Updated: Apr 25, 2020
Annie laughed shyly as she admits that she is quite a fervent follower of TVB drama series. Like many other Hong Kong families, her daily dinner routine includes turning on the TV at 7:30 pm to watch her popular TVB dramas. Face facing the dishes in front of her, hands holding her bowl or rice, her eyes are locked on the TV. Earlier in our discussion about what Hong Kong history entails, Japanese invasion never entered her recollection of the past. “Hong Kong never had war” she plainly said, after hesitatingly listing very few big fat names of historical events. That is before I carefully dropped the term “Japanese occupation” in front of her, to which she responded with a stupefied astonishment, “oh yeah!” but her amusement quickly died down, and the conversation moved forward... After all, as she bluntly puts it, “what good does know about Hong Kong history do to you?” She had watched many TVB hits, including No Regrets, a period drama that is set in the times of turmoil when Japan ruled canton. In between the lines, it is made clear that Hong Kong also fell under the hands of the Japanese and the Canton family, along with their relatives in Hong Kong, are all struggling to survive under the tyrant rule. “So you learned about Japanese occupation in primary school, and you saw it enacted in TVB dramas, but you would not associate Japanese invasion with Hong Kong?” “No, because we learned Japanese invasion and all the, you know, wars in Chinese history, and so I associate wars with China, not Hong Kong. Even if the invasion on screen takes place in Hong Kong, I would see it as something that happened somewhere up there (China), not here (Hong Kong).”
Isn’t it strange that Annie could spontaneously unsee what is there? But what struck me harder, perhaps, was my sense of familiarity with her story, the twisted logic that I found so congruous within my cognitive system. I could see myself being in the same situation, undertaking the same process of automatically assigning the epic story to space “somewhere up there” that is not Hong Kong. As strange as it might seem, this is precisely the example of a Hong Kong phenomenon observed by Abbas, which he calls the reverse hallucination (1997:7). Given that hallucination implies seeing something that does not exist, the reversal of this mental process means not seeing what exists. According to Abbas, the idea that Hong Kong can have a culture remained foreign to the locals until the penultimate decade of British colonial rule. The term “cultural desert” was, and still is, a popular way for Hong Kong people to describe their city which they believe has no culture at all. The trademark gravity-defying skyscrapers that make up its internationally renowned skyline, the Hong Kong cinema that was once dubbed “Hollywood East” and even the family dinner routine with TVB are all signs of culture; Yet, all of these that exist are not acknowledged as culture per se. “This city has no culture” is for sure an eyebrow-raising claim for many social anthropologists because claiming that Hong Kong has no culture is a culture itself. Furthermore, as shown in Annie’s story, this negative attitude is no longer confined within the discussions about Hong Kong’s cultural scene but is extended to the city’s history too. To understand this culture of negative hallucination in history brings us a step further from what Abbas observed in the status of culture, for it looks at how we remember history which involves a study that combines time and cognition. This is what Zerubavel champions in his book Time Maps, where he seeks to study a societal representation of the past, that is, “to depict how we map the way time flows in our mind” (2003: xii).
While there are personal memories that no one else knows, there are also memories that are commonly shared among a group of people. Halbwachs’ seminal piece “On Collective Memory” is one of the first works to explore the social dimensions of our allegedly free memory. He argues that human memory is fundamental, if not wholly, rooted in and structured by the present social need. Apart from dreams, all memories are collectively and socially constructed. Our memory for things we did not experience is historical memories that festive occasions and commemorations helped us to remember. Even our memory for things we experienced is shaped and reinforced by the people that we share that memory with. Otherwise, he argues, we would slowly forget those events. Critics argue that Halbwachs’ overly presentist approach sees the past as snapshots from the “now” and ignores apparent continuities. The study of memory has since then come a long way but what scholars have commonly agreed upon, is the idea that what is remembered, must at the same time be narrated; the narrative is not a perfect copy of everything that has happened, but a highly selective one.