Unfree Speech by Joshua Wong

What were you doing when you were 14 years old? I’m sure it wasn’t trying to overthrow the influence of Communist China in your home country. Unless your name is Joshua Wong, that is.

5/5 stars.
ebook, 256 pages.
Read from May 12, 2020 to May 13, 2020.

Hong Kong is my current home and while I am an expat here, I have a serious love and passion for this country that has given me so much.  I have lived here for the last four years and I have seen Hong Kong and I have witnessed first hand, its people fight for their right to their identity, culture, and democracy. It’s been a humbling experience and it has made me extremely proud of the people here and of the place I call my current home. Hong Kong’s history is rife with being taken over by others and Hong Kongers have had enough.

A quick summary of Hong Kong’s history so that you have a base premise for this novel. Hong Kong was a British colony for 156 years and was handed over back to China in 1997. This handover was not something that Hong Kong people asked for or had any say in the matter.  Can you imagine growing up in a democratic country to all of a sudden being handed over to a communist government? Mass migrations of Hong Kongers left their home during this time afraid of what the Chinese government might turn their home country into by robbing them of their democratic rights. Many Chinese people fled from China to Hong Kong after the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 in search of a transparent government that valued democratic freedoms so there was a big concern about what Hong Kong would become after the handover. A deal was made between the British and Chinese governments called the Sino-British Joint Declaration and it was decided that until 2047, Hong Kong would work under a “one country, two systems ” principle with the premise to maintain some of Hong Kong’s freedoms and make for a smooth transition to whatever it is that China wants for Hong Kong. It was at this time Britain pretty much washed their hands of Hong Kong. Things seem unchanged, at least for a little while, but the Chinese government bided its time and eventually began to press their agenda onto Hong Kong. Hong Kong is no longer a democracy and the facade that China has tried is no longer being tolerated by the people in Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong is a city that isn’t British and doesn’t want to be Chinese, an its need to assert a distinct identity grows by the year.”

This book is a coming of age story about a boy and his country. At the age of 14, Joshua Wong started a movement to stop China from forcing its education system into Hong Kong and succeeded. In 2011 the Chinese government subtly decided that it was time for Hong Kong to have similar education standards as the mainland and introduced the Moral and National Education (MNE). What this would mean is that the students would be learning the same curriculum as those on the mainland. While that may not seem like much, it was a way for China to start moulding the youth of Hong Kong to their beliefs and political stances. For example, mainland students do not learn about the Tiananmen Square incident, meaning that the Chinese government lies to their people to save face and hid from their serious mistakes. Isn’t that horrifying? Hong Kongers at the time had become complacent and weren’t paying attention to the freedoms that they were slowly starting to lose and if it weren’t for Joshua and those involved in Scholarism, Hong Kong might be in a very different place right now.

The story doesn’t stop there as the Joshua discusses his activism through the Umbrella Movement in 2014 with the aim to give Hong Kong universal suffrage, a movement that may have failed to bring about its aim but was successful in bringing awareness to Hong Kongers and to the world. He shares his journal during his political imprisonment over the 2014 movements, how those involved with Scholarism created a political group that was successfully voted in only to later be kicked out by the Chinese government. Joshua also discusses the latest events of the Extradition bill protests that shook Hong Kong for months during 2019. The Extradition bill was a bill that would allow the Chinese government to arrest anyone on Hong Kong on suspicion of a crime and have you transported to mainland China, a sketchy proposition considering China’s poor reputation with human rights and questionable judiciary system. Hong Kongers exploded onto the scene with protests by the millions in one of the largest leaderless movements in political history. When the government didn’t listen, over, and over again, the movements became more radical but shaded in comparison to the violent approach taken by the government and police. In the end, the extradition bill was removed and considered “dead” by Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

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Joshua is immensely humble, intelligent, and well-spoken. He’s an outspoken and down to earth person who has a love for video games, anime, and his country. Joshua’s passion for his country, people and beliefs oozes out of this book, even in translation. He is a testament to how young people can create change. His book summarizes the Hong Kong political system and its current political strifes in a way that’s easy to digest. The biggest take away that Joshua wants to make with this book is that what happens to Hong Kong matters not only to its people but to the world. If Hong Kong fails to fight off one of the biggest regimes in the world, it means that the rest of the world’s freedoms are at stake too. China is a bully and if they are not made accountable they will continue to push other countries around. Hong Kong’s plight is the world’s plight. Joshua was TIME magazine’s Most Influential Teens of 2014 and was nominated for its 2014 Person of the Year; he was further called one of the “world’s greatest leaders” by Fortune magazine in 2015 and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 along with a few others from his team. His latest efforts include the signing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 with the US in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy campaign.

I’d recommend this book to every local and expat in Hong Kong, to those that want to know more about the situation in Hong Kong, and for those that care about freedom.

 

Ghetto at the Center of the World by Gordon Mathews

Likely the most fascinating place in Hong Kong with some of the best South Asian food in the city. Chungking Mansions is a curiosity that is not to be missed.

3/5 stars.
Paperback, 256 pages.
Read from June 25, 2019 to July 3, 2019.

I’ve called Hong Kong home for a few years now and have come to love it for all of its unique flaws and qualities. Hong Kong is a busy city but outside of its city walls are beautiful running trails, beaches, and hikes. There is something for everyone in this diverse city no matter what kind of person you are. As an expat, Chungking Mansions is a fascinating place that needs to be visited at least once, but for locals, it is generally a place to be avoided. The stories of crime and gang activity, along with the lack of familiar local faces, usually are enough to keep many locals away. However, this impression of Chungking Mansion isn’t its whole story.

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Grey facade – Photo by Gerald Figal on Flickr

Gordon Mathews is a university professor in Hong Kong and spent years living in and studying the people and it’s unique economy and isolated globalization. Chungking Mansion is located in the bustling and wealthy Tsim Sha Tsui area of Hong Kong on the Kowloon side. It’s a popular district for shopping and has lots of tourists from mainland China and elsewhere from around the globe. Yet inside Chungking mansions is like entering a different world. Just outside of the building, you’ll find it brimming with South Asians, who, if you’re white, will try and sell you knock-off watches, handbags, or tailoring services. Inside the building is old and run down compared to the shiny shopping area it’s surrounded by. Inside you’ll find cheap rooms for rent, refugees, illegal workers, traders, sex workers, drug addicts, and small businesses from all around the globe. African traders come to find cheap cellphones to bring back to their countries. South Asians come, often illegally, to try and improve the quality of their lives as well as their families. Many refugees come and get trapped in the system of long waits within Hong Kong and are unable to work legally too. Despite the illegality of most of what goes on in the building, a blind eye is often turned by police. Without the illegality of workers and many other trades, Chungking Mansions would not exist. The diversity of the building makes for some of the most eclectic and delicious food in Hong Kong and for rock-bottom prices. It also makes for a unique area of globalization that isn’t really seen anywhere else in the world.

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Image from Asia Times

I’ve actually had the pleasure of dining in Chungking Mansions with a group of refugees and have nothing but great things to say about the place despite its seedy reputation. I would go back in there in heartbeat for the great food, company, and people watching. That isn’t to say that sketchy things don’t happen at Chungking but in general, it’s a decent place to grab a good bite to eat provided you don’t mind how run down some of the establishments are.

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Image from Wikimedia

This book is a perfect insight into Chungking Mansions as its clear that the professor himself has become an established name inside the building and is someone that everyone seems to be comfortable talking with. He seems to have a clear understanding of Chungking Mansions and the people that live there. The novel felt a bit like something I would read in a university class but that’s not surprising since I’m sure that was one of the reasons it was written. Mathew’s writing is as informative as it is fascinating and if you’re in Hong Kong and have ever wanted to visit or know more about Chungking Mansions I would highly recommend this book.

The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong

This is a trainwreck of an upbringing that you can’t help but sympathize with, as you berate yourself for laughing at the strangeness of it all.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 304 pages.
Read from March 3, 2019 to March 9, 2019.

Lindsay Wong describes the Woo-Woo as a Chinese superstition that ghosts are the cause of bad things in your life, which unfortunately for her and mental-health-ridden family, meant an array of irrational behaviour followed by never seeking treatment. This book is in the Canada Reads 2019 shortlist after a few near misses in previous years so no doubt this book will be a fan favourite for the debates.

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Joe Zee defending The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong during the debates taking place on March 25-28, 2019.

Lindsay and her siblings are first generation Chinese-Canadians. Her family came over from Hong Kong and settled in Vancouver which has a large Chinese population giving the city the appropriate nickname of Hongcouver. She lives in an upper-middle-class neighbourhood with her mother father, brother and sister, and for a short time her grandmother. Lindsay basis of daily dealings with her family and her life included things like swearing, name-calling, bribes with money, escaping life decisions and people with makeshift camping trips, and smothering bad feelings and “ghosts” with junk-food. Shouting matches, arguments, grudges and personal hang-ups are what Lindsay thought being a family was all about.

Despite her family having a comfortable income Lindsay wore old, dated clothes and showered once a week. Lindsay lacked the social skills to make friends but her aggression made her an excellent hockey player, an endeavour her father bribed her into to achieve some sort of Canadian-dream status.  Her father insisted that she was extremely stupid and fat as some messed up means of motivating her to achieve more along with a sick sense of dark humour. While her mother fell prey to the mental illness that plagued her own mother resulting in her being obsessed with ghosts and trying to protect her family from them. Her protection came in the form of insisting that her family never show any emotion as to not invite the ghosts in, terrorizing midnight wakings, lighting Lindsay’s feet and bedding on fire, day-long walks in shopping malls, and more.

Lindsay grew up in fear the Woo-Woo as she saw it slowly wreck her grandmother, her mother and eventually even her Aunt, whom she thought was safe. Without the means to empathize and deal with normal human situations in a healthy manner, Lindsay was in constant worry about her own mental state. Despite all this Lindsay managed to get into a university far from home where she was relieved to finally escape her family, only to find that the Woo-Woo seemed to have followed her there.

Even with these enormous hurdles to overcome, Lindsay seems to have found peace and understanding with her upbringing. Despite the dark and sometimes traumatizing events that Lindsay endured she approaches her story with a stoic and entertaining sense of dark humour. This is a trainwreck of an upbringing that you can’t help but sympathize with, as you berate yourself for laughing at the strangeness of it all. It brings awareness to the stigmas around mental illness and the barriers we still have to overcome, especially culturally, which healthcare systems could benefit from learning more about.

If you live in Vancouver, I would absolutely say this is a must-read. This is also a relevant book for those looking from some reprieve from their own families and mental health struggles.

The most moving part of this story comes from Lindsay finding the courage to write such an intimate memoir about her family, especially since she is writing from a standpoint of success in battling her inner Woo-Woo and family troubles. It’s a testament to the power of healing yourself and finding faith in yourself against the odds.