In “The Yellow Chair,” first published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 2022, Madeleine Slavick returns to Hong Kong amid the coronavirus pandemic to stand in solidarity with those protesting against China’s encroachment upon the city’s autonomy.
In a meditative voice, Slavick intertwines the hope and the despair that she encounters upon her return. Different colors, literary forms, and environmental elements are juxtaposed both to catalog and to challenge the state’s violence against its people. The text mixes images in blue, symbolic of the brutal police force, with images of yellow, the color of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, and the prose sparks into poetry that reads like a code language of dissent. Hong Kong earth is offered as an antidote to the claustrophobia induced by the state’s architecture of surveillance, and the white spaces left around italicized words punctuate the inventory of loss.
“The Yellow Chair” is a hybrid text which exhibits the pliability of the essay form. Slavick has created a textual filigree of personal and political themes to register her protest against the gradual erosion of civil liberties in a city morphing into a police state.
— Raaza Jamshed for Guernica Global Spotlights
There are twenty-two of us on the plane from Auckland to Hong Kong and about 350 empty seats. I sleep across five. We depart at night and arrive at night.
I talk with one person in the boarding area, ask about my hometown. The heavyset man tells me he lives in my old neighborhood of Tai Hang — his flat is in one of the new high-rises; mine was a tong lau, a low-rise walk-up.
Yes, he assures me, the congee shop is still there.
I smile, glad I’ll be able to see the family who owns that shop, my old neighbors.
“What does it feel like to live in Hong Kong these days?”
“Oh, a mess, but it doesn’t really affect me; I am not going to overthrow the Chinese government.”
“File in order. File in order.”
It’s past midnight when the flight arrives at a near-empty airport, and our group makes its way through makeshift corridors of quarantine control, with several documentation checks, a newly assigned QR code, and a PCR test in a partitioned room, where a woman in a blue gown takes a swab from my throat and each nostril. Afterwards, a very-white-bread sandwich, crackers, and a bottle of water.
Hong Kong follows China’s Zero-COVID Policy and has had one of the strictest quarantine controls in the world. Coming from New Zealand, low risk at the time, my confinement is one week, but if arriving from a high-risk country, the quarantine is three weeks long.
A sign in a corridor states that, to date, 194 people have been prosecuted for breaking quarantine. The maximum fine: HK$25,000 and six-months’ imprisonment.
We wait near Gate 28 for the test results. White chairs. White tables. White floors. Frigidly over-air-conditioned. About one o’clock in the morning. I have wool over most every part of my body in my assigned R2 seat. Still, I shiver.
Negative. We claim our luggage and queue up for transport to our designated quarantine facilities. The man who lives in Tai Hang has flown business class and is slated for a quarantine hotel in Central, the business district. It has the shortest line.
I am in Zone 6, for Kowloon hotels. The shuttle bus to Mong Kok rides through the streets like one of those late night minibuses [that] gun forward, forward / maybe the driver will remember / your last thought.
3 a.m. I arrive at the twenty-seven-floor quarantine hotel, undergo a security scan and temperature check in the lobby, provide my credit card details to a masked clerk behind plexiglass who in turn gives me my room key and a digital thermometer. I ride up to my 190-square-foot room on the twelfth floor, with a bed, stool, built-in desk and closet, bathroom with a tiled oval-shaped shower, a mini refrigerator, and a window, facing southwest.
For seven days, I am drawn to the grey rooftop of a low-rise below. To a yellow chair lit by a stairwell day and night. It becomes part of my heart that is breaking for Hong Kong.
Yellow, the color of the movement to protect basic human rights in my city.
Of the umbrella against pepper spray and tear gas.
And moon. For years, friends have gathered on the night of the new and full moon. With poem, song, guitar, erhu, wine. Gathering across Hong Kong, and on my Tai Hang rooftop.
Every day, a gray-haired woman sits in the yellow chair, changes out of street shoes and into slippers, tucks her socks into the shoes, and tucks her shoes under the chair. She washes towels and t-shirts by hand in one corner of the rooftop and hangs them up in another. She waters the four plants.
On the adjacent rooftop, two white-covered cages come and go, carried by a gray-haired man. I never see the birds.
Across the street, bare-chested men work on a building shrouded with white scaffolding nets. The softest thing in seven days. You were hanging there / like a prize / and I wanted you / I wanted you to stay / stay lit up / my promise / stay delicate
I am not permitted to open the window until I have tested negative at the hotel, and when I do, I have to sign a form that the hotel is not responsible for any injury.
I am not permitted to have the window open beyond 45 degrees.
I am not permitted to lean out the window under any circumstances.
I am not permitted to open the windows from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m.
Every time I open the window, at any degree, at any hour, I smell cement, I hear hum city hum.
Every morning and afternoon I record my temperature. Warmer as the day wears on.
Every evening on TV, suffocating news. Amnesty International is to close its local offices. The Film Censorship Ordinance comes into effect. The Hong Kong Alliance, the pro-democracy group that has run the annual candlelight vigil for thirty years, disbands. Historic items, confiscated.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam, appointed by a pro-Beijing body, appears every night on the news. When Lam worked as Secretary for Development, she was known to be open-minded, able to negotiate. That Carrie Lam is gone. Her coldness now like that of a news anchor on CCTV (China Central Television) yet with a British accent, clipped.
I spit into a specimen bottle, more than one millimeter. A bit pink.
The instructions for the DIY test are in six languages. The mental health hotline by Centre for Harmony and Enhancement of Ethnic Minority Residents operates in eight.
A week of plastic. Plates, bowls, trays. A case of twenty-four water bottles. Food is bagged. Plastic wastebaskets and shower curtain. A plastic blue bird on a plastic golden branch by each room number in the hallway. The cutlery comes in a blue plastic case with the message: “We love our planet as you do.” When I request some salt for the bland food, it arrives in a small black plastic tub, with a plastic lid.
After every meal, the plastic trays rinsed for recycling and placed in a designated black plastic bag, bulging by the day. Every afternoon, the non-recyclable trash placed outside the door in a white plastic bag for a 1:30–2 p.m. pick-up; a fine of a HK$200 per bag if I am late. Once, as I am duly depositing the refuse, a person is cleaning the opposite room. Another living being. Right here, now. We smile. Then she looks away.
Another joy: a friend delivers fresh fruit to the hotel entrance. The security guard arranges to have it placed outside my door within six minutes.
A third: complimentary copies of Looking Back at Hong Kong: An Anthology of Writing and Art sent to me by the editor. Each day during my stay, I read one contributor’s work, including my own. A way to re-enter my Hong Kong.
I telephone friends and colleagues with the hotel’s free phone, though many do not pick up calls from numbers beginning with 3 — often from government offices or spammers.
The friends I do reach sigh. They use similar words. Angry. Bruised. Broken. Angst. Tired. Yet they will stay in this home forever. They “just really fucking love Hong Kong” and are finding ways to live with the changes. REcreate/ REthink/ REvisit/ REview, reads the website of a media company where a journalist-friend now works.
Many others have gone to live in Taiwan, Canada, Australia, England, Portugal. Some left within days of the National Security Law (June 2020). One left without telling anyone, others are still deciding what to do.
I read a history of walking — city streets, gardens, mountains, countryside, trails. Wanderlust, by Rebecca Solnit. She says that we come to know the world through the body and the body through the world. “I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.”
is walking and freedom the same thing?
the way we step
with the soft scissors of our metronome arms
sometimes we hum
Two PCR tests in the seven-day quarantine, administered by a team of three who come to the door in white gowns and PPE gear from head to foot. I bring my chair to the doorway; they duly collect specimens from the throat and nose.
The results come straight to my phone.
The sender: HKSARG. (Hong Kong Special Administration Region Government.)
On my last quarantine morning, I breakfast by the window like all the other mornings, and look out at the yellow chair. The woman is not there.
Upon release, the first thing I see is a tree. In front of the main door of the hotel.
one leaf, one moment, I have written
Buddhists believe, “one leaf, one world.”
Then I see a best friend with her smile; I return a wide one.
I am told of a new mandate: the Leave Home Safe app must be used to trace our movements, and absolutely required to enter any government-run facility, including the official testing centers for my three additional PCR tests over the next nine days.
Scan the QR code with a smartphone. Place a hand at the temperature check. Your bag may be inspected. On the second day of the mandate, three civil servants are found to be using a fake app.
The best friend and I make our way from the quarantine hotel to The Star Ferry to cross the harbor, then a second ferry to the carless island where I will stay.
On that Sunday morning, we do not use the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) which prides itself on efficiency, running 19 or 19.5 hours of the day, depending on the line. Many people boycott the MTR after its non-support during the movement, when protestors were beaten, tear-gassed, and staff did not assist them or help apprehend the criminals.
Everyone wears a mask. In cooler temperatures, a mask can feel like a comforting mouth scarf, but it is hotter than average when I am in Hong Kong, 30°C at times. My breath, my mind, my body remembers SARS.
eyes already there
now send us more: against white
masks, lids become lips
Almost oases, these isles, where it may yet be possible not to be suffocated. Chairs placed out for all to use in public squares, shaded. Community gardens. Orchards. Mountain trails. Beaches. Roaming water buffalo, boar. Wild papaya, pineapple, banana. Bayside pubs, eateries, restaurants. Islanders, an inspiring and well-designed community magazine. And the ferry, faster or slower, to travel by and arrive: I never see who is driving me home.
waves sipping something tender
wind crossing into another country
small hands holding cup moments
a single stream, meandering
our pool skin
But do not daydream. Police monitor passengers right at the pier and patrol the isles in uniform or plainclothes. For years, I lived near Hong Kong’s coal-fired power station that towers a hilly island, its three chimneys not unlike the character 山, for mountain. The massive infrastructure of the airport, built on the largest island just before the 1997 handover, cuts into the habitat for many flora and fauna, some rare. One island is nicknamed Death Island for its suicides. Another has a prison for 532 men seen to be of medium security risk. More than 260 islands in all, with artificial ones in the making.
A friend gives me the use of her island home. Peace, a principle here. Felt from the sky-facing bed to each tended plant. She has undertaken studies to learn how to maintain peace, her job embraces it, and her person embodies it.
I study the millipede at her windowsill. Each leg. There are less than one thousand.
I study the tan fa, the night-blooming cereus that blossoms one night a year. Tonight. Limp by morning.
How are you, I ask a friend. He points to himself, his body, in reply. Peace gaze, I say of him and his wife. Watching, watchful. She gives me some Hong Kong earth from the village of Pat Heung which she has shaped into a button. It is not easy to dig down deep enough to reach clay, she says. And it may not be legal.
I have no words as I receive this land in my hands. Only love, for her, her husband, their Kowloon home, our evening together, the stories they share, the other ceramics she shows me, the meal he has prepared, complete with whiskey over a block of ice on a hot autumn night. In order to stay with them as long as I can, I leave by taxi. I make the ferry with two minutes to spare.
Hong Kong has to burn down to grow again, says a vocal artist whom I call “sister”: a group of us call each other this. The most present people I have met in my 60 years: in body, in mind.
She and her loved one have made their home on an island, serving exquisite French cuisine at a bay named after a pirate. They test, improvise, source the best ingredients, creating community, song, courage, and humor, not just food.
Black kites circle this bay by evening, like the kāhu (hawk) of Aotearoa New Zealand, like the kites that would fly at my Tai Hang window, circling: the wingspan wider than my desk.
Island homes like families, communities; these spaces with generosity, reciprocity.
One large ground-floor home kept wide open where something beautiful might happen.
A top floor studio also welcomes, with words and trees drawn on walls, and out the window: a bak-lan (white orchid) as tall as the building.
Another home has its kitchen on the rooftop; sea, mountain, and horizon part of our foodscape.
I step out onto a broad terrace, a white-tiled expanse, facing, almost embracing, the power station.
My Hong Kong-born godson, suddenly in his twenties, tells me he is content in his relationship, and when I ask how he and his partner met, he says she was the only one at a party who looked genuine.
A large round table. I sit with former colleagues over twenty-one dishes of dim sum and hear about their lives. One is training to be a mindfulness coach. One recalls a peace retreat that she and I joined one weekend. One tells me about the “one leaf, one world” meditation.
When I walk to the Tai Hang neighborhood, I pass the Office for Safeguarding National Security. Housed in what was once a four-star hotel, it overlooks Victoria Park and flies China’s national flag. Dark cars out front. My whole body cannot breathe.
And I cannot find the congee shop. At first. Now half its size, and no longer sited at the corner that I checked and double-checked. Never mind. The mother of the family hugs me, and my heart, my body, is at peace again.
Walking Hong Kong, among its throngs, I recall Wanderlust. Solnit quotes Charles Baudelaire. “Multitude, solitude: identical terms, and interchangeable by the active and fertile poet. The man who is unable to people his solitude is equally unable to be alone in a bustling crowd.”
Most friends have joined the yellow movement for basic rights, and many will stay in their hometown. Of all the countries where people are emigrating, most go to the UK, applying for a special five-year visa, or using their British National Overseas (BNO) passport. I am told that one in five people in Manchester is from Hong Kong. My BNO-carrying ex-husband and his new family will also start again in the UK as soon as they can, but will wait until his elderly mother passes away. His father died at 103.
Another friend cares for her 100-year-old mother at home. She also treats herself, says that she once had blood in her urine, but after two weeks of talking kindly to herself, and walking in the park, she was healed. She says I can try talking, walking, and also cupping my hand and tapping each lung, hard, thirty-six times a day, to heal my chronic cough. She gives me citrus peel, another friend Takabb pills from Thailand, and a third Nin Jiom herbal lozenges from Hong Kong. Love in these acts.
“File in order. File in order.”
Order versus rights. Some say the protests went too far, on both sides. Maybe they shun any violence, by the yellow or blue. What can one expect to happen after months of disruption, some ask. I say that the government’s strong-handedness has gone against the rule of law in Hong Kong.
I have come to Hong Kong to express my solidarity, to maintain my permanent residency rights, and to connect with colleagues and friends after a two-year absence. I expected persecution, anger, sorrow, frustration, claustrophobia, ill health, maybe suicide. All of this is true.
In the months before my visit, I would write, sending messages of kia kaha, a te reo Māori expression which aligns with the Cantonese 加油, gau yau, add oil, keep going, don’t lose courage. I didn’t know quite what to do or say, and I remember many of the responses.
A poet-musicologist: “I don’t know what to do either — just living one day at a time, and trying to keep hope alive.”
An architect-professor: “I don’t think anyone truly knows what to say or do in these difficult days. Except to affirm our love for one another and to be generous with our compassion for those most affected by the traumas of these days. I feel strong because Hong Kong people are strong.”
A filmmaker: “Namaste…We are still struggling, but we will not give up.”
A painter-photographer sent an image that I named Pink Infinity, for having the bright boldness to stand up for one’s freedoms, forever. Pink and purple, please don’t wilt into a prissy pantsuit…Drink long opinions full of violets.
A poet-professor: “I’m as sleepy as a sleeping pill that has taken a sleeping pill. But I can’t sleep. I can’t.”
An artist-professor: “Campus now is a huge canvas… many students were walking up, greeting each other… An activism of care…so pregnant with energy and wit…a people of a people.”
The CCP (China Communist Party) has been muscling Hong Kong and the world for years. I could feel it even in my quarantine room — windows locked, or opened. I felt violence with the Leave Home Safe App; I did not want this government knowing my location, and have since deleted the app from my phone. Yet I feel nothing but ease when using a similar app in my other homeland, Aotearoa New Zealand, Land of the Long White Cloud. In the country of my birth, the USA, there is no such app to use.
During my stay, a friend and I meet up at a live music venue. We attend a soft launch of the anthology, Looking Back at Hong Kong. She is wearing a pro-democracy t-shirt which she says could get her arrested. I choke up as I read from my essay that speaks of unconditional love for Hong Kong, neighborhood by neighborhood, developed over a period of more than thirty years. More than one person in the club cries alongside me.
My t-shirted friend gives me the last edition of Apple Daily. She stood in a queue for several hours to have this piece of yellow history in her hands, my hands, several friends’ hands. When I arrive at my parents’ home in Maine after my Hong Kong visit, one of the local newspaper clippings set aside for me is on the closure of Apple Daily. I mail it to her Hong Kong home.
Weeks later, two yellow media organizations, Stand and Citizen, are shut down, and several arrests made.
Then the “Father of Mindfulness” Thích Nhất Hạnh dies in Hué, Vietnam. His teachings are posted many times on social media; one poem begins: “This body is not me. / I am not limited by this body. / I am life without boundaries. / I have never been born, and I have never died.”
And as I finish this essay, Hong Kong faces its fifth wave of the epidemic. A predictable emergency, yet the leadership again inept. Another set of non-yellow regulations enforced. Another exodus from my city. Another layer of the heart, exposed.
Texts in italics are excerpts from the author’s books: delicate access 微妙之途 (Hong Kong: Sixth Finger Press, 2004), Something Beautiful Might Happen (Tokyo: Usimaoda, 2010), and Fifty Stories Fifty Images (Hong Kong: MCCM Creations, 2012).
Originally published by Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 2022, which describes itself as having “a strong focus on Asian-themed creative work and work done by Asian writers/artists.”