Only a song of helplessness left|Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee

2021.05.10
Only a song of helplessness left Margaret Ng Ngoi yee

My dear,

First of all, bear with my story for a while. A film named 2001: A Space Odyssey was shown in 1968. The hero is a mystical computer called HAL(HAL 9000 is its model name). HAL is responsible for taking care of the daily operation and necessities of an entire spacecraft which is on an important mission to explore the universe. Then, oddly enough, the astronauts die one after another. In the end, the captain discovers HAL is the murderer, so he has to pull down all the functions of the computer so as to save his own life. The process of destruction – termination of its functions and deletion of its memories - is done from the top down. HAL feels it is dying, hence pleading with the captain for mercy. However, the captain does not stop. It sounds more and more hollow, and at last, only a song called Daisy Bell put in by the scientist that devises it is left.

The plot was earth-shattering. When I watched this film almost half a century ago, I did not quite get at what it really delivered. And the impression got even blurred when time went by. Yet, a few days ago, when I learned that RTHK set about trashing all the videos uploaded to the YouTube platform more than one year ago, it came to my mind all of a sudden. It is exactly the same as the authorities continuously doctoring textbooks and publications about history, and putting away exhibits on display. All of this is aimed at wiping out memories of Hong Kong. RTHK trashing videos is just one of the steps to accomplish it, and similar events will take place nonstop. HAL came to my mind because if numerous collective memories that actually prop up various functions of our city are wiped out, it will be stripped of its functions sequentially. Besides, losing one’s memory, which is part of one’s identity, one will lose himself/herself, and not be able to make himself/herself out the next minute. Like a person, a city without memories loses its functions and identity, and finally only a song of helplessness is left.

I did not know why I was caught completely by surprise back then, and only thought it was because with the computer personified in the film, it was natural for the audience to feel like they witnessed someone being murdered before their eyes. But indeed, wrecking one at a time the gems into which generations of people put a lot of painstaking effort is horrifying enough.

Honestly, my memory of this film was so blurred that I was not sure about its title. I went online to check it out lest I might misname it. Then, I called to mind that not only are documents and images memories, but also they can be leveraged to cross-check the divergence between individual memories and facts. Even though there isn’t a documentary that is perfect in every way and absolutely precise, the more independent production, the more reliable the attestation. If the original version of an event vanishes into thin air, our memories will be like flickering shadows on a cave wall.

Nevertheless, even far back in history when no “back-up copies” were available, ruthless means by brutal despotisms in history such as burning books and burying scholars alive never succeeded in achieving what they were aimed at, not to mention nowadays when information technology is so advanced. Lastly, we still have words and pictures that need not be restored by any machine. Despite not as almighty as AI, we have a soul that cannot be killed.

I am really obsolete! The movie I recall goes as far back as to an antique dozens of years ago! I am really not sure if you have watched it. I read Ms Lam’s work the other day. “Members of Mirror” and “Baby Keung” she feels so strongly about are the authentic hue and cry of this generation. We keep on creating and enriching our memories so that our destiny is different from HAL. The hot summer has befallen, so take good care of yourself!

(Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee is a barrister, writer and columnist in Hong Kong. She was a member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong from 1995-1997; 1998-2012.)

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