Gina Anne Tam reviews The 70’s Biweekly: Social Activism and Alternative Cultural Production in 1970s Hong Kong

The 70’s Biweekly: Social Activism and Alternative Cultural Production in 1970s Hong Kong. Edited by Lu Pan. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2023. ISBN : 978-988-8805-70-9. 250.00 HKD

We wanted to write our own history, run our own lives, and determine our own destiny.” Mok Chiu-yu, longtime activist, artist, and founder of the independent leftist magazine 70s 年代 (The 70s Biweekly) remembers 1970s Hong Kong as a time of possibility. Having come of age after World War Two, many young people like him found themselves “disenchanted” with the world around them: they lived in a space in which they were undemocratically ruled by a nominally democratic United Kingdom, while their families came from a nominally egalitarian revolutionary new China that sustained many of the inequities of the previous regime. Yet their recognition of the injustices that shaped their world did not make them cynical. “We did not want to be one dimensional, accepting ‘what is’ and forgetting ‘what ought to be.’” (viii) Animated by anarchism and Trotskyism, drawn to the Avant Garde and the erotic subversive, and inspired by the student activists in Japan and France and anti-colonial struggles in Vietnam and South Africa, these Hongkongers saw their home as a canvas—not a blank space, but rather a flawed portrait they wished to paint over and transform for the better.

Mok represents an important yet often understudied group in 1970s Hong Kong. It is his generation of thinkers and writers, reflected through the publication they founded, that constitutes the subject of The 70s Biweekly: Social Activism and Alternative Cultural Production in 1970s Hong Kong, a new volume edited by Lu Pan. The volume places the magazine into the broader contexts of Hong Kong’s social change, the Cold War in Asia, and global leftist movements. Its primary intervention is its focus on the history of the 1970s. Sandwiched between the turbulent 1960s, marked by global Cold War politics, social unrest and rising tensions between the United Kingdom and the People’s Republic of China, and the hopeful 1980s, marked by negotiations for Hong Kong’s return to China and a widespread grassroots democracy movement, the 1970s, if it is given attention at all, is frequently “homogenized” (1) in historiography as a period of government reform. Sometimes called the “MacLehose era,” many histories of the 1970s narrate how the social movements of 1966-67 pressured the British, and the titular new governor, into instituting a series of reforms that would lay the groundwork for a more liberal, democratic Hong Kong. 

By contrast, 70s Biweekly refreshingly focuses attention on the ways in which the 1967 riots and thriving international leftist movements abroad galvanized a new generation of radical Hong Kong thinkers who then flourished in the 1970s. A diverse group, these writers, artists, and activists were interested less in supporting nominally leftist states such as the People’s Republic of China and much more interested in highlighting the global and local power inequities that have historically led to violence and harm. The ideologies and subjectivities they articulated, in the words of Lu Pan, occupied a creative space in Hong Kong culture, constructed through a “continuous process of trial and error wherein one had no choice but to face the contradictions in reality and resolve a set of complicated political feelings.” (6) The book does a remarkable job of articulating this “in-between space,” representing a much more textured, nuanced, and vivid picture of an influential group of thinkers than we often see in histories of activist circles. 

The volume makes several additional interventions. While it is nominally about one publication, it also contributes to the history of social movements in Hong Kong. Much has been written about the democracy movements of the 1980s, often considered separate from the leftist movements of the 1960s. This book bridges the gap between these two periods, helping us better understand the intellectual milieu that fostered Hong Kong’s robust public sphere that made the 1980s democracy movement possible. It is also an important addition to the study of anti-colonialism and decolonization in Hong Kong. Today, leaders in Beijing and their supporters in Hong Kong tend to equate successful Hong Kong decolonization with Chinese sovereignty and the rise of Chinese nationalism. But to the writers of The 70s, anti-colonialism was less about national sovereignty as a salve for colonial rule and much more about how power functioned on the ground. In this way, this book highlights how the seeds of Hong Kong’s rather unique sense of autonomy were forged—out of a movement that understood colonialism much less in terms of  which powerful entity was in charge and much more in terms of how powerful entities acquired and wielded their power. In this way, this book adds important depth not only to the history of activism in Hong Kong, but also to discussions of colonialism and post-colonialism worldwide. 

Lu Pan’s anthology, The 70s Biweekly, is divided into three parts. The first section,  likely of greatest interest to historians, explores the radical, multifaceted, and evolving politics of the 70s Biweekly and its editors and contributors. Among the most interesting chapters was Yang Yang’s on the New Left, which explores the shift in ideology among those leftists who remained wary of the CCP’s understanding of leftism from an articulation of anarchism to Trotskyism. Those interested in situating Hong Kong within the global Cold War will similarly find Ip Po Yee and Lee Chun Fung’s chapter on global Asian imaginaries of great interest;, it examines the shifting boundaries of what Asia means from the perspective of Hong Kong. The second part of the anthology examines the aesthetics of radical politics through the magazine’s artwork, its film criticism, and its literary production. The final, and most unique, section constitutes interviews with founding members of the publication. The forward by Mok Chiu-yu, aesthetically and emotionally sets the scene for the kinds of politics and personalities that imbue The 70s pages in a way that Lu Pan’s thoughtful introduction does historiographically. In this pairing, the volume ensures that readers are left not just with analysis of the magazine and its politics, but also its poetics. The juxtaposition of the passion that comes through in the forward, the personal interviews, and the high-level analysis of the academic essays offers a robust portrait of the magazine and the world of its contributors..  

As with any edited volume, this anthology has a diversity of arguments and approaches.. One minor criticism might be that some of the essays are more robust and grounded in Hong Kong Studies literature than others; it would have been fruitful to see a bit more conversation in some of the essays with the growing body of new scholarship that revolves around the papers’ themes. Yet, this truly interdisciplinary edited volume is remarkably coherent and the papers speak to one another with great sophistication and depth. The volume succeeds in reminding us both of how recent this history is and how much the legacies of the 1970s still shape politics, activism, and art in Hong Kong today. 

Gina Anne Tam
Trinity University
[email protected]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *