BOOK REVIEW Hong Kong's identity crisis No City for Slow Men by Jason Y Ng
Reviewed by Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - Amid all of the ongoing and increasingly shrill arguments about this city's struggle to find its post - handover identity, it is refreshing to hear a clever and insightful new voice.
It belongs to Jason Y Ng, a full-time lawyer and part-time blogger and magazine columnist whose first collection of essays, published as Hong Kong State of Mind in 2010, received plaudits for breaking down stereotypes to reveal a city of many enthralling quirks and eccentricities.
Now Ng is back with his second such collection, No City for Slow Men, which has pretty much the same aim as the first. While that
might sound like a recipe for redundancy and failure, it certainly does not turn out that way.
What makes Ng such a fresh and welcome voice on Hong Kong affairs is his dual insider/outsider perspective: Ng was born and bred in the city but spent much of his adult life working abroad - in Italy, the United States and Canada - before coming back home. Also he writes often quite eloquently.
Indeed, while some of the 36 essays here are easily forgettable - a laundry list of Ng's pet peeves and a notably shallow reflection on the 60th anniversary of Communist Party rule in China fall into this category - most are both witty and perceptive. And a few of these entries stand out as absolute gems of language and insight that everyone with an interest in Hong Kong - its colonial past, its contentious present and its clouded future - should read.
Since Hong Kong's handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997, countless commentators have taken up the subject of the city's vexed relationship with mainland China; none of those efforts tops Ng's "HKID," a six-page reflection that begins with the author recalling a time when he left his wallet - containing, among other things, his Hong Kong Identity Card - in a taxi.
There wasn't much money in the wallet and the credit cards could be easily replaced, but the loss of his HKID, which every resident of the city is required to carry at all times, leads to what Ng characterizes as "a mild existential crisis" - and also serves as an excellent prompt for this trenchant analysis of Hong Kong's confused and conflicted post-handover identity.
"Our identity crisis is nothing new," Ng writes. "For 150 years, Hong Kong was a foster child raised by a white family. Chinese born and British bred, the child wound up being neither. But he grew up all right - vibrant, prosperous and the envy of his Asian peers."
As the colony prospered under British rule, it also became a refuge for those fleeing war, famine and political chaos on the mainland - "a city of Chinese," as Ng describes it, "who no longer wanted to be Chinese ".
Thus, it is no surprise to the author that, nearly 17 years after Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty, tensions with the motherland continue to boil as its citizens worry about a creeping "Sinofication" that could eventually bury the city's unique identity - an identity embodied so aptly by Ng himself - and turn Hong Kong into "just another Chinese city".
As Ng points out, frequent street protests against the Hong Kong government or the true powers that be in Beijing now routinely feature young people hoisting the Union Jack, the British flag that flew over the city under colonial rule, a gesture that no doubt causes much gnashing of teeth north of the border with the mainland.
"Nearly two decades after the handover", Ng concludes, "Hong Kong is more lost and isolated than ever. Its future looks murky; its sense of self is fractured. Our ability to articulate who we are and defend what we stand for has taken on an unprecedented urgency."
In another pointed piece, "Maid in Hong Kong", Ng launches a no-holds-barred attack on the city's treatment of its domestic servant class - 320,000 migrant workers, mostly women from the Philippines and Indonesia - who labor long hours six days a week so that Hong Kong couples can work and play without worrying about domestic chores or child care.
This outraged essay was written well before the sensational story of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih - a 23-year-old domestic worker from Indonesia who allegedly suffered repeated incidents of torture at the hands of her Hong Kong employer - made headlines around the world earlier this year. However, Ng demonstrates that, long before the shock and horror of Erwiana's case, the city's maids were routinely victims of exploitation and abuse.
Instead of being treated like second-class citizens, Ng argues, domestic workers should be recognized as a key cog in the city's economy that allows both husbands and wives to work full time, making Hong Kong families - as well as the city they live in - far more productive and prosperous than would otherwise be the case.
"Like it or not," states Ng, "these quasi-citizens unflinchingly hold up a mirror to our city and reveal our parsimony and ingratitude to those who have made an immeasurable contribution to our prosperity."
The criticism may be harsh but, taken within the overall context of Ng's book, it is clearly written by a man who, although he does not shrink from pointing out Hong Kong's faults and foibles, also delights in its food, its customs and, most of all, in the enduring vibrancy and resilience of its people.
So, while in one breath the author may complain about the madcap pace of "a city in perpetual motion", in another he is exhilarated to be part of the crazy din. And there is also a quest, even if mostly unsuccessful, to find peace and balance in the urban jungle.
Part 1 of the essay from which the title of this compilation is taken describes a high - strung, overcrowded city of workaholics in which "[s]peed is in our DNA". Part 2, however, is all about slowing down and finding "the city's placid side" - its nature trails, its sunrises and sunsets.
In other essays, Ng takes on the city's feudal property cartel, explores its restaurants, and describes its biggest sporting event, the Rugby Sevens - a rollicking three-day expat debauch of booze and brawn almost entirely ignored by the local population.
In addition, there are affectionate personal pieces about his worrywart mother and about his father, a now-retired illustrator whose work tended toward the erotic and sometimes the downright pornographic.
No matter the topic, Ng's prose is marked by honesty, clarity and wit, and his book is full of insight and humor about a city and a people still coming to terms with who they are and who they want to be.