How to Love Hong Kong Despite Everything

How to Love Hong Kong Despite Everything

If you had asked me when I was 18 what I thought of Hong Kong, I would have told you that I was ambivalent. Hong Kong was a place where I just happened to find myself. It was the chaotic streets where dripping water from air conditioners was always sliding down my hair, where the thick summer air seeped with the scent of fried peppers stuffed with fish paste, where the view of the fabled harbor showed a moun­tain ridge peeking out behind jagged buildings. This was merely the setting for the messy childhood I was trying to navigate and survive. I was shuttled between separated par­ents in two different cities, between a private school and a conservative public school, between my father’s good mood and his explosive temper. I had no identity yet—I was not an immigrant or a third-culture kid or even a Hong Konger.

I was not a Hong Konger because I did not yet know what that meant. I was born in Shenzhen, a neighboring Chinese city where my parents met, and arrived in Hong Kong before I turned a year old. My father’s side of the family moved to Hong Kong from Hoiping, China, in the 1950s, and my grandmother brought with her pagan superstitions and archaic village phrases. My mother is from Wuhan, China, and to this day, she cannot speak my mother tongue—Cantonese, the southern Chinese language spoken in Guangdong Prov­ince and Hong Kong—without an accent, swerving back to Mandarin after a few sentences. My Singapore-raised brother and I conversed in English. But my family never thought of this as an emigration story; I’d never even heard anyone refer to themselves as a Hong Konger. It did not seem im­portant then to give a name or a narrative to what we were.

When I was 4 years old, my small city went from being a British colony to an official Chinese region. At the time of this historic event, known as the handover, literature and media depicted Hong Kong as at an intersection of clashing identities. But the truth was worse: We had no identity. The only thing that could be called a Hong Kong identity was the fact that we had some neat colonial buildings but also bamboo scaffold­ing and great Chinese food in our dai pai dongs or open-air food stalls. We defined ourselves in negatives—not communist and no longer colonial subjects. The fact that we had rule of law, which exists in many other countries, became the basis for an entire collective identity. It would take a few decades of experi­mentation before each of us would come to define this iden­tity for ourselves.

If you had asked me when I was 18 what I thought of Hong Kong, I would have told you that I was ambivalent. Hong Kong was a place where I just happened to find myself. It was the chaotic streets where dripping water from air conditioners was always sliding down my hair, where the thick summer air seeped with the scent of fried peppers stuffed with fish paste, where the view of the fabled harbor showed a moun­tain ridge peeking out behind jagged buildings. This was merely the setting for the messy childhood I was trying to navigate and survive. I was shuttled between separated par­ents in two different cities, between a private school and a conservative public school, between my father’s good mood and his explosive temper. I had no identity yet—I was not an immigrant or a third-culture kid or even a Hong Konger.

I was not a Hong Konger because I did not yet know what that meant. I was born in Shenzhen, a neighboring Chinese city where my parents met, and arrived in Hong Kong before I turned a year old. My father’s side of the family moved to Hong Kong from Hoiping, China, in the 1950s, and my grandmother brought with her pagan superstitions and archaic village phrases. My mother is from Wuhan, China, and to this day, she cannot speak my mother tongue—Cantonese, the southern Chinese language spoken in Guangdong Prov­ince and Hong Kong—without an accent, swerving back to Mandarin after a few sentences. My Singapore-raised brother and I conversed in English. But my family never thought of this as an emigration story; I’d never even heard anyone refer to themselves as a Hong Konger. It did not seem im­portant then to give a name or a narrative to what we were.

When I was 4 years old, my small city went from being a British colony to an official Chinese region. At the time of this historic event, known as the handover, literature and media depicted Hong Kong as at an intersection of clashing identities. But the truth was worse: We had no identity. The only thing that could be called a Hong Kong identity was the fact that we had some neat colonial buildings but also bamboo scaffold­ing and great Chinese food in our dai pai dongs or open-air food stalls. We defined ourselves in negatives—not communist and no longer colonial subjects. The fact that we had rule of law, which exists in many other countries, became the basis for an entire collective identity. It would take a few decades of experi­mentation before each of us would come to define this iden­tity for ourselves.

My childhood was set in an old, sluggish neighborhood in To Kwa Wan, Kowloon, near a decommissioned airport and a walled city-turned-park. Dark gaming arcades fre­quented by truant kids were juxtaposed with restaurants that served steaks seasoned with too much tenderizer; the clut­tered facades of public housing stood next to glossy private apartment blocks with their own clubhouses and pools. Across from stores run by ethnic-minority families, theater companies put on plays in a former cattle slaughterhouse.

When the typhoons hit in the summer, we’d tape huge crosses on our windows to keep them from shattering; when a plane flew overhead, we’d stick fingers in our ears. This was my kingdom. I did not understand the evening news on every night at dinner, nor did I venture out much to Hong Kong Island or the New Territories. I stayed mostly in libraries, cramming myself with English literature and Chi­nese history, so I could score well enough to earn a coveted university spot in Hong Kong. I lived inside television shows, books, and (later), the internet.

When I was 16, I had a sort-of crush on a boy from a different school—sort of because it wasn’t so much that I wanted to date him as that I wanted to be him. We never met, but he blogged about director Jim Jarmusch, singer Frank Sinatra, and tattoo parlors. He was what I thought to be the epitome of cool. He later went on to film school in London. I read his blog religiously because I was so bored with my life in Hong Kong. I daydreamed about going to gigs, seeing art house cinema, having intellectually stimulating conversa­tions, and being in the midst of the next great literary move­ment. I could not find any of this at home. My classmates and I were brought up on the belief that nothing was more important than securing a job that would eventually buy us an apartment—a basic human right that had become nearly impossible for my generation—and these jobs were usually soul sucking. Hong Kong’s brand of capitalism made it easy to live in a place and never engage with it.

I thought that when I eventually became an adult, I would be one of those people who power-walked in heels across the bridge of the International Finance Centre in the central business district. The building is an altar of marble floors, luxury shops, and office workers in Brooks Brothers ties—a sleek, phallic tower that thrusts into the thick mist guarding the night sky. My father told me it was normal we did not know our neighbors because no one knows their neigh­bors. I had bought into all the cliches the adults had told me about my city: that it was an apolitical cultural desert inhab­ited by go-getters who had no real values except becoming rich. But I did not know yet that this was a place where paral­lel universes coexisted, and you could live your entire life here without ever pulling back the curtains to the other Hong Kongs.

At university, before I found the universe I eventually wanted to belong to, I lived for a while in the “cosmopolitan city” version of Hong Kong, populated mostly by exchange students, international school graduates, and expatriates who moved to Asia to teach English or find themselves. I learned to see my hometown through their eyes, to become a tourist in my own city. Their paradise was Lan Kwai Fong, a bar-infested slope of drunk men and Jell-O shots. They spent weekends hiking up the Dragon’s Back or cannonballing into water from junk boats and thought the city was so beautiful. Locals here still nursed colonial hangovers and were nice to them. They loved our dumplings and roast meat and noodles as well as the fact that it takes only a short train or ferry ride to get out of the city and be surrounded by trees and reservoirs. Our public railway stops are clean and the trains are mostly on time. The good expatriates ate chicken feet, tried to learn Cantonese, and followed the news enough to make political jokes. It isn’t that the Hong Kong they lived in wasn’t real; it’s that they inhabited one universe in many that exist here, and they only ever wanted to get to know that one.

Through them, I understood why I had been ambivalent about this place as a child. It takes work not to simply pass through a place but to instead become part of it. I did not try to understand why the people hit the streets every year on July 1, the anniversary of the handover, because I never thought I would stay here. Instead, I ached over descriptions of young writers showing up at one another’s indie book­store readings in New York and guitarists and photographers who shared pints together in the London borough of Camden Town. I did not know enough about the place I grew up, did not know these scenes existed here in their own form, that there were people here who could talk about jazz and “no wave” cinema as well as the history of blues music in Hong Kong—communities I would want to be part of and give back to.

I moved out at the age of 18, the first step in a gradual and inevitable process of estrangement from my family. Instead, the city slowly became my family. I found a place of many secrets that revealed itself only when you were ready. I found there were quiet corners everywhere: urban gardens with ponds, outlying islands like Peng Chau, late-night tram rides from one end of Hong Kong Island to the other, small bookstores where the booksellers offered their customers tea and a paperback they knew we’d enjoy. I also found a universe populated by underground musicians in industrial buildings, anarchists who run a vegetarian restaurant, and zinemakers and poets who write in both Chinese and a bastardized English. We haunted the smoky staircases of warehouses, the public waterfront, and restaurants on the top floor of wet markets, drinking until 3 a.m. after protests and chatting about art, politics, and life.

When the occupation movement took place in 2014, I was away from Hong Kong for a study abroad semester and missed the protests entirely. A year later, I began working as a reporter at a local news start-up. I wanted an excuse to let myself finally get to know this place on a more intimate level. I met student leaders who had been guiding crowds through tear gas while I was far away from home. I learned about the many nefarious forces that dictate every seemingly insignificant change to our local neighborhoods, interviewed queer activists and community workers serving older adult populations, and covered the clashes on the streets. I loved looking around me, finally understanding.

Then came the 2019 protests.

On June 8, 2019, one day before the first major protest against an extradition bill that could send so-called criminals in Hong Kong to China, my partner and I were dancing in a warehouse to a Singaporean emo band. The next day, we joined hundreds of thousands of people on the street, all dressed in white, united against the bill. I thought it would be another one of those protests where we showed up for an afternoon, patted ourselves on the back, and went home to our lives. But for the rest of the year, we marched in the suffocating heat, ran away from street battles in neighborhoods we previously barely visited, and watched kids decking themselves in protest gear, hard hats, and cellophane wrap. The fractures left behind by the previous protest movements tore open. On the streets, in restaurants, and in the privacy of our homes, we cheered and grieved together. The government remained unmoved, and Beijing lost patience. In the years leading up to 2019, I had been so singularly focused on trying to rebuild my relationship with the city that I had forgotten it never belonged to us in the first place. For a short window in my adulthood, I thought I had found Hong Kong, when really it was already fading away, one authoritarian decree at a time.

Hong Kong is a city that is always dying. Mainstream media had pronounced Hong Kong dead as early as 1995, and every few months or years, some political commentator who suddenly remembered we existed would pen a new obituary. But we’ve never been as dead as when the national security law was enacted on the last day of June in 2020, a few months after the pandemic put an end to the protests. The law itself was a weapon for Bei­jing to silence dissent in Hong Kong, but it also marked the turning point for a total crackdown that soon infiltrated all aspects of life. We had known all along that this would be the Chinese Communist Party’s script, but the speed with which devel­opments came was so startling that it sometimes felt like pay­back for our petulance during the protests. Within a year, the government would find ways to rid itself of all opposition lawmakers and district councilors, shut down the city’s largest pro-democracy newspaper, and promote former cops to top political positions.

I came of age alongside a city that had just escaped the shadow of colonial rule. We were told we had until 2047 before China would resume total control. I was brought up on the myth that these 50 years would be a liminal space where we could construct our identity: not British anymore and not quite Chinese yet. We had dreams of how we wanted this place to be. During the 2019 protests, an online thread that went viral described what Hong Kong people would want to do if the city truly belonged to us: Make desserts using locally farmed produce; become teachers on East Asian and Hong Kong history; make films about the local experience. These things may not sound like much, but if you had asked a Hong Konger 30 years ago, during the colonial era, they would have talked about building busi­nesses and buying multiple properties.

My generation had more than 20 years to imagine different possibilities in the face of new economic realities and seek out a local identity. But we wrote about these dreams pre­cisely because of their increasing impossibility: Our farmers had been evicted from their homes for large-scale housing projects, and our classrooms and cinemas had been censored. By 2020, our future in Hong Kong had been made so uncertain by the crackdown that those dreams have been cut short or forced to morph into different forms. It was clear we would not have our 50 years.

The day after the national security law was enacted, a gray banner that lay between tram tracks read, “I really fucking love Hong Kong.” The photograph went viral as a sort of declaration of love toward the place everyone told us was now disappearing. The catchphrase accompanied cute protest artwork, playlists of local music, and stories of random acts of kindness by Hong Kongers. But did we really fucking love Hong Kong? The timing of the statement felt almost ironic—like we were describing an abusive partner on their deathbed and couldn’t talk about how much they sucked. I knew that my own attachment to this place was rooted in sentimentality, that the community spaces and grassroots organizers I had found in my early adult years were the exception rather than the rule. Even before the national security law and subsequent government crackdown, Hong Kong had been a difficult place to live in, with its high rents, inaccessible mental health care, and intolerance for nonconformist arts. This was all by design: If you could not survive here, perhaps you would never have time to make this place feel like home. But maybe this is what it means when we say we love this place: We recognize all of its imperfections and still refuse to walk away.

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Last Update: Sat, 19 Mar 22 06:44:01