Politics Thoughts on Writing

The click of the lid of a perfectly made box

At the start of the Cultural Revolution, when hardliners seized control of his studio, noted film director Hu Xiaofeng (胡小峰)  soon discovered there was no longer any room for subtle storytelling; in place was the duty to pound out propaganda: “throughout one film, I already constantly sought to portray the proletariat in the best possible light. Yet in the last scene, the higher-ups still forced me to get the actors to repeat ‘workers of the world unite, for we are stronger together’ several times over. So totally unnecessary.”

I’m not unacquainted with the self-disgust that comes from having a hand in producing communist hogwash, for I once worked for a CCP-related media outfit (I also spent a decade working in mainland China). So, I know for a fact that for me at least, proximity to power can’t compensate for Hu’s type of misgiving: I was meant for something better than this.

It follows that in my book, despite the political risks and low pay, writing for Apple Daily is a step up, not a step down.

Blame my recalcitrance as a CCP subject on my education, on the total freedom I was given when working on my thesis at Oxford. Michael Polanyi, the philosopher whose work was the focus of my study, compares intellectual discovery to “consisting of a whole chain of consecutive steps with an arch, where every stone depends for its stability on the presence of others, and (paradoxically) the stones are in fact put in one at a time”; in constructing my own understanding of Polanyi, I braved through this building process myself. And once I’ve known the odd pleasure of wrestling with a problem and the satisfaction of resolving it, it’s difficult not to more or less measure subsequent life experiences by how well I can recapture that state of rapture. This mental footing I can achieve at Apple Daily, but not at any CCP-related organization.

Because as a writer, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing all the elements of a piece falling into place fortuitously – WB Yeats likens what happens at the finishing line to “the click(ing) of the lid of a perfectly made box” – by extension, I’m not surprised by life’s many coincidences. So, it seems perfectly natural to me that (1) Jimmy Lai also happens to like Polanyi (who is a rather obscure figure in the philosophy world); (2) it is at the paper he founded that I’m able to continue the intellectual quest that Polanyi has launched for me; (3) in my job application letter to Jimmy, I was able to establish immediate rapport by citing Polanyi.

And now, there’s this happy accident that the letter can double up as a fitting ending to this column. Even though the note was written a few months ago, when Hong Kong’s political situation had yet to deteriorate into its present state – even though it was sent when Jimmy was not yet in prison – as I re-read it now, I remain unwavered in my belief that the upturn in fortunes I alluded to in my letter is still in the cards. But most of all, I’m simply relieved that because Apple Daily still exists, I can write freely and therefore am still spared of that hapless film director’s fate.

Dear Jimmy,

I once read that you took the trouble to try to read Michael Polanyi.

I remember this fact about you very clearly, because I did my masters thesis at Oxford on Polanyi. I remember being very surprised that someone like you would attempt something as impractical as tackling Polanyi’s dense text. Reading philosophy is so unfashionable in Hong Kong, and Polanyi isn’t even mainstream philosophy.

Did you know Polanyi didn’t do philosophy until he was in his 50s? He switched from chemistry to philosophy, a huge leap. He later became a Fellow at Merton College, Oxford. There his work was coolly received, partly because longtime philosophers regarded him as an oddball who had the temerity to invade their turf.

After graduation I worked in media and PR in mainland China for 10 years. I then returned to Hong Kong, and have since been writing for independent news outlets like 眾新聞 and Hong Kong Free Press. The thing about Polanyi that has stayed with me throughout the years is: never be afraid to travel off the beaten path.

My desire to write for the English edition of Apple Daily is my latest act of nonconformity. It stems from my belief that China won’t stay this way forever, that I can afford to wait till it liberalizes again – when it does, I will go back to share my knowledge, and my stint at Apple Daily, which took place when it was at its most downtrodden, will be an asset, a badge of honor.

Thanks for keeping Apple Daily running, so that (among other things) oddballs like me can “有訂去”

I'm Michelle Ng (吳若琦), an Oxford-educated bilingual political writer and English writing coach based in Hong Kong. I'm currently an English columnist for Apple Daily and Ming Pao, and a Chinese columnist for 眾新聞. I have written for Hong Kong Free Press, The Wall Street Journal and The Vancouver Sun. 

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