I was looking for Yeats last fall. We had already seen plenty of Camus (“我反抗,故我們存在”) and Hannah Arendt (“平庸的惡”) in the protest camps, along bank windows and on spaces reclaimed by the public, along with Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Aung San Suu Kyi. There was Lu Xun, of course, a writer closer to home, but didn’t he write about Hong Kong with only disdain when he actually visited? And there was Sun Yat-Sen from just across the border, but the legacy of his writings belongs rather to Taiwan. I was looking for a Yeats in Hong Kong, which means I was looking for a symbol: a writer championing local identity, spearheading social transformation with intellectual rigor. I witnessed a host of writers crafting Umbrella Revolution selfies which concluded with little more than “I was there.” There were journalists who did not speak the language and yet named the protest movement for posterity, who pulled out when their patrons lost interest. There were academics, some of whom participated in the Mobile Democracy Classroom series, who convened conferences in air-conditioned towers to pontificate with French theory about their students being beaten nightly on the streets. There were Hon Lai Chu and Dorothy Tse, two local fiction writers who spoke about imagination and society at an abandoned bus stop at the start of the protests — from a megaphone to a rapt audience — but whose words ultimately avoided the provinciality of politics.
The closest to a Yeatsian figure I could find was Denise Ho, the Cantopop singer and LGBT activist who was arrested with other protest leaders in December, who then joined the board of the alternative Stand News, and may be considering a future in legislation. Her lyric from a few years ago, “生於亂世有種責任 (born into the burden of a troubled time),” was quoted on signs and printed on shirts throughout the protests. I could name many other musicians who were active on the street, such as the band members of GDJYB, whose politically smart lyrics speak to Hong Kong in its own locally eclectic grammar. (In one Facebook post releasing new song lyrics, they noted: “write new song becos of you, evil!” That song’s refrain is: “This is what the beeble say.”) Or Bananaooyoo, the lawyer who quit his job to stay in the camps and came to be known for boosting morale with his guitar.
This year, I sat on a burning hot soccer field with over a hundred-thousand others for the June Fourth Candlelight Vigil, a massive nation-wide memorial held annually for those who died in the Tiananmen Massacre and a mainstay for Hong Kong protests. This is its twenty-sixth year, and as in any such memorial, the speeches get reconstituted but remain the same. All that’s changed is the quality of films and performers chosen for the big solemn stage. The bigger the scale the more impressive, but the apotheosis of performance is not transformation — it is consumption. People cry and leave the vigil feeling better about themselves. I left early with my partner; we stayed as long as we could bear to, holding out only until the end of her favorite song. We left disappointed and angry and placid and disgusted. None of these emotions resembled grief or revolutionary ardor.
If social transformation is possible, it will be borne out of private transformation. And if any art can lead us in such a change, it will be an art experienced in solitude. The vast majority of music now comes to us in the private form of digital devices with headphones, a miniaturization which Rey Chow once described as “the freedom to be deaf to the louspeakers of history.” Such music creates a wall of sound, but like the private toilet stalls in public bathrooms here, the walls remain only an illusion of space, a respite, a temporary subtraction incapable of providing solitude itself.
Hong Kong may be a city without solitude. It doesn’t take long, living here, to feel that people in the crowd are not people at all. Caught in a brutally indifferent herd corralled between pedestrian railings, it strains the imagination even to recognize other human faces or to think of anything but escape. The first most common method of suicide here is by burning coal, or in other words by suffocating in a tightly enclosed home. “Grave” is sometimes used as a euphemism for “apartment.” The second most common method is by jumping from a rooftop. In a city too dense for lateral horizons, there is nowhere to go but up, and once up there, there is nowhere to go but down. One can go to the farthest edges of Hong Kong seeking privacy and silence, trek four hours into a restricted reservoir in the New Territories, down a dangerous slope, discover an isolated peninsula big enough for only thirteen slender trees — and even there, at the bottom of the bank, there will be other trespassers who have arrived first, toting fishing rods and cellphones. Nicholas Wong, a local poet working in English, writes in the opening lines of his book Crevasse:
Inside me a groove
deepens, which I have mistaken
for love. My therapist says Be alone, the gap will
heal. As if alone were a persona.
To be alone is to be someone else . . .
The poem’s title, “Private Parts: Anti-Bodies,” parses the very alienness of our conception of privacy.
Solitude is political, too. As a semi-autonomous region with residency but no citizenship, with only a puppet government led by a Chief Executive whose title suggests business rather than nationhood, and with characteristics taken from a southern Cantonese culture as well as from a British colonialism, Hong Kong will always have to equivocate its identity in relation to mainland China’s. The activism here is an effort to not become “another Chinese city,” a Shenzhen or Dongguan which have been wiped clean of locality in exchange for an edifice of “the world.” The circumstances of Hong Kong’s liminality are unique, but its experience is shared by a whole postcolonial modernity. I think of Audre Lorde, writing in her cancer journals of 1984: “I feel the tragedy of being an oppressed hyphenated person in America, of having no land to be our primary teacher.” Solitude here also concerns a kind of apartheid in which a constant flood of migrants from mainland China are regarded as locusts arriving with empty suitcases, South Asian workers are abused with barely the right to reside, and Western expatriates influence large sectors of the economy without ever having to learn a word of Cantonese, so that the majority local population feels itself oppressed as a minority. The result is not solitude but segregation, and scarcity, and loneliness.
Solitude is circumscribed by language. Consider that the first condition of exile, regardless of geography, might be that of writing in a language which is not your mother tongue. There is a new generation of fiction writers in Chinese who have no market unless they write about mainland China in a manner acceptable to the regime. Locally, their recognition as writers proceeds from their recognition and publication in Taiwan first. It is the only larger country Hong Kong writers can go where Traditional Chinese as a written form still persists; but Cantonese is not reflected by this written form, nor is it the spoken language there. The dilemma is the same for local writers working in English. The fact of such writers existing at all leads some to suggest that literature is thriving in Hong Kong. But this constant reaching beyond its borders is the sign of a city failing to sustain its own regenerative voices.
I celebrate Dung Kai-cheung’s recently translated novel, Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City. It advances what Milan Kundera called the true history of the novel, which discovers something about human consciousness only possible through the form of the novel itself. Atlas is set in a future in which Hong Kong no longer physically exists except in maps and commentaries. The cause of its disappearance is not known, and its history must be excavated as though that of an ancient civilization. By no means is Atlas a work of nonfiction; of the prose genres, it must be called fiction. Yet it has no characters. Some figures in the excavated history are named, as are scholars and cartographers whose theories or notes are utilized in the excavation process. But they do not recur. Nor do they have personal narratives, dialogue, or private consciousness. Anecdotes in the novel suggest potentially recurrent behaviors of people rather than of individuals. Individuals in the novel are, at worst, shadows; and at best, they are the cornerstones and mortars of an indifferent architecture left in ruins. The novel has an aesthetic structure which begins with its premise and ends with a recurring orbit of time, an “eternal present tense” illustrated by a timetable of train departures and arrivals in which one could conceptually enter a time warp of endless loops. Chronologically, however, and narratively, the novel has neither beginning nor end. It is all middle. Kundera asks: What ontological hypothesis of the world does the novel present? Here is a world of anecdotes but no story, of mass disappearance without cause, of people treated by the gaze of humanities as a specimen of curiosity. There is no buffer between the novel’s people and their missing city because, just like it, they do not exist. There is no solitude, no existential envelope of space around them, to permit such an existence.
Dung Kai-cheung was not a voice in the protests; he was not Yeats. No one could have been. I’m not gesturing at what is inimitable in a great man. What I have begun to suggest is that there was no “Yeats” even in Yeats’s time, that no man is equal to the symbol we make of him, and that we might do better to study the circumstance rather than the man. Today we remember of Yeats a lionized national hero, a simplified “image for the affections” much like those he so despised. We forget that for all he did to champion Irishness, he did not speak Irish; his politics were tangled and diluted thoroughly with his love affair with Maud Gonne; and, moreover, his digging up of Irish folklore was in large part an appropriation to serve his own writing. But questions of entitlement and credibility do not interest me; I am chasing after a greater perplexity of the intellect. While Yeats’s appropriation of his people may have been wrong, it at least was not stupid. To speak of what he did with the material or what he got out of it is to spiral into petty politics; but to speak of what he recognized in the material — given that it was much bigger than him — is to enter the existential. He may have been a national figure, but he was also chasing after a supreme solitude. He wrote in an essay of 1901 that when a man “goes his way to supreme Adeptship, he will go absolutely alone, for men attain to the supreme wisdom in a loneliness that is like the loneliness of death.” Our summaries of Yeats today tend to focus on the literary and the political, and tend to gloss over, with some embarrassment, his sincere lifelong commitment to esotericism and occult practice. His movement through the Theosophical Society to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and onward, was the movement from a philosophical interest in the mystical toward a practical one, which became not only a tool in finding guidance for his life, but also a lens and language which he came to internalize. Consequently, what he was able to find and renew in the fairy tales and folklore of old Ireland was not just something useful, nor just personally meaningful. He found something alive, full of magic and deep symbols: a living spiritual landscape. He said as much, though a bit guardedly, in a letter to the Duchess of Sutherland in 1904: “I am setting a good many people reading our Celtic books, & it was for that I came here — & our Celtic books mean to me not in the end books but in the end a more passionate kind of life.” So the question for Hong Kong should not be whether such a figure as Yeats has come to write and rise, but rather what conditions here are present to begin with. I ask it again, and ask it this way: is there a living spirit in the hills and shores which is innate and native, irrevocable, capable of prefiguring the transformation of mechanical mass indifference into the dignified solitude of individuals?
I offered this same question to a group of Hong Kong University students on Earth Day of this year. I had been invited to lead a poetry workshop as part of an endeavor toward sustainable practice and consciousness. I asked this question on a gray garden rooftop where the students and I sat looking for the sea — between tall mountains and taller edifices. Each of the places I’ve lived in has had some living spirit around which local life revolves, a force feared for its destructive capacity but which in fact is a source of creation and renewal. In Hawaiʻi it is the volcano, whose eruptions cannot be ignored and whose buoyant dormancy is the very source of the islands’ existing above water. The volcano is a local deity for the islands. In Michigan it is the snow, which can fall for as many as eight months of the year, dictating the city’s calendar and maintenance. Snow does not kill plant life; on the contrary, it blankets and warms the earth until spring. In California, the earthquakes cycle stored energy, form mountains, and reactivate the sea floor; and so on. These are forces greater than us which we can neither harness nor control, which have enormous power and yet, in the exertion of such power, demand nothing in return but recognition. They are the mirrors of solitude in nature, in our own natures, and lessons in the dignity of being just what one is in the world.
Protest is something like a religion in Hong Kong, but we could not call the Goddess of Democracy a local deity. Like the “festivals” now cropping up in commemoration of the Umbrella Movement, the annual June Fourth Vigil is a highly ritualized event: the lighting of the torch, the processional, the masses bowing toward the Goddess of Democracy. But these are all objects placed in the center, between the audience and main stage, which means everyone bows inward, into the crowd. At Tiananmen Square in 1989, the Goddess of Democracy also stood in the center, but she faced outward to the gates of the Forbidden City, and the mass of protesters faced outward with her. Similarly in ancient religions, the figure of the priest faced outward to heaven, to God, to the forces of the sacred, whereas in religions today, the figure of the priest faces inward to an audience. The Goddess of Democracy, then, is not so much a deity as a symbol, a sign-marker for longing. Hong Kong is a city whose autonomy has already been signed away; it will be absorbed into mainland China by 2047. One consequence of this foreknowledge is a form of protest with more reflexive than reformational properties, in which the appeal to outside forces is overshadowed by the closed circuit of self-affirmation, a clamoring “here I am” which requires no response from higher authorities in order to be meaningful.
One student on the rooftop that day had a peculiar answer. He said the local deity in Hong Kong was time: a force of nature of such command that even birds appear to fly faster here than anywhere else. But the deity he was naming might more accurately be the desire for time. Despite its position as a port of all nations, Hong Kong has almost no natural resources of its own; it depends on mainland China for its electricity and as much as eighty percent of its consumable water. If we count time as a natural resource, it may be the only one in abundance here, and so it would be no wonder that people use time to their own desperate exhaustion. But time itself is not a natural resource. It is a human invention which, like history, swallows us up. If the selfie is a spatial description of the modern crisis (we cannot be alone because we are always staring at reflected visions of ourselves staring back), a temporal description might be found in a refrain from the Hong Kong establishment, 袋住先: pocket it first. This slogan, which only further riled up the Umbrella Movement, seemed to present protesters with this consolation: better than nothing, good enough for now. But one can read it as the erasure of any sense of an end or destination, in a language not of compromise but of deferral. And a life of perpetual deferral (as has been the case with Hong Kong’s decades-long issue of universal suffrage) is a life denying its own participation in the future, a life which is all middle.
Only one deity for Hong Kong seems obvious to me: the typhoon. Typhoons are the cause of school and business closures, have been the source of the greatest natural disasters on record here, and are evidence that no matter how modern this world city is, if one is stranded on an outlying island in bad weather then one will remain stranded only until such weather decides to yield. Metaphorically it seems apropos for a waterbound port of migration: on one hand trapped in increasing density so as to build itself higher and higher into almost dystopic towers, on the other hand in constant motion and renewal as people pass through with little ceremony. And although there is no causal relation, the protests taking on the umbrella as a symbol seems aptly and aesthetically sublime.
If there is anything Hongkongers can learn from the nature of their own home, not by importing other traditions or modernities, I believe it will be found in the disastrous wind and water which have shaped this subtropic, the unknowable and dark and plunging sea with its narratives of vastness, unmooring, and marooning. Indeed, religious figures like Tin Hau, Guanyin, the Virgin Mary, and others, have been adapted to serve especially those lost at sea. Thus, Hon Lai Chu, in her essay from the Umbrella Movement whose title I translated as “I Just Want to See the Sea” (我只是想去看看海), begins from a local politic but arrives at a greater humanity, rendering the sea as a unique metaphor for prison and freedom all in one breath. And we might also consider the ocean as more than image or object, with her own political crisis and her growing tumors of human-made waste. It is precisely this troubled deep to whom I would ask our question, from the edge of a world city: what does it mean to be free, and alone?