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International Journal of Postcolonial Studies

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Hong Kong Connections Across the Sinosphere

Helena Wu & Andrea Riemenschnitter

To cite this article: Helena Wu & Andrea Riemenschnitter (2018) Introduction, Interventions, 20:8, 1073-1084, DOI: 10.1080/1369801X.2018.1538810

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Published online: 30 Oct 2018.

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Helena Wu and Andrea Riemenschnitter

Department of Chinese Studies, Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

Academic discourse on the Sinosphere since thefirst mentioning of the term – or actually two terms, hanzi wenhua quan漢字文化圏 and zhonghua wenhua quan中華文化圏, both of which are attributed to Japanese historian Nishi-jima Sadao (Mair2012)– mainly focused on premodern and early modern East Asia, where it encompassed the region where literary Sinitic was a shared tool of written communication. Sinitic characters accompanied, and with time transcended, the actual historical interstate encounters and entan-glements, thus providing a prominent cultural bridge between ancient China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and other settler communities in Southeast Asia. Considering the contemporary geopolitical situation, the term has begun to be applied in research covering the rapidly expanding sphere of Mainland China’s increasing social, political, and economic interaction and interference (Duara 2015; Wild and Mepham2006). Wefind this a helpful extension of the concept – as long as it remains sufficiently “slippery” (Ramsey, as quoted in Mair2012) for resistance to nationalistic discourses in the People’s Republic of China.

Twenty years after the Handover, our special issue explores how Hong Kong is positioned in face of the changing sociopolitical landscape worldwide and in the presence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) which claims the city’s sovereignty since 1997. This challenging question does not just point to


interventions, 2018

Vol. 20, No. 8, 1073–1084, Andrea Riemenschnitter


the precarious situation of Hong Kong– a former British colony and now a Special Administrative Region (SAR) under the PRC – in the twenty-first century, where the “One Country, Two Systems” policy is evolving quite unpredictably after it was put forward in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The Deng Xiaoping regime had designed this model of governance for the Hong Kong–Mainland China relationship after 1997 and thereafter for fifty years, and it was signed as a milestone of the Crown Colony’s transition between the PRC and the British government in 1984. Meanwhile, there is much reason to reflect upon the impact of the shifts in economic power, pol-itical order, and discursive practices with regard to the shuffling of global geo-political trends in the twenty-first century, especially when Hong Kong – despite its supposed postcolonial status – is somehow still situated at the “edge of empires”, to borrow historian John M. Carroll’s (2005) expression. It originally describes Hong Kong’s circumstances under British adminis-tration, but uncannily bespeaks the predicament of the former colony after having acquired its new status of a Special Administrative Region in 1997.

The collection of essays presented in this volume is the outcome of a work-shop at the University of Zurich in 2016. It addresses the past as well as present of Hong Kong, with an aim critically to examine the less obvious or for-gotten relations not only with China but, rather, with a much larger sphere of many kinds of interaction wherein Hong Kong performs the roles of hub and intermediator: Hong Kong during the Cold War period is examined by Brigit Knüsel Adamec and Xiaojue Wang. In their respective essays, they address the emerging discourse of liberalism and popular radio and film culture in the making. Hong Kong in transition before and after the Handover is explored by Andrea Riemenschnitter and Andrea Bachner with respect to cultural pro-duction, in this case Leung Ping-kwan’s poems and Fruit Chan’s film. The present Hong Kong– in terms of its political landscape, social responses, and cultural expression (television and cinema)– is scrutinized by Yiu-wai Chu, Alvin Wong, and Helena Wu. With all these different facets of Hong Kong, the issue aims to open up an extended space for Hong Kong to relate to different times over the course of history, to reconnect with places where different socio-political landscapes unfold, meet, and trespass national boundaries and, ulti-mately, to encompass new ways of reading and possibly expounding the critical perspectives brought forward by the emergent field of Sinophone studies and the geopoliticalfluidity of the Sinosphere.

From Sinophone studies to“Hong Kong studies as method”

As Yiu-wai Chu (in this volume) reiterates, “the problems faced by Hong Kong” in the twenty-first century “come from the slant towards ‘One


Country’ in the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ framework”. In post-handover Hong Kong, a paradigmatic shift is observed from the celebration of multicul-turalism and hybrid identities among the local population to Beijing’s ever-expanding influence on Hong Kong affairs – ranging from election matters to policy-making decisions– and the state-led dissemination of an ideology of integration and assimilation. A similar reading of post-1997 Hong Kong is made by Sebastian Veg, who argues Beijing’s anticolonial rhetoric was con-tradicted by the authoritarian measures imposed on the city, especially in the post-Umbrella Movement era (2015, 68; quoted in Chu, this volume). In other words, what Hong Kong is currently undergoing is an unexpected, if not unprecedented, turn in the postcolonial geopolitics worldwide: it not only has to steer away from the road to self-driven decolonization and democrati-zation, but is also subject to a series of state-led Sinicization processes, which are in line with the PRC’s growing power with respect to world economy as well as politics. Under the circumstances observed and analyzed in this volume, the growing anxieties among the local population are mirrored in the cultural production and social movements that emerged around and after the transition (Bachner; Chu; Riemenschnitter; Wong; Wu, this volume). The marginal position that Hong Kong assumes at the edge of the PRC in the post-handover era certainly brings back the almost forgotten memories and (un)familiar experiences of colonialism in the past, especially when demo-cratization plans that were introduced by the British colonial government during the late colonial period were shelved after 1997. Under the circum-stances, Chu (this volume) aptly identifies the disappearance of “hybrid cos-mopolitanism” as the primary crisis currently faced by Hong Kong and its population. In this light, Chu’s inauguration of “Hong Kong Studies as Method” can therefore be considered as an academic response as well as a strategy, not only to trace but also to revive the“momentum of the hybridiz-ations of Hong Kong cultures” (Chu 2016, 10–28; quoted in Chu, this volume). Meanwhile, looking back in time allows us to move forward: to reexamine the experiences of Hong Kong during the Cold War era is one exemplar that can lend us critical perspectives to cope with Hong Kong’s pre-dicament in the present. In retrospect, the deliberate distance– maintained and disseminated in many public discourses of that period– between the pol-itical regime of the People’s Republic of China as red, communist (Mainland) China and what the term“China” otherwise signifies in expressions like “free China”, cultural China, and traditional China (Knüsel; Wang; this volume) – is a means to prevent the monolithic, totalitarian use of one“China” at a dis-cursive level and a strategy to curb the dispersion of one particular, hegemonic ideology across the Sinosphere. This retrospective look is thereby a prospec-tive look that chimes with Shu-mei Shih’s (2011, 710–711) field-shaping proposition: to present “multidirectional critique” of all kinds of centrism and to resist the“hegemonic call of Chineseness”.


Hong Kong and its many different shores

Just as Shih’s seminal concept of the Sinophone and Chu’s theorization of “Hong Kong Studies as Method” shed light on one another, this volume explores how the precarious yet strategic positions of Hong Kong in the past and present offer a pertinent perspective not just to challenge the hege-mony of China-centrism and the homogeneity of“Chineseness”, but also to envision a productive dimension that recalibrates Hong Kong’s dis/mis/con-nections by highlighting the changing conceptualizations of “China” over time and across different contexts. In this light, we envision the nodal points Hong Kong conjures up in Sinophone communities as different “shores” that encompass different arenas of action and interaction in history as well as the current state of affairs. The idea of the shore, on the one hand, refers to Hong Kong’s long-standing positioning in mainstream narratives as a (former) British colony, free port, meeting hub, financial center, and sojourner city; on the other hand, the complexity of transcultural flows and the composite nature of translocal networks are epitomized in the image of many different shores, which signifies not only the entangled colonial and postcolonial pasts, experiences, and sentiments that are influx, but also the multifarious,fluid connections between the city, its various counterparts, and the agencies which altogether construe an alternative discourse that can interrogate China-centered ideologies and debunk monolithic narratives put forward by whatever authority.

Through the critical perspectives provided by our collection of essays, we hope to show that the oft-mentioned strategic position and advantageous characteristics of Hong Kong in the past can be reexamined and reassessed in the present. In fact, a number of scholars have recently elaborated on the specific contexts with respect to which we can tackle the current impasse in sustaining critical, localized perspectives towards the study of Hong Kong (Chan 2015; Chu 2015; Lui 2015). The essays invite us to take a closer look at Hong Kong’s multi-nodal connections that have largely been over-looked due to a discursive shift that foregrounded Hong Kong–Mainland China relations in the past three to five decades. As reflected in the topics explored here, the “China” factor in the past as well as the present is, to various degrees, a pivotal element in analyzing Hong Kong affairs and circum-stances– from the successive political decisions made in view of Hong Kong’s future (where Hong Kong’s local people were never involved) to the changing tasks the city is asked to shoulder against the background of rapidly trans-forming sociopolitical landscapes and economic developments across the border. Hong Kong’s imposed passivity and its inherent lack of voices, or self-representation, under the British administration were silently passed on to the post-1997 scenario; meanwhile, the fluctuating perception and chan-ging conceptualization of “China” are not always accepted unequivocally


on both the individual and the collective levels. In other words, the same set of vocabularies does not necessarily convey the same meanings with regard to changing geopolitics, not to mention more abstract entities like affects, iden-tities, and sense of belonging. In order to refrain from committing any form of Sinocentrism, the key is to bear in mind the multifarious operations of “China”, which also means to problematize – through pluralizing – “China”. Under the circumstances, the notion of the Sinosphere can then be scruti-nized. When linguist James A. Matisoff (2003, 6–8) defined the term “Sino-sphere” alongside “Indosphere”, he referred them to the “spheres of influence” where many languages in Asia converge in terms of the phonologi-cal, grammatiphonologi-cal, and semantic structures and“in the course of millennia of intense language contact”. As an example in linguistic research, Mark W. Post (2011) challenges the bifurcation and the overgeneralization created by the notions of the Sinosphere and Indosphere, where according to him the paradigms limit the understanding of the Tibeto-Burman languages of the Eastern Himalaya. Indeed, the semantic implications of the concept of the Sinosphere might change as the term moves across disciplinaryfields. In theorizing the concept of the Sinophone, Shu-mei Shih has cautioned against the danger of essentialism and centrism when “language contact” and its cultural–linguistic implications are uncritically flattened and hence turned into unidirectional cultural–political forces that ultimately create a power hierarchy, be it consciously or unconsciously. In other words, the Sino-sphere can, on the one hand, be validated to varying extents in linguistic and historical studies – for instance, classical Chinese texts were circulated in ancient Japan, Korea, and Vietnam in the respective names of kanbun, hanmun, and hán văn. On the other hand, the postcolonial outlook in cultural studies warns not to gloss over the histories of political dominance and pro-cesses of hybridization and localization. Sinitic characters like hanja in Korean and kanji in Japanese acquire localized pronunciations and sometimes meanings over the course of history; even more so in modern times, Sinitic elements only constitute part of the respective language systems. In this same spirit, Shih (2013) proclaims an expiry date of the concept of diaspora with an awareness of the heterogeneous practices of language and culture, the possibility for local identities to take root, and the unequal power relation-ships that would arise if the former were overlooked. With regard to the entangled worldviews in the past and present that cross paths with one another, historian Joshua A. Fogel (2009, 4) productively engages with the notion of the Sinosphere. He invokes this model in order to examine the chan-ging Sino-Japanese relations from high antiquity to the middle of the nine-teenth century, with an aim to“embrace intraregional relations in all their varying cultural and political complexities” (5). In other words, Fogel is fully aware of the critical stance and the geopolitical fluidity one should accord to the concept, pointing out that “different Chinas inhabited the


core of the Sinosphere at different times”. This argument is supported by strik-ing historical evidence: firstly, it is “readily apparent when one glances through a series of historical maps of‘China’” (4); secondly, “conquest dynas-ties portrayed themselves as‘China’ in a variety of ways: Yuan dynasty China was anything but the linear equal of Ming, or even Qing dynasty China, for example” (4). Intriguingly, what Fogel presents here as his concern towards the“orbiting entities” of the Sinosphere like Japan, Korea, and Vietnam is in line with what Shu-mei Shih (2011, 711) has to say regarding the “inter-related historical processes” of continental colonialism, settler colonialism, and immigration, when conceptualizing the Sinophone as a field-shaping concept and Sinophone studies as afield. In this light, the Sinosphere can be invoked as a facet of many different shores and its theoretical potentialities be addressed, while at the same time taking into account its limitations and extending its perspectives beyond the scope of“China”.

Organization of this special issue

The essays compiled in this volume cover a wide range of subject matter – from current affairs, radio culture, television drama, and cinema, to literary outputs in the form of poems and novels. Our selection aims at mapping out the variety of intellectual, aesthetic, and affective responses, where tran-sitions, exchanges, and changing ideological orientations past and present are re-presented, experienced, and reflected upon at different times. Through the lens of Hong Kong, the idea of its many different shores comes both to unsettle and renew the connections and disconnections between different discourses and communities that take turns in occupying dominant, residual, and emergent positions. Borrowing Raymond Williams’ (1977) use of these terms, we contend that they attain special importance in Hong Kong’s transforming landscape. In the following, we propose three main directions for reading– namely time, space, and agency – in order to hint at how productive conversations on wide-ranging topics can be carried beyond the limited space of this volume, and sustained organically.


On a temporal axis, the essays in this special issue deal with different socio-political contexts over time: from the Cold War period (Knüsel; Wang) to the transitional (Riemenschnitter) and the current post-handover era (Bachner; Chu; Wong; Wu). Hence, they take retrospective looks at past


events as much as they include interactions with the situational present. While individual essays may address moments that are specific to the sociopolitical landscape they analyze, the collection invites a continuous reading through different temporalities where they as a whole offer respective nodal points to be connected at a macroscopic level, thus conjuring up not only many different shores, but also alternative narratives about Hong Kong.

Following Wang and Knüsel, the dissemination of Anglo-American liberal values and the appropriation of the Confucian tradition are examined with reference to the developments in local radio and film culture during the Cold War era of the 1950s and 1960s. Despite their different scopes of inves-tigation, both are exemplars that illustrate how the blueprint of the local value system was laid down. Upon the establishment of the PRC in 1949, the colo-nial government’s decision to close the border connecting Hong Kong to the continental, communist China is understood, in retrospect, as one of the determining moments that foreground the development of a full-fledged Hong Kong identity and the varieties of home-grown culture among the gen-erations to come. Dependent on the degrees of attachment to and detachment from “China” – and despite the fact all these people were indiscriminately seen by both the British government and the Beijing authority as“Chinese” as a whole, the contested relationship between Hong Kong and Mainland China is best expressed in the ambiguous, if not entirely enigmatic, identities of people living in Hong Kong. In this regard, Wang, in her essay, traces the hybrid sonic identities that were demonstrated in “sky fiction” or the “airwave novel”. This is a popular radio genre that emerged in the 1950s, when its dramatic elements were based on contemporary topics and social issues. With its inevitable linguistic component of a soundscape, the sonic identities did not only give rise to lingual–cultural differences in the making, but problematized the understanding towards“China” and “Chine-seness” with respect to the gradual growth of local culture and identity in Hong Kong. In this regard, Knüsel provides further clues in her essay by sup-plementing a macroscopic aspect of this entangled landscape. As reflected in her investigation of Lao Sze-kwang’s publications during the 1950s and 1960s, the purposeful inscription of liberal values – that are largely based on Austrian-British economist and philosopher Friedrich August Hayek’s concept of liberalism and selected Confucian teachings– was intent on culti-vating anti-communist sentiments on the one hand; on the other hand, it con-tinues to expose a larger picture where similar strategies were also undertaken by the colonial administration in shaping the apparent“preferred” political orientation of the local population through the reappropriation of Chinese culture and tradition. Under these circumstances, the underlying dialogue between Wang and Knüsel’s essays extrapolates a crossroads where politics and aesthetics interact, thus bringing to light the line of division that was marked between Hong Kong and Mainland China during the Cold War era


and would propel the growth of distinctive local identities and sensibilities in the long run. The“China” that was promoted or applied by different official authorities in Hong Kong and elsewhere is proven to be highly fabricated and performative, if not manipulative, which is illustrated by Knüsel’s example of Lao Sze-kwang’s theorization of a “free China”, as well as by the fictional love-triangles Wang detects in the popular radio programmes andfilms.

Moving along this timeline, the colorful picture of Cold War Hong Kong as explored by Knüsel and Wang problematizes any simplistic narrative of “China” and broadens our view to the city’s transition to its modern contexts and reconnections. In addition to how the Handover is reexamined through the poetics and the agency of plants in Leung Ping-kwan’s poems (Riemensch-nitter), the concern towards the alternating dissolution and reconstruction of Hong Kong–Mainland China relations – on both the geopolitical and cultural levels– is intriguingly expounded on by almost every essay in this volume. The essays thus show how the postcoloniality of Hong Kong is undermined by the “internally uneven picture of both [societies of] Hong Kong and the PRC” (Bachner) as well as in the gendered geopolitics of China-centrism (Wong) and the dualistic growth and suppression of local sensibilities (Wu), especially in the post-1997 context. Their arguments are in line with the need to apply “Hong Kong Studies as Method” in order to reevaluate and reconfigure Hong Kong culture and society in the age of global modernity (Chu).

Post-/coloniality respatialized

With an eye to the connections, reconnections, and disconnections between Hong Kong and China that are posited in the various transforming contexts, a spatial axis can be drawn to suggest how the different shores of Hong Kong invite a decentered reading of“China” and “Chineseness”. In this regard, Rie-menschnitter, through close readings of Leung Ping-kwan’s plant poems, expounds the author’s conversation with objects, plants, and food that “impersonate Hong Kong in its entanglements with Great Britain, Mainland China, and the world”. Knüsel’s study of Lao Sze-kwang’s appropriation of a Confucian tradition indicates thefluidity and indeterminacy in the conceptu-alization of “China” as early as in the 1950s. Entering the twenty-first century, Chu solemnly reminds us“China was not the China in the 1970s anymore, and Hong Kong is still being run like a colony”. Joining Shih’s advocacy of raising a de-Sinocentric awareness through Sinophone studies, Wong uses two novels by Chan Koonchung and a Hong Kong-made online television drama, To Be or Not to Be (2014), to demonstrate the potential of feminist and queer approaches for deconstructing any essentialism. The function of gender is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, Wong


unfolds Chan Koonchung’s northbound imaginary of Hong Kong and Main-land China through the presence of intellectual masculinism in his works; on the other hand, he suggests a “feminist rethinking of Hong Kongness” by tracing the fluid, reinventive characteristics of border-crossing dynamics in the drama. As a result, Wong puts forward that “including China” is an important key productively to rethink the hegemonic aspects of “Chinese-ness”. In a similar vein, Bachner views Hong Kong as “both China’s other and its double” by examining cross-border, cross-cultural biopower that is inscribed, disseminated, and consumed through Fruit Chan’s film Dumplings (2004). According to her, entailed in the act of cannibalism and the embedded metaphor of devouring-as-regenerating is an intersection of localized and glo-balized biopolitics. While scrutinizing Fruit Chan’s film, Bachner juxtaposes the reinscription of ancient Chinese medical practice in cultural texts and the simultaneous disavowal of traditional culture in the modern age. As she problematizes the cultural, political, and ideological boundaries, arguing that they can neither be strictly insisted upon nor neatly contained within any category, the difficulties in deriving interiority from exteriority and vice versa – which are solicited in the form of horror and the abject in Chan’s film – are read by Bachner as persisting cultural entanglements between Hong Kong and the PRC in the age of global consumerism and capitalism.

Under these circumstances, there is a need to go beyond once-popular buzz-words like“multiplicity” and “hybridity” upon which Hong Kong’s postco-loniality was built. In this regard, Chu underscores the importance of pursuing “strategic erasure” in order to highlight Hong Kong’s predicament as a city that is“hopelessly entangled with Chineseness in the context of (forced) inte-gration with the Mainland” – not only in terms of politics but also owing to the seemingly inevitable China factor in economic and cultural markets (for instance, the case of Hong Kong cinema). In line with Chu’s concern, Wu explores the travelling concept of the local in postmillennial Hong Kong with reference to the circulation and reception of the omnibus film Ten Years (2015) in Hong Kong and across the border in Mainland China. Having been censored by the Beijing authorities and attacked by pro-Beijing loyalists in Hong Kong, the film manifests Chu’s concept of “strategic erasure” on two levels, namely its depiction of a dystopian Hong Kong in the year 2025 and the plane of its particular cultural production and dissemi-nation contexts. Considering the local and the transborder circulation of the film, the dynamic networks – built up in Hong Kong through voluntary, com-munity screenings of thefilm, and abroad through the international media’s attention towards Beijing’s reaction to the “controversial” film – paradoxi-cally also shed light on the potential productive aspects of a “strategic erasure”. To elaborate on this, Wu creatively adopts Ackbar Abbas’s (1997) oft-quoted concept of“disappearance”, arguing that it is turned into “real, explicit happenings” in post-handover Hong Kong. As another side


of the same coin, Wong’s reminder of the need to “include China” produc-tively and to be aware of“the irony therein” conjures up a response to the dys-topian visions that are shared in the respective texts examined by Wu and Wong as an increasingly popular motif in the cultural imaginaire of Hong Kong–Mainland China relations in recent years. Intriguingly, the dystopian space they delineate in the postmillennial era is in stark contrast with the minor utopian vision for the postcolonial city Riemenschnitter finds in Leung Ping-kwan’s plant poems that were written around the transitional era, thus drawing our attention to thefluctuating relations between different places and trajectories.

Forgotten agencies

Taking into account the horror solicited from Mainland China to Hong Kong (Bachner), the loss of momentum in Hong Kong cultural industries, economy, and politics (Chu), the processes of Mainlandization (Wong), and the suppres-sion of Hong Kong’s local (Wu), the concept of “strategic erasure” can be used as a passive–active means to underscore how the voices of Hong Kong are diminishing. Besides raising a broader audience’s awareness of this crisis that has become more and more observable on the level of everyday life, how should one– without becoming numb to the current impasse, or losing momen-tum– cope with these erasures? Stephen Ching-kiu Chan (2015) has solemnly advised everyone on the road to decolonization and democratization“to slow down (and think, un-think; imagine, un-imagine) as you walk along that highway to work next morning on the next routine. But delay no more” (346). In addition to academic endeavors, everyday life is thereby revealed to be an important site of resistance. In line with this aspiration, the authors of this special issue explore different means to broaden the current scope with an eye to the perspectives offered by Hong Kong’s multiple connections and extensions over the course of time. The underdetermined interconnectedness between its many different shores is demonstrated here as a key not only to sustain the cultural, political, and social productivity of the city, but also to appreciate and further develop the localized, polyphonic ways of reading Hong Kong across different media, borders, and disciplines. To this end, the idea of“many different shores” chimes in with “Hong Kong Studies as Method”, as we strive to “contribute a new perspective of understanding the transformation in not only Asia but also the world” (Chu).

Last but not least, agency is important to trace and rekindle those hidden or forgotten connections in theoretical approaches and methodologies which can productively traverse the different disciplines, and to revitalize previously overlooked agencies in both subjects and objects. In terms of theoretical


approaches, Shu-mei Shih’s concept of the Sinophone is of paramount impor-tance to support de-Sinicizing approaches in dealing with the changing posi-tionings of Hong Kong and Mainland China in the evolving sociopolitical landscapes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Furthermore, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s notion of “History 2” in his seminal book Provincializing Europe (2000) is employed by both Chu and Wong in reviewing the alterna-tive narraalterna-tives of Hong Kong; the mediascape described by Wang, the reader-ship Knüsel reconstructs through Lao Sze-kwang’s writings, and what Wu calls the“imagined spectatorship” conjure up a layered and multidirectional space for dialogue, wherein Benedict Anderson’s (1983) notion of“imagined communities” is comprehended differently with respect to the fluctuating sociopolitical circumstances and the new divergences brought about by the evolution of the media; Riemenschnitter’s concern with plants as an important non-human agency in Leung Ping-kwan’s poems echoes Bachner’s critical reflection on regional and globalized biopolitics through the act of cannibal-ism in Fruit Chan’s Dumplings. By cutting across different media – the audible (radio culture), the visual (films like Prince of Broadcasters, Dumplings, and Ten Years; the television series To Be or Not to Be), the literary (Leung Ping-kwan’s plant poems; Lao Sze-kwang’s writings that promote liberal values; Chan Koonchung’s novels about Hong Kong and Mainland China) – the essays examine, if not envision, promising shores in the Sinosphere for Hong Kong cultures and identities, where they can be re-/connected and pro-ductively sustained.


Andrea Riemenschnitter

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