An Oral Account of Hongkongers’ Common ExperienceWritten by Wah Cheng @ HKUSU The Undergrad, translated by HKCT
In today's chaotic times, it is increasingly difficult to record and pass on what is happening at a granular level. Due to the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedom of the press and the self-censorship of media, less attention is paid to social issues as a result. On the other hand, Hong Kong government attempts to deploy the influence of public opinion in all domains to whitewash the situation, to justify itself, and to cover up the truth.
Over the course of protests in the past few years, the government is so used to stigmatise the side of the “egg” (c.f. the quote from writer Haruki Murakami - “Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.”). Even if we are to fix in mind what we have witnessed, who can assure that the generations after us will be informed of our story instead of the “truth” appeared on some deliberately “sanitised” textbooks? Besides, can such unimaginably horrific and uncomfortable experiences of this age be conveyed in words alone?
Under such tense, unsettling circumstances, it should take much longer time to heal, and be ready to reorganise and recount the events — hopefully able to explore more untold experiences during the process. In the days to come, every one of us Hongkongers who participated in the protests will have the opportunity to tell this mutual yet personal story in their own voice.
- Expression Restricted -
Oral history serves as a valuable means in Hong Kong, reason being that the ability to record of written form in Hong Kong is vastly different from what it used to be, making it impossible to accurately set things down. Oftentimes, information has been tampered with which leads to gross distortions in history. Oral history, however, redefines the causes of certain issues through individuals’ experiences, adding more perspectives and credibility to the interpretation of historical events.
Hong Kong’s press freedom has come under attack since the anti-ELAB movement. From the government's implementation of the National Security Law, to Hong Kong police's revision of Police General Orders to redefine the media's eligibility to cover news, they have generated an uneasy culture of self-censorship among the media. On that account, the media have no choice but to evade the issue, or to exclude any sensitive matters from news coverage, so that they would NOT incriminate themselves. With the police’s new accreditation rules on media, numerous journalists who are not from those media organisations registered with the government information system are no longer allowed to attend press conferences. Journalists of the sort also suffer from differential treatment at protest sites because of the revision of Police General Orders.
In August 2020, over a hundred police officers and Office for Safeguarding National Security of the CPG in the HKSAR officers searched the Apple Daily building on suspicion of colluding with foreign countries or forces to endanger national security. The officers looked through some of the journalists' desks and documents, interfering with freedom of the press in a blatant manner. Under such unreasonable and harsh law, the media remain silence for survival. In addition to the government's suppression, news outlets in the territory are gradually being tainted by the Chinese Communist Party or Chinese capital. The management of the red capital naturally imposes strict control on the topics, materials, and stances of the media outlets. All of them are to be closely monitored, and journalists will lose their editorial independence. It goes without saying that these “media outlets” will be subordinated to the government as a mouthpiece, a tool to direct the public opinion as the government will, instead of an objective role to record what is actually happening.
In recent months, there has been a massive reshuffle of staff at various news organizations as pro-China management has come to power. The four latest executives at Cable News, Edna Tse, Oscar Lee, Anderson Chan and Hui Fong-fai, have laid off tens of newsroom staff, leading to the collective resignation of prestigious and award-winning China desk.
In June 2020, now News had undergone a change of personnel. With former TVB News senior executive Chan Tit-piu, former TVB senior producer Lee Wai-leung, and former TVB executives Wu Yi-tyng and Yip Wai-man appointed to work for now News, it indicates a sudden reorganisation of the news station. In such a restricted environment, journalism seems useless. Instead of relying on others to write down your stories, it would be easier and more direct to record your own experiences on mobile phones—to tell one's story orally without having to integrate and embellish it. There is no rush to record everything at this moment. Keep our memories intact, so that one day when we’re free to say what we want, we’ll pass them on to the next generation.
The Fourth Estate, which is responsible for monitoring the government, recording current affairs, and exploring social issues for the public, has been interfered by pro-China forces. The government has also started to reform education by “rectifying” the teaching material of subjects so as to make sure that students are only exposed to their side of story and information. By doing so, students will be more easily indoctrinated with distorted values and be molded into patriotic students.
In 2019, EDB introduced what they call "professional consultancy service" to force textbook publishers to submit their Liberal Studies textbooks for review on the premise that they would not be included in the applicable textbook list otherwise. What followed is that politically sensitive issues are not given in-depth analysis: Aristo Educational Press Ltd. deleted the exercise about civil disobedience, and Ling Kee Publishing Co., Ltd. deleted the section related to freedom of the press, human rights and rule of law. EDB went on to reform Liberal Studies and packaged it into a core subject of “patriotic education”. If this continues, Hong Kong's next generation will be left with a vague understanding of history, and find it hard to relate to what we believe in.
Oral history, on the contrary, may allow us to fill the gap for those who are willing to hear. In one of the discussions on the history of the Cultural Revolution on The Initium, it is mentioned that descriptions of the Cultural Revolution on the history books are omitted. The books are filled with abstract information—no specific data, exact events, or names of the people involved—leaving readers with a sense of detachment from the entire historical event; others tend to provide one-sided, selective content—Mao Zedong and other people in power are highly praised. Despite the fact that the subject curriculum and exams in secondary schools do not focus on the period of the Cultural Revolution, the oral history passed on via one’s family and high school teachers often went into great detail, and carried such profound sadness and strong feelings. Somehow this is exactly how the listeners experience, through the contrast, the evident absurdity and cruelty of this period of history. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, Hong Kong will also be practicing a similar form of education as well.
- The Limitations of Text -
Fortunately, Hong Kong is still a long way from the state of affairs described above, and there are still many dedicated scholars and ordinary people using pen and paper to record history and defend Hong Kong's existing values. Among the many facets of history, oral history does have a variety of benefits. For one, it is not limited to historians; writers and students too can talk to those who experienced the events in person. Sometimes the interviewees may be elderly people who struggle to express their thoughts in clear sentences and have to be guided slowly through their minds; at other times they may be young people who have just experienced some major social event and are encouraged to record their fresh memories, so that others can revisit the piece of history and analyse it later on.
The authenticity of oral history is sometimes questioned for not being historically accurate or somewhat biased, which brings to the responsibility of the interviewers to verify them with other historical archives, such as official documents and press releases of the time, after recording the interviewees' statements.
In totalitarian countries, since the dissidents/ ethnic minorities are persecuted, only a few official documents are left behind, and most of the details, especially the circumstances of the victims, are seldom recorded. When these regimes fall and people are freed, people can learn the details of these historic events through the memories of those who survived. We Wept Without Tears, written by Gideon Greif, chronicles the experiences of thirty-one Holocaust death camp survivors who were forced by the SS to serve as assistants and became part of the persecution of Jews in order to survive. The book describes the details of life in the camps and the operation of the death factories. Their emotional, personal experiences channel the horrifying torment of the concentration camps to the readers, and change our misguided, judgmental perception over the inmate work units who had no choice but to dirty their hands. This book of oral history gives them the forgiveness and justice they deserve.
Oral history also adapts in different forms for the need of readers/audiences, but not always turns into a book after rounds of interviews, recordings and follow-ups. One of the drawbacks of preferring words to sound as the method to record oral history is the lack of warmth. Audio clips, video clips, and live sharing sessions are all feasible alternatives of oral history. Especially through the own voices of the interviewees, such experiences will come alive and provide with the next-generation audience a better understanding of the historical significance of the time. In addition to it, oral history can be integrated with various activities or sharing sessions so as to reach a certain degree of communication between the audiences and the speakers. In this way, the details of history can be sorted out in a more organized manner.
In Taiwan, a group of young people who care deeply about Taiwan's history founded the “Gongsheng Music Festival” (Gongsheng means grow together), which is dedicated to commemorating the Feb. 28 incident and is now in its ninth year. Attracting young people to learn about this history, the festival includes many organisations and scholars that perform on the topic of the Feb. 28 Incident. In the festivals, scholars are invited to talk about this piece of history from their personal experiences. In one of the annual talks, the organizer invited a literary historian, Chang Tien-wan, to share with the audience through her family's association with this period of White Terror. In particular, she told the story of how she was adopted because the police officer in charge of watching her adoptive father asked him to take care of a child that his fellow officer could not support.
- Conclusion: The Road to Transformative Justice -
Considering Hong Kong's current environment, oral history, indeed, can contribute to local history now and in the future, and even achieve the effect of transformative justice. From the Umbrella Movement to the anti-ELAB Movement, many Hong Kong people have suffered persecution and injustice, and their experiences and feelings have not been properly documented as part of the history – those who escape to the rest of the world, who suffer from the differential treatment in the prison because of their political stance, and the 12 Hong Kong youths who were detained by Chinese authorities.
If one day someone can interview them and write down what they say, then in the future someone will be able to use this evidence to investigate the truth and to honour their memory.