How (I think) Japan sees Hong Kong

When I saw the thick, blue bunkobon on her office bookshelf, the Japanese professor with whom I was going to work with said: “You know, I’m not a Hong Kong freak (香港フリーク). I just wanted to get out of Japan for better career opportunities.”

The blue book she was referring to was a fat nonfiction paperback called 転がる香港に苔は生えない (Rolling Hong Kong Gathers No Moss, based on the Japanese translation of the English idiom) by Hiromi Hoshino, who returned to Hong Kong to witness the 1997 handover after studying at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the 1980s.

In my professor’s eyes, Hoshino was a Hong Kong freak. In her book, she reminisces about the people that she met. The first person Hoshino writes about is Ah Bun, whom she met in the depths of Kowloon Walled City, an infamous slum that has captured the minds of Japanese photographers, Japanese video games, and Japanese arcade owners. Ah Bun was a refugee from Mainland China. He fled in 1975 to start a new life in Hong Kong. And he was happy to share some roast duck and stir-fried vegetables with Hoshino and some of Ah Bun’s other factory buddies. They took a picture together.

When Hoshino returned to Hong Kong in late 1996, the first thing she did, with Ah Bun’s picture in hand, was to find Ah Bun in Kowloon Walled City. Later, she would find out that Ah Bun had passed away three years ago. So did the Walled City, which the colonial government decided to demolish in 1989. The photograph she has of herself, Ah Bun, and four other sweaty men huddled in a dark room over plates of meat and vegetables, became, inadvertently, the connection she had to Hong Kong. A connection that Hong Kong decided to sever by deliberately choosing to forget about the Kowloon Walled City (香港は、本気で記憶喪失になることを選んだのだ。).

Books about Hong Kong from Japanese eyes, made in more peaceful times.

I picked up Hoshino’s book, and a few others on Hong Kong, in second-hand bookstores throughout the seven-odd months I stayed in Tokyo as a student in 2016. At first, I didn’t like Hoshino’s decision to begin her 600-page Hong Kong omnibus on the Kowloon Walled City. I never felt a connection to that place, partly because it was gone before I was born. Also, what was there to love about an ungoverned slum? What difference was there between the lust of Kowloon Walled City’s cyberpunk mystique, and the fact that people all over the world travel to Hong Kong just to dress up and pose in front of public housing estates to add their own lick of poverty porn on their Instagram accounts?

This short blog post is not enough to do justice to Hoshino’s book. But the point I want to bring home is that Hong Kong freaks like Hoshino excel in a skill that most people, including yours truly, lack: observation. They see what they think makes Hong Kong special. The people, the products, the buildings, the neon signs, the food that is born from the struggle of refugees from Communist China, the hustle of South Asian descendants in Chungking Mansions, and the colonial decadence of the Anglo-European elite two blocks down in The Peninsula.

Hot-blooded Chinese Communist Party lovers love to accuse Hong Kong millennials of romanticizing Hong Kong’s colonial past (戀殖). Fuminori Yamaguchi’s book, 香港 旅の雑学ノート (Hong Kong Travel Journal), would be perfect for these colonial history lovers. For Yamaguchi too is a Hong Kong freak: preserved in her book are meticulous details about everything in 1980s Hong Kong that far surpasses any level of detail you can find in the Hong Kong History Museum: how bamboo scaffolding is tied up; what the most popular men’s haircuts are; what Hong Kong triads do; what identity cards and bus stops look like; what color combinations are most common in neon signs (red and yellow and red and green are the most common; while blue and green and red and blue do not exist); what utensils people use to eat dim sum; what Chinese-language translations of Hollywood movies are; what’s in the handbag of a 20-year old Hong Kong female office worker (apparently, a HSBC pocketbook, a hair salon coupon, an address book, and an classifieds ad from an English-language newspaper).

Most of what’s contained in Yamaguchi’s book do not exist in Hong Kong anymore. The city’s rising GDP per capita, and Gini coefficient, made the city’s people lose sight of what makes the city special. Historical monuments in the downtown core demolished for subway and land reclamation projects. Hawkers and decades-old restauranteurs banished from the streets and from public housing estates. In lieu of the simple, middle-class life that people lived in the 1980s, to live in Hong Kong is to survive in an unending Glass Menagerie nightmare. Babies compete for spaces in English-language kindergartens the moment they are born. University graduates compete to overwork in faceless consulting firms. Families compete to buy tiny apartments with gaudy names from property developers. Immigrants from Mainland China compete for public housing spaces. The senile and the elderly compete for hospice beds. And when you die, your next of kin compete for a place to store your ashes. No wonder the city burns with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation. No wonder the city’s young long for the past, exemplified by the Union Jack-embossed colonial flag.

The cost of Hong Kong’s struggle in the margins is that it was a neoliberal beachhead for international business investment. Japanese companies were no exception. Hong Kong is, by far, the biggest importer of Japanese agricultural products in the world. Every Japanese prefecture is dying to get the attention of Hong Kong consumers. The Hong Kong Government loves to tell people that international brands like Ichiran Ramen use Hong Kong as a testing ground before expanding their business to Mainland China.

Indeed, despite the cries of some protestors—and the occasional sympathetic stranger I meet during my travels—that “Hong Kong is not China”, the fact is that Hong Kong has always existed in China’s shadow. After all, a city populated mostly by Chinese refugees and their descendants inevitably takes on layers of traditional Chinese culture from wherever the refugees came from. Without the despicable uncertainty of a totalitarian dictatorship, Chinese culture in Hong Kong became endowed with a natural soft power that still eludes Xi Jinping’s Chinese dreams. More often than not, Jackie Chan is the first thing people say when I tell middle-aged adults in Tokyo that I’m from Hong Kong. In November 2017, when two of my best Japanese friends from Keio University came to visit, they demanded photos in front of the windows of roast duck restaurants (and the lobby of The Peninsula) and ate take-out dim sum from Tim Ho Wan. In retrospect, eating a carb and saturated fat-heavy diet on uncomfortable wooden stools were rubber gloved angry women carried huge red buckets of water behind your back was probably a little overwhelming for people who were more used to the refined polish of Tokyo’s urban environment, but I showed my friends what people sought Hong Kong for: perhaps not the images of Queen Elizabeth II that Hong Kong millennials now seek, but a safe place, as with Taiwan, to experience and enjoy Chinese culture. A place that was free of the insecurity and uncertainty of a Communist dictatorship.

A screenshot from the August 16, 2019 broadcast of Nikkei Plus 10 on BS TV Tokyo.

Japan’s perception of Hong Kong has changed, perhaps irreversibly, since widespread protests began against Carrie Lam’s government in June 2019. In response to Chief Executive Lam’s unending reckless ineptitude, what began as peaceful protests against an unnecessary and foolish legislative amendment to allow extraditions to Mainland China has mutated into violent clashes with police, round robin style, at the airport and at various commercial districts across Hong Kong every weekend.

Violence, gore, calamity, terror, and distress drive our media. So while people in Hong Kong watch nightly livestreams of wanton police brutality, photographers and writers from all over the world have descended into the city to send clips of the most savage moments to broadcast in their home countries.

Japan is no exception. Once the Japanese news media deem something to be worthy of your time, it becomes the talk of the nation. So, my Japanese friends ask me on Instagram, is Hong Kong daijobu? Are you safe? No, probably not, I tell them. But I am fine. Hong Kong is safe if, and only if, you avoid the protest areas. When I was on vacation in Japan last month, from an izakaya in Shibuya to a Shinto shrine by Lake Towada in Aomori, people told me the same thing about Hong Kong. The situation is taihen, they tell me with sympathetic eyes. Yep, it’s taihen alright, I tell them.

The Japanese news shows report the Hong Kong protests with astonishing detail and clarity. Infographics are made. Panels of commentators are hired. Headlines on screens fear a second Tiananmen is coming. The hourly NHK news digests tell people what’s going on, down to Hong Kong reporters confronting the press credentials of Mainland Chinese reporters at the daily police media briefings.

A few weeks ago, World Business Satellite made a valiant effort to give a different perspective by interviewing a 10 year old primary school student who went to Hong Kong International Airport to do her summer vacation independent project. The student said that she wanted to see for herself whether the protestors were indeed violent. On Twitter, however, people have anonymously criticized the student’s parents for putting the student in danger. Why put her in the crosshairs of the People’s Liberation Army, they say. Military vehicles are poised to strike at any moment across the border.

Why do the Japanese media care about Hong Kong? I can only speculate. Perhaps what’s happening in Hong Kong reminds people of SEALDs, an anti-war and anti-Shinzo Abe student movement that fizzled out in 2016. Perhaps Hong Kong’s dissenting youth are world-famous. Although he does not lead today’s protests, Joshua Wong has a Netflix documentary and, now, an unending schedule of interviews with media from all over the world. Agnes Chow can speak Japanese and has talked at length to reporters about the extradition bill at the National Press Club.

In any case, people in Japan no longer see Hong Kong the place it was. A few months ago, we were a pretty cool city: a weekend getaway, easily accessible with cheap airline tickets, that offered traditional crafts, cutting edge contemporary arts and design, and a stable business environment for foreign direct investment. Today, we are a segment on the evening news, the police barbarity on the streets laid bare for the stoic audiences all over the world to see.


Restore Hong Kong; Revolution of Our Times“. So the people yell from their windows at 10 p.m. every night. But how is this restoration to be made?

A modern Hong Kong freak might give us a hint. A few years back, Kumiko Ohara, who has spent 30 years in Hong Kong, published a book called 週末香港 いいもの探し (Finding Good Things on a Weekend in Hong Kong). Pushing past our collective despair about the state of Hong Kong culture and our collective fantasies about British emigration, Ohara finds the things that we have forgotten in our pursuit of wealth, property, and stability. The Chinese teahouses in Kennedy Town. The craftsmen in Yuen Long who sell rooster ceramic bowls. An independent art bookstore, tucked away on the 14th floor of a building on Hennessy Road. The kitchenware stores on Shanghai Street. Hidden in the pages of Ohara’s book are the embers of Hong Kong’s soft power: the magic that drew Hoshino and Yamaguchi to tell their own stories twenty years ago. But Ohara’s book is only a hint. Nothing more.

Tonight, Reuters published a leaked audio recording from Carrie Lam. She doesn’t know how to stop the protests, she says. Beijing won’t let her offer any answers. Neither does the international community know what to do. We can crowdfund millions of dollars countless times to purchase award-winning newspaper advertisements all over the world to get people to care about Hong Kong. But all these ads can do is to get people to care. The onus is on ourselves to pick up the pieces. As Wilfred Chan writes, and I wholeheartedly agree: “To pull through, Hong Kong’s people must find a way to reclaim their historical agency and develop a positive vision for their own home.”

Notes and Further Reading

  1. I found this 2001 profile of Hiromi Hoshino from CNN while doing research for this post. Since Hoshino’s book is not translated into English, it’s one of the few English-language insights into her work.
  2. For a detailed history of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region since 1997 in the Japanese language, I recommend Kazuo Yukawa’s 香港 返還20年の相克, an extremely detailed treatment of Hong Kong’s political, economic, and legal developments in one concise volume.
  3. For an example of what I mean by “a safe place, as with Taiwan, to experience and enjoy Chinese culture”, take a look at the Japanese version of the Hong Kong Tourism Board’s Facebook page.
  4. Hong Kong Airlines chose to use Jackie Chan to advertise its Tokyo-Hong Kong flights. Ironically, Hong Kong Airlines is owned by a financially struggling conglomerate based in Hainan, and Jackie Chan no longer stars in any Hong Kong films, having moved his career to Hollywood long ago, and aligned his political views to match with Beijing’s.
Taken in May 2019 in Shibuya.