Hong Kong's Grinch

Phillip Kim
Oct 3rd, 2014

There is a Grinch in Hong Kong and he’s been there for decades. To hear Hong Kongers talk about the Grinch, they have coexisted harmoniously with him for most of that time, though neither side has been very sure what to make of the other. However, his temperament has changed in recent years, turning more brooding. No one is really sure why, though countless theories abound.

Perhaps he is feeling unappreciated and disrespected by the locals. Or perhaps he is finally feeling confident enough with himself to let his true aggression show. Then again, perhaps the Grinch simply has hidden domestic frustrations and is choosing to take them out on their fair city.

In any event, his relationship with Hong Kong has soured recently. He has stealthily tightened a noose around the throat of free expression. Early this year, he hacked a famous newspaper man (Kevin Lau) with a knife for saying unflattering things about him. Over the summer, he snipped away the right for Hong Kong people to choose their own leader. Late last week, when Joshua Wong, a slight and bespectacled seventeen-year-old student with a startlingly clarion voice, registered a complaint, he tossed the lad in jail for a couple of days without charge. Then, when other students gathered peacefully to air grievances that the Grinch was pilfering their civil liberties (gifts they thought were rightfully theirs), he tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed them.

On September 30, the eve of a major Grinchean holiday, as a massive crowd numbering in the tens of thousands gathered in the streets to make their voices heard, the skies opened up with rain, thunder and lightning. The deluge seemed to have been summoned on cue by the Grinch himself. Perhaps he was leaning forward from his perch on high, hand cupped to ear, hoping to hear collective cries of frustration and disappointment. The crowd could have been pardoned for scattering into shelters, ducking out of the dangerous weather and choosing to save its collective breath for a more hospitable day.

Instead, the Hong Kong crowd experienced a decidedly Whoville-esque moment. Thousands of umbrellas popped up, washing the damp streets with myriad colours and patterns. Some in the crowd shared their umbrellas with the police officers keeping watch over them. Then, hundreds of mobile phones were held aloft and their screens lit the darkness in waves and eddies of blue dots. Finally, the people began to sing, in unison. There were local folk songs that everyone seemed to have learned in childhood. And then came the tune that has become the unofficial anthem of the Umbrella Revolution – Les Miserables’ aptly named Can You Hear the People Sing? – with Cantonese lyrics adapted for the occasion:

May I ask who hasn't spoken out?
We should all carry the responsibility to defend our city
We have inborn rights and our own mind to make decisions
Who wants to succumb to misfortune and keep their mouth shut?
May I ask who can't wake up?
Listen to the humming of freedom
Arouse the conscience which shall not be betrayed again

The Dr. Seuss version of the story ends with the Grinch’s unnaturally small heart swelling in his chest and filling the curmudgeonly creature with compassion and empathy. He rushes down from his mountaintop cave to redistribute the gift-wrapped goodies that he has stolen from the people, and he and the Whos live harmoniously until the end of days.

An enduring power of children’s stories lies in the hope they can inspire. However, as idealistic as Hong Kong’s young people may be, they are unlikely to harbour fantasies that their own Grinch will experience a transformation similar to that of Dr. Seuss’ creation. Alas, reality is far more complicated, and too often malleable and subjective. In the real world of politics and the competition for economic resources, clear lines are impossible to draw. More importantly, characters themselves blur in definition as they are examined more closely. As Hong Kong goes through its political catharsis, it too needs to face questions of identity, strength and vision that it may not find easy to answer.

Some existential questions relate to the Grinch himself: who exactly is he? Is he that foreboding monolithic creature that lives beyond the mountains of the New Territories and across the border? Or is he someone closer to home – in fact, a distorted reflection that scowls up at Hong Kong from the waters of its own murky harbour? Is it a coincidence that the folks in the story are called the Whos? Or is that itself a conundrum, a question of identity that Hong Kongers will face as they seek to write the next chapters – or sing the next verses – of their lives? We at the ALR hope that, at the very least, they will be given every opportunity to do so.

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Phillip Kim
Korea
Last blog date: Oct 3rd, 2014

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