Hong Kong TV takes on the missing bookseller scandal – Cameron White
In mid-October, I was swiping through the news when a headline caught my eye: “RTHK’s Below the Lion Rock 2018 Season Opener to Revisit Causeway Bay Books Incident.” That may read like standard entertainment news, but it was anything but. RTHK – a government-financed channel – had adapted one of the most sensitive events in recent Hong Kong memory.
In 2015, five Hong Kongers went missing. They worked at Causeway Bay Books, a store known to sell tomes critical of China’s top leaders. One of men was allegedly taken from Hong Kong; if those accusations were true, it implied a violation of One Country, Two Systems, the principle supposed to guarantee Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy until 2047.
After the men resurfaced in 2016, four confessed to illegally shipping banned books to the mainland, while Lee Bo (李波), the one last seen in Hong Kong, claimed he had “resorted to illegal immigration” into China to help with an investigation. The Hong Kong public reacted with disbelief. Many saw saw the confessions as staged, but the booksellers avoided the limelight. Two returned to Hong Kong long enough to close their missing person cases, and later Lee did as well, telling reporters, “I want to forget the past and start afresh. I am starting another page in my life.”
Then came Lam Wing-kee (林榮基). Returning to Hong Kong in June of 2016, at first it seemed he would follow the example of his colleagues and quickly return to the mainland. Yet two days later, he held a press conference at the city’s Legislative Council complex to detail his mainland detention. According to Lam, he had been allowed to return to Hong Kong on the condition that after two days, he would to go back to the mainland with a hard disk containing the addresses of former bookstore customers. Now he would do no such thing.
Lam had initially followed along with the plan. He was still under investigation in the mainland, and he might cause trouble if he didn’t comply. But at some point during those two days in Hong Kong, he realized there were larger forces at work. “This isn’t about me, this isn’t about a bookstore, this is about everyone,” he said. “This is Hongkongers’ bottom line – Hongkongers will not bow down before brute force.”
In the two years since Lam’s speech, elected lawmakers have been disqualified from participating in the city’s legislator; a political party was banned for advocating independence; and a controversial national security law now looms in the background. Thus, the news that RTHK would adapt Lam’s story for local TV seemed a unique moment for Hong Kongers to reflect on their political situation in a very public way.
Adding further significance was the episode’s status as the season opener for Below the Lion Rock (獅子山下), an anthology series running intermittently since the 1970s. Unlike other local TV dramas that have projected Hong Kong glamor to the Chinese-speaking world, Below the Lion Rock started as a voice for the poor and disenfranchised; early subjects included Vietnamese refugees and boat-dwelling fishermen. The show’s title song also holds a special place in the city’s heart, sung everywhere from political protests to nationalistic TV galas.
While recent episodes of Below the Lion Rock have tried to keep pace with Hong Kong’s zeitgeist, none has the same ripped-from-the-headlines quality as ‘Dingfungbo’ (定風波), the episode focusing on Lam Wing-kee. Buzz leading up to the premiere far outpaced that for other installments of the series, with journalists detailing the director’s difficulties finding actors and sets and RTHK’s bravery for supporting the episode.
Reading the hype and remembering the event on which the episode is based, I tuned in to the premiere expecting drama – fast cuts, impassioned protesters and strident political statements. Yet ‘Dingfungbo’ resists that temptation and finds a tone absent from the bookseller media coverage.
The episode begins with Lam’s re-entry to Hong Kong. Local immigration officials are shocked by his sudden appearance and probe him for information. “I am safe now,” he tells them, keeping his eyes down. “I don’t need your help.” In spite of these assurances, he proceeds into the city as a muted figure, barely looking around him as he takes the MTR to a hotel chosen by his mainland minders.
The rest of the episode hinges on a single question: Will Lam take the harddrive back to the mainland as directed? The show’s audience – who are largely in Hong Kong – know the answer, but the screenwriter and director, Dunet Chan (陳上城), maintains the suspense by focusing on Lam’s psychological journey toward epiphany.
To help the audience understand how Lam went from compliance to resistance, Chan makes admirable use of the city. In between dialogue scenes of Lam weighing his moral dilemma with family members and former colleagues, we see him wandering Hong Kong alone. Particularly evocative are shots of Lam passing fortune tellers and street karaoke in Yau Ma Tei, as well as his progress through the bustling Temple Street market. With each successive scene, we see Lam gradually open up to his home.
“Hong Kong people do not just follow the rules by kneeling down in front of authority” – Dunet Chan
I reached out to Chan, the director, to learn more about the episode’s inception. He told me that in order to adapt Lam’s story, he spoke to the bookseller on multiple occasions so he could understand his state of mind during his detention. “It was worse than prison,” Chan explained. “There was no sentence, no notion of period of time. He could stay there his whole life and not know the consequence.”
Going from that level of isolation to the hubbub of Hong Kong was a necessarily disorienting experience. Lam also hadn’t followed the news in months, and in a short period of time, he began diving back into newspapers and TV. Chan echoes this reacclimation by interspersing newscast voice-overs throughout ‘Dingfungbo.’ However, he avoided depicting the explosive scenes of Lam’s story that ended up becoming media fodder themselves, erring on the side of nuance. “I am a Chinese art history teacher in Chinese secondary school,” he explained. “I like the subtlety of Chinese art so much. I don’t want the things shown so clearly through dialogue or lots of climaxes.”
I asked about some of the more idiosyncratic scenes, such as when Lam watches a man jog ahead of a police officer, refilling expired parking meters before the policeman can ticket the adjacent cars. Is the jogger being paid to do that, or is he just trying to annoy the police officer?
Chan chuckled. “This is a real thing done by my brother. He likes running so much, and he hates the policemen after the Umbrella Revolution. Every time he sees the policeman about to give a ticket, he refills the meter for them.” Later he added, “My brother is a great example – Hong Kong people do not just follow the rules by kneeling down in front of authority. In some situations, we will look at very small things. It can influence a lot of people and make the situation very different.”
When I asked specifically about censorship fears and RTHK, Chan responded with slight bemusement – this was what everyone kept asking about.
“I am surprised that a lot of people think that we can’t talk about this kind of issue on TV. It is just another episode like ‘Bethanie’ (伯大尼) or ‘Manchi’ (蚊之),” he said, referring to two previous episodes of Beneath the Lion Rock that he directed. “In those previous two, there was not that much coverage, not much interest from the media. It’s surprising to me that people think we were so brave.”
The disparity between how Chan views ‘Dingfungbo’ and how the press has reported it highlights one of the conundrums surrounding media coverage of Chinese censorship. Although it can shine a light on injustice, it can also dominate the narrative, overshadowing the message an artist or activist wanted to convey. Ironically, with ‘Dingfungbo,’ Chan was in part trying to move past the sensational media coverage of Lam Wing-kee.
“There was a lot of news around when he decided to stay in Hong Kong,” he explained, “but after that, no one cared how he was doing. There was some coverage over him wanting to open a bookstore in Taiwan, but now there is only brief coverage of him. I want to show Mr. Lam that Hong Kong people care about him, that we care about this sort of thing.”
Chan admitted there were forces that made the production difficult, but the network, RTHK, remained supportive. “I feel glad and I thank the RTHK staff for making this project become real.”
“Below the Lion Rock started as a voice for the poor and disenfranchised”
I asked if he thought censorship might still be an issue in other parts of Hong Kong’s entertainment industry. He said it was, though not in an explicit sense. He pointed to the example of Ten Years (十年), an anthology film of short vignettes that posit various dystopias for Hong Kong in 2025, ten years from the anthology’s production. Most of the shorts focus on the theme of “mainlandization,” i.e. the process of mainland Chinese customs and culture replacing those of Hong Kong. While Ten Years won Best Film at the Hong Kong Film Awards, many local cinemas refused to screen it.
“A lot of people wanted to see it,” Chan explained. “Every house was full. But because every cinema has business in mainland China, they have to worry about that.”
Nonetheless, Chan felt the lesser threat of censorship at RTHK was all the more reason to make an episode like this. “With this pressure [on television], if we just sit here, the fear will eat us all so easily – the freedom will deteriorate really fast. [‘Dingfungbo’] is a demo or sample, letting people know that we still have the opportunity and space to do what we think is important.”
And what about the title? On a figurative level, ‘Dingfungbo’ means finding the solution to a large problem (literally, “calming the wind and waves”). But Chan also chose it as a reference to a Song dynasty poem of the same name. Written by Su Shi (1037-1101), a writer once imprisoned on political grounds, it describes a journey through heavy wind and rain, with the speaker carrying on in spite of the raging natural forces. Chan found some of the lines deeply evocative of Lam’s situation. Not only did they his mirror his attitude under pressure, but also his decision to return to Hong Kong in spite of the difficulties.
Yet the allusion turned out to be more apt than Chan intended. Just a week before the premiere of ‘Dingfungbo,’ Lam Wing-kee informed the director that he had recited the titular poem to himself while imprisoned. The coincidence moved Chan. To him, it was proof of a connection between two Chinese men of letters. ∎