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From Pacific Ocean to Lantau Island – An Interview with Island Studies Scholar Otto Heim

Anthony Leung Po Shan, is an art critic, Island Studies enthusiast, co-curator of the public art project ‘Lamma Mia’, and author of Mo Tat Then and Now: Historical and Social Research of Mo Tat Wan, Lamma Island.

Otto Heim, is an islander, Emeritus Professor of English literary studies of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and member of editorial boards of academic journals Shima and Urban Island Studies.


Having moved from the New Territories to an outlying island, I have always wanted to do a proper documentation of the various aspects of life fostered by the shores. A year ago, with the grant which I had the fortune to receive from the Council of Lord Wilson Heritage Trust, I conducted a thorough survey of my community, yet I could not make sense of the raw data. As I searched for clues in the library, I came across academic journals such as Island Studies Journal and Shima, and learned that there is an academic field called ‘island studies.’ This island-based discipline integrates knowledge of science, humanities and social sciences and challenges the land-centered worldview. Not only did it help me understand my community from a new perspective, but it also connected me to Otto Heim, an expert in island studies. 

I thought the island studies journal editors must be far away, but it turns out one of them is right here with us. Otto Heim has just retired from the School of English of HKU. He is a resident of Lantau Island. (photo courtesy of the author)

Seeing the name of the academic journal Shima, a Japanese word that means ‘island’, I thought the editorial board members must be far away, but it turns out one of them is right here with us. Otto Heim, Swiss by birth, had interest in Aboriginal and New Zealand Māori literature in earlier years, and that eventually led him to the School of English of the University of Hong Kong. Right, Aboriginal literature in English! These English writings penned on the fringes of empires were once called Commonwealth Literature, New Literatures in English, or Emergent Literatures – those were the days before we have term ‘postcolonialism’! Otto set sails in the sea of literature and surprisingly docked at this colony named Hong Kong. 

Size does matter

In general, an island is considered a place surrounded by the sea. However, this claim would be found untenable if given some thought – Eurasia is surrounded by the Pacific, Atlantic, Arctic and Indian Oceans; even the Americas are encircled by oceans. On the contrary, we do not call rocks that emerge at low tide or those which do not support human habitation islands. The definitions of island and continent are therefore relative rather than absolute. The differentiation often depends on ‘level of development’ and relationship with other continents and islands. One could easily forget that a densely populated city without easy access to the coast is actually an island.

Otto points out that we often associate islands with water, or islands with mainland, but tend to overlook the relationships between islands themselves. People perceive and remodel islands from a terrestrial perspective, projecting their many desires on the islands unilaterally. For example, the indigenous peoples of Polynesia had formed a social circle through exchange, trade and intermarriage. Once they were ‘discovered’ by western colonists, the previously boundless sea was divided into exclusive development zones with clear borders: the Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Samoa, … During the ‘development’, the indigenous peoples were forced into labour or displacement, and their native languages were marginalized in the educational system. Although many of the remaining islands have become independent, the original ecology and cultural landscape were already uprooted. Take transportation as an example. Flights from Australia, New Zealand and other places brought tourism and food, but substantial waste is left behind. Meanwhile, there are no direct flights between the islands. Previous technologies of navigation, shipbuilding and coastal house building were all lost under ‘modernisation’. Although these island countries are so-called ‘self-governed’ in modern political terms, they still depend largely on the mainland economy, and the people are unable to rebuild their own communities. 

People living on the mainland tend to overlook the relationship between islands. A man with a boat will realise where water is nearby, there is access. Hence, outlying islands should be renamed ‘neighbouring islands.’ This photo is taken on the Inter Islands Route from Chi Ma Wan to Cheung Chau, where many fishermen can be seen working on the shores. (photo taken by author)

‘Islander’ as a fluid identity

Otto points out that it takes multiple skills and DIY spirit to secure livelihood on an island. For this reason, island studies are also conducted in an interdisciplinary fashion, the common ground being the island-based way of thinking and caring. Island studies extend beyond islands – they foster reflection on the knowledge and spatial structure that we are accustomed to from a holistic perspective. Island studies pioneer and Fijian scholar Epeli Hau’ofa reminds us that the continent dwellers’ popular saying ‘separated by vast oceans’ reflects exactly such limitations. Islanders who travel extensively, on the other hand, would say ‘the sea of islands’ as they appreciate the many accesses the sea facilitates and the liveliness all around. Island studies are fascinating precisely because they bring up all sorts of paradoxes and challenge binary arguments.

Mui Wo is a good example. The dividing lines between river and sea, sea and shore, sea water and fresh water shift every day. No amount of human effort in changing the waterscape is enough to alter the natural law of water flowing downwards, not to mention climate change. Some may think that the countryside is more conservative than the city on mainland, but in Mui Wo you can easily find ethnic diversity and biodiversity that are richer than that in any housing estate in the city. Otto believes that the distance between ‘outlying’ islands and the mainland strengthens the neighbourliness of their inhabitants. Whenever a typhoon hits, the common practice of the islanders is to roll up their sleeves and go clear blocked drains and fallen branches together. I also heard such traditional wisdom of ‘helping each other in the same boat’ at a lecture given by Gan Shuirong, the 15th-generation descendant of Luk Tei Tong Tsuen and co-author of Several Hundred Years’ Mui Wo – Old village, Discarded Herd, and People (2016). He said that the Gan clan was the first to build the foundation of Mui Wo. One day, they met the Tsang clan who had travelled from Tsuen Wan via the Old Village Path to Nam Shan. Instead of expelling them, his great grandfather immediately looked for a place for them to settle down. ‘Just because there was hardly anyone around in South Lantau at that time!’

At high tide under full moon, seawater intrusion occurs near Mui Wo Chung Hau, and the river and sea would mix. If we resist water and keep blocking its flow, a greater crisis awaits. (photo taken by Otto Heim on 13/07/2022)
We often describe islands as ‘isolated’ or ‘outlying’. However, the plants and humans and all other things on an island in fact originate from somewhere else. Even the kinship groups from the Pacific Islands are connected in complex lateral relationships and not just by blood ties. The constitution of identity in history may be more fluid and open than we think. It is difficult for peoples whose home island was inundated and those scattered abroad to define themselves geographically. Instead, seasonal festivals, languages and artistic expressions all serve better in passing on local knowledge and refreshing ethnic identity. Therefore, some scholars propose that the notion ‘islander’ is actually a state of being rather than an intrinsic identity. Similarly, ‘island studies’ should not be confined to islanders only.


What does island studies have to do with Hong Kong? 

Epeli Hau’ofa once joked about how the Pacific Ocean is like a donut to many people as they focus only on the surrounding continents and ignore all the islands in the middle. As part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Hong Kong may see the Pacific Ocean as no more than an 11-hour flight. Hong Kong people are indeed getting scattered around the world, but that also take Neoliberalism abroad, creating new housing market and skyline in Vancouver. 

Besides seeing the world differently, Otto suggests we can also reinterpret our city using water as the point of departure. He went to Copenhagen once to participate in the Island Cities and Urban Archipelagos conference, ajoined a field trip to study the results of urban renewal. He realised the de-industrialization plans there reposition water to the center of urban life. Think about our Hong Kong Island – Canal Road, Stone Nullah Lane, Possession Street (or Shui Hang Hau Street, ‘shui hang hau’ meaning ‘the mouth of a water trench’), Wun Sha Street (‘wun sha’ meaning ‘washing yarn’), and Tai Hang (meaning ‘big water channel’)… The waterways must be so intertwined in the old days that you can imagine just by looking at these names. In the past, water was excluded from urban planning, and it was often treated with filling or extended embankment, or hidden from sight. On the contrary, property developers today capitalize the view of the sea. Otto strongly recommends us to take a look at the project ‘Water Initiative on Sustainability and Engagement’ currently run by the Faculty of Social Sciences of HKU. It provide geographical and ecological data of waterways with historical resources available alongside, allowing us to trace our roots, do precautions early, and review our urban planning and lifestyle. Island studies stresses interdisciplinarity, because a professor in literature needs to know geography, while an engineer should be concerned about the needs of a broader group.

In addition to relativity, island studies also emphasize the importance of performativity. Routes on the sea may be hard to trace, but sea travel has never ceased. In order to survive in the ocean, one must count on repeated practices, accumulated experiences as well as the wisdom of traditions. Indigenous peoples are not familiar with expressing political interests directly; their festivals help make their activities across waters visible, and in turn establish their identity. Otto also reminds us that the adjectives we use to describe water like ‘flexible’, ‘enduring’, ‘boundless’, ‘repetitive’ are not just literary metaphors; they are in fact the physical properties of water. The Chinese saying ‘floodwater covers eyebrows and below’, which means imminent danger, is not imagination; it is an impending reality we must face in future development. Instead of turning a blind eye to water, why don’t we welcome it like an island do, and make good use of it?


Ma Wan is an example of ‘de-islanding’ by major infrastructure: the original settlement disappeared once the bridge was completed. This photo shows Kap Shui Mun Bridge viewed from Tai Pai Tsui. Under the bridge is the deserted Yi Chuen, and Ma Wan Main Street which will soon turn into a theme park. (photo taken by author)

(Cover photo) Rain was pouring down on the day of the interview. I was soaked after walking from the pier to the village where Otto lives. The river and the sea blend near Chung Mei.


**Published on Sunday MingPao on 10 July, 2022.**

1 Epeli Hau’ofa, ‘Our Sea of Islands’, The Contemporary Pacific 6, no. 1 (1994): 148–61.
2  Qiu Yi, Gan Shuirong, Online seminar on the book Several Hundred Years’ Mui Wo – Old village, Discarded Herd, and People. The Conservancy Association Centre for Heritage, 30 April 2022. (https://www.facebook.com/cache.org.hk/videos/2042610015899642) Accessed 19 May 2022.


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