L. P. Hartley once wrote, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” If so, the future too is foreign. For politically charged places like Hong Kong, this is not merely an idle literary or philosophical inquiry. Its inhabitants are no strangers to constantly contemplating their past and future. The city—a special administrative region—is currently trapped between the history of a British colonial past and the looming future of integration into Greater China when the “one country, two systems” promise expires in 2047.
The contemporary Hong Kong experience is, to some extent, defined by dates: 1967 (Leftist Riots), 1984 (the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration), 1989 (the Tiananmen Square Massacre), 1997 (the return of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China), 2014 (the Umbrella Movement), and, now, the specter of 2047. Last year, the Arts Development Council pulled a light installation off the façade of Hong Kong’s tallest building because it contained a politically sensitive—some even said “subversive”—message: a countdown to the year 2047. But the clock keeps ticking, with or without the giant timepiece installation. And it is this anxiety-producing deadline, the vanishing of Hong Kong, that makes us count every year faithfully and often helplessly.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the handover, and this is an important occasion: two decades down, three more to go. A number of publications and projects have tried to capture the zeitgeist, including Hong Kong Future Perfect: One City, Twenty Visions of What Is to Come, published last year by the Hong Kong Writers Circle (HKWC) ahead of the plethora of other works coming out this year.
The HKWC was established in 1992, and is based in Hong Kong, comprised of locals and foreigners alike. In its two-decade history, the HKWC has published more than ten themed fiction anthologies across genres, often focusing on the city of Hong Kong. In Hong Kong Future Perfect, the city again takes center stage as the primary theme. It is a manifestation of its inhabitants’ desire to take stock of what Hong Kong has become twenty years since its handover from Britain to China. It is also a chance for writers to imagine its future, portrayed as frightening, and mostly dystopian, eerily foreign while retaining some familiar elements. The writers explore a wide range of urgent concerns relating to the city’s environmental, ecological, political, linguistic, social, and moral future. These inventive stories, while speculating on what lies ahead, also serve to comment on the present and serve as cautionary tales.
Stewart C. McKay’s “Pearlania” is perhaps the most unsettling piece. Set thirty years in the future, the real Hong Kong has been destroyed by a tidal wave, and is now replaced by a for-profit theme park—a gross high-tech simulacrum offering elaborately designed rides such as Kowloon Market Experience and Dragon Boat Experience. Owen Schaefer’s “In the Floating City” similarly envisions a city attacked by extreme climates—”the thermal runaway took hold in the 2100s, and raised the oceans, throwing the weather into chaos”—floods and fires now alternatively plague the territory. Michele K. Morollo’s “Liberty Exchange” makes the city a space that is zealously monitored by morality police, with Discovery Bay being the only enclave where the wealthy and important are afforded the relative freedom to drink and fornicate. Chris Maden’s “Twenty-Three” presents a Hong Kong that witnesses the total suppression of the Hong Kong Independent Movement, the leaders of which face possible public execution. In Nancy K. W. Leung’s “Value Point,” reminiscent of the film Gattaca, the career paths of all citizens are determined by the government and everyone is reduced to a set of cold statistics. And Elizabeth Solomon’s “The Help” depicts a Hong Kong where Cantonese is forbidden and the city’s denizens, most of them now living in a permanently drugged state, have willingly forsaken their freedom in exchange for a stable existence.
The most chilling and sobering story, though, is the collection’s opener, which frames the future-focused stories by starting in the past. Jason Y. Ng’s “Future, Arriving” looks back to 1997, the moment when Hong Kong ceased to be a British colony. It suggests two possible paths for Hong Kong’s future: “Hong Kong will ride on the dragon’s back and soar with New China!” or “The communists will flood our streets with their kind and the city will be colonized all over again.” Ng posits that the city’s future could go either way, “autonomy or autocracy, utopia or dystopia, paradise or purgatory.”
Because the stories are not overtly didactic, they are all the more powerful in allowing the reader the interpretive space to parse each of the twenty visions of Hong Kong’s future themselves, whether that future be bleak or potentially redemptive. These visions are unique to Hong Kong, and these stories are unlikely to be set in any other East Asian city. The collection is worthwhile reading to anyone with even a passing interest in the city.
The editors, Peter Humphreys and Elizabeth Solomon, use part of their introduction to express hope for Hong Kong’s literary future, that “the tangible literary buzz” in the city can be sustained by authors and poets across the metropolis. This collection has an in-house feel: a number of contributors fondly mention their repeat inclusion in HKWC anthologies over the years, showing their loyalty to the collective. They represent a group of reliable and engaging voices who paint a vivid fresco of Hong Kong that is provocative, relevant, and necessary.
This collection is one of many other projects that share this desire to document, archive, and remember Hong Kong at this juncture in history. Some of these projects include Penguin’s Hong Kong Series; the recent founding of the first bilingual English-Chinese academic journal, Hong Kong Studies; the publication of Hong Kong-themed issues in Wasafiri and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal; the forthcoming edited volumes Made into Hong Kong and Hong Kong 20 Years after the Handover: Emerging Social and Institutional Fractures After 1997; and the PEN Hong Kong anthology, marking the twentieth anniversary of the handover, entitled Hong Kong 20/20: Reflections on a Borrowed Place. There will no doubt be more similarly motivated projects, public events, and publications in the months to come.