Book Review: Umbrellas in Bloom



Jason Y. Ng is the author of HONG KONG State of Mind and No City for Slow Men, and has now rounded out a trilogy with Umbrellas in Bloom: Hong Kong’s Occupy Movement Uncovered (all published by Blacksmith Books).

While his previous books simply described modern Hong Kong social dynamics, the latest is explicitly political and an altogether different style than the others. Now that he has written book-length political commentary, Ng has become a crucial player by being first to record the 2014 “Occupy Central” protest movement in any English-language book. It is certainly a must-read.

Umbrellas in Bloom covers a lot of ground. The complex political system of Hong Kong is detailed in very readable fashion, with all the grievances spelled out. Various charts explain how the economy has left the majority of citizens behind, and why so many were upset enough to camp out in protest for all those months. Most of all, the mainland Chinese government is shown to blame for suppressing universal suffrage for the former colony under the so-called “one country, two systems.” Indeed, observers of Beijing and Asia as a whole would do well to read this book and understand the climate of Beijing in relation to Hong Kong.

The language of the book does reflect a specific point of view; do not mistake it as a scholarly, objective report. Ng delves deeply into his unique experiences and certainly takes sides. It makes for a good read, and it’s refreshing that he does not censor himself and expresses his informed opinion with confidence. Perhaps there is an element of preaching to the choir, even getting repetitive at times—“blue ribbon” supporters probably won’t change their minds after reading—but for international readers seeking to understand, the writing style works.

The book is very personal as well. It begins on September 28th, 2014, the day tear gas was fired into crowds as the whole world watched in horror. Then, the tone jumps around as it looks back on the history of Hong Kong politics. The central villain is Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, known as a corrupt stooge of the mainland Chinese government, although the entirety of the Legco system in Hong Kong is highly unrepresentative. As 2017 approached—the promised time for universal suffrage, the Occupy Central movement grew. There was also the Scholarism student movement, led by famous student Joshua Wong (Wong wrote one of the book’s forwards). Then the tale of three villages: the occupied areas of Admiralty, Mongkok, and Causeway Bay. Different ideologies and challenges are showcased, from the police to thugs and internal struggles between different factions and nativists. Some of the most heartwarming sections are about the young people he met, such as Kent and Renee and Hinson, engaging characters all.

In the end, due to a court order of all things, the Admiralty occupation fell. Four days later, on December 15th, the police cleared out the other encampments and the Umbrella Revolution was left to ponder its own legacy. Ng is quite optimistic; surprising considering nothing on paper seemed to get enacted yet, but he does point out that other famous social justice movements throughout history took decades to achieve their goals. His conclusion is definitely that it was worth a try. “The 11 weeks I spent in Umbrellaville were the happiest in all my years in Hong Kong,” he writes. Perhaps the soul of Hong Kong has been changed in subtle ways that are not clear yet, but in the long run history will prove that things did change…

There is so much to learn from Umbrellas in Bloom. However subjective, it is definitely required reading for expats and Sinologists. Whether you were there or only watched on the news from afar, the fallout is still occurring today and enlightened observers should learn what they can.

Highly recommended for all China watchers.

Umbrellas in Bloom is available in Hong Kong bookstores, and can be ordered from Blacksmith Books.

Book Review: No City for Slow Men


Despite Hong Kong’s reputation for being very welcoming to foreigners, it’s not always that easy for expats to deeply understand the city. Hong Kong is famous for its international style, and people from all over the world enjoy the city’s comforts, yet there remains a barrier between the locals and those who hail from other places.

To share the truth about Hong Kong culture with the English-speaking world, Jason Y. Ng — resident blogger and columnist for Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post — has written “No City for Slow Men,” covering every subject an HK-phile could ask for.

Published by Blacksmith Books, the book contains 36 essays and covers a broad range of topics. For some writers, it might be a struggle to have so many chapters and keep the quality high, yet every line of Ng’s prose is well-written and full of crucial information for piecing together the puzzle of Hong Kong’s identity.

Split into three parts, the first section “Our Way of Life” concerns corrupt property tycoons, the culture of taking out loans for expensive watches, and the rise of Taobao. The title piece “No City for Slow Men” is about one of the very first impressions a visitor of the city will have — the high speed of life. Ng laments about the lack of relaxation when he writes, “Hong Kong is charming when it is bustling, but loveliest when it is tranquil.”

The second part, “Our Culture,” contains such topics as Chinese New Year and includes many interesting childhood anecdotes. The autobiographical element starts to seep in, which shows off some of Ng’s best writing. There is more on restaurants and cooking, which is, of course, very important to Chinese culture worldwide, as well as an overview of the history of the city and the famous sites that rapidly changed through generations and development.

Finally, “Our Identity” has some of the most compelling pieces of all. “HKID” says it best: Hong Kong is stuck somewhere between the Chinese mainland and the rest of the world, and that causes a bit of an identity crisis. The tense relationship with the mainland is an important point, reaching new lows with the labeling of mainland tourists as “locusts,” which Ng points out is an undeserved reputation. A letter from a mainland student best expresses the argument against prejudice. Another major theme is the contrast between the lives of expats and locals — with their gambling by way of cards instead of mahjong, the strange sport of rugby and lack of Cantonese fluency.

The plight of the domestic worker is an especially important topic, written about with great heart. The personal stories of abuse and tragedy of Indonesian and Filipino maids are very moving. Ng is certainly a compassionate writer and should be commended for bringing these issues to the public’s attention.

As the book concludes, the final essays cement the autobiographical element. After a piece detailing Ng’s struggles with stuttering in his early life, the penultimate “My Father the Artist” goes over the very man whose illustrations pepper the book. It all ends with a touching interview of the author’s mother.

As an emigrant from Guangdong Province who struggled through years of tumultuous change, from poverty to a happy retirement abroad, she best exemplifies the contradictions that make up the history and identity of Hong Kong. “All these years, mother and son have been swept up in a complicated dance of love and reticence,” Ng writes. “Each aching to reassure the other of their happy existence.”

“No City for Slow Men” is available at bookstores in Hong Kong and on Amazon.