Hong Kong is a paradox. Nowhere else in the world do people have the same level of personal freedoms without the corresponding freedom to choose their own government.
Moving to Hong Kong in 2003, its gleaming skyscrapers and neon lights at first seduced me, but I soon realised that this was a glitzy façade for a city suffering an identity crisis. This was highlighted on July 1st 2003, when half a million people took to the streets, exposing the discontent felt by Hong Kongers towards their own politicians and China’s leaders in Beijing.
A decade on and Beijing’s financial overtures and patriotic coercion have somewhat subdued the general public, repairing the veneer of a prosperous harmonious city. But as the events of LESSONS IN DISSENT show, they have not resolved the underlying identity crisis fuelling the discontent: seven million people grappling with what it means to be ‘Hong Kong Chinese’ in post- 1997 Hong Kong.
The story of two teenage boys, Joshua and Ma Jai, stood out to me as a vehicle for exploring the Hong Kong identity fifteen years after the Handover. They were so young, and were potentially sacrificing promising futures for a cause many believed already to be lost. I wanted to understand what would make two boys undertake such as Herculean task when they both stood to loose so much personally. I hope the telling of Joshua and Ma Jai’s story will help Hong Kongers find an answer to, “What does it mean to be ‘Hong Kong Chinese’ in post-1997 Hong Kong?”.
Matthew Torne, born 1980, was educated at the University of Kent and Oxford University, UK, and studied film production at the Hong Kong Film Academy. In 2002 Matthew Torne went to Beijing to teach English at China University of Political Science and Law.
When SARS broke out in 2003, in a matter of days the university administration went from denying there was a problem to closing the university and strongly recommending he left China. Panic gripped Beijing when rumours began circulating that rather than close the airports the government would ban the sale of airline tickets. Using all the money he had, he bought a ticket out of Beijing to go to Hong Kong, starting a relationship with all things Hong Kong.
Fascinated by the July 1st 2003 protest he began to read voraciously on Article 23 and Hong Kong’s political system. Returning to the UK two years later to work in the media industry his love of all things Hong Kong never diminished; he took Cantonese evening classes and he continued to read up on Hong Kong’s history and political development, eventually culminating in a Masters degree in Modern Chinese studies at Oxford University, for which he wrote his dissertation on Hong Kong’s post-1997 political development and the possible options for democratic reform.
Wanting to reach a much wider audience than the readership of academic papers and realising that 2012 would be a unique year in Hong Kong, with both the Chief Executive and Legislative Council elections taking place, in 2011 he came to Hong Kong to begin researching a possible documentary. After meeting Ma Jai and Joshua, he knew he had two interesting characters and all he could do was hope that 2012 would be an eventful year.
He embarked on filming Lessons in Dissent without funding in place, after all historical events do not wait for funding partners, the film was funded bit by bit; often with only just enough to cover the up coming expenses as funders came on board. Money spent on accommodation and subsistence was money that could not be spent on the film, thus Matthew spent much of 2012 living in a sub-divided flat in Sham Shui Po and eating congee. Luckily he developed a healthy taste for ngau yuk cheuk (beef congee).
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