Stella Schools – an evening with Louisa Lim

Throughout the year a group of students from Melbourne Girls Grammar School (MGGS) get together once a week at lunchtime to read and reflect on a book longlisted for the Stella Prize. A wonderful opportunity to discuss in a safe space topics such as politics, identity, grief and history.

In August this year, six students had the opportunity to share their reflections on the book Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong with its author, Louisa Lim. The event marked the culmination of weeks of reading, reflection and analysis guided by one of the school’s English teachers.

These are the six reflections that the students shared with Louisa.

Indelible City by Olivia Jane

Throughout this elaborate, eye-opening account of Hong Kong’s story, Louisa Lim has used great detail and skill to create the image of what Hong Kong once was, now is, and could be.

Indelible is a mark that cannot be removed, much like the spirit of Hong Kong, which is made clear early in the piece and in history. Indelible is the spirit of the people, and the embodiment of the King of Kowloon. Lim described the King as “part of the backdrop of our childhood,” which, along with showcasing the brilliant, subtle, personal ties and insight into this particular idiosyncratic artist, introduces us to the importance of the King and his connection to the people.

The King of Kowloon was viewed as both a mentally unstable man and a brilliant artist that started a movement. The King’s work was a part of Hong Kong that the people were completely immersed in over time. And, as Lim so eloquently made clear early on, “even in his disappearance is the King symbolic. For disappearance is the ultimate fear of Hong Kongers”.

His spirit represents Hong Kong and his art embedded a dormant flame within, waiting for its spark to set off the defiance within the local population. The fact that his art is calligraphy, complex pictograms as written language of Cantonese, also reflects her major theme of the power, importance and spirit of words. The King’s calligraphy was free, rather than the perfection of the Chinese writing, or the fictitious British characters, his work completely embodies the indelibility of the city and its people and acts as a symbol of hope for the future.

In all honesty, Inedible City is the first piece of writing I have read in this style and genre, so it was a slow start for me, but I found it to be an incredibly fascinating and complex piece and quickly became compelled to know more about this culture. It made me both question the truth behind the histories I had learnt and intrigued by the histories I hadn’t yet been exposed to. But a main connection I found was between the King’s infamous street calligraphy and the street art found all around Melbourne.

Due to its inherent political nature and historical context, street art in Melbourne has been used as a platform for a multitude of political positions and global issues, just as the Lennon Walls in Hong Kong and the Czech Republic have been used in times of cultural change. Peter Drew’s ‘AUSSIE’ redefined Australian stereotypes and defended the multiculturalism we now know Australia to be. Artists Duel, Pest and Mars’ 3-story mural community project in Prahran of ‘The Style Machine’ addressed the imminent environmental issues by depicting the city as a nuclear apocalypse. The King of Kowloon had, in Lim’s words, “taken politics into the street and to the people decades before anyone else”, in a country where freedom was limited, and the slightest rebellion was a great threat to all. His calligraphy voiced the words of a nation.

All tying into this idea of everyone being able to initiate change purely through an odea, as brilliant ideas such as these stay with people long after they’ve been written, spoken, thought, or constructed.

As a fitting ending, Lim depicts one final piece of the King’s calligraphy, that, translated to English, reads, “Hong Kong will see light again”. Showing for one final time the absolute certainty and complete faith the King had not only in his works survival, but in the people of Hong Kong, his people, and those that would fight for their culture for years to come, just as Hong Kong fights to keep the King’s conceptual work alive.

Indelible City by Vincent Chang

“Phantasmagorical, like a shimmering chimera that was constantly changing shape depending on the angle of viewing,” this is how Lim characterises Hong Kong. Lim’s book doesn’t extensively focus on the harshness of police brutality, a topic already extensively covered in media articles and documentary films. Instead, the book addresses a different, even more ominous movement – the force of erasure, and the shadow-war for linguistic sovereignty.

Language, as a vessel of thought and culture, possesses the remarkable power to mould and define identities. It’s not merely a means of communication; it’s a reflection of heritage, aspirations and resilience. In the context of the Hong Kong struggle, language becomes a vehicle for unity and expression, a manifestation of the general will.

Especially interesting is Lim’s presentation of the King of Kowloon, transformed into a visual emblem of Hong Kong. His distorted calligraphy adorned international art exhibitions and found its way into films and fashion creations. The city mourned the passing of this unofficial sovereign when he died in 2007. Tsang Tsou-choi, the toothless and disabled garbage collector, embodied a paradox – his unyielding conviction and prolonged public declaration of his authority transformed him into an uncrowned King. His creations, rendered rare due to erasure, achieved a peculiar sense of immortality through their obliteration.

As we contemplate the legacy of the King of Kowloon, let us not forget that his story resonates far beyond his personal journey. It is a microcosm of the broader Hong Kong struggle – a battle for autonomy and identity that finds resonance in every brushstroke of calligraphy and every word of dissent. The linguistic tapestry he wove serves as a mirror, reflecting the complex relationship between language, culture, and the fight for freedom.

Let us not only honour the words and languages that have propelled revolutions but also acknowledge the vital role that historiography plays in preserving and interpreting these narratives. “Hong Kong was an in-between space, a site of transgression, a refuge,” writes Lim.

Let us recognise the enduring power of language to sculpt identities, redefine possibilities, and link us across time and space to the unquenchable human thirst for freedom, dignity, and justice.

Indelible City by Isabella Hunt

Indelible City moved me. Louisa’s writing is deft and powerful, such that I felt the need to stop at certain phrases to really sit with what she was saying.

This book’s greatest strength is its candid revision of history, which came to be one of my biggest difficulties in writing this reflection. It prompted so much introspection and mental contemplation over Britain’s colonial rule in Hong Kong and the limited democracy they established; the hand-over period of 1997 and the emotion that stirred throughout Hong Kong at the time; the numbness that Louisa experienced post-handover, and then the collective imagination and passion of a vibrant business metropolis, whose artists, thinkers and activists draw together through hope for what their city could and can be. How was I to pick just a couple things to talk about?

In Indelible City, Louisa toyed with chronology in a way that fascinated me. I believe this is very topical to discussions about our own nation’s history. Past, present and future blend and bleed into one another in Hong Kong’s timeline, they are impossible to separate.

A pillar of Indelible City is the King of Kowloon, a man who epitomises this transcendence of time itself. The King is a funny and humble artist: his calligraphy brushstrokes “scream his illiteracy” and he “hops around on his crutches, with plastic bags swinging from its handles”.

His story sits rooted in every part of Hong Kong’s timeline. His identity was fixed in the past, as he believed he had ancestral ties to the Peninsula of Kowloon. He lives in the present through the memories of those he impacted, and his identity is inextricably tied to the future through his continual hope that one day, they would ‘regain’ custodianship of the lands.

The King of Kowloon was Indelible City’s bookends, and a thread which wove throughout the entire story. He was an icon cemented in the minds of many Hong Kong people; a point of collective memory and a fulcrum for solidarity in the 2014-2019 protests.

One of the lasting impacts of this book came from the touching image on its final page. The King of Kowloon is encircled in his own calligraphy, which paint both the walls and clad the fabric draped across his body. He is looking into the distance, his head turned slightly away from the camera. There’s hope in the gleam in his eyes, perhaps an innocent optimism that all will be restored to him.

In writing Indelible City, Louisa has immortalised this hope, held in the eyes of the King and the hearts of so many who love Hong Kong. Her book is the story of a city, a home, that has and will transcend time.

Indelible City by Vanessa Lo

First and foremost, I would like to express my gratitude for the opportunity to engage with such a compelling and emotionally impactful book, which I deeply resonated with being a Hong Konger who has lived through the socio-political turmoil in 2019 myself.

I find one of the most captivating aspects of the book being the vivid portrayal of the King of Kowloon. Despite recognising his name and unique work at first glance, I did not know much about the King of Kowloon as an artist. This book opened my eyes to this fascinating figure who contributed so much to the cultural heritage of Hong Kong in a dynamic urban environment. On the other hand, the depiction of the socio-political landscape of Hong Kong through a personal and emotional lens made the book a sentimental journey.

Although I was residing in Hong Kong during the protests, my perspective is confined to the limited scope of my surroundings. Much of what occurred lay beyond my personal sphere, influenced by distant depictions found in news reports and mass media narratives. It has been an ongoing internal battle of emotion and rationale for me, and I’m sure it has been for many others. This book allowed me to reconnect with the very core of how it started – out of the deep-rooted love for this land.

I truly appreciate the depth of research and the cultural and emotional aspects that Louisa brought to the book, but I found the narrative slightly two-dimensional without the perspectives of the other side of the story. From my personal account, I have a friend whose dad was one of the policemen on the front line, being pushed by higher powers on one hand and the protestors on the other, they were also put into a difficult and dangerous position. On the other hand, seeing her terrified of being bullied by others purely because of her father’s occupation made me rethink the pro-democracy beliefs in the freedom of speech when they try to repress those with different perspectives. Moreover, I have recognised the blurring lines between pro-democracy sentiments and the genuine love for Hong Kong. In my view, a person’s political stance and the affection for the land, its culture and its people should not necessarily be equated. This prompts me to question whether the political system defines a place. I have arrived at my subjective conclusion that strong devotion to one’s home would empower individuals to stay, persist on living on the land and tirelessly work for change, regardless of how hopeless it may seem.

“It is almost an impossible task to read Indelible City without reflecting on the similarities between Hong Kong and Australia, connected by Britain’s colonisation. Whether or not we have a plethora of knowledge on Hong Kong’s current situation, we can all understand the significance of voice being stolen, history being erased, and rights being abused.”

Xanthea Oloan

Indelible City by Xanthea OLoan

Indelible City by Luisa Lim was a book that I was initially apprehensive about reading. I had never read a non-fiction book that I wasn’t going to have a graded assessment on. I can’t say I wasn’t intimidated by the subject of the book. The subject is one that I had little knowledge of, let alone personal experience with. Surly then, I won’t enjoy the book, is what I thought. That was before I had the pure luxury of turning the very first page. I have never had such joy in being proven wrong. 

Throughout the book is the overwhelming sense of reading a story directly from the hand of someone so passionate about her city that you can’t help but get whisked away into the pride that the author holds. Lim manages to do this while maintaining the outside view that is the key tool in a journalist’s arsenal. Telling a story with the facts but also emotional experience created a series of essays unlike any other, in a time unlike any other.  

I started to read Lim’s work the day after I returned from Northeast Arnhem land, a trip where I stayed with the Yolngu Aboriginal community. A community that reminds us of Australia’s history. A tale of disposition, and the taking of land, rights and culture. It is almost an impossible task to read Indelible City without reflecting on the similarities between Hong Kong and Australia, connected by Britain’s colonisation. Whether or not we have a plethora of knowledge on Hong Kong’s current situation, we can all understand the significance of voice being stolen, history being erased, and rights being abused. Not just because we stand on soil that has experienced this, but because we know the importance of voice, history and respect: together they build culture. Through Lim’s passionate words, we can see this in effect.  

I now need to contradict a thought I had before I started to read this book, “I have no knowledge of the subject, so I won’t enjoy it”, but isn’t this why we read? To learn new things and build our points of view, this book opened so many questions that I never thought to ask, and started conversations that can’t be recreated.

Indelible City by Cecilia Xu

When I was eight years old, I had my first proper interaction with Hong Kong. I was reading a text in Chinese class where a writer commented on her collection of stamps, and when she landed on one adorned with the design of Hong Kong, she described how the stamp commemorated the joyous occasion of when Hong Kong was finally returned to Chinese rule after 156 years of being occupied by Britain. I remember asking my mother, who was born and raised in mainland China, to explain this event to me. She described the situation as being celebratory, as Hong Kong had finally returned to her motherland, where she rightfully belongs. That settled the idea of Hong Kong for a young Year 3 student, and so when I was introduced to Indelible City in last term, I thought: “wow, finally a work that will be familiar to me.” And was I wrong.

Instead of celebrating Hong Kong’s return to China through the official People’s Republic of China approved lens, Lim shone a light on the omitted perspectives of the people of Hong Kong, telling the story through the experiences of the people, rather than from an official government lens. She accentuated the absolute obliteration of any right to or opportunity for free speech or assembly in Hong Kong, and how the city was freer as a British colony than as a Chinese one – notions that chastened my naïve acceptance of the Chinese narrative.  

One of the beautiful things about Lim’s writing is how these impressions are not forced upon you, they naturally fall into place in such a way that after reading the book, you feel as if you share her thoughts, you hear her voice, without consciously meaning to.

For me, each page was a revelation about a city whose history I thought I knew so well, each line was an insight into the multiplicity of perspectives of the story as seen through such interviews with Chris Pratten and Kit Man. These idiosyncratic yet universal views about the drive to retain free speech and self-determination are typically sugar-coated or ignored, thus each of Lim’s words opened my eyes to the rich, powerful identity of Hong Kong which we should all recognise and appreciate.  

I loved how Lim included parts of herself into this work, effortlessly weaving her own story into a piece that was focusses on a bigger picture. In ‘Dominion’, when documenting the life of the vagrant graffiti artist, King of Kowloon, she talks about her own experience as a “hybrid” British-Hong Konger and how this connects with the parochial values of the King.

Lim describes how her parents had “transgressed racial norms” to marry, to follow their hearts, just as how the King “[wrote] his own rules”, and how this “un-Chinese” behaviour reflected in her own sense of self, with Hong Kong’s British and Chinese status being “the embodiment of [her] identity”.  

As someone who rarely delves into non-fiction, this approach was appealing to me, and refreshing too, as while it was something completely out of my comfort zone, I do feel as though a book has not resonated with me so much before. 

On that note, I would like to end with one of my personal favourite quotes from the book: “We were not exactly locals, and many of us didn’t even speak Cantonese, but we never questioned our right to think of ourselves as Hong Kongers.” 

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