The way one fell

Richard the Lionheart waits in a dungeon with his brothers for their father, Henry II, to come kill them.

RICHARD: He’s here. He’ll get no satisfaction out of me. He isn’t going to
see me beg.

GEOFFREY: You chivalric fool. As if the way one fell down mattered.

RICHARD: When the fall is all there is, it matters.

James Goldman, The Lion in Winter (1968)


THE RITZ-CARLTON, Hong Kong, occupies the top seventeen floors of the International Commerce Centre in West Kowloon. It is the highest hotel in the world – the lobby is on the hundred-and-third floor. In 2011, a month after it opens, I go up late one night to the bar on the top floor and look out at – and for the first time, over – the Hong Kong skyline. I see the city as I have never seen it before, the harbour curving like I didn’t know it did, like a river. At sea level, on the Star Ferry or along the waterfront, even from up on the Peak, the harbour is flat, neatly east–west, constant even in its diminishment, reclamation pushing the shorelines ever closer. It is Hong Kong’s Giving Tree, the root of our wealth and yet we keep chipping away at it, bartering slivers for land, always more land. One day the harbour will disappear, the city will be unborn, its name redundant.

Save tonight, where from a hundred and eighteen floors up, the harbour looks anything but disappearing. It seems to have a life and course much longer and winding than I knew, less brief and less straight than the short drive it takes to traverse the length of Hong Kong Island. From up here, I can trace the texture of life along the skyscraper facades and deep within them – down the elevator banks, out the alleyways and into the underground tunnels.

It is a Friday night, but across the water, the woman in the dry-cleaning and alterations shop in the barren arcade at the foot of the Mid-Levels escalator huddles over a sewing machine, mending a pair of jeans; the lights are all still on in the glass towers of Central, junior bankers in their cubicles hot-keying spreadsheets and missing out on the first round of shots in Lan Kwai; a green minibus shuttles east on Kennedy Road past young lovers silently observing the terrapins stacked over each other’s shells on the stones in the pond in Hong Kong Park; lanky teenage boys rocking Jordans throw up the last bricks before the floodlights go off at Southorn, across the street from the noodle shop window still steaming with beef brisket broth; at a Jockey Club outlet, the noodle shop’s Chinese chef wrapped in a curry-stained apron, a Pakistani labourer sheathed by his reflective, fluorescent yellow safety vest, and a Filipina domestic helper rehearsing a dance routine with her earphones plugged in all line up for twenty-dollar Mark Six snowball tickets; an interior designer locks up his studio and follows the ding of a tram to the karaoke hall in Causeway Bay, where his university friends are already on their second bottle of Chivas mixed with green tea, already given up on trying new songs, already just pounding out classic Jacky Cheung ballads with abandon; pimpled international school kids flirt and stand around under the jumbotron at Times Square, indecisive, waiting for always-late friends; young women sit on stools outside a desserterie under a flyover in Tin Hau, pointing their phones at mounds of snowflake ice-cream; down a numbingly lit basement study hall in Fortress Hill, an eleven-year-old boy huddles in a cubbyhole struggling to fit his newest vocabulary words into the neat character squares of his exercise book; seven floors above, a Korean soap opera plays on TV while a gang of four grandmothers knock mahjong tiles on green felt and outside the window a taxi coasts along the Eastern Corridor; a middle-aged woman whose husband is in the mainland on business and whose son is in class at a boarding school west of London walks through an emptying mall, back to her Taikoo Shing apartment after the last showing of a new romantic comedy; fruit vendors at the market in Shau Kei Wan switch off their hanging red lamps; long silent guns and a never-used torpedo station keep watch across the Lei Yue Mun channel, and a thousand souls whisper up the cemeteries and crematorium along the Chai Wan hillside.

Lei Yue Mun is, by its name, the gate through which carp once flowed through the harbour; it is the narrowest span of the harbour, with five hundred briny metres between, on one side, the last Brennan Torpedo station ever built and, on the other, a fishing village that is now a seafood market; it is where I learned how to shuck, with my teeth and tongue and scissors when needed, the salt and peppery, crackly shells of mantis shrimp, which in English are so named because their claws strike as fast as bullets and in retraction emit shockwaves that annihilate their prey, but which in Cantonese are called pissing shrimp because they squirt water when they are pulled out of the tank to be deep fried and showered with chilli and garlic; and it is my starting block, one clear October morning, from which I jump into the sea and begin front-crawling towards the Island, where students carried umbrellas that day even though it was clear, and I swam on, even though the finish line seemed further and further away.


IN OCTOBER 1967, just as The Lion in Winter began rehearsals at the Haymarket Theatre in London, months of guerrilla rioting in Hong Kong was reaching its apogee. Except for the Japanese invasion during the Second World War, the summer and autumn of 1967 remains the most violent period in Hong Kong since a failed villager rebellion in 1899. Leftist sympathisers of the Cultural Revolution enveloping the mainland had tried to pineapple-bomb the city into anarchy, fomenting a period of social unrest to which the 2014 democracy protests were often compared, sometimes less than innocuously, never ironically.

Rioting Hong Kongers in 1967 were not only justified, the People’s Daily proclaimed at the time, they were obligated to ‘fully mobilise youths and students’ and ‘begin a movement to hate and despise British imperialism and to take all possible measures politically, economically and culturally to launch a counter-attack’. Like last year’s protests, the insurrection of 1967 waned with the onset of winter, its dwindling corps of agitators resorting to increasingly desperate tactics. A Chinese idiom, 秋後算賬, reprised during the 2014 protests – also less than innocuously – reminds us to wait until after autumn to settle scores.

On the morning of 9 December 1967, Police Constable 3810, Lee Koon Sang, was walking his beat through Chi Tong village in Kam Tin, the same part of the New Territories where my once warlord great-grandfather settled in 1925 after being driven out of Guangxi on Sun Yat-sen’s orders. Constable Lee and his partner had just stopped to chat with the proprietress of the village wine shop, when they were set upon by two leftist workers eating noodles at a food stall a few metres away.

‘Don’t move,’ one of the attackers said, according to witnesses. He brandished a firearm and then attempted to seize the constables’ revolvers. A gunshot went off. The attackers fled, and Constable Lee’s partner pursued them on foot, firing at and wounding one of the attackers. Constable Lee himself staggered back to the Kam Tin police post, his stomach punctured by an assailant’s bullet. When his partner returned to the police post, Constable Lee’s ‘revolver was missing from his holster’, the partner testified, ‘and the lanyard which would have been attached to the revolver was broken’.

Within half an hour, Constable Lee was dead, the last of eleven police officers killed in action that year, Hong Kong’s deadliest on record. He was twenty-one.


THE FIRST TIME the Chinese words for Hong Kong ever appear as a place name is on a Ming Dynasty map of the South China Sea more than four hundred years old. The characters 香港, though, seem to notate not the frog-shaped island that we now call Hong Kong, but rather a small island

just underneath the frog’s gullet, known today as Ap Lei Chau, or ‘duck tongue island’.

I lived on Ap Lei Chau on and off for eight years, in one of the hundreds of columns of apartment blocks on the island that make it by some measure the most densely populated island on Earth; nearly ninety thousand people live in an area less than half the size of Uluru, a quarter the size of Sydney’s central business district.

Every day in high school, I caught – or, just as often, missed – my school bus that took me across the bridge that connects it to Aberdeen, in and around a succession of bays and along the always surprisingly beautiful southern coast of Hong Kong Island. In the early mornings I usually slept on the bus, because I had been up late on the phone or online, and in the early evenings I usually slept on the bus because I had just sweated out four hours of badminton and basketball practice. I missed a lifetime of perfect sunsets and sunrises.

What I never knew, each night I crossed the bridge back over to Ap Lei Chau, was how this little island had begot my city its name. At least as long ago as the Ming Dynasty map, the harbour between Ap Lei Chau and Aberdeen was the port from which local agarwood was exported throughout China and beyond. The resin in agarwood secretes a pleasant, soothing perfume used for incense, which is why the area around Ap Lei Chau came to be known as 香港, meaning ‘fragrant harbour’.

How 香港 came to represent the larger island abutting Ap Lei Chau is uncertain. When the British first arrived, one story goes, a group of British soldiers were led by a Hakka woman down the passage that now runs from Repulse Bay Road to Pok Fu Lam Road. At the halfway point near Aberdeen, the soldiers asked the woman what the name of the place was. Stretching her arm out into the distance towards Ap Lei Chau, she replied, ‘Hong Kong’ – the name of the local area at the time, as it would have sounded in a thick Hakka accent, like the one my great-grandmother had. The unwitting soldiers thought she was referring to the whole larger island they were standing on, oblivious that the Cantonese pronunciation sounds much more like ‘Heung Gong’.

For these and so many reasons, Hong Kong is something of a misnomer, never possible to define in just the right way. There have been and continue to be awkward attempts. City-state. Crown colony. Special administrative region. One country, two systems. Maybe that is how it is with all cities, all places; maybe anything that really matters defies shape.

But there was one summer, when I walked along the Amalfi Coast and around the Amphitheatre of Pompeii and looked up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and stood before the north face of Mount Everest and inhaled the smoke rising from the funeral pyres of Pashupatinath, and climbed up the stairs of the Potala Palace and sat and lay for eighty-four hours on trains crossing what seemed like every farm, factory, mountain and river in China; the train stations kept getting more familiar – Lanzhou, Xi’an, Chongqing, Guangzhou – and after I crossed the Shenzhen River, which a great writer once said separated the realms of the living and the dead, I rode the rails as far into town as they would take me and then, finally, a double-decker bus across the bridge to Ap Lei Chau, where I disembarked at a plaza surrounded on three sides by apartment towers and on one side by the ocean. The sun was setting over Lamma Island and the South China Sea, the exact location where Hong Kong first came into being four centuries before. And I didn’t know how to compare this place to all the others I had been, or how to describe the feeling I felt, except to say that it was unlike anywhere else I knew.


THIS IS HOW most (English) histories of Hong Kong begin: In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, British people begin to really like tea and other fancy things from China. To square the massive trade imbalance this caused, Great Britain gets China hooked on opium. Then in June 1839, Qing Dynasty official Lin Zexu dumps all the opium in Canton into the sea. The British are enraged and declare war. The British win the war. The British demand war reparations, and on 29 August 1842, aboard Her Majesty’s Ship Cornwallis, representatives of Queen Victoria and the Daoguang Emperor conclude a Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Commerce, Indemnity, etc., between Great Britain and China. It is more commonly known as the Treaty of Nanking – and Nanking is always spelled like that, with a ‘k’. In Article III of the Treaty, China cedes to Great Britain ‘the Island of Hong-Kong, to be possessed in perpetuity by Her Britannic Majesty, her heirs and successors’, and that is how Hong Kong – barren rock, sleepy fishing village, etc. – becomes a Crown colony, economic miracle, global financial hub.

That history will endure, and it is not inaccurate. It is just not mine. It is not my father’s, not my friends’, not the history of any number of Hong Kongers’ who may not have come before the British, but always knew they would be staying long after. Our history of Hong Kong does not begin with tea and opium and the Cornwallis, nor did it end with the last Governor and the Prince of Wales shipping away in the rain on Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia a quarter after midnight on 1 July 1997. No, we sail a longer course; our vessels of history carry us somewhere else altogether.


AT THE HEIGHT of the 2014 protests, Joe Yeung Yat-lung, one of the frontline protestors with face mask and goggles always dangling around their necks, turned twenty-one. He was a third-year history student at Shue Yan University and had just been outed as an auxiliary member of the Hong Kong Police Force. After denying accusations that he was a government infiltrator, Yeung officially quit the force in November, then made the news again on 1 December, days before the protests ended. Early that morning, in the movement’s final major confrontation, protestors had made one last attempt to regain ground and blockade the Central Government Offices.

They failed. The police discharged water hoses for the first time. Forty people were sent to hospital, eleven police officers were injured. Dozens of protesters were arrested, including Yeung, who later showed the media the scuffed-up left side of his face while wearing vintage US Army fatigues with the name patch stencilled wiseman. The bruises, he said, were gifts from his former colleagues, one of whom recognised him. ‘The Auxiliary Officer, right?’ he recalled one plainclothes officer saying, while pushing him to the ground. ‘Being an officer is real cool.’


THE SONG DYNASTY was steward of the greatest technological advancements man had ever known. But all the art and literature, the scientific breakthroughs, even gunpowder, could not hold at bay marauding Mongol invaders from the north, and in a string of military defeats and naive alliances, the Song Dynasty kept retreating, always south. It held court from a new southern capital in Hangzhou for a century and a half, but by 1275, Kublai Khan’s armies had already pushed Song forces well past the Yangzi River, taken Hangzhou, and captured the four-year-old Gong Emperor. What remained of the Song court fled to Fuzhou with Gong’s brother, Zhao Shi, as its new sovereign. When Fuzhou fell too, Zhao Shi carried the dwindling hopes of Chinese control of China even further south along the coast to what is today Kowloon and Lantau Island. While on the seas, he fell overboard, became ill and never recovered. When he died, his seven-year-old younger brother, Zhao Bing, was crowned Emperor of China near the Lantau beach town of Mui Wo, which is where my uncle taught me how to ride a bicycle one afternoon when I was seven.

Less than a year later, in 1279, the Mongol Navy assembled for one final siege of the Song remnants at the mouth of a river a hundred kilometres west of Lantau Island. Zhao Bing was ensconced in a row of a thousand warships, chained together to prevent defections. It was everything that remained of the Song Dynasty.

On 19 March, the Chinese general for the Mongol Navy, Zhang Hongfan, ordered celebratory music to be played while Mongol soldiers piled into ships under large stretches of fabric, where they were hidden from the view of Song forces momentarily disarmed by the music. Zhang directed the Mongol ships slowly closer to the Song fleet. When they were within striking distance, the drums of battle were beaten, the fabric was thrown aside, and the Mongol soldiers launched into a total, terminal assault. Zhao Bing and his coterie of guardians watched as the enemy neared, cutting down everyone in their path.

There was nowhere else to retreat to, nowhere further south to flee. As their fate became clear, the boy emperor’s prime minister, Liu Xiufu, asked that they be spared the shame of capture. He picked Zhao Bing up into his arms, and in the final moment of a dynasty, jumped into the sea.


THE END OF the Song Dynasty’s history is the beginning of Hong Kong’s. In the boy emperor’s flight through Kowloon and Lantau Island, one guardian in particular, Yang Liangjie, has been singled out through time as their most loyal protector. His death in Hong Kong in 1279 is remembered as the greatest of sacrifices in service of the emperor and the Chinese nation. As a reward, he was made a king in death, and temples around Hong Kong consecrated in his name are known as Hau Wong temples, or temples to the Marquis King.

Half of the Hau Wong temples that remain standing today were built around the eighteenth century in Yuen Long, the district of the New Territories that also includes Kam Tin, where my great-grandfather built our family village after he, too, had nowhere further south to flee. Several Hau Wong temples were built by one of Hong Kong’s original families, the Tangs,
and the virtues that Yang Liangjie embodied – unwavering loyalty and unwillingness to relent even in the face of certain defeat – seem encoded in their genome.

The Tang family traces its lineage to Deng Fuxie, a Song Dynasty official posted to Yangchun in Guangdong, not far west of the estuary into which the Song Empire dissolved. After leaving the imperial civil service, Deng settled in Kam Tin, and in retirement, he founded Hong Kong’s first school, Li Ying College.

Deng Fuxie’s descendants built several of Hong Kong’s oldest remaining structures, including an ancestral hall, around seven hundred years old, and the Tsui Sing Lau pagoda, built in 1486 by the seventh generation of Tangs. The name summons the gathering of the stars, from a time when this presumably still happened in the skies above Hong Kong. But the most enduring, still breathing Tang family edifice is in Kam Tin, a half-hour walk from our family village that my father might have once taken through narrow, curving lanes that evoke the labyrinthine backstreets of suburban Japan.

Emerging from these lanes, a couple of hundred metres north of where Constable Lee was walking his beat on 9 December 1967, is an out of place, out of time, walled compound surrounded by the footprint of a moat. When I arrived there one recent afternoon, the setting winter sun cascaded down the charcoal brick face of the southern wall, at an angle across a basketball court with no baskets, just four young children and one of their parents playing badminton over make-believe nets. A Porsche Cayenne was parked directly opposite the centre of the wall.

This is Kat Hing Wai, a five hundred-year-old village that is not a declared monument in Hong Kong because the four hundred people who still live within the three hundred-year-old walls have not given their consent. A sign tells visitors that they enter at their own risk – of what, it is unclear – through an archway that could once be sealed with two swinging iron gates. The gates are still there, rusting away, but that was not always the case.


IN APRIL 1899, ten months after Great Britain secured a ninety-nine-year lease on the New Territories that the British negotiator called ‘as good as forever’, the Tang family led a coalition of local families in an armed resistance against the British occupation of their land. They were not the pictures of heroes, not motivated only by pride or patriotism. More likely, they were protecting the rural oligarchy they had presided over for centuries. But unless you count the failed defence of Hong Kong against the Japanese invasion in 1941, this is the only time the people of Hong Kong have ever taken up arms against the powers that have through history treated Hong Kong’s sovereignty – and the livelihoods of its people – as an asset to be leveraged.

Over six days that April, several thousand men fought sporadic battles against a much smaller but outlandishly better-armed British contingent, moving west from Tai Po through the hills above Lam Tseun, the same hills that rise behind my family village. I used to amble onto the roof above my father’s childhood room and look at those hills, and wonder how they built the rolling powerlines that now traverse the valley. I never had any idea that a war had been fought there.

The British suffered just two minor casualties, or three, if you count the man who found himself on the wrong end of the horns of a water buffalo. When the British came upon a walled village whose iron gates they could not breach, as they did in Kat Hing Wai, they simply blew the gates in, salvaging them as booty to be presented to Henry Blake, the governor. In 1925, the year my great-grandfather built our family village a few kilometres away, the gates were unearthed at Blake’s family home in Ireland and then Governor Reginald Stubbs, in a gesture of reconciliation, returned them to Kat Hing Wai, where they remain today, rusting away.

By 19 April 1899, each of the insurgent villages had surrendered. They had lost, according to some estimates, five hundred men and a handful of women. A mass grave was dug for dozens of the Tang men from Kam Tin, just down the road from where my great-grandfather put down roots twenty-six years later. It is a tomb of the unknown like the Cenotaph, a memorial for the two world wars that stands at attention between the Hong Kong Club and Statue Square in Central, but only the Tang grave commemorates different – opposite, even – battles, and victims. That tomb in Kam Tin is now marked by one wide gravestone with outstretched wings, inscribed in the centre with the characters 義塚. The word 塚 means ‘burial’. The word 義 is the same as in 義氣 – a cocktail of justice, righteousness and loyalty that is the driving source of admiration and conflict in the Young and Dangerous Hong Kong gangster flicks, the anthems of adolescence of every teenage boy in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Both sides wished they had done things differently in the war. The British forces wondered if they had been too heavy-handed, particularly in punishing those who had instigated the insurrection. The Chinese seemed to wish they had never fought at all, knowing they had been foolish to think they had a chance against British artillery.

But for whatever reason, perhaps something to do with 義 – that blend of justice, righteousness and loyalty – there seems virtue in that foolishness, honour in that naiveté. It is why we write books and make movies about Thermopylae and Eureka, and why Hong Kong – modern epicentre of creative destruction – is still dotted with centuries-old temples dedicated to a Song Dynasty bodyguard who gave his life protecting an emperor with no empire.


WHEN I WAS twenty-one, in 2004, my final assignment for International Studies 200, International Law and Human Rights at Yale University was a pretend memo to Colin Powell, then the US Secretary of State, on how to support democratic reform in Hong Kong. I was optimistic. The previous summer, half a million Hong Kongers had, with their feet on the street, convinced the government to withdraw a proposed anti-subversion law, and for the first time in my life, I had been paid to write. That summer, the South China Morning Post published my 852-word rebuttal of an article written by Leung Chun-ying – then a cabinet member, now Chief Executive – in which he weaseled behind, even then, every reason not to implement universal suffrage. Leung replied to me, in a letter to the editor, and then again, after I wrote back to him. I was excited, my father especially so, but it was odd, almost embarrassing, that a member of Hong Kong’s cabinet should feel the need to publicly parry back idealistic volleys thrown by a college junior halfway around the world. He was like an insecure blogger before there were even blogs, not just reading but responding to all the comments, like he knew he was going to be the beneficiary of this less-than democracy, like he was already eager to defend a legitimacy he had yet to – still has not – earned.

Since he became Chief Executive, Leung has been the principal target of Hong Kongers’ unrivalled proclivity and creativity for the profane. The name-calling alone has bordered on violent. But the most damning moniker, the one that will resonate through to Leung’s obituary, contained no vulgar innuendo, no foul words, no words at all. Just three digits: 689, the number of votes he received to become the leader of seven million people. That number, eerily matching the date the Tiananmen Square protests were crushed, was plastered throughout last year’s protest sites, painted on banners strung from bridges, scrawled on wooden boards there was no way to avoid stepping on, magic-markered on homemade signs that did otherwise relent to the vulgar and foul. As in, ‘I don’t need sex, because I get fucked by 689 everyday.’


I AM PREPARED to concede that the Umbrella Movement set us back, that whatever concessions Beijing was prepared to offer were quickly retracted once this became less a local governance matter and more a showdown between foul-mouthed, pimply-faced students and the Chinese Communist Party. Maybe we were never going to win that battle, not any more than the Song Dynasty could have survived the Mongol invasion or Tang family villagers could have held off the British armada.

But try being twenty-one and damned either way. Condemned. The principled stand risks losing everything. The practical – cut your losses, secure your gains – risks complicity in your own, and your children’s, demise. It is an impossible choice, the kind no twenty-one-year-old should be forced to make, least of all by their parents. If that was the dominant narrative of the Umbrella Movement – the stern parent and the rebellious child – whose best interests were being served?

I am still waiting for one more letter from Leung Chun-ying, the one telling me how not freely electing my leaders makes ours a better city.

Because we are not the prodigal sons, who spurned home and returned begging forgiveness. We were the spurned ones, who for decades carried the burden of the unkempt house we were booted from, giving shelter to refugees, capital to markets, cures to diseases. On this rock we built a home when we had none, and if the fall is all that remains, we are going to make it matter.


WHEN YOU JUMP into the harbour, it is neither straight nor curving, certainly not diminishing. For decades, the annual cross-harbour swim had been suspended because the water was close to noxious. If you ever swung over the kids flying their kites from the roofs of the Kowloon Walled City in a 747 and touched down harbour-side at the old Kai Tak Airport, you would agree, your first impressions of Hong Kong concocted from the mildly rancid smell wafting through the fuselage ventilation.

My problem was not the smell or toxicity. My problem was that swimming across the harbour is not unlike how a ton of feathers weighs the same as a ton of bricks. One thousand five hundred metres of Victoria harbour is a lot longer than one thousand five hundred metres of the swimming pool on the seventh floor of my apartment building. I had never swam in an open-water race; actually, not in any race since a few laps in the pool at the
Hong Kong Sports Institute in Sha Tin when I was ten years old and the weak link in an IronKids Triathalon team that placed and would have won if not for me.

I had assumed, despite dutifully studying the race information pamphlet, that the finish line would be self-evident; it would be on the other side of the harbour. When the starting gun went off, though, and I found myself actually in Lei Yue Mun, bobbing in the waters carp once flowed through, the finish line was nowhere to be seen. I could see the other side of the harbour, but my fellow swimmers were not swimming there. Instead, they were all paddling, thousands of them, in another direction, southward toward the Island, the end of which was unseen.

Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes in, I considered giving up. I defogged my goggles and eyed the lifeguards holstered in their orange emergency kayaks and I thought, no big deal, life goes on, nothing changes if I don’t make it. And then I looked back in the direction everyone else was swimming, to that elusive goal, and I swam on, because nothing changes if I don’t make it.



An imaginative, eclectic take on the origins of Hong Kong's name and many other stories of Hong Kong can be found in Dung Kai-cheung’s Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, trans. Anders Hansson and Bonnie S McDougall (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

Dr Patrick H Hase has written the only English book about what he calls the Six-Day War of 1899. I have relied heavily on his work.
Hase, Patrick H. The Six-Day War of 1899: Hong Kong in the Age of Imperialism (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008).


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