Anthropological scholarship increasingly features the concept of the ‘future’, a term which conventionally infers a sense of forward motion, of progression towards what has yet to occur. But from observations derived from ethnographic fieldwork in Hong Kong throughout the 2010s, I suggest that notions of futurity in the city could be framed as ‘suspenseful’, which can be interpreted in two ways. First, since the mid-twentieth century, Hong Kong has been described as a ‘borrowed placed on borrowed time’, to encapsulate the uncertain future presented by the inevitable end of British colonial rule in 1997. Since being placed under the sovereignty of China, Hong Kong is subject to a ‘one country, two systems’ mandate stipulating that the Chinese government will not intervene in the city’s socio-political affairs until 2047, although there are concerns that this arrangement is already being eroded. Furthermore, what awaits Hong Kong once this mandate expires remains largely unknown, and thus the city is again in a suspended liminal state, left waiting to see what will happen. Secondly, given perceptions of the Chinese government’s non-democratic practices, the Hong Kong population experiences suspense—referring to their feelings of unease and anxiety – towards a speculative future. This talk explores how people in Hong Kong make sense of, and respond to, their uncertain futures by looking at the urban contestations that have arisen since the mid-2000s. It finds that such responses involve regaining a ‘right to the city’ to dictate present and future realities, and involve a reflexive bent whereby nostalgic remembrance is used as a means of articulating and reinforcing understandings of self and place.
Sonia Lam-Knott received her doctorate in Anthropology from the University of Oxford for her research on Hong Kong youth activism, and was previously a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore. Using ethnographic methods, her current research addresses the intersection of politics, historicity, and materiality in the urban space of Hong Kong, with emphasis on the vernacular experiences of everyday life in the city. She has published her research in Asian Anthropology (2017), Inter-Asia Cultural Studies (2019), and Space and Polity (2019).