“I hasten to add that I was never an old China hand, just a passerby. By the time I arrived on the scene I was told that the past had already gone down the drain, the present was rushing after it and the future was in jeopardy.”

The words, written about China, by American historian, Sterling Seagrave, in his biography of the Soong dynasty, might also describe my relationship with Hong Kong.

There are still some grounds for optimism, but a movie I attended last weekend, on the recommendation of a young Hong Kong Chinese friend, chilled me and left me with an enduring feeling of despair and sadness.

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Director Nora Lam Tze-wing’s sensitive biopic of the student activist and localist politician Edward Leung Tin-kei, makes no attempt to conceal where its sympathies lie – but is all the better for it. Lam filmed Lost in the Fumes, after being struck by the passion of her fellow student and his co-members of Hong Kong Indigenous; one of the youth political organisations born of the 2014 Umbrella movement.

The political story of Leung and Hong Kong Indigenous is well known of course. Leung became a hero to many disillusioned young people in Hong Kong who felt that their prospects were bleak and unlikely to improve under what they saw as the tightening grip of the Communist Party of China. He also became a famous figure of controversy after his involvement in the civil unrest in Kowloon in February 2016, tagged by the establishment media, as the Mong Kok Riots.

Leung created a sensation when he won a large section of the vote in a bi-election shortly after the riots and was tipped to win a place in the Legislative Council during the general election the following September. He could have achieved it too, at the tender age of 25, if he had not been disqualified from running.

Behind the scenes footage of those two campaigns, shot by Lam, reveals a group of dedicated, immature, energetic and idealistic people having a blast while pursuing their dreams with a passion and no small degree of recalcitrance and flippancy. With little deference to the older generation, they wore cool T-shirts and jeans as they charged headlong with great courage and considerable naivety, into the brick wall of the political establishment of Hong Kong and therefore, Beijing.

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Edward Leung. Photo: In-Media.

The resultant political narrative of the divisions, the crackdown initiated by Beijing, the social polarisation, political paralysis, expulsions, legal appeals, and the subsequent political dysfunctionality is well reported by both sides of the argument, who both blame each other. It’s still a raw source of profound division, in a once-tolerant city.

What is less extensively reported is the human cost, which is sensitively revealed in Lam’s movie. The relentless media exposure, personal attacks, violent confrontations, threats and political disappointments, eventually break Leung. He is crushed and the spirit he represented is crushed with him, as Leung exits public life to study in the USA.

The film shows Leung, the talented activist and popular orator, not as a shrewd political operator, violent revolutionary or even a huge egoist. He is just a student with a dream who found that social engagement provided him with a sense of purpose, which acted as an antidote to the severe bouts of depression, from which he frequently suffered.  He often refers to himself as a “loser” whose greatest pleasures are smoking, eating and playing his guitar. But he was also able to organize campaigns, mobilize people and inspire others with a spirit and informal candour, which gave them hope. That is a rare talent indeed.

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Photo: Lost in the Fumes screenshot.

The political arguments will continue about the antics of the localist movement and many will quite rightly say that no one is above the law. It does seem a great tragedy though, in a world where once, young people were encouraged, trained and mentored, that it is now more common for them to be burdened with debt, marginalized and ignored. The established order has drawn up the ladder on Leung’s generation and it seems if they don’t comply, they will be crushed.

Edward Leung is about to be sentenced for his alleged part in the so called Mong Kok riots but quashing the spirit and extinguishing the dreams, of thousands of young people might also be considered a crime. It will be an unwelcome indictment of Hong Kong’s future, if the only place where the city can accommodate an exceptional young man like Edward Leung Tin-kei, is prison.

A former naval officer and entrepreneur, Stuart Heaver is a full-time freelance journalist and writer based in Hong Kong. Over the last decade, his work has been published in many leading international online and print publications ranging from the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and South China Morning Post to Sunseeker Magazine and Fragrant Harbour. A former graduate of the London School of Economics, he has a special interest in Asian business and politics and a passion for maritime issues and the sea.