As the Prodemocratic movement in Hong Kong tries to gain steam—and the world watches—a new wave of artists, musicians, and activists is filling the city with entrepreneurial energy and newfound optimism.

By Jeff Chu
October 07, 2015
Credit: Frédéric Lagrange

For me, as for so many before me, Hong Kong has been a haven. This destiny was written into its name, a rough transliteration of the Cantonese words for “fragrant harbor.” Safety smelled to me like stinky durian and sweet lychee, exhaust and sweat. I can still feel the backs of my eight-year-old legs sticking to the vinyl seat of a double-decker bus (upstairs, always). I can still hear my relatives’ voices, their rapid-fire Cantonese swelling and ebbing as they processed the rises and falls of the day’s stock prices.

This was, in a manner of speaking, home: my parents had immigrated to America from Hong Kong in their twenties, and I was born in California. They carried with them their culture—hence my bowl-cut hair, my fried-rice-and-pot-sticker lunches, my sense of shame. But whenever we returned to this city of hybrids, of Cantonese movies and English street signs, I felt less alien, my head just another black-topped dome in a sea of them. I’ve visited to see family, to eat, to imagine what it would be like to live here all the time, to make my own memories.

Neither imagination nor memory, though, are among Hong Kong’s most prized virtues. Instead, natives pride themselves on their pragmatism, and one thing that I inherited from my parents, along with the permanent identity card that officially binds me to this city, is an ethic driven by practicality. You can’t survive on nostalgia.

Certainly neither imagination nor memory allowed me to dream that, nearly 20 years after the British returned sovereignty over Hong Kong to China, the streets would heave with prodemocratic protesters calling for universal suffrage. A year after the Umbrella Movement unfurled in such spectacular fashion, most of the cameras— and the protesters—have gone home. I wanted to see whether the demonstrations had left any mark.

What I found was a place undergoing a remarkable transformation. Hong Kong today is a city that, though long defined by financial profit, increasingly questions what constitutes a truly good life. Memory matters more than ever: Hong Kong’s unique heritage continues to define how its people see themselves. Marks of the British—roads named for royals, colonial architecture—endure; the Star Ferry, still just 30 cents to cross Victoria Harbour, offers as wondrous a view as ever. Yet go where the locals go, and you’ll find that imagination is constructing the future, in restaurants and tattoo ink, organic produce and song. And many Hong Kongers are learning to cultivate something that can’t be bought or sold with traditional currency: optimism. Left: 18-year-old prodemocratic activist Agnes Chow Ting, in the Central district. Right: Doryun Chong, chief curator of M+, a new museum for visual culture, at the museum headquarters in Tsim Sha Tsui. Frédéric Lagrange

"Free Hong Kong! Free Hong Kong!"

On a warm summer night, the chants, in English, crept through my window in the traditionally working-class Kowloon neighborhood of Mongkok. I was staying with family, not far from where my parents grew up. Most tourists don’t visit this area, but if they did, they’d find the Bird Garden, where old men bring their caged thrushes and warblers, as well as the city’s main flower market. Bougainvillea and bamboo fill storefront after storefront, and rolling carts stacked with orchids crowd the sidewalks.

At night, vendors wrap the displays in green netting. Downstairs, I found the floral purples and magentas replaced by the red of soccer jerseys worn by hundreds of delighted fans. A week after winning a World Cup qualifier against Bhutan, Hong Kong had triumphed again, this time over the Maldives. Both matches took place at Mongkok Stadium, about half a mile from the intersection of Nathan Road and Argyle Street, one of the sites where prodemocratic protesters clashed with police last fall.

The wins weren’t the big news. (If Hong Kong is a soccer minnow, the Maldives are a guppy and Bhutan, plankton.) Hong Kong doesn’t have its own anthem, so during the raising of its flag—a white bauhinia blossom on a red background—China’s plays. The crowd had booed.

Such bursts of anti-Beijing sentiment reflect enduring popular frustration in the wake of the Umbrella Movement, which has produced no democratic reform. “There are lots of hopeless things every day, especially with the political aspect,” prodemocratic activist Agnes Chow Ting said when we met for coffee in Wan Chai, the cleaned-up Hong Kong Island neighborhood that was once the fictional Suzie Wong’s stomping ground. Chow, an earnest 18-year-old with long hair and a touch of a lisp, once served as a spokeswoman for Scholarism, the most prominent prodemocratic student group, and is in her second year of university. “We see how the central and local governments neglect opinions about democracy for Hong Kong people,” she continued.

Like the soccer fans, Chow has channeled her energies into alternative forms of protest. She cohosts a Tuesday night radio show that purportedly focuses on Japanese culture, especially pop music and animation. “There are hidden messages in animation, and I try to link them to the issues,” she explained. Take a manga series called Attack on Titan. “It’s about giants trying to break down walls and eat people living in a city,” she said. The corners of her mouth edged up in a slight smile. “People may imagine the central government as the giants.”

It’s this kind of imagination that gives birth to a character like Umbrella Man. On October 5, 2014, protesters massed in the Admiralty neighborhood by the Central Government Complex, a hulking steel-and-glass office tower. They had been coming by the thousands, after class and after work, for nearly a week. On this night, a precarious 10-foot-tall figure made of wood blocks joined them. His upraised right arm held aloft a yellow umbrella. (Though the protest site has become something of a tourist attraction, there’s little left to see.)

Umbrella Man was the creation of artists Tong Sin Chun and Milk Tsang. I met Tsang, 23, in Ngau Tau Kok, an up-and-coming section of Kowloon filled with warehouses. As we walked, he said he didn’t want to talk about the sculpture, and expressed sadness at the current state of affairs. “You talk to someone on the street about the situation—they just want to be in their own little world,” Tsang noted, as we took an elevator up to a restaurant on the 10th floor of an old factory. “I don’t see any hope.”

Tsang’s statement puzzled me. His varied portfolio, which includes sculpture, painting, and film production, pointed to Hong Kong’s entrepreneurial promise. Tsang is a guitarist in a rock band called Tf.vs.js, and the restaurant, called Tfvsjs.syut, is run by four of his five bandmates. Bassist and chef Sean Yeun, who oversees an eclectic European-inspired menu that incorporates local ingredients like Chinese yam, said hello. Guitarist and co-owner Adonian Chan, who doubles as a graphic designer, joined us for dinner. He echoed Tsang’s glum commentary. “I’ve shifted focus,” he said, as we picked at spaghetti carbonara and a roasted duck leg with a sauce of Guinness and puréed beets. “What we can change is within ourselves—and then within a small community.” Bandmates Adonian Chan (left) and Milk Tsang at the restaurant Tfvsjs.syut. Frédéric Lagrange

With its big casement windows, bare concrete floors, and mismatched chairs, Tfvsjs.syut has the marks of a hipster hangout. The place draws young creatives, who, between meals, participate in Chan’s curated slate of activities, ranging from literary readings to jam sessions. In a nearby studio, Chan works on Chinese typography; one of his most successful typefaces, inspired by Hong Kong’s midcentury neon signage, has been featured, ironically, in a government-funded project. “The government is always promoting revitalization,” Chan said, dismissing long-gestating plans to turn this part of eastern Kowloon into a business district. “We believe the people can do it by themselves.”

When I expressed surprise at how Tsang and Chan skip freely among mediums, they seemed surprised that I was surprised. “For me, it’s all art, not different things,” Tsang said.

This fluidity has also struck Lars Nittve and Doryun Chong, executive director and chief curator, respectively, at M+, a new visual culture museum being built in the West Kowloon Cultural District. Nittve was founding director of the Tate Modern in London, and Chong came to Hong Kong from New York’s MoMA. Nowhere else have they seen this kind of crossover. “Many of the best artists are also the best graphic designers and architects,” Nittve explained, as we sat in the sleek offices of M+ on the 29th floor of a tower in Tsim Sha Tsui, with the cultural district, now a construction site, below us. With its embrace of architecture, film, and design, M+ is positioned to capture this new local dynamic with programs that are not limited to what’s typically classified as contemporary art. “These are Western constructs, and we are not in the West.”

Of course, Hong Kong has become a global art magnet, with the Art Basel fair drawing thousands of exhibitors and collectors each spring. But while Basel has injected energy into the local scene, most of what happens is not indigenous. The wave of protest-related art, including Tsang’s sculpture, on the other hand? “It was a spontaneous expression of maybe dormant desire. It felt like a special moment of defining the self for a young generation,” Chong said. “It’s uniquely Hong Kong.”

The more time I spent with Hong Kongers, the more I realized that politics was less a cause than an effect of a broader reevaluation.

“These days, there’s definitely a stronger sense of community and an emphasis on returning to life’s basics,” said Nic Tse, proprietor of the Mei Wah Tattoo Parlor, in Kowloon. In some ways Tse’s shop, located on the gritty northern section of Shanghai Street, is quintessentially Hong Kong, importing ideas from everywhere. Climb the narrow steps of the old tenement building to his fourth-floor studio, and you’ll likely find a prominent tattoo artist visiting from Europe or America. You’ll also see reflections of the changing ethos in what they’re asked to ink. Tse recently tattooed the English word courage on the wrist of a local activist.

More and more, Hong Kongers are also concerned with reconnecting, in modern ways, with heritage and history. Take Wanda Huang, whose family has a small farm on the carless island of Cheung Chau, a 35-minute ferry ride from Central. There’s almost always something to harvest among their 40 types of fruit trees. But what draws visitors to the farm are the educational programs that Wanda runs. She teaches a greener, more sustainable way of living—one that honors the herb-infused healing traditions of traditional Chinese medicine.

Huang, whose father is a Chinese herbalist, is one of Hong Kong’s only professional foragers. (Though the city is often perceived as an urban jungle, 70% of its land mass is actually green space.) “These abandoned farmlands, beaches, and woods contain an abundance of wild ingredients,” Huang told me. “Wild ginger flower. Different types of seaweed. Bamboo shoot.” She’s trying to domesticate some of these plants; what she can’t, she often forages for local chefs, including Uwe Opocensky of the Mandarin Oriental. “There’s a sea of wild watercress next to Wanda’s farm,” says Jaakko Sorsa, the executive chef of FINDS, a modern Nordic restaurant housed in the Luxe Manor in Tsim Sha Tsui. “She also brings me passion fruit—in the wild, they’re more acidic.”

Sorsa, who was recently named Hong Kong Chef of the Year by the local magazine Foodie, remains faithful to his European roots. His 12-course “Nordic Express” tasting menu reimagines smørrebrød, the Danish open-faced sandwich, and features sea buckthorn berry and pickled spruce shoots. But the restaurant has also evolved to honor local culture (a family-style menu is popular) and to include Huang’s bounty (her licorice goes in the desserts). The two are working on a book about subtropical foraging. “People say, ‘What do you mean that herb was picked here?’ ” Sorsa said. “It’s all an education.” Left: Nic Tse at his Mei Wah Tattoo Parlor, in Kowloon. Right: Forager Wanda Huang at her family farm on the island of Cheung Chau. Frédéric Lagrange

Nothing stays the same for long in Hong Kong—not the skyline, not the fashion, not the slang. Even the fortune-telling business at the Temple Street Night Market, a tourist magnet in Kowloon, has shifted. Traditional numerologists and clairvoyants who read palms to predict the future used to dominate. “A few years ago, the tarot-card readers began to take over, appealing to Westerners,” Paul Chan, who runs Walk in Hong Kong, told me.

He regards such change with aplomb—that’s capitalism, and this is Hong Kong, after all. A former political aide and lecturer who then went into finance, Chan recently quit banking to give walking tours full-time. His itineraries are varied—one spotlights Sheung Wan, a Hong Kong Island neighborhood beloved by expats that’s full of art galleries and third-wave coffee joints, but several wend through Kowloon, where he grew up. “For a comprehensive feel, go to Hong Kong Island,” Chan said. “But you must come to this side as well.”

Chan’s meticulously researched itineraries use the streetscape as a classroom, weaving together history, economics, and anthropology. A couple of blocks north of the night market, we stopped into Yim Yeung Tin, a traditional singing parlor, where the $3 cover charge gets you a cup of tea and entrée to one of the kitschiest experiences in town. Plastic printed with gaudy pink roses covered the tables, and disco balls showered rainbow light all over the scuffed linoleum floors. Onstage, under fluttering paper banners wishing you a HAPPY NEW YEAR, a woman in jeggings and a rhinestone headband sang Cantonese and Mandarin pop standards, accompanied by a seventysomething man in khaki shorts and Crocs playing a Yamaha keyboard. It was magical. “To get in touch with local culture,” Chan said, “you have to visit these places.”

Like many people I met, Chan kept referring to Hong Kong’s “core values.” In his view, they had shifted. “One of the underlying causes of the Umbrella Movement was a value change between the generations,” he said. “In the past, the focus was on efficiency, prosperity, and stability. Now, it’s cultural preservation, worklife balance, and conservation.”

Conservation honors heritage, and heritage provides context. One morning, I visited the refurbished Yau Ma Tei Theatre. Built in 1930, it is one of Hong Kong’s only surviving cinemas from the silent-film era. Today, its Art Deco touches restored, the theater stages Cantonese opera, and performances take place at least once a week. (Though the operas are in Cantonese, English-language programs guide foreign visitors through.)

I sat in the 300-seat auditorium with Angel Leung, a law student and rising operatic star. She explained that Cantonese opera features minimal sets—when an actor opens a door, you’ll see no physical door, just vigorous hand gestures. Costumes, however, are lavish constructions of silk.

The stories in Cantonese opera are always rooted in history and typically reflect traditional Confucian values, such as filial piety. A few days earlier, Leung had performed in a piece that told the tale of a general who sends his son to war. The son falls in love with a woman, and his father orders him executed for getting married during wartime—a distraction to the warrior’s spirit. The story takes place some thousand years ago, during the Song dynasty, when China was also politically riven. “In those days, it wasn’t just one leader,” she said. Leung was cagey about her own views toward Beijing, but noted that her generation isn’t as politically monolithic as it may have seemed in reports about the protests. “How do you determine who was right or wrong? I wouldn’t die for a change in government—but it’s something I would do onstage.” Cantonese opera actress Angel Leung, who performs at the Yau Ma Tei Theatre. Frédéric Lagrange

In the late 1200s, a contingent of wartime refugees reached Hong Kong. The Song dynasty was in its sunset, and the court of the child emperor Duanzong fled south, taking shelter at Silver Mine Bay.

Today, the bay remains a lovely escape, popular on weekends and holidays. But this was a Monday afternoon. When I boarded the boat from the Central Ferry Pier to Lantau Island and the village of Mui Wo, which sits on Silver Mine, I counted no more than 20 other people. At the beach itself, a few elderly women in conical hats swept the sand. Turning my eyes landward, I saw a path leading uphill, toward Discovery Bay. So I took it.

Over the past decade, hiking has become very popular here, and a friend had recommended this route. Yet I had it all to myself—and I quickly learned why. The steepening path turned to stairs and more stairs. My thighs screamed, and in the sauna-like afternoon my shirt was sopping. My eyes scanned for shade, but I saw only more stairs.

Farther uphill, I sat on a step to take in the lovely view. Cicadas erupted in a loud chorus, as if to urge me on. At the top, I collapsed onto a bench and caught the panorama. From here, Hong Kong looked like a collection of half-filled green pincushions holding skyscraper needles, sitting atop a blanket of glitter and blue. The city and its worries felt far away. A few clouds hung in the sky. The seas were calm. Everything seemed possible.