Localism in Hong Kong, xenophobic nativism or the cultural defence of place? Black Bauhinia’s unique perspective.

Date: 21/03/2023

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Max Dixon is an ESRC SCDTP-funded Masters in Social Research Methods student at the University of Southampton with a proposed PhD at the University of Portsmouth in the school of Area Studies focusing on UK-Taiwan relations. His research explores how democratic Taiwan’s nation-building campaigns have been perceived in British parliamentary discourse. Further research interests lie in British perceptions, and commitments, towards Hong Kong in light of Chinese incursions into the city’s One Country, Two Systems model, of which the UK is a co-signatory. He lived and worked in Hong Kong between 2018 and 2019.

On Tuesday the 28th of February Dr Isabelle Cockel hosted a screening of Black Bauhinia, a film by Dr Malte Kaeding of the University of Surrey. The film follows two ‘localist’ Hong Kong politicians and their role in Hong Kong’s opposition against greater Chinese involvement in the city.

After introductions from the director Dr Kaeding, Dr Hippo, a co-producer and co-writer of the film, and Q&A panellists Dr Rudolph Ng and Max Dixon of School of Area Studies, History, Politics and Literature at the University of Portsmouth, the film took centre stage. The film revels in its setting, with lingering shots of Hong Kong’s unique architecture echoing the cinematic atmosphere that once defined the city’s global image in the cinema of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Dr Kaeding’s passion for Hong Kong cinema is clear and weaves together the city and its inhabitants, a visual evocation of the ‘localism’ that sits at the heart of the film. Black Bauhinia follows ‘localists’ Edward Leung and Ray Wong, two young men in their early 20s whose journeys across the span of the film tells of Hong Kong’s recent history in a microcosm, progressing from student protesters, to elected politicians, to fugitives and finally, for Edward, to prison and Ray to Germany as a refugee.

Intrinsic to the film’s narrative is the personal story it tells; localism in Hong Kong is often dismissed in broad brushstrokes as a xenophobic, exclusionary ideology pursued by angry and ignorant young Hongkongers. Yet Black Bauhinia’s intimate portrayal provides a direct challenge to this notion. The film explores the foundations of Edward Leung’s and Ray Wong’s leadership of Hong Kong Indigenous, their now-disbanded political party, in safeguarding Hong Kong’s eclectic culture from a perceived smothering by China, at once bringing Hong Kong’s distinct identity and way of life into step with that of mainland China. The film hinges on the Fishball Revolution of February 2016, which would eventually lead to Leung’s imprisonment and Wong’s exile. Intrinsic to this retelling of localism, Black Bauhinia reframes the incident through both men’s commitment to Hong Kong’s unique identity, where protesters sought to protect street vendors selling traditional Hong Kong dishes in Mong Kok from government regulators that sought to expunge this quintessential Hong Kong practice from the city’s streets. The peaceful protection then builds to a crescendo of violence, where the arrival of the riot police precipitates the breaking out of a violent confrontation. The film cleverly establishes parallels with the 2019 Anti-Extradition Movement and the localism inspired Fishball Revolution of 2016, where it is the protection of Hong Kong’s way of life that inspired so many young people to risk their futures to defend their city.

The sense of place the film achieves is furthered through its telling of the curtailing, and dissolution of localism as a political force in Hong Kong, where elected localist politicians are expelled from the Legislative Council and Edward Leung is imprisoned. As the opportunities for localism within the crowded streets of Hong Kong dissipates, the film recognises new opportunities beyond the city. Black Bauhinia encourages this new discussion of space within localist perceptions through the raw vlogs of Ray Wong. In a German refugee camp the exiled politician ponders his decision to leave his home city and his connection with Hong Kong. Amidst the transient soundscape provided by his fellow refugees, Ray settles on a German word heimat – or hometown – to describe how localism remains in his mind, evoking a sense of home even when he is physically separated from the streets, sounds and sensations that inspired him to undertake his perilous political journey in the first place. Black Bauhinia leaves a compelling notion of ‘localism’ for the growing Hong Kong diasporas around the world, where those forced to leave their home city can develop and maintain a connection with it through the preservation and replication of Hong Kong culture beyond the geographic confines of the city.

The Q&A session following the film centred on the role of colonialism in the film, and brought into sharp focus the unique position Hong Kong occupies in discussions of decolonisation. One audience member spoke of a nostalgia amongst Hong Kongers for the British colonial period and the direct contrast with the ‘new’ colonisation undertaken by China in ‘sinicizing’ Hong Kong, as outlined by Leung and Wong in Black Bauhinia. Moreover, further discussion recognised the pluralism of the Hong Kong protest movement, where Leung, Wong and ‘localism’ more broadly was often  neglected in international coverage of Hong Kong protesters in favour of the more palatable approach of Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and the pan-democratic lobby that has long served as the ‘flag-bearer’ of Hong Kong’s resistance to greater Chinese integration. Dr Kaeding ended the discussion with a call to the audience to participate in the production of a new film on Hong Kong localism, which, using the framework of the co-production of knowledge, will reflect on the audiences’ perceptions of localism after viewing Black Bauhinia. The survey is available here on the film’s website: https://blackbauhinia.co.uk/survey/

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