Lim moved to Hong Kong when she was 5. As the child of a Chinese father from Singapore and a white mother from Britain, she was always “hovering between two cultures like the hungry ghosts flitting between two worlds,” she writes. The “startlingly Victorian” curriculum of her schooling didn’t help matters. China was barely mentioned, and even though “anything British was mentioned in awed tones,” her teachers took care not to make the United Kingdom sound too wonderful, lest it encourage in the young Hong Kongers a desire to move there. “Our education effectively deracinated us,” she writes, “suspending us in a kind of colonial non-space designed to ensure that we did not identify too closely with any place.”
Part of her book is an attempt to recover that sense of place, as she writes her way through history, explaining that Britain’s acquisition of Hong Kong wasn’t “so much an imperial masterstroke as an accident.” Looking at documents in the British National Archives, Lim notices that in letters exchanged between Chinese and British negotiators during the First Opium War, Britain’s demand for Hong Kong had been added in the margins. A colonial civil servant later described the cession of Hong Kong as “a surprise to all concerned.” For Lord Palmerston, Britain’s colonial possession of Hong Kong was bound to be fruitless. “A barren rock with nary a house upon it,” he wrote. “It will never be a mart for trade.”
But of course it did become a mart for trade, and Lim traces Hong Kong’s fortunes under 155 years of British control. She recalls the colonial governor of her childhood, Murray MacLehose, a “paternalistic authoritarian” known as “Big Mac.” MacLehose took care not to antagonize China, promoting administrative efficiency and civic campaigns as a substitute for democracy. Hong Kong’s last governor, Christopher Patten, assumed that China’s economic reforms would necessarily lead to political liberalization, even though the moderate democratic measures he undertook in the years leading up to the handover earned him hostility from Beijing.
“Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad,” an otherwise polished Patten said in a moment of candor, when Lim interviewed him in 2019. She had asked him how he felt when he saw his own hopeful words from more than two decades before — that it was Hong Kong’s “unshakable destiny” to be run by Hong Kongers — turned into desperate graffiti.
Lim asks what it might mean for Hong Kong to forge an identity that isn’t beholden to either Britain or China. She finds inspiration in Tsang Tsou-choi, known as the King of Kowloon, who emblazoned the surfaces of the city with his own calligraphic graffiti for decades. His brushstrokes spoke to a family tale of dispossession, deriding the authorities no matter who they were. Until his death in 2007, this “obsessive, mentally and physically challenged pensioner” had, for her and many others, become an “unlikely lodestar” — the constancy of his grievances made him stand apart from the “scrolling whirligig of Hong Kong politics.”