Published: Sept. 5, 2017
Tim oakes

It’s great to be back at CAS after a nice sabbatical semester in Hong Kong.  I’m excited to re-engage with the challenges and opportunities of building Asian Studies here at CU Boulder.  There are many things happening at CAS right now, including our Southeast Asian studies initiative, a pilot program in Cultural and Language Across the Curriculum (CLAC), and our theme of Asian Popular Cultures for the 2017-18 academic year.  It’s good to return to an organization with all its pistons pumping!  I want to thank Professor Carla Jones for taking the reins while I was away.  Carla did a fantastic job, and it was so nice to know the Center was in such good hands while I was away.

My time in Hong Kong was spent as a visiting professor at the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Hong Kong.  While there I taught a course on China’s urban geographies, worked with colleagues there to develop a joint project on Asian infrastructures, and did some preliminary fieldwork in the urban villages of the Pearl River Delta (Shenzhen, Dongguan, and Guangzhou).  But I also enjoyed living in Hong Kong: such a vibrant, busy, and surprisingly livable city, with a unique but worldly street culture.  Hong Kong is in many ways an in-between place that has forged a unique identity not so much as the banal cliche ‘bridge between east and west’ but as a place always reinventing itself out of necessity.  Most people in Hong Kong want to just get on with their workaday lives, but when you live in one of the world’s crossroads, there’s a constant newness that permeates everyday life.  There’s a surprising amount of cultural energy pulsing through Hong Kong’s cracks.  Much of that is coming from young people who are, more and more, experimenting with what it means to be a Hong Konger, and what Hong Kong’s role in China, Asia, and the world is.  That cultural energy is inspiring to see and experience.

But to live in Hong Kong also feels like one is teetering on the edge of an abyss.  The city’s precariousness as a semi-autonomous region of China, with its own courts, currency, educational system, markets, and territorial privileges, is palpable.  Hong Kong’s young people are particularly aware of this as they contemplate the city’s future and their future as Hong Kongers.  Housing prices have put even the most basic apartment out of reach of the majority of Hong Kong residents, and many of the features of Hong Kong’s unique way of life are under threat as Beijing displays an increasing impatience with the city youth's newly assertive claims to an identity that is ‘not China’.  That impatience was most recently displayed when three of the 2014 democracy protest leaders were sentenced to prison terms.  Nobody knows what the future holds, but there is a lot of anxiety in Hong Kong these days, and the causes for optimism are getting harder to come by.  As the product of 19th century imperialism, Hong Kong was born out of clashing powers and ideas.  But it was the people living there who built the city and they continue to build it as new clashes and new ideas continue to reshape the space they work and live within.  To watch all of this unfold is both fascinating and, at times, unnerving.

While the new research that I am working on does not focus specifically on Hong Kong, it partners with Hong Kong colleagues and I look forward to continuing my interactions with people there over the years to come.

Written by Professor Tim Oakes, Professor of Geography and returning Director of the Center for Asian Studies