I just watched the Guardian documentary ‘The Infamous Chalk Girl”. The story follows a young activist, remaining anonymous, who became famous during the 2014 Hong Kong Umbrella Uprising for being arrested after having been arrested for drawing flowers on a wall in chalk. She is our guide through the complexity of Hong Kong’s struggle for independence. Her moral difficulties negotiating the questions of political resistance and culture are deeply touching in their illumination of the power and complexity of human loyalties. She is committed to her city, to her ideology of freedom, but also to her family (who were targeted as a result of her activism). She, her fellow activists and the citizens of Hong Kong who voted for their ‘independence’ candidates, are driven by genuine love for an idea of Hong Kong: the Hong Kong that they used to know, and the Hong Kong they want in the future.
There a few interesting points about cities here. The Umbrella Movement was driven by the city as an idea of political freedom: Cities as ideas, as collective imaginings by a devoted and hopeful populace, the city that could be, the daydreams of citizens. There is an imagined city in the mind of every resident. This idea is one that is so commonly exploited in the marketing of grand scale redevelopment projects. Marketing imagery appeals to the hopeful, to those still nursing optimism for the future of their city. The imagined cities of citizens are rarely given voice, and almost never enacted into reality, save perhaps in the case of small changes. A new legislative bill here, a cycle path there. And yet, hopes and dreams remain strong in our minds.
The other point about cities that this documentary brings up is the conflict between nationalism and city-loyalty. In an age where nationalism is supposed to be a powerful uniting sentiment, loyalty to cities seems to me to be a more potent force. Local actions for the protection of suburbs, of houses, of your actual home has all the power behind it of survival. A city is something people can love far more than a nation, because they can know a city intimately. You don’t live out your life in a nation in the same way as you do a city. You can’t recall the place in your nation where you met the love of your life. You can’t walk through a nation and recount the years spend in this house or that apartment. You can’t retell family stories built around the hills and valleys and streets of a nation. It’s too abstract a concept. Although the voice of nationalism is growing louder, the voice of the cities, the local, is more persistent, because it comes down to personal struggle.
There is a broadly acknowledged separation between major cities and the surrounding regional cultures. Nationalism and cosmopolitanism have fought some public battles over the years. Cosmopolitan ‘international cities,’ are widely regarded as sharing more values with each other than the small towns in distant parts of their own countries. ‘New York isn’t America’, ‘Berlin is not Germany’, ‘Melbourne is like Europe in Australia,’ ‘London is it’s own UK.’ are phrases so repeated they’ve become cliches.
But, in the case of Hong Kong versus Chinese domination, as in the case of London versus Brexit, this cliche can morph into a real political struggle where the outcome profoundly affects peoples lives. This conflict between nationalism and cosmopolitanism is also a story of the primacy of federal political power over local power. That story commonly becomes a narrative in which citizens demands are overturned in favour of national interest. Sometimes that national interest is justified, and often it’s not. Corruption is always looming in the background, a shadowy figure with features that change.