City on Fire: a review

By Heath Chamerski
Photo by Piqsels

City On Fire: The Fight For Hong Kong

Anthony Dapiran

Scribe Publications

“Be like water”

Those three words were an oft-repeated inspirational motto of late martial arts legend Bruce Lee. Like water, we must flow through life, and adapt as we move forward; we must be shapeless and formless as we face the challenges of our daily existence.

Lee’s wise words carried a longer legacy than he ever could have imagined. Adopted by the people of Hong Kong in 2019, decades after Lee’s death his words helped to inspire an intense uprising. The people of Hong Kong staged fierce opposition to the controversial Hong Kong Extradition Bill, which, if implemented, would grant mainland China more political power in the region and also swiftly silence any dissidence. These protests quickly turned into a major conflict that had serious ramifications for the entire world.

In Antony Dapiran’s absorbing book City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong, we see how a shocking 2018 murder in Taiwan was one of the main catalysts of the protests. The murder was committed by a Hong Kong citizen who fled back home immediately after the crime. Due to the lack of any existing extradition treaty between Hong Kong, China and Taiwan, the guilty party found themselves in legal limbo, unable to be extradited and prosecuted.

Dapiran, an Australian lawyer and writer, who is a long-time resident of Hong Kong, has produced an incredible piece of non-fiction. He gives those unfamiliar with the reasons behind the protests a step-by-step breakdown of the history and simmering anger which led to violence on the streets. As well as being incredibly informative, Dapiran is a telling witness. He describes his own participation in the revolt, giving us a palpable sense of what it’s like to be caught in the middle of a tear gas cloud or how it feels to be pummelled by a water cannon.

It makes for an often horrifying read, as Dapiran switches to the first person when describing the chaos that he observes on the streets. Dapiran also looks back at the preceding political protests that took place in the region in 2014, in which the Umbrella Movement rallied against reforms to the political system. Every important aspect of both the 2014 and 2019 conflicts is covered here, from examining the financial struggles of modern-day Hong Kong to the controversial public opinion of its chief executive Carrie Lam.

The 2019 protests are seen as a revival and continuation of the work started by the Umbrella Movement, but despite the author’s sympathies for the people of Hong Kong, he doesn’t completely deify them. The protesters carrying out mass destruction at the Legislative Council Complex (LegCo) building is one such event where even the protesters admit they may have gone too far. One of their repeated slogans, and one far less benevolent than “Be like water” is “If we burn, you burn with us”. A quotation borrowed from The Hunger Games, which shows the lengths they were willing to go to win the fight.

Interestingly, we don’t really get to know any of the dissidents on a personal level, with the author declining to do interviews with them for the most part and treating them more as a collective. This is how they wish to be seen, as one of their objectives is to be a leaderless entity. So, while we might not get to know the individuals behind the masks, we are always acutely aware of what it is they’re fighting for and what is at stake.

But it’s not just the honest take on Hong Kong politics that makes City on Fire compelling; it is also brimming with little known details. These range from accounts of how the local MTR public transport system became a political pawn to how fishballs, a street food which is often seen as working-class cuisine, became an unlikely symbol of the protests. It is these details which Dapiran peppers throughout which put his work above a lot of political non-fiction.

Dapiran also acknowledges that this is an ongoing battle. With the situation still playing out on the streets of Hong Kong, the author never assumes to have all the answers and refuses to predict how it might all end up. Instead, he is merely a witness to this historic event and wants to tell it as he sees it.

City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong is harrowing, exhaustively researched and expertly crafted. Dapiran covers 50 years of Hong Kong history while also skilfully illustrating all aspects of an ever-evolving conflict that seemingly still has many more chapters left to play out.