Hong Kong’s Sickness11 min read

Hong Kong writer Hon Lai-chu on a city dividedtrans. Andrea Lingenfelter

Translator’s note: Hon Lai Chu, an award-winning writer from Hong Kong, wrote this essay at the end of August. At that time, her neighborhood of Tsuen Wan was the scene of violent clashes between police and demonstrators. In early September, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that the extradition bill that initially sparked the protests would be withdrawn, yet the gesture was seen as too little too late, and it was not until October 23 that the bill was formally withdrawn. Demonstrations continued, and the situation has become increasingly volatile, with Polytechnic University under siege in mid November, and a December 8 march drawing an estimated 800,000 participants.
In her essay, Hon Lai Chu writes of the loss of public trust, and references one of Hong Kong’s formerly most beloved and reliable institutions, the MTR metro system, which has periodically closed stations to make it more difficult for people to reach demonstrations. There have also been numerous documented instances of police brutality, as well as organized attacks on protesters by members of organized crime, while police have turned a blind eye. As Hon Lai Chu observes, like teargas residue (which left this writer with a headache and watery eyes after a brief visit to a shopping mall in Mongkok), the after-effects of this conflict will linger long after the crisis has been resolved. – Andrea Lingenfelter

Hong Kong these days is like a body afflicted with a malignant tumor: the mind is unwilling to acknowledge the tumor’s existence and only wants to clean up the annoying but superficial daily signs of disease; yet the heart is plagued by unease. Illness is an ongoing struggle in the body, and only a healthy person has the strength to withstand the battle between good cells and bad cells. Whether we’re talking about one person or an entire city, a bout of sickness represents an opportunity for deeply seated problems to be cured. Although a body that has never known illness may continue to function normally, when toxins accumulate and cannot be easily expelled, the condition can be fatal.

As I write this [August 30 2019], marchers and police are engaged in confrontations in Tsuen Wan. The marchers obtained a ‘Notice of No Objection’ from the authorities, permitting them to gather until 7pm. But starting at noon today, the metro stations at Tsuen Wan and several nearby neighborhoods were closed, and bus service was suspended as well. At 5.30pm, law enforcement began using tear gas, and a water cannon was deployed on charges of unlawful assembly. After two months of protests, the first shot was fired. Those arrested for protesting will be taken to detention centers where, unable to see a lawyer or phone relatives, they will have to face psychological and physical humiliation alone and unaided. We see all of this with our own eyes and yet are powerless to help.

In the past two months, so-called normal life has been transformed day by day, so that while outwardly the city continues to thrive, signs of internal collapse have begun to surface. We have lost the sense of calm and stability that has allowed us to live our lives, and thus we understand with even greater clarity that the current war is not like traditional warfare, where the spectacle of devastation is there for all to see. Rather, it moves in the shadows, embroiling the MTR [metro], the airline, the media, and the television stations. Those in power have been terrorizing people in many different ways, and they hide behind that terror. By making everyone afraid, they can shift everyone’s attention is to their own sense of fear. Before this malignant tumor had metastasized and spread to the rest of the body, the body of the city appeared to be healthy, fostering in people the mistaken belief that they could ignore the problems and return to the illusion of a normal life.

Hong Kong’s malignant tumor has metastasized and spread to the rest of the body”

When confronting those in power and law enforcement, the only weapon that protestors have is their own bodies. Ultimately, hard hats cannot stop bullets, and iron rods and bricks are no match for pistols. Furthermore, the powers that be have changed the rules, so that citizens hurling water bottles constitutes a violent attack, while law enforcement firing bullets at the heads of the innocent are just doing their job.

I feel that I no longer have the space to live safely or in peace. Animosity and anger, like expired tear gas, linger in the air, on clothing, and on the surfaces of objects, even reaching into people’s bodies so that our hearts become ever more cramped and narrow. Whether speaking of those who support the extradition law or those who oppose it, everyone’s psyche is enmeshed in the social upheaval, and most people have no way to focus on their work or lives. As a result, a person’s position on this issue has become the basis by which people judge one another. At school, at the office, among friends, between lovers, and among family members, drinking tea, in Hong Kong-style diners, on the bus, and in every corner of the city, each person has to state their opinion. And as they speak each word, or write each sentence, they have to guard against eyes that may be watching from some dark hiding place.

In this sense, we have already lost the space to live. We no longer have room to breathe. Whether stating an opinion is something others demand of us, or something that we ask of others, it is all rooted in the same nameless fear of everything, which comes of the chaotic situation we are in. Society has lost its old sense of order, and the people have lost their faith, which leaves them feeling weak and helpless. Everybody is anxious to prove that they are right, and this unassailable certainty is extremely dangerous.

Although Hong Kong has always occupied a very small, densely populated area, it is at the same time an unusually open city, one that embraces different voices and viewpoints. This has allowed diverse kinds of people to live among each other, and the city has been a sanctuary for refugees. Yet at times like these, when I am utterly exhausted, it’s difficult for me to be as attentive to the needs of others.

Take for example two of my former writing students from mainland China, A and D. Not long after the beginning of the movement against the extradition bill, A, who had recently graduated from university but was planning to stay in Hong Kong to pursue higher studies, wrote a post on Facebook about being “invited to drink tea” by an individual from the mainland. Adopting a tone of deep concern, this person questioned A about her studies in Hong Kong. A naturally realized that there was an agenda behind this probing, and for that reason she was unforthcoming. Finally, the person gave A a poke in the shoulder and told her: “This movement isn’t something you’d support, now, is it?” This wasn’t a question; it was a display of power. In the last sentence of her post, A wrote that the only way for her to resist was by not nodding her head. Of course, her post was soon deleted.

Plucky and quick-witted D, meanwhile, told me that because she had loved Hong Kong culture since she was a child, she had come here from the mainland for university. Using her wits, she managed to get out of a similar invitation to “drink tea.” Nonetheless, when she went home over the summer holiday to visit relatives, her family, friends, neighbors, and even people who she normally had nothing to do with, instantly detected the Hong Kong in her, and were intent on getting her to express her opinion about the protests. Her visit became one long, drawn-out interrogation.

Not everyone gets to express their own point of view. A and D come from a nation where opinions are preset on their behalf, but since coming to this city their field of view and thinking have undergone irreversible changes, so that when they return to their birthplaces, they no longer blend in. They will always be strangers in a strange land.

I cannot offer them any further support, but I can go on being a Hong Konger myself. You could say that this is my responsibility. At a time when Hong Kong is gradually being whittled away and threatens to disappear altogether, I have been increasingly conscious that the city is being burned into my memory. Many years ago, the Hong Kong writer Xi Xi said that Hong Kongers are not citizens of any nation, but rather are citizens of a city. Because of Hong Kong’s history, the nationality on our passports does not accurately reflect our identity. Thus, we understand that the world a person belongs is not dictated by their race, nationality, skin color or gender; Instead, it is based on each individual’s experiences and ways of thinking. I cannot think of A and D as “students from China”, because they have already established complex worlds of their own.

We have lost the capacity for empathy and fallen into endless division; the only way forward is to renew our connections”

I am also powerless to help homeless people and stray animals that continue to be harmed by the choking smoke from tear gas and pepper spray that lingers in our streets. I cannot find protective masks and eye coverings to fit animals, and toxic smoke has already seeped into the corners of people’s homes through window cracks and air intake fans. I haven’t learned the basics of how to take care of the eyes, noses and skin of pets that have been burned by tear gas. I worry that when this city has been changed beyond all recognition, the animals that live in our homes will no longer be protected.

Perhaps this malignancy is a form of karmic retribution. When law enforcement and government supporters refer to protesters as cockroaches, it reminds me of a news item from five years ago. A stray dog had wandered onto the tracks of the MTR. After metro workers discovered the dog, they tried to chase it off of the tracks. They spent seven minutes but weren’t successful. The next train was waiting. The conductor said that it was just a dog, and if they waited any longer it would disrupt traffic. They let the train move forward, and it crushed and killed the dog. When they reported the event they described it as the “discovery of a foreign object.” In such a hyper-efficient, inhumane system, a dog can become a foreign object; likewise, human beings can be viewed as cockroaches. In recent years, for the sake of profit and in order to keep the machinery of capitalism operating without interruption, we have sacrificed our countryside, our robust healthcare system, as well as countless small shops and reasonably priced homes. Over the past months, at least six people have lost their lives, three have lost eyes, and we have all lost trust in one another. We have also lost normal law enforcement, our daily metro system, many young people, and our physical and mental health. What else is left for us to sacrifice?

The best cure for this malignant tumor may not be to take a scalpel and cut it out. Perhaps all we need to do is to take a long, deep breath, break the bad habits we have developed, and once again open up a space with enough capacity for us to live in. Why was it that five years ago, in the eyes of MTR employees, ten minutes were more important than the life of a dog? Similarly, why is it that in the midst of opposition to the extradition bill, why do the authorities believe that the destruction of public property is more important than a human being losing an eye? Why is it that so many cannot see the suffering of the weak? Could it be because those who have been trained most strictly cannot see where they have themselves been injured, to the extent that they even take the side of the powers that oppress them in order to curry favor with those powers?

In the course of our fast-paced, busy lives, many Hong Kongers have lost connection both to themselves and to others. Are we no longer able to appreciate the more complex, intricate and fragile parts of human nature? If we have lost the capacity for empathy and fallen into endless division, then the only way forward is to renew our connections. We can begin with the connection between our minds and hearts, our bodies and the earth; we can renew the connections with our families, our friends, with lovers and animals; and lastly our connections with those we don’t know and with whom we disagree.

For the blood of this city to recover its ability to flow freely, it will take a miracle. But that’s what life is: a continual hope for miracles, day after day. ∎

Header: Anti-extradition bill protest at Shatin, Hong Kong, in July. (Studio Incendo on Flickr)
This essay was first published in Initium 端媒體 on August 30, 2019, as Seeing the Other” (看見他人) .