Yellowing: Memo for a Generation

Yellowing_image1This short piece was written for a booklet edited by the Japanese distributor of the documentary film Yellowing 亂世備忘, by Chan Tze-woon (Hong Kong, 2016, 129′) and is reprinted here with their kind permission. More information is available on the film’s official website.

Chan Tze-woon’s film Yellowing is an important contribution to documenting Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement from a grassroots perspective. Chan takes inspiration from the tradition of participative documentary, filming a group of ordinary movement participants from all walks of life throughout the 79-day occupation. The events of 28 September 2014, when the police used tear gas against unarmed protesters, were decisive in shaping this new community. It was common that movement participants formed strong connections with people they did not previously know after enduring tear gas and police violence together, and at the same time formed the resolve to occupy public areas in Admiralty, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay. This corresponds exactly with the filmmaker’s situation: having brought along a small, light camera, he begins filming the people around him on 28 September, who end up becoming the four main characters in the film. Characteristically, they are united on the first day by a feeling of belonging (as one participant tells the policemen facing them: “we are all Hongkongers”), of defending an endangered community. This group that did not previously know each other forms bonds among themselves and with the film maker, and decides to camp outside, on and off, for the duration of the movement. The film becomes the record of the director’s participation (in one episode, the camera itself, which usually “protects” the director, is targeted by a police officer) and indeed his own creative contribution to the movement.

The Umbrella Movement’s central claim was obtaining “genuine” universal suffrage for electing Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. However, like many social movements, the Umbrella Occupation also became a stage to perform and strengthen a new form of identity. The notion of a Hong Kong identity appeared in the 1970s, as the British colony became increasingly prosperous and the government efficiently fostered a sense of belonging among its inhabitants. This original Hong Kong identity was generally defined by Chinese ethnicity, combined with Hong Kong’s market capitalism, and unique commercial culture. Politically, it was loyal to an abstract definition of the Chinese nation (distinct from both the PRC regime in Beijing and the ROC regime in Taipei), supporting causes like democracy in China (the 1989 democracy movement) but also anti-colonial (obtaining the status of Chinese as an official language in Hong Kong) or pan-Chinese nationalism (supporting claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands). Its identification with Hong Kong was generally unpolitical, as expressed in Cantopop music or commercial culture.

In the years after the Handover in 1997, a new form of identity appeared (especially among younger generations), which now downplayed Chinese ethnicity and culture, and instead emphasized Hong Kong’s specificity as a civic community characterized by shared values of democracy and rule of law. The spontaneous formation of the Umbrella community in the film, through random encounters between unconnected individuals, who spend almost three months together debating politics, as well as engaging in everyday tasks like studying, teaching, organizing movement logistics, or even flirting, illustrates and epitomizes the formation of a civic community.

An important point noted by the film are the strong connections between the two main sites, in Admiralty (often seen as more elite and dominated by students) and Mongkok (considered more grassroots and dominated by working class participants). The group itself is socially quite diverse, and it moves back and forth between these two places, as well as other spaces in Hong Kong, mapping a parallel geography of protest that includes the elite University of Hong Kong, as well as a small apartment in working-class Ho Man Tin district, where a Trotskyite group holds a debate, and Cheung Chau Island, where the more traditional families of several group members live.

The film further effectively uses music and sound to contrast the different identities at play. It begins with a montage sequence alternating between the firing of tear gas on 28 September 2014 and the fireworks display on China’s National Day, October 1st. A little later, the film cuts from a scene of movement participants in Mongkok singing the informal anthem of democracy protests, “Vast Ocean, Boundless Skies” (海闊天空) by the band Beyond, to the PRC anthem, “The March of the Volunteers” played at the official ceremony for National Day attended by senior Hong Kong and Beijing officials.

The generational dimension of the new identity is particularly highlighted when the director inserts home video footage from his own life, in connection with historical events. He was born in 1984, the year of the Sino-British Joint Declaration that set the stage for the Handover, learned about “One Country Two Systems” in primary school, and about the Basic Law in university, persuaded that eventually Hong Kong would implement universal suffrage. At the end of the film, images of the protests are replayed in the same home video format, suggesting they have already become history. While yellow ribbons were the symbol of the movement, the English title “Yellowing” can also refer to the process by which old photos or videos may fade and become blurred. The film then, as suggested by its Chinese title, not only serves as a “reminder” for the participants to be replayed in 20 years, but indeed constructs the collective memory of an entire generation.