This second report on the Bookworm Literary Festival 2016 focuses on two talks on the fluctuating political climate of Hong Kong from guests who have chronicled the transitions of the former colony via mainstream media and more personal avenues. Although they represent different generations of publishing, the takes on the turbulence of Hong Kong society offered by American cartoonist Larry Feign and author/journalist/lawyer Jason Y. Ng both stem, to come extent, from an outsider perspective. Feign relocated there in 1985 having started his career in 1980 in Honolulu, where he worked as a caricature artist, while Ng was born in Hong Kong but spent much of his adult life in Italy, the United States, and Canada before returning to his birthplace. These talks provided enthralling takes on Hong Kong at two critical stages of its modern history – the years before the 1997 handover when Feign was at the peak of his local popularity as a weekday cartoonist for the South China Morning Post and the recent pro-democracy movement that Ng felt compelled to rigorously document in his latest book, Umbrellas in Bloom: Hong Kong’s Occupy Movement Uncovered (2016).
Equipped with a presentation of selected comic strips and the dry sense of humor that is characteristic of ex-pats who have truly lived a life in their adopted territory, Larry Feign proved to a be splendid raconteur. He candidly discussed his career as a cartoonist for various Hong Kong publications, providing a sense of how media self-censorship became more prevalent in the mid-1990s. Feign’s first cartoon following relocation was Aieeyaaa!, a satirical single-panel feature which ran in The Standard. However, he soon switched his creative energies to The World of Lily Wong which was published in the same newspaper from November 1986 to December 1987, then moved to the South China Morning Post where it was a fixture from January 1987 to May 1995. Firmly believing that cartoons are all about “communication”, Feign’s strips deal with cultural tensions in what he considers to be a “repressive society” badly in need of a “steam vent”. The World of Lily Wong revolves around a young professional woman and her relationships with her parents, brother Rudy, and her foreign colleagues, with their inter-actions not only serving as a commentary on Hong Kong news but also as a means comparing the attitudes of East and West.
While the South China Morning Post was owned by Rupert Murdoch, Feign enjoyed relative creative freedom and, surprisingly, claimed the media mogul was “wonderful to work for” on the basis that he hired experienced editors. However, the newspaper’s politics became more restrictive in 1993 when Murdoch sold the publication to Robert Kuok, a Malaysian real estate tycoon with Mainland China leanings. Feign’s account of how his career in Hong Kong press came to an abruptly explosive end serves as proof that the politics of the day will eventually have an impact on even those artists who are not necessarily looking to aggressively rail against the establishment. Although he resists the label of “political cartoonist” based on the estimation that only 25% of his cartoons are politically inclined, Feign conceded that he was “pushing boundaries” as the handover drew closer. With his confidence growing, he submitted a weeks’ worth of cartoons on the subject of organs being harvested from Chinese prisoners to be sold overseas which incensed power players in Beijing – he was fired on Tuesday with only two cartoons in the series having been published. Feign’s editor used the excuse that he had become “too expensive” (at a time when the publication was the most profitable newspaper in the world) as the reason for his sudden termination.
The circumstances surrounding Feign’s dismissal immediately attracted worldwide attention but, once international media interest had subsided, the cartoonist was left in a state of creative exile, blacklisted by Hong Kong outlets and unable to sell his work in the United States. Despite his problems in Hong Kong, Feign suggested that “the ultimate censorship is American exceptionalism” as Americans are less able to laugh about themselves than Hong Kong citizens, who welcome the “steam vent” that is light satire. Lily Wong has since appeared in The Independent in a 1997 series that was commissioned to chronicle the final hundred days of British rule in Hong Kong and became the first full-page cartoon editorial in the history of Time magazine in its special handover edition, while Feign has produced animations for Cartoon Network, and published numerous books, such as Hongkongitis: Reports from the Wackiest Place on Earth (2007).
Throughout his talk, Feign returned to the his view that cartoonists must have something to say that can reach the hearts and minds of readers through their sense of humor without resorting to racial stereotypes or cheap shots. Sanguine enough about his severe professional stumble in the mid-1990s that his recollections never descended into bitterness – he even acknowledged that his former editor “was only doing his job” by letting him go – Feign took the opportunity to draw attention to cartoonists in such countries as Iran and Syria who have actually been physically punished for daring to question authority through their work. As the questions and answers session drew to a close, Feign admitted that he had been reluctant to come to Beijing to discuss his career but ultimately found the experience to be “cathartic and validating” with the rapturous applause indicating that Lily Wong had just added more admirers to her loyal fan base.
A savvy political commentator, Jason Ng has yet to burn any bridges at the South China Morning Post, to which he regularly contributes, while his tomes Hong Kong State of Mind: 37 Views of a City That Doesn’t Blink (2011) and No City for Slow Men: Hong Kong’s Quirks & Quandaries Laid Bare (2015) have noted the territory’s social anxieties. As suggested by its title, Umbrellas in Bloom aims to record the life cycle of the movement from the initial rush of demonstration to the onset of disillusionment that crept in following the final clearance of protesters and their camps at Causeway Bay. Covering the events and aftermath of the revolution that occurred from September to December 2014 led Ng to attend the protests that were held throughout the 79-day struggle while interviewing Joshua Wong, the founder of student activist group Scholarism, and participants at various levels. Much of Ng’s conversation with Los Angeles Times Beijing Bureau Chief Julie Makinen focused on how students who had been swept up by protest rhetoric had soon become frustrated with the movement’s failure to force Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader CY Leung from office and achieve a truly democratic political system. He noted that some were possibly naïve about the amount of time that is required for real effective change to take place, and that the slowness of the movement may have prompted their loss of interest.
Evidently keen to present a balanced view despite his assertion that a measure of political dissent is healthy if it is non-violent in nature, Ng spoke positively about the movement while pointing to its increasingly uncertain future. Somewhat countering the international media reports that portrayed Hong Kong’s citizens as being united in their objections to the current status quo, Ng referred to local polls which showed that 80% of the public actually wanted the demonstrators to go home. This led him to suggest that, while most citizens agreed with the spirit of the movement, they did not agree with an approach that caused a myriad of practical inconveniences. Although he noted that Wong is a “charismatic figure”, he also pointed out that the person most associated with the pro-democracy cause is only 19-years-old and possibly facing jail time for his role in organizing the demonstrations.
This raised the interesting notion of whether such a movement needs a clearly defined leader in the era of social media when the instantaneous reach of the Internet arguably has more pull than any individual, no matter how forcefully they may represent a certain ideology. Ng acknowledged the role that social media had played in radicalizing its younger citizens. However, he was unsure if the movement could gain its crucial second wind if it were to breaking from the traditional protest model and dispense with a leader based on the observation that Wong’s legal troubles had created a “vacuum” that needed to be filled by a new “organic hero”.
Ng cited the success of the independent feature Ten Years (2015) – a pessimistic imagining of a future Hong Kong under Chinese rule – as an example of the freedom of discussion that its citizens still enjoy on a daily basis. However, he also evoked a state of political caution with his account of the difficulties that his publisher Blacksmith Books faced when looking for a printer that would handle Umbrellas in Bloom. Deals with a printer in Shenzhen and a back-up option in Hong Kong fell through leading to a two-month delay while the publisher found a company that would take on the potentially controversial title.
With the politics of Hong Kong in a constant state of reconfiguration, especially as Beijing continues to extend its influence on civil affairs, the work of astute commentators like Feign and Ng provides a crucial understanding of the everyday frustrations that give rise to the territory’s social tensions and outright revolutions.