Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Tammy Lai-Ming Ho offers a local’s view of a well-contextualised look at the territory’s once-unthinkable pro-democracy demonstrations

June 1, 2020
People hold candles in front of a backdrop showing  Beijing's Tiananmen Square during a vigil in Hong Kong on June 4, 2018
Source: Getty

This is one of several recent titles looking at the latest wave of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, which has gripped the territory with city-wide protests since last spring.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a seasoned historian of modern China and a professor at the University of California, Irvine relates an encounter with Chris (now Lord) Patten, the last colonial governor of Hong Kong, who told him that he had been “surprised” many times by events there since the handover in 1997. As a native Hongkonger, I share this sentiment, which has been especially heightened in recent years. I remember teaching during the Umbrella Movement occupation in 2014 – which Wasserstrom discusses with great poise, outlining its impetus and its aftermath – and feeling elated by the protesters’ collective energy and hope during the 79-day sit-in. Now Hong Kong is once again a contested space, hit by months of protests initially sparked by an unpopular extradition bill. Not even the Covid-19 outbreak, which struck the city in late January, has been able to stifle completely the revolt.

When I was growing up, such large-scale mobilisation for democracy was unthinkable, notwithstanding the heartfelt reaction to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, which cemented Hong Kong’s conflicted relationship with the Chinese Communist Party. The “4 June Incident”, as it is known in Chinese, appears several times in Wasserstrom’s book like a stubborn ghost, and the book takes its title from the annual vigil in Hong Kong to commemorate the massacre. (The author has himself been present, most recently taking part in a reading in 2019 co-organised by PEN Hong Kong.)

Vigil chronicles the key events of the current protests up to 2 October 2019. Incidents such as the notorious attack on protesters by shadowy criminal elements – “white-shirted thugs”, Wasserstrom calls them – at Yuen Long MTR station on 21 July feel at once distant and vivid. That and another incident in an underground station, the indiscriminate attack by the Hong Kong police on commuters at Prince Edward on 31 August, continue to be commemorated every month, prompting further flashpoints between police and protesters. The most recent commemoration of the Prince Edward incident took place on 30 April, a drum the younger members of the protest movement have continued to beat.

The book’s time frame means that later events, such as the escalation last November that saw five of Hong Kong’s universities occupied, go unmentioned. Wasserstrom’s unfinished account of the movement is, like the movement itself, full of anticipation, both uneasy and hopeful, about what is to come.

But Vigil is about more than this. Wasserstrom contextualises the history of the city and its relationship with the mainland, describing the environment that gave rise to the political protests of recent years. For me, the book is particularly endearing when it interweaves discussions of the literature, music, film and art that emerged from Hong Kong in its retelling of the city’s story. Wasserstrom’s candid personal reflections can also be unexpected and disarming, as when he finds Hong Kong a refreshing break from the growing cult of personality prevalent on the mainland: “it was a pleasure to get to a place where Xi [Jinping]’s face did not seem to be everywhere, staring out from the cover of every magazine and television screen.” Vigil is an engaging work from a writer with an unwavering passion for Hong Kong, serving as a brisk and accessible introduction to the city’s recent history.

Tammy Lai-Ming Ho is associate professor in the department of English at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink
By Jeffrey Wasserstrom
Columbia Global Reports, 112pp, £11.99
ISBN 9781733623742
Published 27 February 2020

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