The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2022

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MARCH 2022 Issue
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Fragments of the Untimeliness in the New Hong Kong

Courtesy Phoebe Wong.
Courtesy Phoebe Wong.

Often, being “untimely” is not cool.

One evening after dinner, as my collective wandered on a sidewalk before taking the bus home, a pathetic note stuck on a shop's battered rolling-shutter caught our attention. It was a tiny note in Chinese that read: “Brocken.” The Chinese word that means broken or wicked was misspelled, yet still instantly recognizable. In the next few seconds, we flipped our thoughts: we took the word with its mishap as a metaphor for our city and determined that the word could be indeed rightfully written in this post-NSL Hong Kong. For some fleeting moments, the misdeed to “right the wrong” gave us a flurry of excitement.

What if the untimeliness is a slant thought; a much-needed digression; a Freudian Slip; or a gesture of defiance?

Untimeliness foregrounds a dynamic that is presented in an out-of-focus or twisted manner. Being untimely points to an incompatible, asymmetry, or something off. The obliquity may carve a Foucauldian heterotopia.

The Umbrella Movement (2014) bred resilience, but also heralded the disavowal of the non-violence. Still, I missed the Umbrella Movement, its legacy, the heterotopia created at the occupied sites, such as in Admiralty (near Central): the communal life, the study rooms, the de-schooling, and the singing of the out-of-context “Happy Birthday to You,” unapologetically.

Several of my friends have been boycotting the MTR (the government-invested, city-wide mass transit system in the territory) after a series of outrageous incidents occurred in various MTR stations during the protests in 2019. Since then, they resort to take longer bus rides to commute in the city. The inconvenience is a reminder of the MTR’s bad faith. However, aren’t they at the same time punishing themselves? What if, against all the odds, we plot to reclaim the ownership of the metro through buying it back? When the concept of a “charter city” of Hong Kong has captured the imaginations of many professional and wealthy Hongkongers, does an incorporated metro owned by us, the people, really sound not attainable?

One city, two camps. The “yellow” camp stands with the protests; the “blue” camp is pro-government, pro-authority. A color divide is a bizarre thing, full of contradictions. Things have become more complicated as the economy has kicked in, resulting in an ideologically loaded “yellow economic circle.” To support the neighborhood shops or to boycott the chain stores—international or otherwise—is one thing, to earmark the enemy, the “blue,” is another. A business is classified as “blue” simply because its owner says Hong Kong belongs to China!

To belabor the obvious: the divide, reinforced by social media's filter bubble, relies on an oversimplified logic—it is propaganda in disguise. This is my problem with the yellow economy. That said, I am amused by my female friend—who works nine-to-five at a government-sponsored education institution—and keeps herself busy looking for a “yellow” eatery, routinely during her one-hour lunch break.

Being untimely is political.

Digressing to the ignoble everyday existence under the current political reality, I have a renewed interest in Hong Kong’s histories—of the 1960s and 70s—and its writings. For this reason, I picked up the local novelist Wong Bik-Wan's 2018 fiction The Death of Lo Kei and got involved in collating a trove of archives on some anarchists from the 1970s.

The Death of Lo Kei, labeled by the author as her “non-fiction novel,” is a reflection on history and its inscriptions, using the investigation of the mysterious death of a young protestor, a year after the 1966 riot in Hong Kong, as the book’s primary plot line. The texts of the novel are largely cut-and-pasted together by citing the original fragments from archival records, including daily news, court news, and riot reports; the author would insert her comments that are sometimes sentimental, sometimes thoughtful. Thanks to the non-linear narrative, it provides a disturbing though rewarding reading experience. In the novel, I step into the river of time again and again: the story unfolds in circles, resulting in a losing sense of time and foggy details in the events (with discrepancies), and subsequently making multiple narratives of the history possible.

Uncle Hung, now a veteran storyteller active in the black-box theater scene, was part of the anarchy movement in Hong Kong in the 1970s. In a recent sharing, Hung has related some moments of his coming of age. Back then, Hung would join reading groups to self-teach himself the subjects of revolution and anarchism. Once, in the middle of a heated conversation, an impassioned comrade of his shouted: Revolution will come tomorrow. Later that evening, when Hung was asked why he was staying up, he told his parents he was waiting for a friend called “Revolution,” who subsequently paid no visit. To end his anecdote, Hung sighed with an enlightened undertone: “tomorrow” is forty years later.

Is there a scale of the untimeliness? From loose, digressive, to odd, inappropriate, to disturbing…

While writing this short piece, I noticed that the first legislative election after Beijing’s “patriots-only” overhaul is around the corner. I surprised myself the other day: I rehearsed in my mind step by step what I would do with my ballot in the poll station…

Stay in—practice untimeliness.


Phoebe Wong

Phoebe Wong is a Hong Kong-based researcher/critic with a special interest in contemporary art, design and visual media. She is a co-founder of the Community Museum Project, a curatorial collective dedicated to revisit the under-represented histories and practices of the everyday.


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2022

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