary scene as well?

Hon: When the National Security Law went into effect in 2020, it had a clear impact on literature. Some book projects can’t even find publishers anymore. And there’s censorship — not from some bureaucratic office, but an internal censor in your mind. 

One good thing is that there are a lot of young writers who are creating because of this [political] pressure. A lot of novels have come out in the past few years. There are even books about the protests that have been published in Taiwan. Those authors may not be able to return to Hong Kong.

I think Karen is very brave to speak out. For me, even now, I’m not sure that I’m speaking freely, even in this conversation. I sense the fear in the bottom of my heart.

I believe we should write the truth. The truth is so important, especially now. But I know that my writing is less truthful than it was before. It’s not that I’m lying, it’s that I don’t know what I should and shouldn’t say. I was so sad when I heard this censoring voice inside me. But I’m dealing with this struggle through writing.

I’m going to stay in Hong Kong. I have no interest in being anywhere else. But I am also mentally prepared. Maybe one day, in the very early morning, the police will come to my home and say, “You wrote this, you’re under arrest.” I have a weekly column [in Ming Pao], and another in a magazine. If I were writing fiction, that would be safer. But I’m not.

Cheung: Every time somebody says that they’re leaving, every time somebody says that they’re staying here, it becomes a headline. It’s like, good for them, it’s probably very difficult for them to have made this decision, and then, oh, I guess that’s one less person whose works I’m going to see around or who is going to be physically in the city with me.

We can’t necessarily know what the impact is on our culture, but I think it will be very palpable in the next decade or so. Because it’s like you said, Hon, it’s not that there’s necessarily a censorship department telling you that there are things that you can and cannot write, it’s that you have this internal calculation happening in your head. 

“As an ordinary person, I want to be safe, but as a creator I want to move toward danger.”
Hon Lai Chu

We grew up in an environment where we could do and could say [what we wanted to], and [whether you did or not was] really a matter of skill. But we’re learning to dial it back. I am worried about the next generation of people who will grow up with those preexisting lines in their head about what they can and can’t say.

I feel safe and not safe at the same time. I feel not safe because my book is with a very big publisher, but I feel safer because I write in English. English is still not as important in Hong Kong in terms of the political discourse. Unless you’re writing a Bloomberg editorial, the government is not going to pay attention to you. But I’m also trying to figure out how to write fiction, because it could give me more plausible deniability.

Henochowicz: This conversation brings to mind the Causeway Bay publishers who were picked up by mainland police [in 2015]. I wonder if this self-censorship in writing started then.

Cheung: We’re constantly guessing the lines, and that definitely made people more scared to visit China. But that case was also kind of specific, because they had published work that was related to internal struggles within the Chinese Communist Party. It definitely did make people more scared, but I think it wasn’t anywhere to the level of 2020 with the National Security Law.

A lot of what I ended up writing [for Hong Kong Free Press and the New York Times] was taking the temperature of the city. I wouldn’t say it’s explicitly about politics, but I felt this huge distance between the way that people around me were feeling and the very clinical, newsy language that the newspapers and the headlines were describing what was happening here.

If I had the privilege to write for these papers, I want it to have a little bit more about how I was feeling and how I was experiencing this moment. And, you know, I have that question all the time, which is just: How useful is is it? If I’m just writing in English for people outside of the city, what is the use of it? Maybe they will be sympathetic toward us, but does it help the people around me? Have the words done anything for them?

Hon: The constant [barrage of] events of the past few years, like with the Causeway Bay booksellers, have been terrifying. On the other hand, we are all learning how to face our fear, so that our fear gradually becomes something we can control.

I’m of two minds: as an ordinary person, I want to be safe, but as a creator I want to move toward danger. I started out writing fiction. Of course [my stories] reflect recent events, but they’re safe, because the enforcers of the National Security Law have no idea what I’m writing about. But then I think, what’s the point? I find myself writing more essays in order to face that danger.

But I also understand where Karen is coming from. No one can read what we write if we’re all in jail.

Cheung: I have said this before and people think I’m joking, but I really don’t think I’m joking, which is that if I left Hong Kong, I’m not going to write about Hong Kong anymore. 

Hon: Why?

Cheung: Because I don’t want to write about a place from afar. Does that make sense? I can always use photographs, I can use memories, but when you’re not physically in a place, there is so much of the sensory elements [that you miss], like what the air feels like on your skin that day. I am constantly aware of how the air feels on my skin.

In Hong Kong it’s humid all the time, and it has such a palpable effect on how you feel when you walk out during the day. I’m not going to know what it feels like on my skin when I’m not here. All I’ll have to go with is a memory of what that air feels like. Maybe some people can do it, but I haven’t figured it out.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.