Chicken Shit

HK activists against censorship
PEN Hong Kong launch. Image source:

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming is a woman of many talents. She’s an academic, poet, short story writer and translator as well as founding co-editor of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, the first on-line English language literary journal in Hong Kong.

Since 13 November 2016, Tammy Ho also sits on the Executive Committee of the Hong Kong chapter of PEN International. She has taken on this role in order to protest and combat censorship in Hong Kong. Here is Tammy Ho at the launch of PEN Hong Kong, flanked on the left by its president Jason Y. Ng and on the right by New Century Press publisher Bao Pu.

more than a gesture

To take the stage, microphone in hand and cameras hot, is no mere gesture in Hong Kong. Last year, five booksellers disappeared, rumored to have been kidnapped for their role in the sale of a book critical of Chinese prime minister Xi Jinping. To quote the Hong Kong Free Press:

We had all given up the five disappeared Hong Kong booksellers as a lost cause as they began reappearing on Chinese state television to “confess their crimes”. Then, one by one, they returned to Hong Kong, clearly bound by a code of silence imposed on them by the mainland interrogators who had forced those confessions.

The world of academia is under similar attack. A student was denied a university degree for bringing a yellow umbrella to commencement as a sign of support for the Umbrella Movement.

Umbrella Movement
Umbrellas in Kurokawa Onsen, Japan. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Meanwhile, university lecturers are quietly engaged in self-censorship. They prune their writing to remove anything political from the public record. As an untenured assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, one would think Tammy Ho felt a similar pressure.

In a recent interview, she said:

I do sense a shift in the general academic atmosphere in the city—which is witnessing the increasing influence of mainland China—and the resultant emergence of a certain level of resignation and acceptance regarding such a shift by some academics. Whether something is ‘too political’ may now be factored by some into the decision-making process while previously this might not have been a concern.

pen internationl hong kong

At the PEN Hong Kong launch, Tammy Ho took the stage to make a more personal point. She quoted an Asian-American woman who was interviewed in the aftermath of the Trump election:

I’m not a brave person and this new reality will have to force me to get over my chicken-shit cowardice.

That, says Tammy Ho, is why she’s joined PEN.

US passport
Illustration of my OpEd piece. Image source:

Watching this clip from the safety of my home in Amsterdam made me feel like a worm. I’ve publicly toyed with the idea of giving up my US citizenship in protest of the Trump election. Talk about a chicken-shit empty gesture. Giving up my passport would change nothing in the US political scene, let alone improve anyone’s life.

Even worse, I am not at risk. I live inside Fortress Europe, and though there may be barbarians at the gates like Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen and Frauke Petry, my civil liberties are alive and well. There is no gloom of censorship hanging over my head. I can afford to protest and loudly, too.

And yet.


book cover Madeleine Thien
Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Image source:

There’s a writer’s residency in Shanghai next year that I’ve been eyeing for some time now. They’ve hosted some amazing authors like Madeleine Thien, short-listed for the Booker Prize for her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing. How cool would it be to follow in her footsteps?

I don’t want to blow what little chance I might have. Anything political I might write about Hong Kong will shut me out for sure. So the wise thing to do is to stay quiet, keep my head down and pray for rain. Right?

That’s not what Tammy Ho would do. It’s not, I think, the kind of profile Michelle Obama will maintain once she leaves the White House. I’m guilty of self-censorship.

circles of care

In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election, a wise friend Kristen Roupenian posted on Facebook a reminder to us all about the circles of care. This is what she said:

Imagine a series of concentric circles. In a crisis, the inner circles are people who are hurting the most, who are most vulnerable to harm. As you move outwards, you become safer and more insulated – while we are all scared right now, we all have different layers of protection, layers of legal and social and financial security. No matter who you are, there are probably people who are closer to the center of harm than you are, and there are people further to the outside. The rule is: you pour help inwards, you ask for help outwards.

So I’m reaching in now to offer support and a voice to those in need on the inside. To publishers like Gui Minhai taken from his home in Thailand and believed to be in custody on the Chinese mainland for publishing exposes of Chinese politicians. For activists like Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching who have been barred from taking their democratically-elected seats in the Hong Kong Legislative Council due to their lack of solemnity when taking the oath of office. To Tammy Ho who stands up and says: no more chicken-shit fear.

no more censorship

In reply to my request to quote her in this blog, she wrote:

I believe scholars should be allowed to make public observations and inspire open conversations about what is happening in a particular society. In Hong Kong, these observations can be about politics, but they can also be about the inadequacy of government policies, homegrown social inequality, the housing problem, classism, etc.

Fighting censorship
PEN Hong Kong logo. Image source:

The mission of PEN International and all its affiliates is to promote literature and freedom of expression.

This is an extract from the PEN Charter:

PEN stands for the principle of unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations, and members pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible. PEN declares for a free press and opposes arbitrary censorship in time of peace. It believes that the necessary advance of the world towards a more highly organised political and economic order renders a free criticism of governments, administrations and institutions imperative. And since freedom implies voluntary restraint, members pledge themselves to oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood and distortion of facts for political and personal ends.

umbrella movement censorship
Me and my umbrella. Photo credit: Frans Verhagen

We need communication now more than ever. We need more words rather than less. Words can build bridges and find a meeting of the minds. We should write, read, share. Talk isn’t cheap if it comes from the heart. Speak!

Originally posed on 23 November 2016. Edited on 5 June 2017.