Reviewed: Louisa Lim, Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong, Text Publishing
March 2022. After a week of incredibly humid days where my family and I were constantly mopping up sweaty floor tiles, a familiar name popped up on my social media feed. A wall by the King of Kowloon, Tsang Tsou-choi—a controversial but undoubtedly one of the first street artists in Hong Kong—had re-emerged.
This work was located on Boundary Street, where the original British colonial boundary was drawn in Hong Kong, as the Qing Dynasty ceded land south of Boundary Street—Kowloon and Hong Kong Island—to the British in 1860. The rest of Hong Kong was leased to the British for 99 years from 1898 and named the ‘New Territories’, which the British later re-drew as the suburban borders. No-one was sure when the King had painted the wall, but it was suspected to be one of his last pieces before his death in 2007. The work re-emerged when large pieces of paint fell off the wall due to humidity, revealing what was underneath: patchy residues of the King’s iconic and ubiquitous ‘royal decree’ claiming sovereignty.
In a city where loss is now imminent, this re-emergence was treated by the public as a sign from none other than the King of Kowloon himself. It was a reminder of a past we shared, a resistance we once ignored, something we must remember.
• • •
Indelible City by Louisa Lim was released soon after the re-emergence of the King’s work. Following the tangential and fragmented narratives of the King of Kowloon—impeccable timing, as if Lim knew—and tracing contested histories of the city’s past and unpacking complexities both political and personal, the book is about protests, identity and resistance in Hong Kong as much as it is about memory.
As an English- and Mandarin-speaking journalist who grew up in Hong Kong, Lim openly contests the different, sometimes contradictory, aspects of her identity, creating palpable narratives to help readers grasp the complexity of the city. Between recollections of her childhood in an affluent suburb of Hong Kong, tracing her own family history in the context of British colonisation, to memories of working as a journalist during the city’s historical moments, she offers an account that is insightful and emotional as she navigates the roles of witness and participant. Lim opens the book with an experience she returns to again and again: referring to the day before Chinese National Day in 2019, where she’d been interviewing artists who were painting a protest banner, Lim recounts how she decided to pick up a paint brush and join them, blurring the line between her identities:
My dual identities as a Hong Konger and a journalist [have] been in a silent contest of wills, as I tried to safeguard my professional neutrality. This was becoming harder as the familiar world I had grown up in, with all its predictable certainties, collapsed around me.
This question of responsibility and ethics is present throughout. Intertwining her personal account with disjointed, often little-known histories of Hong Kong, the book is simultaneously memoir and alternative history. Many critics have reviewed Indelible City through the lens of protests and resistance, as it is undoubtedly relevant to present-day politics in Hong Kong. But its fluidity in interweaving journalistic, factual narration with the author’s intimate and personal stories points to a sort of complexity that is difficult to untangle.
Perhaps it is my own closeness to the subject, which Lim also explores as she deals with her own dilemma of writing about something so dear; or that Hong Kong itself presents many knotted truths. It is a feeling not unlike the title I’ve given this review, inspired by an interview Lim had with fashion designer William Tang—the Cantonese saying ‘一匹布咁長 yut put bo gam cheung’ (as long as a roll of fabric): a long, complicated story that exceeds explanation. It’s often used in lieu of explanation.
It is this dual state of entanglement and disjointedness in Indelible City that speaks to me the most. Lim does not try to create a linear story that directly makes sense to readers; rather she presents often-contested information—whether it be about the King of Kowloon’s many lives, Hong Kong pre-colonial histories, or her own journey of truth-seeking. Not only is Lim a brilliant storyteller, she also captures the tensions of her complex positions with subtle nuance: as a journalist, a Hong Konger with Singaporean and British parents, and finally, as someone who can no longer return to the city. And while my own upbringing and experience in the city differs from Lim’s, they provide me with the multiplicity I often seek in stories about Hong Kong.
To that end, I have often thought about the multiplicity that the label ‘Hong Konger’ engenders—both as an identity and our collective ambiguity towards it. The lack of understanding of our pre-colonial histories, or versions of history we learned to recite all too well, indoctrinated by the British and now the Chinese government—as pointed out in the book—means that we have had very little capacity to expand or challenge these ideas that have shaped the city’s identity, let alone ours.
According to Lim, the long histories of rebellion in Hong Kong took place as early as the thirteenth century by salt producers on Lantau Island. She also writes about various anti-British protests, including the failed but ambitious attempt by a Chinese baker in 1857 to murder Hong Kong’s European population by mixing arsenic in bread. These stories not only draw a throughline for our current and ongoing resistance, they also question the constructs of an identity many believe to be true and immutable: the so-called ‘Lion Rock Spirit’, or our (presumably) highly adaptive, hardworking trait.
Hong Kong is far from being just a city of migrants. Its pre-colonial history demands complexity in the way we recognise ourselves and our relationships to the region, both to land and sea. Beyond an identity that is only ever measured against economic means, these stories reveal the potential of active remembering even when the threat of disappearance looms.
• • •
The King of Kowloon has been an intergenerational memory in my family. In Kwun Tong, a suburb in Kowloon, my mother and her six siblings grew up seeing the King go around with a bucket of black ink, tirelessly filling up walls near the interim housing built by the British government to house Chinese refugees and the increasing population since the 1960s. Despite the King being a peculiar young man who seemed to be obsessively writing in public every day, my family never questioned his intention(s). Their living conditions were so poor that they thought he was simply another man who was driven to the brink of insanity. The area was largely neglected by the colonial government, with large families crammed in bunk beds in tiny flats of less than 10 square metres in horrific living conditions. What was supposed to be temporary housing became family homes for over a decade. It was rumoured that the King was a resident from one of the blocks, as his earliest pieces were remembered by onlookers from the neighbourhood, whom he’d never met.
On the other side of Hong Kong where I grew up in the 1990s, I too remember seeing the King’s distinctive calligraphy under bridges and on telephone booths, covering post boxes and park benches. Living conditions had improved for my family by then, and we lived in subsidised housing in a newly developed suburb in the New Territories. If one saw a dull grey wall installed by the local council, it was almost certain that the King’s work was somewhere underneath it. Everyone in the city more or less left him alone, except the authorities who would occasionally fine him for vandalism, while local councils would repeatedly cover his work with grey paint. The general public was largely indifferent to the King’s ‘art’ or his political statements, even as his claims are cemented into the very structures that hold the city together. Growing up, his presence was always felt, even though his words would only be visible for days at a time before being covered by another layer of grey paint.
Long before the Occupy movement and the Lennon Wall in 2014 (which consisted of Post-It notes covering public spaces with protest messages), the King of Kowloon was actively occupying space as he made his claim for sovereignty. Besides the artistic value of his work, this now reads even more clearly as a form of resistance. For decades, however, most Hong Kongers did not take notice or interest in the King’s intention as we were probably too preoccupied with surviving the high costs of living, the 1997 handover, and everything else that was created by capitalist colonial power(s).
As Lim explores in Indelible City, there was a shift in public sentiment towards the King of Kowloon leading up to the handover. She meticulously interviews almost everyone who was known to have worked with the King at the height of his ‘career’: from the curator of his first exhibition and an advertising creative who made the King a household name through a TV ad for cleaning products, to the rapper and street artist MC Yan, who had been one of his few collaborators. The shift occurred partly due to public recognition, where people started understanding their cultural significance after consistently seeing his works everywhere for more than 30 years.
By 2019, 12 years after the King’s passing, occupation of public space has become a common tool for mass resistance. From large-scale protests, massive wall murals and paste-ups to homemade stickers that have now found their way into public bathrooms, restaurants and shopping malls, Hong Kongers have learned to enact their resistance by occupying public spaces everywhere. From underground tunnels, footbridges, post boxes, bus stops and roadside bollards, political slogans in black spray paint are ubiquitous. Even on social media, graphics of protests would overwhelm the daily scroll. The King of Kowloon’s works may have long been painted over, but his spirit remains.
I visited Boundary Street as soon as I heard about the re-emergence of the King of Kowloon. With two cameras in hand trying to capture as much as I could, I felt silly, but I was not alone; other Hong Kongers had turned out in flocks with their cameras too. It was the ephemeral nature of the work coupled with its location, marking the persistent condition of Hong Kong being on ‘borrowed time’ in a ‘borrowed place’, echoing cultural theorist Ackbar Abbas, who describes Hong Kong as a culture that was at its strongest when it was edging towards disappearance.1 In post-2019 Hong Kong, this anxiety brought about by the threat of disappearance may be most significant, but it was the King’s spectral return that reminds us of an imagination bigger than our own.
Under a footbridge only a few steps away from the King’s wall, there are painted squares in shades of grey. I do not need to know what had been written beneath those painted squares—Hong Kongers from all corners of the world remember. The pro-democratic messages of 2019 and words for freedom, etched onto every surface of the indelible city, will never be forgotten. •
Nikki Lam is a Hong Kong-born, Narrm-based artist-curator who explores hybridity, memory and time through moving images. She’s currently co-director of Hyphenated Projects.