A Sinking Feeling
(This piece was first published in in 2016 in Afterness: Literature from the New Transnational Asia. You can download the full ebook here: https://afterness.weebly.com/)
I haven't found new words with which to discuss the political situation in HK over the past year, but these still feel pretty apt, so I'm reposting:
“The Maldives are sinking!”
I was about seven years old when I received this piece of news. My father knew I would chew on it for some time. My young imagination conjured visions of island natives wading in knee-high waters. In my mind’s eye the swirl rose steadily until they had to hold their coconut-shell breakfast bowls above their heads to stop saltwater splashing onto their Cap’n Crunch. Eventually a wise island elder would say to the others, “Okay guys, time to go, we can’t live here anymore,” and then they would all swim off to a more suitable habitat.
Flash-forward thirty years and I have just identified a possible reason that the notion of the sinking Maldives struck me so vividly: growing up in Hong Kong, I, too, was living on an island whose permanence was questionable. We weren’t in danger of physical submersion, but as citizens poised to witness the end of Britain’s reign over our territory, there was shared certainty that change was afoot.
Perhaps this is why Hong Kong has been described, quite accurately, as New York on Crack. It is a city stuck on fast forward. A New York minute is a Hong Kong second. It is the rush of drink orders during a bar’s last minutes of happy hour. It is an excellently-executed flash mob, a delightful moment that takes people by surprise. It is a location joke that you had to have been there for. On some level everyone in Hong Kong has known that change is coming and that is why we’d better live it up, play it up, work it up while we still have a chance.
The thing about the Maldives – God bless them – is that, other than a child’s imagined advantage of being able to swim (instead of walk) to school, there really is no silver lining to their situation. Once the inevitable happens to the Maldives, they are, well, sunk.
This is where Hong Kong has proven very interesting; as a small city we have taken more than our fair share of hits in recent years: the 1997 Handover, SARS, Swine Flu, Article 23 and China’s National Curriculum are some of the big ones. But like one of those inflatable punch bags with a weighted bottom, Hong Kong has always sprung back, and usually with more vigor than could reasonably be expected of a little city taking such a full-frontal pummeling. After SARS, our comeback involved elevator buttons disinfected hourly and hand sanitizing stations all over the place. My in-laws made a steal in the property market to boot.
But some people can’t handle it. The transient nature of Hong Kong means that at any given moment there is a pocket of people poised and waiting for an event that will serve as the final push toward their departure. Each of the above listed headline-grabbers would have given some of these guys enough reason to throw up their hands, book the movers and ship out. Meanwhile, the rest of us sit tight – either due to stubborn devotion to the city, lack of awareness or plain lack of options – and we watch until the dust clears just enough for us to continue on our frenzied ways. Our city has always recovered.
I was born in Hong Kong and have, until recently, assumed that I would live there forever. I was passionate about my home, to an unhealthy degree. I judged people as they left Hong Kong, calling them lightweights and concluding they never really loved the city as much as they had once claimed. I eyed-up newcomers, trying to ascertain the purity of their motivations for moving to my city. Users, fair weather friends of Hong Kong, I presumed.
About two years ago my young son went through a season of illness that coincided with my own self-inflicted and culturally-approved period of being permanently over-committed. The too-many commitments and sick child collided and threw me into a state of stress / burnout / general condition of I-can-no-longer-function. Something needed to give, and it goes almost without saying, that something was not going to be Hong Kong’s pace of life. We chose to take a sabbatical and move to England for a year. We planned to be away from Hong Kong for twelve months, but for various reasons we stayed on. This was not something I would ever have imagined us doing.
I didn’t see the Umbrella Revolution coming. But, boy oh boy, once it happened I couldn’t peel myself away from my computer, watching powerlessly from afar. One tab for Apple Daily’s Live Stream, one tab for Facebook, one for Twitter, one for the SCMP and one for BBC World news.
It is hard to express the disbelief experienced when watching your city, your streets turn into front page global news. To frantically search the faces in the crowds on the slightly delayed and distorted live feed, looking for your big brother because he’s just SMS’d to say he was heading over to the protest site and not to worry. Not to worry!?
Every cell in my body wrung with flashbacks from newspaper front pages reporting on the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Each cell sick with fear because several loved ones were taking a stand and I could lose the lot of them. Then came the pangs of remorse over the fact I was not standing with them, and finally a heavy realization that my being there would not change a thing – my city, my tiny beloved city had chosen to engage in a standoff with an unrelenting bully. A Pomeranian picking a fight with a pit bull.
China is not famous for being reasonable. I cannot see how this is all going to work out – not in Hong Kong’s favor anyway. The tension between Hong Kong (my birth place) and China (my grandparents’ birthplace) is something that I’ve always underestimated. My Porpor made dumplings and thick noodles like it was going out of fashion (it was). She wanted the whole family to be well educated and cultured, to speak both the Queen’s English and proper Beijing Mandarin. I didn’t know she was the exception rather than the rule. Having family roots in the capital, I always associated myself with the mainland and felt sad when Hong Kongers dismissed mainlanders as uncultured or worse. Why can’t they embrace their motherland? I wondered, naïvely.
After educating myself on some of China’s dark history I came to accept that I had been wrong to assume the Chinese government was interested in goodness, nor in the general pursuit of the betterment of society – local or global.
Thank goodness for “One Country, Two Systems,” I thought, again naïvely. It’s a good thing Hong Kong has that fifty-year margin to figure out how to make all this work. And thank goodness we’ve got Britain there, keeping an eye on things. They promised to help out if we needed it.
Fortunately, it didn’t seem we did. After the 1997 Handover very little changed in Hong Kong – nothing overtly noticeable, really. The police force’s uniform changed, and the RSPCA changed its name to the SPCA (it was no longer Royal). Nothing major.
But then property prices rose, and luxury malls starting popping up. These malls are filled with designer label shops and hardly anything normal people can, or should, buy on a day-to-day basis. I’m no fan of the Golden Arches, but there was something sad about the day you realized McDonald’s was no longer welcome in Pacific Place.
The new malls sit beneath massive luxury apartment buildings with garish crystals hanging in their lifts and a dozen security personnel to verify your right to exist. The flats are inhumanely boxy but they are kitted out with top of the line whathaveyous. Like shit rolled in glitter. And if this is the state at the high-end, what hope is there for anyone else? The average Hong Konger can’t afford to own a parking space, let alone a home.
Disneyland came to Hong Kong. The sharply increasing numbers of mainland tourists became noticeable. Friends from the West complained about how they pushed in on lines and unashamedly photographed blond children without permission. This broke my heart again. It’s very complicated. How can we presume to place our cultural expectations on them? Don’t ask me who our and them are to me, I’m not even sure.
My city and I are similar; we have parents of two different cultures. A third culture has emerged as the result of a lifetime of trying to reconcile the first two. There are literal Eurasians like myself; I am the most common kind, a product of a British father and a Chinese mother. But there is also a city-full of metaphorical Eurasians who are born to a Chinese Daddy, and have inherited his surname and looks, but who live at odds with the Western heart inherited from their British mother.
In less coherent moments I like to blame the invention of long-distance travel for most of my issues. If my Chinese grandparents hadn’t been educated in America they wouldn’t have met, and they wouldn’t have had their number three daughter, my mother, who wouldn’t have met my Welsh father, who wouldn’t have traveled via Kenya to come to Hong Kong to work, marry and have children. I wonder if maybe we all just should have stayed put where were born. There are several logical fallacies at play here, I know, but stay with me if you will.
Or, perhaps the invention of long-distance travel was not so much to blame as the penchant of world superpowers to dominate substantial chunks of the planet. Yes. Let’s blame colonization.
In the opening chapter of his autobiography Going Solo, Roald Dahl makes mention of meeting some of the “endangered species” that were the British colonists. The British Empire was winding down and with it came the “extinction” of several of the by-products of colonization. I had never thought of it this way. As a by-product of a specific moment in history we, the Hong Kongers who spanned that time, truly are an endangered species. We will die out, and take with us all that was the place we inhabited during that era. Annoyingly, the exact same principle could easily be applied to anyone existing anywhere in any span of history, but I still argue that there is something poignant, potent even, about the combination of factors that collided to make Hong Kong what it was. If you were there you will agree.
It is hard to express to non-Hong Kongers just how exceptional a place Hong Kong was, and to some people still is, and to others still, hopefully one day will be again. There is nothing the rest of the world would consider conventional about the place. It is a small but beautifully formed land of possibility where you could find anything you want, as well as several other things that hadn’t even crossed your mind. It’s no melting pot: it’s a flaming wok of people and ideas. It’s a couple of paint pots accidentally knocked onto an old canvas to create a priceless and irreplaceable work of pure art.
Around the time I had my first baby in a local hospital there was a big issue about pregnant mainlanders trying to get over the border to have their babies in Hong Kong. Many benefits for them were to be had by doing this, to the degree that some ladies were hobbling through immigration, poker-faced, amniotic fluids trickling down their legs. Hong Kong was up in arms about the scarcity of hospital beds. At the time I thought it rather ungenerous of us, but today I am able to see things differently.
Hong Kong is a heated game of musical chairs. Players have clued-in to the fact that unless they fight hard, play dirty even, there is a very real chance that they will be caught out when the music stops. They feign nonchalance to cover frenzied dismay, noticing that with each round, more than one chair is being removed, and yet at the same time new players are joining the game.
Scarcity is a real problem in Hong Kong. In my opinion it’s the main one. I’ve begun to see Hong Kong as a prophetic vision of what the rest of the world has in store for it. With over-population, diminishing resources and an abundance of corruption it is not unreasonable to expect what is happening to Hong Kong to happen everywhere else eventually. There aren’t enough chairs to go around at the rate humankind is demanding them.
Inch by inch small changes can lead to a total overhaul of anything. A humorous old sermon illustration I’ve heard many times in my church-going career says that rather than getting permission from the committee to move the organ from one side of the church to the other, it’s more efficient to move it slowly and gradually, an inch a week until you get it to where you want it. I suspect China knows this.
I don’t know if China’s goal is actually to overhaul Hong Kong and rid it of all that it ever was. Maybe it wants to erase all memory of the British years; maybe it wants to remind stubborn Hong Kongers who their daddy really is; or perhaps it innocently wants its own citizens to experience the uniqueness that is Hong Kong, forgetting said uniqueness will dilute due to scarcity.
Most likely it all just boils down to money. Hong Kong is a cash cow, it always has been, and whoever gains power over it will enjoy its benefits. Hong Kong has been used and abused by more than one power in its history, and the fact that things always seem to be playing up shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who cares about the city.
The two bits of bad news that I think the Umbrella Revolution have brought to light are, first, Hong Kong’s problems are worse than many of us were willing to recognize, and second, the international support we have is substantially less than what we would have hoped.
The good news is there are a lot of Hong Kongers who are unreasonably passionate about their city. They are intelligent, orderly and proactive enough to fight for it with grace and dignity. In light of the good news, who could possibly know where things will go from here?
The Umbrella Revolution protests caused quite an inconvenience – both to the government and general functioning of the city, as planned. They also stirred the minds and emotions of anyone who considers herself a Hong Kong Belonger.
Wherever in the world we find ourselves, we have been forced to remember, and grapple with the thing that we have all known, on some level, all along – that the existence of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong we knew and loved, is not a given. It is a forever shifting landscape. I grieve now, because only now have I admitted that I think the change has happened. It is done. I can’t pinpoint where the line was crossed, but I have to concede, the organ is now over halfway to the other side of the church.
In absolutely no way do I think that this is the end for Hong Kong. More likely it’s the beginning of yet another glorious comeback – another new incarnation, and for the future generations I pray that it is. But my city, the Hong Kong that I, part of the aforementioned endangered species, knew and now mourn, is gone.
Maybe this is just a normal part of getting older – nostalgic feelings for the place of your youth – the time before you took up your share of the burden that is the world’s problems. None of us can go back to there, whether it’s a former colony under threat or a small hometown somewhere in the countryside. We can’t go back because it’s not a place; it’s a time.
There are two different issues at work here – first, the need to let go of the past, and second the garnering of strength to join those who are fighting to ensure an acceptable home for future generations. I have nothing but admiration and the desire to support those in the second category, and at this time of writing I am reasonably satisfied that I have taken a decent step toward dealing with the first.
The home of my upbringing was a fantastically beautiful blip in history; a village sat blissfully unaware in the foothills of an active volcano; or maybe even a tropical island paradise surrendering to the inevitable.