Mysteries along the Hong Kong-China border

In Terry Ng’s photographs it’s not immediately apparent which side of the Hong Kong-China border you’re on.

A border is a story about the world. It begins as a line, dreamed up on paper, before it cleaves vast tracts of undifferentiated fields, forests, waters into “ours” and “theirs,” giving new meaning to everything it circumscribes. As novelist Dung Kai-cheung writes in Atlas, “The world copies the map… the prerequisite for the setting of boundaries on maps is possession of the power to create fiction.”

Hong Kong’s present border dates back to 1898. After the Sino-Japanese War, the United Kingdom coerced the Qing government into “leasing” to it all the land between Kowloon’s Boundary Street 界限街 and the Sham Chun River 深圳河, naming this area the “New Territories.” With the stroke of a pen, the otherwise unremarkable Sham Chun — a sinuous, watery physical barrier flanked by unruly vegetation — was transformed into a powerful metaphor, a threshold between China and something that was no longer quite China.

This is the setting of Hong Kong photographer Terry Ng’s “Border” series, which he photographed over three years. A father and part-time public sector employee with ancestry in Shenzhen, Ng found himself drawn to the border in the wake of news stories about tensions there between Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese traders, he tells me. It triggered memories: “When I was a kid I would visit the mainland and I thought about how backward it looked compared to Hong Kong. Now sometimes I feel like it’s the opposite.”

“Border” Terry Ng

In Ng’s images it’s not immediately easy to tell which side of the border you’re on, and maybe that’s the whole point. There are few natural cues that would suggest one side or the other: in both Hong Kong and Shenzhen, the sun beats down through the same coastal summer haze. The same leafy subtropical palms line dusty roads; the water is the same cloudy grey.

A border technically has no area — it is an imposed separation between areas, which is the logic of statehood — but Ng reimagines the border as a world of its own, both familiar and surreal at the same time. He populates it with a mysteriously ordinary cast of characters: the remains of a blue truck, enshrouded by tall grass. Creeping weeds at the base of solid concrete wall, stained over many years by moisture. A pair of identically dressed children in a field on their hands and knees, their heads pressed together in an inscrutable embrace. These images aren’t explicit political metaphors as much as hints of a subtly altered landscape, the mise en scène of Hong Kong and China’s problematic condition of separate-but-together.

Of course Ng’s series is one of many possible border stories; Siu Wai Hang’s recent “Inside Outland” reenacts the China-Hong Kong border crossing from a refugee’s perspective; Alfred Ko’s famous 1997 photograph “The Border” pictures a PLA vehicle rolling into the rain-soaked streets of the New Territories on Handover day. By emphasizing that this border is contested, these works call attention to its fiction — and remind us, twenty years since the establishment of the SAR — that Hong Kong will not be a “part of” China as long as this snaking line continues to exist in our imagination.