Louisa Lim for The Stella Shortlist
Louisa Lim is an award-winning journalist, podcaster and author. Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong (2022) was shortlisted for the Stella Prize, as well as the Walkley Book Award and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award.
Her previous book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited (2014), was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for political writing.
She is a Senior Lecturer in Audiovisual Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She previously spent a decade in China as a correspondent for the BBC and NPR, and her work can also be read in the New York Times, the Guardian and the Washington Post.
ASTRID: Louisa Lim, welcome to The Garret.
LOUISA: Oh, thank you for having me.
ASTRID: Now, Indelible City has been a racking up quite the awards, I should say, Louisa, many short listings. For those listening who may not have read Indelible City yet, can you give us the brief overview?
LOUISA: Well, it's a book about Hong Kong, the city that I grew up in, and it's really a love letter to Hong Kong, but it's also bigger than just a book about Hong Kong. It's also a book about history and who gets to write history. Hong Kong is a particular place which used to be a British colony until 1997 when it returned to Chinese sovereignty, and the history of Hong Kong has really never been written by Hong Kongers. It's always been written for Hong Kongers by colonial rulers, and I wanted to set about changing that. I wanted to write a book that centred Hong Kong voices and telling their own stories.
So it's about that, but it's also about what happens to a city when it loses its freedom. I really didn't set out to write a history book, and in some ways it's quite ironic that I did, because when I was young, my mother was completely obsessed by Hong Kong's history and the entire of our childhood, me and my sisters, we were dragged around all these historical sites, these walled villages and lucky trees, auspicious places, Earth God shrines. And then my mother got very obsessed with the cemetery and spent 10 years writing this enormous book about this cemetery in Hong Kong, and through none of that was I interested. I showed so little interest in history. I thought it was all really dull, and all I wanted to do was spend my weekends going on boats and shopping and playing tennis like my friends. And yet I think what my mother did was lay the foundation for this book. Sometimes I even wonder how much of it is her book and how much of it is my book, because without that background, I don't think I could have written the book that I did.
ASTRID: You were there during the protests. The book is not specifically about your experience. It is much, much broader than that, but when you look back on that time now, what was it like?
LOUISA: Oh, when I look back on that time, it seems almost like a dream, a fever dream, a nightmare. This extraordinary time when the world was turned topsy-turvy. It's a city of about 7,000,000 people and at certain points, as many as 2,000,000 people were out on the streets, almost a third of the population and I've never been in crowds that size. That extraordinary feeling of being one of a mass of people really united by a singular purpose was so unusual.
But then later on, there was quite a lot of violence on the streets. Police came out to suppress protests and there was a lot of tear-gas used, so much so people used to joke about it and talk about tear-gas buffets and things like that. And we all got very used to being tear-gassed and that too was quite extraordinary, this world where being tear-gassed had become so normal that we'd go out, we'd cover protests, and we'd go straight from being tear-gassed to go and have drinks in a pub. We wouldn't even go home to get changed because it was so normal.
In retrospect, it was an extraordinary moment in Hong Kong's history and looking back on it now, it's only four years later, but it seems like 10 or 15 or 20 years have passed because so much has changed since then.
ASTRID: We had an entire pandemic in that time since you returned from Hong Kong. Now, at the beginning of Indelible City, you recount a very personal moment where you picked up a brush and started to participate in making one of the large protest signs. And this is at the beginning of the book, and you are accounting that in that moment your approach to journalism changed. Can you reflect on that for me?
LOUISA: Yeah, that was a moment that I found very hard to write. At the beginning, I thought maybe I won't write about it, maybe I won't even tell anybody what I did because I really broke the rules of journalism. I knew that I was breaking the rules as we accept them to be, which are, the journalists should be impartial, they should be bystanders, they should be objective. And yet my city, the city that I think of as my home was being just broiled by unbelievable turmoil and it was impossible for me to keep my feelings out of it, and any Hong Konger. And I just felt that also, to do so would not be honest, it would not be honest with my readers if I didn't declare where I stood on this. Part of that moment when I painted that banner, it was a very sweary banner as well, was just... I was quite driven to do that. I just knew that if I didn't take that step, I would regret it later on. And I later thought if I didn't write about it, it wouldn't be honest of me, it wouldn't be an honest move.
ASTRID: We're sitting here recording at Melbourne University where you are a Senior Lecturer. Have any of your students asked you about that?
LOUISA: No, they haven't. I think my book is... Well, it's a bit controversial amongst my students because many of my students are from mainland China and they know that this book is quite political. They know that my last book was about Tiananmen and the legacy of the Tiananmen Killings in 1989, and they're anxious about talking about these sensitive topics.
ASTRID: Your first book that you just mentioned, The People's Republic of Amnesia, that was removed from the shelves as you write in this book. What do you think the fate of this one will be? You're getting awards in Australia, but I assume it's not for sale in China or Hong Kong?
LOUISA: It's definitely not for sale in China. In Hong Kong, it has been stocked in a few small independent bookstores, but it's not being stocked at major chains. And that's partly because of the words on the cover. On the cover it says, , which means, ‘Hooray, go Hong Kongers’. But it's a phrase that has, since the National Security law came into force in 2020, it's been seen as potentially subversive. And so that could be an obstacle to the book being sold in Hong Kong. And I knew that when I wrote it, and that was one of the reasons for writing a book. If a book is so potent that it cannot be sold in a particular place, then I think there's all the more reason to write it.
And in this case, many of the things that I wrote about, many of those scenes, many of those moments cannot anymore be written about in Hong Kong. So it's that extraordinary feeling of writing something that happened just a few years ago but is already almost being lost from the public memory.
ASTRID: You just mentioned the new national security laws that came in in 2020. You de-identified many people that you spoke to in this book, and as you write, you de-identified them further than you perhaps would have after those laws came into place. Do you know if they've read it or have you heard from them about what they think of it being out in the world?
LOUISA: It's very difficult to speak to people who are still in Hong Kong, actually. 47 people who are Democrats who are in jail awaiting trial, potentially on subversion charges when they tried to hold a primary poll. And among my interviewees are people like that and other people who are facing various charges, and sometimes contact with international journalists is used as a reason to stop people from getting bail. I decided not to get in touch with people again and not to send them copies of the books because I didn't want to have any kind of impact on their freedom. It seems crazy that just reaching out to talk to someone could do that, but in this case it really did.
So there were a lot of ethical, moral issues with how to write a book like this and what you could include and what you can't include, and there's really no guidebook that's going to help you. And those were among a series of really difficult decisions that we had to take about what to include and what not to include, what could get people in trouble, what was okay because there were no answers. This is brand new legislation, it's unprecedented. And in Hong Kong, people talked about before there were red lines, but now there were so many red lines, it's become a Red Sea. Everybody is drowning in this Red Sea. I had to make a lot of decisions myself on what might be okay or what might not be okay, but I really tried to be very careful about people's names and their details in order to protect them as much as possible.
ASTRID: You've just spoken to the idea of what you left out and how you protected people. What was the pathway to publication? Because it does have such a potential significant impact in Hong Kong and China, how did you find the right publisher?
LOUISA: To be honest, to begin with, it was hard to find a publisher. Nobody was interested in publishing a book about Hong Kong and publishers and agents kept telling me, ‘Oh, there's no market for books about Hong Kong’. And at that stage, I'd already been working on a book for a while and I was really disheartened, but I thought they were wrong. This was before the protests started and I just had a feeling they were wrong. I just kept going and I did a lot of reporting and I wasn't exactly sure where it was going to go or what I was going to use it for.
And then I just kept getting met with rejection after rejection. One agent even said to me, ‘Oh, your first book, you shouldn't have even written that. Sales were poor because it was an academic book and you would do much better if you hadn't written that book’. I was just like, ‘This can't possibly be right’.
But then I met some great agents, Peter and Amy Bernstein, who really specialised in work about China and they were really interested in the book and they were sure they could find the right publisher. We did another round of proposals and I found this fantastic publisher, was published in the US by Riverhead, and my editor there, Becky Saletan, she had a vision for what the book would be, and her vision was actually much bigger than my vision, and she pushed me to make it a much bigger book than I had originally wanted to write. And in retrospect, I think she was right.
ASTRID: What do you mean a bigger book? Do you mean pure word length or do you mean the topics and where you went in it?
LOUISA: The topics and where I went in it. To begin with, I thought of it as quite a limited, almost academic look where I'd really, in a reportorial way, leave myself out of it. I would write about Hong Kong, but not about my engagement or life in the city, and I had written much of that. And then she pushed me to write about myself and my family, and those were the portions of the book that she loved that to her really sang. She kept pushing me more and more and I kept saying, ‘It's not really a book about me’. And she said, ‘No, but you are part of it and you have to be part of it for it to work’. I think she was right.
And then I was published here by Text, here in Australia, and they were great as well because we had discussions about whether to change the book cover knowing that there were issues with the words' potential subversion, which is... It's not a small thing and it was great that all the publishers, both here and in the US said, ‘No, we don't want to change the cover. We like the cover, we're willing to shoulder that’. And so it was published with the original cover.
ASTRID: Look, it is a spectacular cover, and I don't normally talk about book covers on The Garret, but this is black and white with Hong Kong in the background with this vibrant yellow text on top. And it is almost graffiti calligraphy on the front, which is very much a theme within the book, which brings us to the King of Kowloon. That was not what I was expecting when I picked up a book about Hong Kong. Can you tell us about the King?
LOUISA: Well, he was really where the book started that I just became obsessed with this very odd character called the King of Kowloon.
ASTRID: You do realise that you are smiling so much now?
LOUISA: He was such a feature of my childhood, but he was this peculiar character, a real person, an old man who used to paint on the streets of Hong Kong, on the walls and the pavements and the post boxes and the lampposts. And he believed that the Peninsula of Kowloon, which is opposite Hong Kong, that had been stolen from his family when it was ceded to the British in the 19th century, that he was the king of Kowloon, it was his territory. And so he had this campaign, which lasted for half a century, where he just wrote all over Kowloon, all over his territory, and he'd write his name, the King of Kowloon. He'd write place names, sometimes he'd write really sweary things like, ‘Fuck the Queen up the ass’, and he became this icon.
First, he had an art exhibition, and then he became an artist and he represented Hong Kong in the Venice Biennale. He became its most valuable artist. He played cameos in films, songwriters wrote songs to him, other artists worked with him and he became this whole other iconic figure. And I was just so fascinated by that process and why this person, who many people thought was crazy, he was a bit of a vagrant, although he did have an apartment, he worked as a trash collector, trash sorter, and many people thought he was mad. And yet to me, he was such a precursor of what happened because the issues he was talking about, sovereignty and territory and loss and dispossession, these were the very issues that were at the heart of those protests in 2019, and they were at the heart of Hong Kong identity. I just became fascinated by him.
ASTRID: You go back into Hong Kong's history. Again, not something that I was expecting. And I've read this book several times now, Louisa, and the more I read it, the more I thought, ‘I wonder how much this has changed as a work over time?’ Because I do feel like maybe you did start with the King of Kowloon and you went to so many different places because that's what the story demanded, but how much history were you expecting at one point?
LOUISA: I wasn't really expecting to write a history book at all, and I just kept finding that I had to go further and further back to tell Hong Kong's story, and I guess things happened. I discovered this archive of interviews on a library shelf. There were confidential interviews that had been forgotten about in a library system, and they were supposed to be kept secret for 30 years after they were done, or the last event described in them, and they'd just been forgotten about. To me, they were so astonishing, but then they required me to go back and understand and trace back all this history. It was really a journey writing this book, and it was a journey that I hadn't really, myself envisaged would end up in that place.
ASTRID: So perhaps a silly question, but why a book? And I ask that because there are so many elements of this story. You can see it as audio, you can see it as a video, if you had been collecting that as you went. What drew you to the book form?
LOUISA: I love writing. I'm a journalist at heart and I also podcast and I also did a podcast about it called the King of Kowloon, but it was always a book first, just because I think maybe as a journalist I write to process and I always just envisaged it as a book. I think also, maybe because it became quite a complex work and I think it works better in a book form for that reason.
ASTRID: This has been published in the United States, correct? I've also seen it reviewed in the United States. What does it mean for you as a person to have your work, quite a complex work as you say, published around the world and getting attention? Because as listeners of The Garret know, books can get published and no one can read them.
LOUISA: It's important for me, but not for me personally, just that more people should think about Hong Kong and understand what this city has been through. After those massive protests in 2019, after the national security legislation was introduced, Hong Kong has really fallen off the international radar. And I think one reason is that it's become dangerous to write about Hong Kong. The national security legislation is applied around the world, so it doesn't matter where you are. You could still find that you are contravening it just by writing about Hong Kong.
We see fewer and fewer news stories about Hong Kong or even opinion pieces, and it was important for me that this book be read just so more people could understand what had happened to this city and this huge extraordinary protest movement that spanned society, old and young, all kinds of people that just disappeared and was totally suppressed. How that happened, I think is something that we haven't quite come to terms with. I think COVID really meant that people... In a way, COVID really helped the Chinese government suppress the protest movement because it gave them reasons to stop people gathering.
And then Hong Kong was under a COVID-zero regime far longer than the rest of the world. So it was very hard for people to leave Hong Kong. It was hard for people to come in. It was hard for people to do any reporting and in that way, it's just fallen off the international radar. Yet this is a really important story because it's a story about how freedom can be lost and how easy it is for that to happen even in this world, which we think of as very connected and very... We think of Hong Kong as an international... A global city, which is a trade centre, and yet even a city like that can be changed so dramatically, can be transformed over a couple of years and nobody does anything about it.
ASTRID: You're a journalist, Louisa. Did you think about the potential personal consequences for you in publishing this?
LOUISA: I couldn't not think about them. I guess after I wrote my first book about China, I realised it would be very hard for me to go back to China. And then when we went to live in Hong Kong, my children said, ‘Oh Mum, we really like Hong Kong. Don't say anything bad about Hong Kong’. And I said, ‘No, it's fine. You can say whatever you like about Hong Kong. It's never going to happen. And then of course, the national security legislation changed everything. And the day it came out, I knew that it would be hard for me to write the book that I wanted to write and return to Hong Kong.
I made the decision that I would write the book that I wanted to write regardless of what it meant for me, that it was more important for me to write the book that I needed to write because I didn't want to be bound by the idea that if I said this, maybe I'll be able to go back. But if I said that, then maybe I wouldn't. I just decided that's it. I probably won't be going back to Hong Kong for a long time and it was an incredibly difficult thing to do, but also, it was important for me to do that, I think, to write the book that I needed to write.
ASTRID: I'm selfishly very glad that you wrote the book that you needed to write. I think it is a book that many of us need to read and I confess Louisa, in 2022 when Indelible City was first published, I read the other book about China that was published last year by a former Prime Minister, and I guarantee you that I did not understand that book, but I learned a great deal about people and geopolitics and journalism from Indelible City.
LOUISA: Oh, thank you.
ASTRID: Final question, and I am going to bring it back to prizes because... Well, because I'm really interested. You have been shortlisted for the Walkley Book Award for this work. Now, that is a journalism award. The Stella is a literary prize. You work in academia. Does academia care? And how do you process different parts of the industry or different parts of your life all recognising the same work?
LOUISA: It's been fantastic for me to get any shortlistings for any award. And to be honest, it is a surprise because it's a very particular kind of book and I think not the kind of book which is easily recognised. Non-fiction books tend not to do that well in awards, particularly literary awards. It's been lovely to have that recognition, both from journalists and the Stella. I think the Stella's a bit different from other book awards. It has a name brand recognition that I think other awards don't have. Academia tends to think that it is above awards. And yet, once I was longlisted for the Stella, people who normally look down on me because I'm merely a journalist, started to be very nice to me and people just started to talk to me when they never had before.
So to that extent, it's been good, but I don't write and I've never written in order to... For me, it's not been a case of writing a book to think, ‘Oh, could this win an award? Could this be shortlisted?’ Because that's not my aim. My aim lies elsewhere, I guess.
ASTRID: Louisa, I'm pretty sure that if anyone sits down to write a prize winner, they don't end up with a prize winner. Louisa, this has been delightful. Thank you so much and congratulations again on Indelible City.
LOUISA: Oh, thank you so much for having me. It's been so much fun.