Apocalyptic Journalism: On South China Morning Post’s Rebel City: Hong Kong’s Year of Water and Fire (2020)

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceedingChapterScientificpeer-review

Abstract

“New” journalists such as Tom Wolfe usually offer riveting but realistic details when reporting on escalating social crises. In the kind of literary journalism expressive of assent rather than dissent (i.e., propaganda), however, detailed descriptions serve only to reduce dissenters into well-worn social clichés. A case in point—and the subject of my essay—is Rebel City, an account of Hong Kong’s 2019 protest movement published by the city’s leading English newspaper, the South China Morning Post (SCMP). I will argue that the purpose of Rebel City, a work of assenting journalism, is to neutralize dissent by depicting it reductively as an omen looming over the capital flowing through financial hubs like Hong Kong. This categorical dismissal of dissent as senseless troublemaking offers readers an excuse to ignore political opposition, as though their city were under unnecessary stress.

I will first make the case that literary journalism’s rich imageries and symbolisms are comparable to those in urban literature. For example, “the […] meandering of associative thinking” (O’Donnell 8) in Rebecca Solnit’s Savage Dreams (1995) and Wanderlust (2001) reflects an interdisciplinary synergy possible only in cities, where “multiple styles of knowledge both sensual and rational[,] from mind, body and world” (O’Donnell 8) hold equal sway. If there is a vibrancy unique to the urbanscape, it is derived from this energy of opposition: urban narratives present private affairs as pressing social issues in need of public attention, so that the private realm becomes complementary rather than dichotomous to the public sphere. Likewise, urban literary journalism relays so-called human-interest stories to confide private details to the public.

These similarities in form will frame my discussion on how the dissenting techniques of literary journalism have been appropriated by assenting journalists: the latter target readers who relish images of doom and find spectacles of social unrest riveting. Reduced to signs of “more trouble to come” such as pests, fire, and water, (young) protestors are rendered fantastical and consequently juxtaposed with the everyday, a concept encompassing Hong Kong’s rapid ascent to cosmopolitan status in the latter half of the twentieth century, its momentous becoming as capitalism’s miracle. What this sort of writing offers is the easier option to maintain the status quo, alongside the false dichotomy of “pragmatic” assent and catastrophic dissent. Assenting literary journalism presents sensational details not to encourage empathy but, rather, apathy, or worse, voyeurism and hostility.

References

O’Donnell, Marcus. “Walking, writing and dreaming: Rebecca Solnit’s polyphonic voices.”
Journalism, 16, No. 7 (2015): 936-952. https://ro.uow.edu.au/lhapapers/1729.
Solnit, Rebecca. Savage Dream: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West. New
York: Vintage, 1995.
---. Wanderlust: A History of Walking. London: Penguin, 2001.
South China Morning Post Team (SCMP). Rebel City: Hong Kong's Year of Water and
Fire (Kindle Edition). Singapore and Hong Kong: World Scientific Publishing Company and South China Morning Post Publishers Limited, 2020.
Wolfe, Tom. The New Journalism. London: Picador, 1996.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication Cities Under Stress
Publication statusIn preparation - 2023
MoE publication typeA3 Part of a book or another research book

Publication series

NameLiterary Urban Studies
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan

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