Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Insider’s Guide to Hong Kong Life and Reality

Written by: on June 14, 2015

Before leaving for South Africa last fall, I sought out several novels by local authors. The first I landed on was by Nobel Prize winning novelist Nadine Gordimer. In her haunting novel, July’s People, set in the time of black uprisings across South Africa in the 1980s, we witness the unsettled reality of South Africa captured in the story of the Smales family, wealthy Afrikaners, as they escape from the “Riots, arson (and) bombs in public buildings” and the “chronic state of uprising all over the country.”[i]Secreted into the village of their faithful servant July, the Smales hope to weather the political storms. So begins the awkw51go50VAkAL._UY250_ard existence for the Smales family as guests in the rural huts of July and his family. Equally awkward is the adjustment for July with his boss’s invasion of the only place where he had di
gnity and power. July painfully attempts to serve his boss while realizing that he is now fully responsible for his boss’s safety and survival. Bam Smales is now powerless, but as a wealthy white man, he still maintains a status that demands attention. The question asked in this novel is how was this new reality supposed to work? Who is really in control? And who is serving whom?

This one novel provided me with tremendous insights into the confusion, tensions and many of the important issues facing the people of South Africa. It is this subtle and insightful lens into real life of the people, the culture, the issues and the history of this new place that is uniquely available through the artistic creations. There is nothing better to give you the taste and flavor of a different culture beyond actually being there. I learned this a long time ago, through my early passion in high school for all things “Europe” – it was my dream to return to Switzerland that I had visited with my family when I was in Jr. High. I discovered (through my passion for reading) that there were an abundance of European authors available that allowed me to enter and live in this part of the world that so captivated my imagination. I could live overseas vicariously through these authors, as well as learn about daily life and issues faced by the people. Even more than history books, I found fiction was able to take me deeper into the actual lives and everyday existence of the people, to better understand and empathize with their particular struggles, issues, and heartaches that are only hinted at in the headlines.

It is this insider’s take on the life and culture that we find in Hong Kong Culture: World and Image.[ii] It suggests that art (performance as well as plastic), film, and literature (both poetry and story) are windows into this unique and strangely fascinating corner of the world. The arts, these essays suggest, are uniquely situated to enlighten the outsider about this society that is experiencing radical changes in the midst of highly conflicted historical memories, while facing a uncertain future with trepidation. It is a multilingual, multiethnic, multi-religious, and multi-political location that is far from settled because of its geographical location and its place in the clash of empires. What Hong Kong Culture suggests is that neither the headlines or even historical knowledge of Hong Kong, can begin to describe what it is like to live within the tension, the contradictions and the uncertainty of this small territory.

What makes Hong Kong so uniquely fascinating? Listen how the various artists describe this place: It is a state of limbo. For others it is “city-village of the world” which wants to live in “a global collective imagination”(loc. 2203). Another uses the metaphor of an “astronaut” or someone living between two places or in no place (loc. 2125). They sense being surrounded physically by a large empire that is both “claustrophobic, but may also be sheltering”(loc. 1680). Sadly, another suggests “disbelief that Hong Kong could be thought of as home”(loc. 1639). The culture of Hong Kong is “diverse and complete” with “local practices enriched by Chinese, Asian and International influences”(loc. 304). It is a place haunted by memories of Tiananmen Square, that occurred on the doorstep of Hong Kong’s returning to Chinese rule, while being further haunted by the fifty year deadline when one nation-two systems will become one nation-one system. It is a land in flux, filled with uncertainty and insecurity, attempting to figure out the past while seeking to anticipate the future. It is a conflicted and intriguing land filled with diverse peoples trying to find their way in a totally uncertain tomorrow.Unknown

It is in this fascinating and chaotic world that requires more than journalist and historians to capture. Artist, be they poets, novelist, painters, cinematographers or actors can best give us understand about what it means to live within these tensions, because they allow us to experience the tensions and fears, the hopes and frustrations of those who live behind the headlines and history books. As I prepare to visit Hong Kong, I again will seek out novelist and story tellers, to better understand the lives and cultures of this new world I am about to experience. I believe that in their pages, I can better know the reality their lives. (In fact, I’ve obtained my first book for Hong Kong: The Piano Teacher by Janice Lee. I can’t wait to start listening and learning.)

[i] Nadine Gordimer, July’s People (New York: Penguin Books, 1981), 7, Kindle.

[ii] Kam Louie, Hong Kong Culture: Word and Image (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010).

About the Author

John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.

11 responses to “Insider’s Guide to Hong Kong Life and Reality”

  1. John, great work here that you have done on this last of our books in this program. You have captured the essence of Hong Kong with its state of limbo. It brings me back to the thinking of Hjalmarson and his liminal space. Could it be just as the American church is finding itself in a place of liminality that as a people, occupying an entire territory such as Hong Kong, is facing the same place of liminality? Caught between the tension and drama of Tiananmen Square and the return to a one country one system policy does create liminal space with much drama to witness on a global scale. Wonderful writing John. I can certainly tell over the last two years how your writing and thought patterns have only increased. I believe I would have to refer to you as an academic at this point. 🙂 The Piano Teacher looks like a good read. I am currently re-listening to the Count of Monte Cristo. One of my all time favorites by Alexandre Dumas. I might have to check into the Piano Teacher afterwards. See you soon roomie!

    • John Woodward says:

      Mitch, thanks for your very kind words…and for all your encouragement over the last two years! God blessed me with an awesome roommate the beginning of this journey. I’ve appreciated your insights and what you are doing for the work of the Lord. I had Dumas on my “to read list” – someday I will venture into “the Count” – maybe when I finish my dissertation. Keep up the great work, Brother! And Godspeed on your writing this next semester!

  2. Ashley Goad says:

    John, I loved reading your blog right after you posted it. It took me on a trip through memories of South Africa, and all that we saw and experienced. What a beautiful place, yet so much of its history and its people haunt me. The conflicting feelings of grace with unhealed wounds pained me and etched the hurt into my heart.

    I love your approach to a new place and culture! On my first visit to Uganda, I asked the literature teacher to recommend a few books…but I never ordered any of them! Shame on me! Now I can’t wait to hear your review and summary of The Piano Teacher. I expect a full report as we’re sitting on a beach in Phuket with a fruity drink!

    Having read at least a little bit now, what are you looking forward to most about Hong Kong? I have this picture in my mind of a simply “confused” culture… I’m interested to see what it really IS like.

    So here we are, John! Our final blog! Can you believe it? Happy Father’s Day to you… See you SOON!

    • John Woodward says:

      Thanks Ashley for your very kind words. You are always so encouraging! I am always asking wherever I go about the local writers. I am so glad I speak English because more often than not, you can find translations. But it is such a wonderful window into real life of the culture. What am I looking forward to in Hong Kong – humm, I am still trying to piece that together. Mitch’s description of the harbor has me pretty pump…but, I am curious to see how visible and tactile the tensions are there, and the fears and worries about the future. The riots recently suggest that they are very much on the surface. It will also be interesting to see if there is any hope in the midst of these tension. Yes, a very strange and interesting world we are visiting. I am much more excited now about visiting then I was a year ago!

      Lookinf forward to the beech and sights of Phuket especially.

      Best wishes on your writing over the next few months. You are in my prayers!

  3. Deve Persad says:

    John, thank you for sharing this journey with me. Your insights week to week penetrate deeply to places. You are able to articulate sentences about ideas that I can barely think about. In terms of Hong Kong, you said: “It is a conflicted and intriguing land filled with diverse peoples trying to find their way in a totally uncertain tomorrow.” This is so interesting to me, because I see it as a direction for our own communities and therefore I have a great interest in observing, listening and learning.

    I’ll look forward to sharing that experience with you, one more time, in Hong Kong.

    • John Woodward says:

      Deve, as always, you have a way penetrating and apply ideas. I think you are right – so often where are churches are at are in places of “unknown” – very much speaking to Len’s articles last week. Hong Kong might provide us some great insights in how to deal with these tensions (if not some good sermon illustrations!). Looking forward to being with you and the cohort again. Hope your dissertation is having a successful launch! Keep up the good work, Deve.

  4. John,

    You are a brilliant man and this is a brilliant post! Thanks for sharing, especially for sharing about the way you learn about new cultures through novels. What a great idea!

    You write, “It is a land in flux, filled with uncertainty and insecurity, attempting to figure out the past while seeking to anticipate the future. It is a conflicted and intriguing land filled with diverse peoples trying to find their way in a totally uncertain tomorrow.” So this is where we will all be back together in a mere three months! Amazing. Frankly, I have mixed feelings about this trip. Most of my thoughts are positive and I am looking forward to our cohort’s reunion, our sharing research, and seeing our profs and advisors. But I also have some fears as well. I have never been to Asia, so this seems so new and wild. But after reading Liz’s post, I was convinced that it will all be OK after all. This is a very important place. What a privilege to say that we have been there. I look forward to being with you again, my friend.

    • John Woodward says:

      Bill, I am amazed at how many of our cohort has no experience with the Far East (you, me, Ashley…). It is going to be a learning experience, but you know me, I love the adventure! I thought Mitch’s post was helpful too in describing the harbor — it is something I could actually grab onto (from my past experiences). Looking forward to being with you and the others. For now, best wishes as you put pen to paper for your dissertation. (P.S. The plug arrived…thanks!)

      • Yes, this is amazing to me too. I hope it will be filled with good surprises.

        Glad the charger arrived.

        Good luck on your dissertation project as well. I pray that we would all make the time to get it done. It will take a lot of discipline. Keep me posted.

  5. Liz Linssen says:

    Dear John
    Your blog is such a great read. I’m very impressed by how you will be reading additional books in readiness for Hong Kong. That’s a great idea. I do wish we’d had more reading assigned on international leaders from different countries. I’m sure there’s so much to learn from leaders from various cultures.
    Very much looking forward to our time in HK and the scheduled visits. Should be a great time of learning.

  6. John…
    Thank you for such a rich post. Your idea to read novels in preparation is brilliant and expresses so well what we have often talked about (and you applied) — the crucial aspect of story. If you come up with other novels to read about Hong Kong will you post them in our FB group?

    And there was also this… “windows,” it didn’t quite jump “off” the page but it did jump “out.” Our reading last week did give us a window, several actually from which we might more accurately see and understand this place we will visit come September. That word alone resonates for me, and will resonate in the coming weeks. What am I expecting to see and what will I see?

    Thank you John for your good work, so grateful to journey with you.

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