Two Hong Konger Projects on Taiwanese Soil: A Personal Encounter

Written by Judy Lee.

Image credit: Taiwan Demonstration in Support of Hong Kong Protests by Allenwang6212a/ Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY-SA 4.0.

We in Hong Kong have always had a special place in our hearts for Taiwan. Non-Hong Kongers might not know this, but we use “flying to Taiwan” as a metaphor for “a relatively short period of time,” especially for commuting. For instance, if a Hong Kong Islander boyfriend has to visit his Northern District girlfriend by public transport and back, we would probably say (teasingly and with pity), “In that time, you can do a round trip to Taiwan.” This highlights Hong Kong’s geographical proximity to Taiwan; it also exemplifies how fondly and frequently we travel to a country full of lovely people, tasty food, and inexpensive experiences.

But our connection is much more than just tourism. Ranging from business, pop, internet culture, and social and democratic movements, the people from Hong Kong and Taiwan interact regularly. They collaborate and create synergy and novelty. The same happens in academic circles. In recent years, increasing political pressure and unreasonable censorship in Hong Kong have created threats. This pressure has impacted Hong Kong’s political opposition, pre-handover history and political reform, to name but a few. On the other hand, drawing on my interaction with my Taiwanese colleagues—although opinions on the Hong Kong question may be varied among the Taiwanese public—Intellectuals understand and sympathise with how Hong Kong studies have become a lost cause. Moreover, they are willing to provide support for the good of research.

In this personal account, I discuss two new efforts initiated by Hong Kongers. The first is my PhD research on Hong Kong political dissidents; the other is an archive project dedicated to Hong Kong public history. Despite their distinct focuses, they have one thing in common: aiding the collaboration in Taiwan to study Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Political Exiles in Taiwan: A Novice’s Approach

Many Hong Kongers find refuge in Taiwan when they consider their home city increasingly uninhabitable. According to figures released by Taiwan’s National Immigration Agency, around 4,000 residence permits were issued to Hong Kong citizens each year before 2019. A spike coincided with Hong Kong’s anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill (ELAB) protests and subsequent persecution against protesters and democrats. As a result, the agency issued anywhere between 600 and 2,000 permits per month between September 2019 and December 2021. In total, 11,173 residence permits were issued to Hong Kongers in 2021, almost doubling the 2019 figure.

Correspondingly, interest in this migrant community is rising. Having worked with foreign media on news stories about the first wave of young protesters entering Taiwan in exile in the second half of 2019, I am particularly interested in those affected by the persecution following the anti-ELAB protests. The general impression is that many are young, have barely finished senior secondary or university education when they arrived, and have relatively little work and life experience. These factors contribute to their need for extra care and support. Concern and curiosity about their life in Taiwan and a certain intention of advocacy constitute the starting point of my PhD project.

The more theoretical aspect of this study relates to transnational political participation, diasporic mobilisation, and the implication of these activities for Hong Kong’s social movement and democracy. This qualitative research, still in its initial design phase, will involve in-depth interviews with anti-ELAB protesters in Taiwan about their attitude on Hong Kong’s democratic movement, their participation in Hong Kong politics from abroad and their vision and hopes for Hong Kong’s political future. Taiwanese individuals in close contact with this focus group, such as local employers, church representatives and officers of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, will be included in the interviews as complementary informants providing more comprehensive context for a better understanding and interpretation of our case. Depending on the quantity and quality of the available data and the course of development of the project, ethnographic and participant observations may extend to other politically conscious Hong Kongers residing in Taiwan.

Albert Hirschman’s “exit, voice, and loyalty” model has often been cited to explain migration politics. Many Hong Kongers have now chosen, or have been forced into, the first option. The next question is, “Then what?”—What can and do exiles do after leaving the country? Essentially, exile politics is the study of “voice” after “exit.” In researching for my project, theories on definitions of such terms as “exile,” “diaspora,” “refugee,” and further categorisations according to people’s level of “voice” are useful for identifying and sorting participants. Moreover, empirical studies remind us of the difficulties exiled activists face in their political life abroad. They give us an idea of how mobilisation can and should be organised outside the home country and help us forecast the course of development of Hong Kong social movements. Given Taiwan’s special legal status and position in fighting the threat of China, the project will also be a good opportunity to illustrate how host country policies and politics shape the political life of the diaspora.

This is perhaps the timeliest opportunity to start. We often say that the events of 2019 forever changed the political picture of Hong Kong. As the oppressive regime prompts more of us to leave, the Hong Kong diaspora is now larger, much less apolitical, and better united. This is evident in the various overseas Hong Konger groups during and after 2019. These groups gather Hong Kongers for activities ranging from organising demonstrations to promoting Cantonese learning. With a larger sample size and more willing participants, we can now work on presenting a fuller Hong Kong diaspora story—starting in the most culturally and linguistically accessible and familiar land of Taiwan. Thanks to my Taiwanese colleagues, who amiably offer help in every way. Because of their help, from literature support and participant referral to administrative paperwork and office space arrangement way before the start of any fieldwork, my small personal effort in this larger mission to rediscover the Hong Kong people is expected to be smooth and fruitful.

Archive of Hong Kong Culture: Themes and Variations

The writing of a Hong Kong story is not, and cannot be, limited to the ivory tower. Engagement of the wider public is key to the historic and cultural research of a people. While working on my own research, I contacted the International Centre for Taiwan and Hong Kong Studies in Kaohsiung. Newly established with the support of National Sun Yat-sen University, the Centre is conducting its flagship “Archive of Hong Kong Culture” project.

Project manager Dr Hung Tak-wai, a historian and religious studies scholar, explains that efforts to study Hong Kong have been boosted after the democratic movements of 2014 and 2019. Understandably, it is against this background that these efforts focus on creating a political narrative rivalling China’s. For instance, certain discourses on Hong Kong history deliberately depict a rebellious image of the city or foster myths to facilitate the construction of a Hong Kong nationalism, sometimes neglecting the fact that Hong Kong was in many aspects very “Chinese” before the British occupation. While it is nice to see scholars develop Hong Kong studies as a separate discipline, along with the Taiwanese public and elsewhere showing more interest in Hong Kong, the trend of equating Hong Kong studies with political studies can be “unhealthy.” Indeed, this can create unnecessary, biased stereotypes of identity and culture. Of course, this is not to blame those who pursue what they are most familiar with and passionate about; nothing starts with a perfectly comprehensive agenda.

Needless to say, the quantity and quality of research vary with the availability of data and resources. Insufficient materials render in-depth and well-grounded studies difficult, if at all possible. Dr Hung aims to systematically collect artefacts, documents, photos, and oral history accounts and set up an archive for future research on Hong Kong. The project also serves to preserve Hong Kong folk memories and promote the development of public history and historiography. In other cases, historical evidence may be lost if no effort is made to preserve them. Yet, this initiative also stems from the specific fear that any record might soon be obscured, tampered with, or even outright destroyed. Moreover, future researchers of Hong Kong history may not be able to enter Hong Kong physically. On the other hand, Taiwan serves as a much more stable and secure base for storage, retrieval, analysis, and publishing.

The project develops by themed phases: Volunteer interviewers for each phase are recruited from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Cantonese-speaking communities elsewhere. At the same time, manual classification and archiving are mostly managed by students and other participants based in Taiwan. The first phase concluded earlier this year with a collection of more than 300 artefact pieces and a dozen of transcripts of interviews on Hong Kong media and journalism. Summaries of these results are available on the Taipei-based Hong Kong media 1841. co. The project’s current phase concerns popular entertainment, followed by food culture and the food industry, religion, and other topics alike. Having enjoyed an enthusiastic response among Hong Kongers, the project is expected to slowly pick up momentum in Taiwan as more diverse and interesting topics are taken on board.

My conversation with Dr Hung was cut short by our busy schedules, but even without asking, I very well understand why he considers Taiwan a promising base for the initiative—a general acceptance of Hong Kong and Hong Kongers as an individual entity in its own right, favourable geographical location for necessary shipments and visits, highly-educated Traditional Chinese users ready to provide assistance…; but most importantly, just as in my own case, it is the generosity and amicability that Taiwan people offer that encourages continuous work and cooperation towards a more comprehensive narrative for the Greater China area.

A resident fellow at the European Research Centre on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT) at the University of Tübingen, Germany, Judy Lee’s academic experience includes politics and law, international relations, Hispanic and Latin American studies, and Sinology. She is also a freelance linguist and language teacher. Having participated in translation and editing work related to Sino-US relations, Hong Kong’s external relations, Chinese religious history, Hong Kong colonial history, policy research and constitutional reform in Hong Kong and produced an M.A. project analysing political contents of Argentine tango lyrics, her field of interest is diverse and multidisciplinary. You can contact her at: yi-nga.lee@student.uni-tuebingen.de or judylee@usal.es.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan-Hong Kong Connection.

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