Born, Raised and Corrupted in Hong Kong: A Chat With Ackbar Abbas

Ackbar Abbas is the author of some of the most influential texts on Hong Kong culture and literature, but he is not as fond of the act of writing as one might expect. Though he denies it, this might have something to do with the fact that he can’t type, having to turn around essays using the arduous method of pen meeting paper.

An academic now based in California, he sometimes returns to Hong Kong, where “he was born, raised and corrupted,” as he puts it. He is often sought out to give talks on his trailblazing studies into the city’s fragile cultural identity. Kindhearted and chatty, Abbas prefers giving lectures over what he describes of as the “painful” process of writing, which involves facing the unknown. “I struggle with it, I do it, I only write when I have to, and it’s always last minute, but that’s how it works,” he says. “I can’t enjoy it.”

By contrast, teaching gives him pleasure. In his classes he’ll thumb through messy, multilayered piles of handwritten papers. He reads with clarity, but is occasionally tripped up by his own hand. Technophiles might disagree, but to Abbas, the physical process of writing trumps that of typing. “When I read what I have handwritten, I see the twists and the turns,” he says over a 7am breakfast in Sheung Wan, where he is staying at a small hotel near the neighbourhood in which he grew up. “It allows you to trace the whole history of your struggle.”

Abbas is on sabbatical from his posting as professor of comparative literature at Irvine University in California, in a sprawling, pedestrian-adverse city where finding a typist is a struggle. Around thirty handwritten essays languish at home, the unpublished spawn of an uneasy labour. Many know him as the author of the influential 1997 book Hong Kong: Culture and Politics of Disappearance, which was produced on notepads and the pens that Abbas likes to collect, alongside vintage and fake watches.

In that seminal book, Abbas uses certain concepts of nostalgia, forgetting and collective memory to examine the mercurial beast that is Hong Kong’s identity.  It introduced the idea of the déjà disparu to the subject of the city’s identity in the aftermath of the 1984 Sino-British declaration, which paved the way to the 1997 handover to China.

Abbas defines déjà disparu as “the feeling that what is new and unique about the situation is always already gone, and we are left holding a handful of clichés, or a cluster of memories of what has never been.” It’s a concept that still has resonance today, in Hong Kong and abroad. Multimedia artist Adrian Wong explores it by playing with clichés in Hong Kong cinema and TV, filmmaker Jenny Suen cites Abbas as an influence for her film The White Girl, and the fictional tales of Dung Kai-cheung invoke certain sentiments of a futile grasping after that which eludes.

For all kinds of reasons, stories about Hong Kong have always been stories about elsewhere,” says Abbas. “So there wasn’t too much of an idea of the possibilities of local culture, the way they understood the local was that the local was a sort of limitation, if you are local then you are limited to something.”

Wong Kar-wai’s work broke new ground, Abbas argues. The universal appeal of his films, and the way they invoke a sense of dislocation experienced in many big cities, depicted a Hong Kong that could be read without the context of its cultural and political specificities. “In Chungking Express, the local has a dislocated quality to it, and exactly because of that, the local has a kind of appeal to people elsewhere, so when they look at this local, it will reverberate to their own sense of local in other big cities,” he says.

This dislocated space, which finds expression in these films, has become increasingly pervasive thanks to the effects of globalisation. As such, Wong Kar-wai’s vision of Hong Kong can be read a prescient evocation of the future city in all its homogeneity. Wong’s films also fascinate Abbas in their use of imagery that evokes disappointment, missed encounters and the tantalising charge these experiences carry.

Despite his rather begrudging productivity, Abbas’ stature in the world of criticism looms large, a fact that is testament to his singular and invaluable insights that span the gamut of Hong Kong culture, postcolonial theory, critical theory, and Chinese culture and cinema. His thoughts on memory and forgetting, which reference the insights of Czech writer Milan Kundera, have been applied to the study of censorship in China, while Abbas turns to Franz Kafka to examine the shrewd, mystifying rhetoric of Trump’s America. German cultural critic Walter Benjamin is his hero, and Benjamin’s influence runs throughout Abbas’ works.

In some reviews of his work, critics have complained that Abbas too often references the Western canon on critical theory, a critique he quickly rebuffs. “I read Benjamin as a writer writing in English, who is living in Hong Kong, dealing with Hong Kong cinema,” he says. “There’s a certain political correctness to say that as an Asian I should read Asian writers. I don’t avoid them,” he says, before entering into a spirited diatribe on Fortress Besieged, the 1947 satiric novel by Qian Zhongshu from Shanghai. He was such a cosmopolitan figure, you know if you compare him with European writers, in many ways he is much more cosmopolitan than a lot of these writers.”

The child of Hongkongers with roots in India, Malaysia and China, Abbas was born in 1947 and raised in Kennedy Town, where his son, the artist Nadim Abbas, now lives. Abbas was very close with his mother, a woman of Indian descent born in Hong Kong, and one of the reasons he never learned to type was that she enjoyed typing for him. “I suppose I was a bit spoiled,” he says.

Like Abbas himself, his parents occupied that limbo space of being both a local and an outsider, never quite assimilating into Cantonese culture, in part because they never learnt Chinese, and because they looked different. “[My mum] looked slightly more Indian than I do,” he says. “I don’t look Indian or Malaysian at all. You know, I have this name, and I have this face, and the name don’t go together with the face. So I feel like I am a living example of an allegory. And I identify with nowhere. It helps in the sense that you are inside and outside at the same time.”  

While Abbas is bound to no national identity, his ties to Western District do run deep. “This area, before the MTR came here [in 2014], was a little bit different from other places in Hong Kong,” he says. “It still has the sort of small town feel to it in the sense that you buy things from the market, and from the shops that know you. And you have a real genuine conversation with them, which is something you don’t find in big cities. And Hong Kong is a big city.”

Abbas acquired his MPhil at the University of Hong Kong and rose up the ranks to be chair of its comparative literature department alongside co-director of the centre of globalisation and cultures. He wrote on the cultural changes and concerns of a city grasping for its own identity in the run up to and aftermath of the handover, and his singular observations, which draw on Hong Kong’s cinema, architecture, literature and photography, are widely cited, proving invaluable resources in understanding Hong Kong along more nuanced terms than the reductive “East meets West” binary that still pollutes contemporary ways of thinking about Hong Kong.

To summarise Abbas’ ongoing legacy is quite a struggle, but certain ideas have enjoyed a longer lifespan than others. Abbas is fond of coming up with punchy turns of phrases as a way to avoid the esoteric jargon of academic texts. One of those is “hyphenation,” which he applied to Hong Kong, which can be seen as a nation or culture without sovereignty, dependent on another place to survive. “Hong Kong is not a nation, it’s a hyphenation,” he says. “And I think hyphenation has changed its meaning a little bit. In ‘97, I thought that it was something that was a little bit peculiar to Hong Kong. Today, all nations are hyphenations.”

Today, Hong Kong faces new challenges tied to its continued search for its own identity amid the rubble of British colonialism and the ongoing political and cultural encroachments of mainland China. Abbas has a nuanced take on the future of the city in this regard. “People who want to serve the cause of Hong Kong should try to understand, it’s not a question of breaking away [from mainland China], it’s also a question of what the next step would be. There are no clear solutions,” he says.

Abbas keeps a steady eye on Hong Kong’s evolution. He welcomes the emergence of the West Kowloon Cultural District and the opening of the Tai Kwun arts and heritage centre, where he has already and will continue to give talks. Watching his own son manage to make ends meet as an artist — something that likely wouldn’t have been possible in Hong Kong a few decades ago — also gives him some hope for the city.

But Hong Kong is not the only city pulling him back to Asia. Abbas now has ties to Beijing, where he spends the summer months with his wife, the novelist and jazz singer Liu Sola, in an art village beyond the Fifth Ring Road. They met at a conference in Hong Kong thirty years ago, while Abbas was married to his first wife. Unlike a love story in a Wong Kar-wai film, they managed to surmount the obstacles to their relationship. “When I saw her – what they say about love at first sight, it is literally true,” says Abbas. “As soon as I saw her I said, ‘I am going to marry her.’”

The pair share a strong connection, but diverge on certain points. Liu dislikes Hong Kong, but adores the act of writing. “She writes a lot, and for her it is a joy. It’s something exciting, it’s not like work,” he says. By contrast, Abbas continues to work in spurts of uncomfortable urgency, scribbling away on scraps of paper as appointments with friends are cancelled as deadlines loom. Criticism is not so much a labour of love for Abbas as something he has to do, an inextricable part of who he is and how he relates to the world around him, a world he describes as having become “black hole-like” in its cultural complexity.

Now in his seventies, Abbas’ brain continues to churn through that black matter with an unquenchable curiosity and a quite few dollops of an intellectual’s gloom, propelled along by what he calls the “optimism of the will.”

As breakfast comes to an end and the cafe empties of its clientele, Abbas is asked if he ever wishes he could take a break from the cerebral life. He replies, with a smile, that such an option does not exist for him. “No,” he says. “It’s not a question of adopting thinking as a mode. You don’t adopt it, it’s part of what you do, it is part of your relationship with the world. This is how you process the world.”

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