When Hong Kong used to be home.
Image taken from Flickr user Sonotoki
Three days before your father proposed to me, a riot broke out in Hong Kong. It was the first time in fifty years, right in the heart of Mongkok, the mecca of what we call the Lion Rock Spirit: the intersection of triad activities, prostitution, cheap eats, and hawkers; where a tough-spirited local people made their own lives despite British rule, flourishing from the 70s onward; where billionaires rose up from nothing; where poor kids like me grew up wild. It’s a dangerous place, dirty, cheap, and lovely. It’s the most Hong Kong—the least British—part of Hong Kong. On 8 February 2016, the first day of the Lunar New Year, it was set on fire.
Audre, I grew up poor. No fancy toys, no fancy meals—we grew up buying skewers from the hawkers in our squalid neighborhood. It was because of such hawkers that the riot began. We all have a Lunar New Year ritual we call “street-sweeping”, or going from stall to stall for street food after dinner until our stomachs burst. Unlicensed hawkers, trying to earn just a few extra dollars, have been suffering from government crackdowns for years. The hawkers in Sham Shui Po gradually retreated to Mongkok. This year, people flocked to Mongkok to support them, to protect the hawkers. The police came, too. Skirmishes flared up, then a new formula of tear gas spray was used. Bricks and trash bins were hurled, and the streets were on fire. The police fired two warnings shots into the night—which is illegal in Hong Kong’s crowded streets—and I watched this on a live video stream under a Hawaiian sun, on a university campus while your father taught a class. The riot lasted until morning.
Your father was born across the border in China, but grew up in Hawai‘i. He wants to find a home for you and me here. I moved here last year for him, and for us. You will be born Chinese-American and have nothing to do with Hong Kong. I can’t show you the trees I grew up with, the turtles I fed in ponds, the wet markets where I stood in a corner with my mother watching fish-stall vendors tear the skin off frogs. I can’t teach you how to identify autumn’s arrival by the nuance of a Hong Kong breeze, or what color of sunlight announces winter’s visit. I can’t show you the loneliness of standing over your city as a teenager on a footbridge watching cars pass below, or roaming alone under neon lights. Or the old Cantonese songs of these high-rises, these people, banners, old trams gliding back and forth. You won’t share any of these things of which I am made because the city I come from is disappearing. I have thought of going back to raise you in Hong Kong. I want you to feel your home there, and I want you to lose it with me. Am I crazy for not wanting you to start your life in paradise instead? But my parents thought they’d arrived in paradise when they fled from China to Hong Kong. Nowhere is paradise. There’s no way I can bring you back anything I’ve seen.
Before 1997, we learned that 2 plus 2 equals 4. Now Hong Kong has been given fifty years to learn another logic: 2 plus 2 equals anything.
Dear daughter, I grew up with an eastern view of the South China Sea from my window. Then a cluster of towers rose and blocked my sunrise. But Hong Kong’s people have been losing more than just the sunrise. In the 1997 handover, Hong Kong was returned by Britain to China. Since then, it was given a fifty year transition period and renamed the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, with a Basic Law providing the spirit of “One Country, Two Systems”. But a simpler version is this: before 1997, we learned that 2 plus 2 equals 4. Now Hong Kong has been given fifty years to learn another logic: 2 plus 2 equals anything. Some of us are already learning the new logic. Some resist. We’ve protested against white elephant projects like the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, which is burying its workers while bankrupting us; the Guangzhou-Hong Kong High Speed Rail, which wiped out our indigenous villages; the redundant Hong Kong Airport’s Third Runway, which endangered our Chinese White Dolphins. The first and only time I saw one of those dolphins was while traveling on a ferry; it was a corpse in the sea.
Young people in Hong Kong work eighteen hours a day and go nowhere. Kids hang themselves before they turn ten; they fill blank sheets of scratch paper with “I am very unhappy”; in their art classes, they draw darkness, bombs and death; Last year, a six-year-old girl attempted suicide with scissors to avoid school, and she was not the only documented case.
UNICEF had to release a commercial encouraging parents to give their children at least one hour of playtime. Many of them haven’t been to a park.
Three years ago, 24,400 kids and teens sought psychological counselling, 16% of kindergarten kids showed symptoms of anxiety, 25% of elementary school kids were diagnosed with anxiety, 39% of middle school kids were diagnosed with depression.
The sycophant government is even cutting hospital budgets to fund the Rail project. New mental health patients were already on three-year waitlists for consultation before that. For many years I was one of them, sitting alone in public hospital waiting rooms, surrounded by people with blank faces and hollowed eyes, waiting to be restored to happy lives. We were driven crazy by the city, and then despised by the city, and now it will take even more than three years just to wait to be sent home with generic pills.
I have to teach you this language before a day comes when I might be arrested for speaking it.
My best friend and I used to hang out at the airport when we were young, travelling two hours on the shuttle to get there. It’s the real border, where we would spend whole nights in the narrow zone between Hong Kong and the outside world, which was just a flight away. We used to say Hongkongers are cockroaches: we could survive anywhere, and are no one but could be anyone. When we were kids obsessed with the Backstreet Boys, we pretended to be Americans; later, we found it cool to wear a British accent; in high school, we envied the certitude of the Japanese; in college, we spoke French and my dream was to wander in Paris without underwear, while my philosophy classmates practised speaking German thoughts in German. Hong Kong was a place without gravity, and the airport was the farthest we could go in its dead orbit, neither here nor there, not knowing or caring who we were, lingering in the airport’s in-between. Only after my Master’s in the Netherlands did I realize that none of the people I met feels anything about their airports. For them it was just a functional place for going out and coming back, but for us, this crevasse was home. Now I only want to be a Hongkonger and swear in Cantonese. I have to teach you this language before a day comes when I might be arrested for speaking it. I need to show you what was beautiful in my world, before it’s gone. Already we have almost lost our fishballs and our hawkers.
Before 2014, Audre, I never imagined myself having you. After so many futile years of marches and hunger strikes, in September of that year the massive Umbrella Movement finally erupted. It was led by students in protest of Beijing’s decision to prescreen candidates for the election of our own Chief Executive in 2017. These were the same students who had succeeded in their fight against the “China Moral and National Education” scheme in 2011, led by teenager Joshua Wong and his young group Scholarism. We occupied three districts: Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok. After hearing that tear gas had been fired at children, my sister and I rushed over on a ferry with fruit and Vitasoy cartons as our only weapons. We’d never been to a protest of this scale. We knew no fear, only fury. We stood in front of police shields and were pushed around like prisoners until the second round of tear gas was fired. She ran at the riot police in the smoke, crying hysterically. I threw Vitasoy cartons with all my strength while snatching her away. I even held up my umbrella, ready to fight, but very quickly someone pressed it down. I’m not pro-violence. But I’m definitely pro-defence. I wanted to protect these kids, all the kids; I wanted to protect our future, our Hong Kong. I developed asthma after the tear gas contact that night.
Things changed as the movement evolved. Small stages were set up for public speeches. I, who always get diarrhea and blush and tremble when speaking in front of a class, never imagined that I would speak on the street. Audre, I stood up to speak for you. I was actually fighting for you. The biggest horror in my life is living a life like your grandfather’s: not that he is poor, not that he is boorish or working class, but that he wholeheartedly believes 2 plus 2 equals whatever he was told, that he was viscerally excited to see students at Tiananmen killed by tanks. He loves us. But our sense of the good is polarized. During the Umbrella protests, my sister and I said to him: if you really want to side with mobs and earn dirty money beating up protestors, we’ll be waiting for you at the front line. I don’t want to give you a home you need to resist, a split home in which standing on either side means you must be crazy. The ability to identify true from false, right from wrong, is not innate. It can be taken away anytime. Your grandfather’s logic can take everything away; I can lose my walls, my clothes, my tongue, my freedom, everything—but not 2 plus 2 equals 4: not my wakefulness. To have dignity, after all, is merely to stay awake. I am fighting to protect this till my death so that I can pass it on to you. I want you to feel angry when you should be angry; feel sadness when you should be sad; be full, be autonomous. Do not forget this. I promise to provide a shelter against the world, a shelter of dignity. This was what I told the people when I stood up that night in Mongkok.
I write this under an old banyan in front of the Pacific. The breeze is with me, but the lawn is not mine, the trees are not mine, the park is not mine. The sky is not mine. They belong to a Hawaiian people who have lost them. My home, disappearing too, is an ocean away, in a permanent winter.
In 2014, before the protest camps were cleared, there was one last clash on Lung Wo Road. At dawn, the riot police charged at protesters who were sitting peacefully at the front lines. We fled like there was no tomorrow. The first time I ever fled like this was from triad members, the second time from riot police. I suddenly looked back and saw one of my friends being beaten with a baton. I ran back and grabbed him. He had lost his shoes. I held him, and screamed back, “He is fucking injured we are leaving are you fucking blind?” Later that morning, after gaining back their territory, the police stood above us on a footbridge, smiling, flashing their middle fingers. The Umbrella protests were peaceful, rational, and ended infernally. It was easy to join the Umbrella comrades then: it was non-violent and intellectual. But reason has been proven madness by our crippled government.
Now, we have our first riot. Yet every violent act in the Mongkok riot was directed only at the police, with no looting or excessive damage caused. The only option left is not to gain ground, but to stand ground, to resist. Our Mongkok, burning, injured, and furious, is shaking off a chapter of its desperation. People are only protecting Hong Kong’s status quo, and the price for that is already sky high. Scholarism’s middle schoolers have grown up; one of them, a freshman studying theology, has now been convicted of the Crime of Insurrection with a maximum penalty of ten years’ imprisonment. Does that matter? We are, after all, only another disappearing place from the surface of the earth. Ours will be the same pain as those other forgotten ones, like all the homeless Hawaiians/forced-Americans roaming their lost land where I now write from. We, Hongkongers, are becoming forced-Chinese. Hong Kong is a Scorpio city, used to being abandoned and learning to shrug. But this time it matters. Now our lives are grounded in a historical wheel of annihilation. It is a hand of destruction which is now forming our identity.
I look out my windows here at a crepuscular sky that feels permanently foreign. My heart is filled with indifference to all that is good around me. And I, as always, return to a place beyond landscape. I miss home. Audre, the hardest enemies to fight off are invisible. It could be a system, an ideology. I write this under an old banyan in front of the Pacific. The breeze is with me, but the lawn is not mine, the trees are not mine, the park is not mine. The sky is not mine. They belong to a Hawaiian people who have lost them. My home, disappearing too, is an ocean away, in a permanent winter. Audre, I have to choose between the pain of fighting in Hong Kong, and the pain of watching her suffer with you. I choose the latter. My parents left China and gave us a start in Hong Kong, and I left Hong Kong to give you a start in Hawai‘i. I choose hope. You are my hope.
Lo Mei Wa received degrees in Philosophy from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Leiden University. She was a professional singer, has edited art and design magazines, assisted in philosophical counselling, and shepherded cows. Her poems have been published in Cha: An Asia Literary Journal, Atarvic Poetry, and elsewhere.