The Hong Kong Handover Hangover

Ten years on, the natives are restless.

Painting by artist Liu Yuyi. Click image to expand.
Painting by artist Liu Yuyi

In Hong Kong, there are almost as many different names for the 10th anniversary of the city’s handover to China as there are ways to commemorate the July 1 occasion. Loyal members of the People’s National Congress, and of the DAB, the Chinese Communist Party’s proxy in Hong Kong, prefer the retro-Maoist: “Celebration of the 10th Anniversary of Hong Kong’s Return to the (Glorious) Motherland.” The Hong Kong government spins it with the bureaucratic élan you’d expect from an ex-British civil service: “Celebration of the 10th Anniversary of the Establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”

Hong Kong’s famously practical citizens have figured out what to do about Handover Celebration Word Bloat. They collapse the holiday’s name into two Chinese characters: wuih gwai, an expression that, like so many in the wonderfully pun-filled Cantonese language, has multiple meanings. You can translate it as return—but it also can imply retrogression.

The most popular shorthand for Handover Day, by far, is “Chat Yat“—that’s Cantonese for 7/1. On July 1, 2003, more than a half-million Hong Kongers marched to oppose draconian government-proposed security laws and to demand universal suffrage. Since then, Chat Yat has become Handover Day’s signature event (there’s even a Hong Kong pub, Club 71, named after the march), challenged only by the traditional nighttime fireworks extravaganza.

Hong Kong’s constitution, the Basic Law, promises that Hong Kong and China will be “One Country, Two Systems” until 2047, and it affirms that Hong Kong citizens will have the right, eventually, to vote directly for their chief executive. But the Basic Law’s British and Chinese drafters took a few lessons from Cantonese in the Rubbery and Ambiguous Language Department. The Basic Law seems to say that Hong Kongers can cast ballots for their chief executive as early as 2007. But constitutional “experts” in Beijing and the Hong Kong government have reinterpreted the Basic Law, and year by year, they’ve nudged the timetable forward. Now they’re talking 2017. Maybe. Even most of the Hong Kong legislature’s pro-democrats have lowered their expectations and are pinning their hopes on 2012. It’s no wonder that this year the words “Chat Yat” are usually followed by “Seung Gaai“—”Take it to the streets!”

How many Hong Kong people will seung gaai on the 10th anniversary? It’s hard to say right now, and it will be even harder after it’s over. Since Hong Kong lacks a free ballot box, counting human bodies in street processions is the Hong Kong equivalent of arguing over hanging chads. But if really massive crowds come out this year on 7/1, as in 2003 and 2004, the images and video will beam all over the world and make the bean-counter wars irrelevant. The Chinese government will look bad in front of the international community. And that is not going to make Beijing very happy. Indeed, you could argue that the very reason why Hong Kong got its 50 years of Basic Law in the first place, instead of a fast-track Return to the Glorious Motherland, is to avoid embarrassing situations like this.

The Hong Kong government has been working overtime to keep the protesters at the margins and ensure that the 10th anniversary follows the script. Last year, they hired extra PR muscle for the occasion, and the official anniversary events have been going on—and on and on—since April. The schedule includes everything from a “Basic Law Fun Day” and a Cantonese opera singing contest, to an “Election of the 10 Most Joyous Incidents” since 1997. Most of these feel-good handover events are harmlessly hokey, but some are a bit too retro-Maoist for comfort. The Cultural Revolution-meets-Sgt. Pepper commemorative handover painting, “Halcyon Days Pearl,” with Hu Jintao and Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang playing the roles of Mao and Chou En-lai (or John and Paul) may remind many Hong Kong people of the reasons why they fled the motherland in the first place.

As if bad art weren’t bad enough, in the last few weeks, it seems that pro-Beijing figures in both mainland China and Hong Kong have been scrambling to outdo each other with statements guaranteed to make Hong Kongers uneasy about their future. Wu Bangguo, chairman of the National People’s Congress, proclaimed that Hong Kong had better buckle under, because “absolute authority lies with Beijing.” Another Beijing-based academic opined that Hong Kong people weren’t ready for universal suffrage, because “they couldn’t be trusted to know the right people to vote for.”

The worst, by far, was the faux pas by pro-Beijing Hong Kong legislator Ma Lik (his name means “Strong Horse” in Cantonese). During a roundtable with members of the Hong Kong press in May, the subject of Tiananmen Square—a touchy topic for mainland stalwarts like Ma—came up. Ma lost his cool, started ranting, and ended up with his hoof in his mouth. The “massacre” that the Western press is always talking about never happened, he declared. It has never been proved that student protesters were squashed by army tanks! In fact, such a thing was impossible. “Why don’t they try it on a pig and see if it can be squashed into a meat pancake?”

The Meat Pancake Affair (you can read an excellent account of the press coverage here) shocked Hong Kongers, tens of thousands of whom regularly attend the only Tiananmen memorial demonstrations on Chinese soil every June 4. It also inspired the best piece of political satire I’ve seen in a long time in Hong Kong, or anywhere—a homemade music video called, in its English version, “Folk Guy’s Always With You.” Created by a Hong Kong high-school kid and Chinese-language blogger who calls himself Lam Kay, “Folk Guy” parodies one of the worst propaganda excesses of the 10th anniversary, a treacley “We Are The World”-style music video titled “Hong Kong’s Always With You.” In the original version, Hong Kong’s Canto-pop pantheon of leng jai (pretty boys), from Andy Lau to Eason Chan, croons cringe-worthy lyrics (“Hong Kong’s Lion Rock leads us all the way to the Great Wall … “) as black  helicopters soar across a pollution-free Hong Kong sky and Minnie Mouse waves “hi” from Hong Kong Disneyland.

Such goody-two-shoes patriotic pap practically screams “kick me,” so ripe is it for takedown by a subversively clever, tech-savvy adolescent (of which Hong Kong probably has a higher per-capita concentration than anywhere else in the world). Lam Kay does not disappoint. His spitball starts with the refrain of his version of the song, in which he substitutes the Cantonese words “fuk gaai” for “Hong Kong.” In Cantonese, “Fuk gaai” means “fortune and auspiciousness,” but if you slur the first consonant slightly, you’ve got one of the most widely used Cantonese insults, pook gaai. The phrase is a shortened version of, “You fall down in the street, and nobody will pick up the bones of your stinking dead body.”

In Lam Kay’s video parody, the fuckers who are always with the Hong Kong people include not only Ma Lik (his name gets transcribed, in English, as “Malice,” and Lam intercuts his smug mug with shots of squealing pigs) but also just about all the current leadership of the Hong Kong government. He has also created a visual catalog of some not-so-joyous incidents in Hong Kong’s last 10 years, from the government’s 2006 bulldozing of the historic Star Ferry clock tower to make way for a superhighway and shopping mall, to the 2001 awarding of Hong Kong’s highest honor, the Bauhinia Medal, to an alleged ex-terrorist who happens to be a longtime Communist Party supporter.

On YouTube, Lam Kay’s Chinese version of “Fuk Gaai” had clocked more than 600,000 views the last I looked, and the 7/1 protest organizers have been talking about making it their official march song. I hope they do: It’s the best antidote for Hong Kong’s handover hangover. But it also raises the obvious question: Why can’t Beijing’s leaders get as hip as a Hong Kong high-school student and figure out that they have little to lose—and much to gain—by giving the people of one of the most educated, sophisticated, and prosperous cities in the world the right to vote for their own mayor? Can you tell me the Cantonese word for paranoid?