The Mask of Ageing: Doing Cultural Research for a 'Social Problem'

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As the twenty-first century began, there was a mass demonstration in Hong Kong. On 1 July 2003 half a million people took to the streets in protest against a proposed 'anti-subversion' amendment to the Basic Law. Time Asia magazine captioned this event The Long March' and gave it a cover story titled 'Standing Up for Hong Kong', featuring a photograph of the mass protest with a female activist holding up high the flag of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). 'In 2004, in the third of its annual series of specials on 'Asia's Heroes', Time Asia selected Jackie Hung, spokeswoman of the Civil Human Rights Front which had organised the July 1 demonstration, as one of twenty members of a new generation taking the stage in Asia. Calling Hung 'the chief organizer of the pro-democracy rally that brought as many as 500 000 people on the streets on July 1', Time Asia described the protest as 'an amazing display of people power for non-confrontational Hong Kong'.2

This protest movement and the solidarity it aroused surprised the world; Hong Kong people are usually thought of as politically apathetic 'economic animals'.3 Much of the commentary stressed the growing number of young participants in this movement. However, in the 2003 and 2004 demonstrations a group of older women joined in and they are, more widely, frequent social protestors. Yet in newspaper coverage in 2004, only a small paragraph in the mass circulation daily Ming Pao noted that older women insisted on joining the July 1 march despite their physical difficulties on what was a very hot day.4 A TV documentary by Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) did, however, include Older women' as a category along with young people and middle class professionals in a report on participation in the direct election of Legislative Council members.5

Older women need to be taken seriously as an emerging social movement base in Hong Kong, since they will make up an increasingly large proportion of an ageing population in the years to come. When I enrolled part-time in a PhD in 1999, my intention was to document the 'small stories' of older women's active participation in the communities 1 had observed during twelve years of involvement as an activist around local issues of housing and rent in Hong Kong. My relationships with my grandmother and mother also shaped my desire to get close to older women and to understand their world-a world which is rarely represented in a complex or subtle way, and which is often unclear and difficult for me to grasp as a member of a different generation in a society which has undergone significant changes over the past thirty years. Of course, getting to know older women and learning from their insights into the ageing process is also a way of preparing for my own ageing in this society.6 Initially, though, my hope when I first began working in 1998 as a professional researcher in ageing studies was to understand how gerontologists could better contribute to forming a mode of knowledge that would benefit but not limit older persons.

At the outset, I made an important choice to do my doctoral study in a Department of Cultural Studies rather than Sociology, preferring as I do to use 'qualitative' methods. The study of both social movements and older women in Hong Kong has been widely understood as a matter for sociological inquiry rather than cultural analysis. On the one hand, there is an entrenched sociological understanding of 'movements' as reflecting and entailing social changes that need to be monitored and managed. On the other hand, older women are perceived as the genderless, passive objects of welfare and services; in short, as a 'social problem'.

While my early training was in sociology, my experiences as a junior researcher working with older persons had pushed me to search for alternative approaches to ageing studies. 1 learnt how to do research while studying sociology and social work between 1978 and 1982 in the then Hong Kong Baptist College. …