Handover anniversary: Documentarian Sze-Wing Leong on sustaining the Hong Kong voice

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The Sai Ying Pun filmmaker recalls documenting the private lives of Hong Kong people during the handover, listening in on media mogul Jimmy Lai’s meetings and working out of a tiny Third Street apartment

June 30, 1997, was a long day of ceremony. If we had to assign the day a colour, it would be red: red carpets, red lights, red stages and, most importantly, red flags. For a whole day, the entire city glued their eyes to the television taking in every minutiae of the ritualistic transfer of power, lined the harbour in the evening and drank on the streets of Lan Kwai Fong, anticipating the clock striking 12. And when it did, the city itself was transformed – and surely the people were too. And while television coverage, textbooks and photos are instrumental to our understanding of the historic event, they aren’t quite able to capture the complex flux of emotions, thoughts, hopes and anxieties that worked their way through so many lives that year. We know what the politicians thought. But what did the people think?

We speak to Sze-Wing Leong, a Hong Kong documentarian in her 40s, who spent the years leading up to 1997 making a documentary series titled Riding the Tiger for British Channel 4 with her father, well-known filmmaker Po-Chih Leong. The series focused on the daily realities, hopes and fears of various Hong Kong people on the personal level, distinct from the political rhetoric that dominated the airwaves. She and her father ran a small production studio out of a tiny apartment on Sai Ying Pun’s Third Street, not far away from theDesk co-working and events space, editing over 400 hours of footage from 1993 to 1997. “Near the end, I basically lived out of the editing room,” she tells us.

What is remarkable about Riding the Tiger is that, unlike practically all other documentaries covering the handover, Leong and her father were intimately focused on the decidedly ‘unremarkable’, even given the fact that many of her subjects were high-profile. Shot on a low budget, the footage was taken with handheld cameras with little narration, gritty and plain. The father-daughter duo stayed behind the camera while a housewife named Mrs Leung cooked for her family in her Wah Fu Estate home and were also quietly present while business tycoons had breakfast in their mansions. They were flies-on-the-wall when local legislators like Christine Loh had coffees and candid conversations or even when they sang, which was the case for one of the subjects of the documentary, political powerhouse and now the President of Legco, Jasper Tsang. They were even privy to business meetings conducted by Jimmy Lai, the well-known entrepreneur and now-controversial media-man.

While gaining access and trust may seem like an impressive and difficult feat, Leong tells us that it happened ‘organically’. At the time, Leong was working in Hong Kong at Turner Broadcasting after graduating from the University of Cambridge and the film school at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design. She and her father started filming her subjects casually, knowing some personally already, later being approached and funded by Channel 4 to produce a documentary. “We had the advantage because we spoke Cantonese,” she says, adding: “We knew a lot of people. They trusted us.” So, in 1993, she quit her full-time job and dedicated herself to what would become an enormous undertaking: Riding the Tiger.

Leong is of Eurasian descent, fluent in both written and spoken Cantonese as well as English, and is decisively a Hongkonger. She attended the local St Stephen’s School until primary six and then went to the international Island School for secondary school. It’s not difficult to see why a person like her, who’d been constantly bombarded with questions like ‘why is your English/Chinese so good?’ or ‘you look more Chinese/British’ in her youth, would be well-equipped to tackle the complexities that riddle the cultural and political limbo that Hong Kong faced – and still faces now. “Hong Kong is a very big part of my identity,” she says. “Maybe [the series] was a way of exploring that.”

“There was the Chinese voice and there was the British voice. But where was the Hong Kong voice? It’s very hard when you don’t have the bargaining power.”

Asked about why she decided to pick up the camera in the first place, Leong in turn says: “Why do you start something? Because you’re interested. I’m interested in people, what they have to say and what makes them tick.” But on a deeper level, she also saw herself in the complex middle-place in which Hong Kong was situated. “There was a lot of rhetoric about what it meant to be a Hong Kong person, or British, or Chinese, or whether Hong Kong people were Chinese,” she tells us. “It was about identity. I had a lot of questions about who and what I am. It was bringing up some questions for me.”

Leong and her father saw the series as a project to provide a voice for the vast majority of the Hong Kong population, who frankly, it could be argued, didn’t have much of one. “There was the Chinese voice and there was the British voice. But where was the Hong Kong voice?” she asks. “It’s very hard when you don’t have the bargaining power.” Speaking of the Hong Kong people, she tells us: “They’re very strong. You’ve gotta be strong to go through something like that. I don’t know many other places who’ve been through something similar.”

The documentary follows ‘how people tried to continue their lives and what it was like’. “Did some people think ahead or stay in the present?” she explains, adding that: “It was their humanity that was the story, set against the backdrop of the handover.” She tells us that the ‘thoughtful’ Jasper Tsang was ‘excited about reunification, even though he had doubts’. “Jimmy Lai seemed focused on what Hong Kong needed to put in place in order for everything to succeed, such as the rule of law. Christine Loh was doing that as well,” she adds. “There were times when Jimmy was feeling not-so-great about the handover, as were many people.”

Speaking of the atmosphere of the private realities Leong was privy to, she recalls that ‘people were emotionally invested’. “How could you not be?” she asks, adding: “It was a very strange time.” She believes despite common conceptions, the people of Hong Kong were passionate, strong and politically engaged, something that perhaps wasn’t captured through mainstream media. “A lot of people said ‘they’re just gonna get on with it’.” she tells us. “That is also a form of strength.”

While Leong relocated to California in 2009, she still holds a special admiration and respect for the people of the city. “Hong Kong people are tough. They’re kind. They’ve got good hearts. And they’re still strong.” She hasn’t been back in town for a couple of years but remembers her studio on Third Street and apartment on High Street with great fondness. “There used to be this fantastic Chinese restaurant on the corner,” she recalls. “The chef cooked the most amazing fish. I salivate thinking about it.” Indeed, the myriad of eateries in the area features heavily in her memory of Sai Ying Pun. “It has changed a lot. A lot of that local stuff is gone,” she reminisces, adding: “Oh my god, so good. I miss it.”

Today, Leong continues to work in the film industry and looks back on the handover as a reminder of her own complex identity. “The handover brought back a lot of questions for me,” she says, adding: “I was thinking about what it meant to be a Hong Kong person. Their voices are loud and clear, but ours are not.” When asked whether or not the experience of the handover, making the documentary and interacting with her subjects for years informed her own self-questioning, Leong pauses, then tells us: “I’m still trying to figure that one out. I’m sure it did.” As the 20 year mark hits, Leong, along with the rest of us, still have plenty of time to figure it all out. After all, as her documentary proves, things are not cut and dry or black or white. Hong Kong is city built on questions and we’re grateful to Leong for giving us a small piece of an answer that maybe we’ll never reach.

By Grace Fung

Watch Riding The Tiger on YouTube:

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