40 Years of Being a Hong Konger

In the last few months, Hong Kong has descended into chaos. Riots, rallies, and street fights ripped through the city.

I was born in the 70s, right at the watershed of the millennials and Generation X. I grew up with Nintendos and Japanese comic books. I lived through 1984 when the Mac and the Sino British Joint Declaration were made; 1997, when Steve Jobs and China returned to our lives; the 2000s, when the Y2K bug and SARS epidemic came and went, and the 2010s when Alibaba and Amazon ruled the world.

Here are four stories, four narrow perspectives of what life being a #hongkonger has been like in the last 40 years:

1990: Vanishing and Left Behind

Her name was Anna. We first met in the youth orchestra. She played the cello. She was somewhat of a prodigy. Hence she would always sit in the first row. She had this broad cheek to cheek smile. She was petit, and when she played the cello, it was especially adorable because it looked like she was hugging an oversized brown bear. Like all prodigies, when she got into the mood while playing, her face would be transformed by her emotions: the feeling of longing, passion, despair, elation, would all radiate from her and the “big bear.” I played the violin, and the violin section was usually situated facing the cello section: I had the best seat in the house.

We were both young and blissfully naive. The hormones were confusing, and our understanding of love was purely conceptual. We would just hang out and eat egg waffles, fish balls, etc., before and after the rehearsals every Saturday afternoon. That simple summer was quaint and memorable. The orchestra was working on a symphony by Tchaikovsky, and the melodies, especially that from the third movement, would still transport me back to that rehearsal room: The claustrophobically low artificial ceiling, the faint fragrance of rosin, the chatters and tuning of instruments before the rehearsal started.

“I am leaving after the summer.” She said one day after the rehearsal, as we were lugging our instruments on the way to the Wanchai subway station.

“Oh. Emigrating?”

“Yes. We are going to Canada.”

In 1984, the Sino British Joint Declaration was signed. Even though Hong Kong was promised 50 years to enjoy the “one country two systems”, that “horses will continue to race and people will continue to dance” till the year 2047, many feared the grim future of 1997 when Hong Kong was to be reunited with China.

Our collective worry exaggerated after what happened at Tiananmen Square in 1989. That was the first time I witnessed mass outrage expressed peacefully: Millions showed up in multiple rallies in Hong Kong, in support of the student movement in Beijing. There were concerts hosted by main stream celebrities to echo their support to them students. Businessmen purchased advertisements on the front page of newspapers to denounce the acts of the Chinese government. Professionals and academics would share their perspectives of why the student movement was a just one. It was the first time I experienced this confusing alchemy of utter unity, fear, hopefulness and hopelessness.

I witnessed friends, classmates, and family members emigrated to other countries during my teenage years. Typically there were about 30 kids in a class. At least 10 of them would eventually emigrate. Most of them went to Canada and some to Australia. It was as if Thanos was snap his finger repeatedly while eating dim sum in Central, and people around me would keep vanishing. My best friends Lester and Lucian left after Form 1 (Grade 7). Felix, the only guy that would entertain my interests in computers left after Form 3. Almost all of my more affluent classmates, those who had the means, exercised their options to leave. The mass exodus was part of our lives. Terms like “astronaut” were used to describe parents that had to divide and conquer- one spouse would first move to the new country while the other one would stay put in Hong Kong.

I didn’t leave. In fact, most of my friends I made from the orchestra didn’t leave because most of us were from the lower class, and our families didn’t have the option to leave. We were left behind.

I, too, was left behind by Anna.

1996: How I Met Our Mother

My college journey was surreal because I would enter college as a citizen of a British colony, and would graduate as a Chinese citizen. We left Hong Kong from the old airport and returned to the city in the brand new airport. This difference was ironically symbolic:

“Don’t worry, it’s going to be better. Look! Your return is being celebrated at this fancy gigantic new airport! Yes, this is what life is like as part of China!”

When I first landed in Ann Arbor, it was disorienting. First, the school didn’t actually have a campus, or I should say the campus was scattered around the city. Second, it was huge. There were 30,000 students. My fear triggered the Stone Age instinct in me to look for a tribe to grab onto. I needed that to stabilize the rapidly disappearing sense of self. It didn’t help that Americans were far more exaggerated than most people I had interacted with yet. “What’s up?” “Hey, man!” were phrases that simply didn’t translate. Compare to “Hello”, or “Alright?” from the British, the American expressions were loud, flamboyant, and overpowering. They matched perfectly well with the oversized fries and the screeching high notes of the Star-Spangled Banner.

My instincts were strong. Within a few days, I had found the other freshmen from Hong Kong. We then found the rest of the tribe. There were around 150 of us, roving around the wild wild (mid)west. There were two topics that we would immediately get into: First, where could we find Chinese food. Second, what were the easiest classes that would get us graduated the quickest with a 4.0+ GPA. The upperclassmen would share with us these intricate webs of most efficient courses to take:

“Start with Math 101, then move to Math 201. Try to get to Math 401. Do the same with Stat and Econ. Americans can’t do real math. Don’t pick any unnecessary English classes. For humanities, choose Anthropology 101 and don’t pick Psychology. Too much course work. Join the choir too. Easy 2 credits.”

Many would label people from Hong Kong as selfish and pragmatic. Our motto in life was to make money, to survive, and to preserve ourselves. I don’t disagree with this. Life was so unpredictable and uncertain; it was only sensible to take care of ourselves first. Hong Kong developed rapidly in the 60s and 70s, and opportunities were everywhere. Our parents and we grew up in an environment where there was money to be made. This was the way of life for Hong Kongers.

The class that we must all take, as the seniors would strongly advocate was Mandarin 101. The seniors had been telling us how much of a slacker the professor was. All the professor cared about was the pay, and he couldn’t care less about course work or whatever. The class would guarantee four credits with a 4.4 (A+) GPA.

When I walked into the classroom, it was filled entirely with my friends from Hong Kong. It was a party. The professor was really cool. He would ask us what we wanted to do. We sometimes would ask him to read translated dialogues from Japanese comics in Mandarin to us. He would act out the whole passage dramatically. We would also compose and recite poems in Chinese that poked fun at random things. Every now and then, he would teach us how to read traditional Chinese poems in Mandarin. We would gladly tag along because he had been such a good sport.

One day, while we were discussing his favorite Cantonese pop songs, he said he would like to sing the Chinese national anthem to us. We had heard the Chinese national anthem before, but most of us never paid much attention to it.

This was the first time I saw him being serious. He stood up, and the friendly smile on his chubby face disappeared. Some of us giggled, but his solemness was overwhelming, and very quickly, none of us felt appropriate to make a sound. He started singing the anthem with passion and force. It was not exaggerated, but it was definitely heartfelt. His eyes were pointing somewhere towards the general direction of the sky, or the sun, or, I don’t know, Beijing?

We learned to sing the song. At first, we would just learn the words and casually sing the thing. The professor would sometimes ask us to stand and sing it. Or he would ask us to sing in pairs. After a few classes, I started to develop this strange feeling of patriotism.

We grew up with the Royal British National Anthem “God Save the Queen.” I don’t know what the composer was sipping when he/she wrote the piece. It must have been some kind of stale tea. The melody was slow and unexciting. It’s one of the most anti-climatic national anthems on earth. The world would fall into a collective mild depression whenever a British athlete stood on the gold medal podium and the British National Anthem was played. Therefore when I experienced goosebumps for the first time singing the Chinese National Anthem, I was perplexed.

As many social scientists had since discovered, being part of something greater, was a critical source of happiness. The emotions of patriotism, which was a mix of joy, pride, comfort, purpose, and security, was very new to me. I didn’t like my reaction. Rationally I could not accept I was so gullible. How could something so simple affect me so strongly? Yet, it was visceral, and I could not find it elsewhere. It was reassuring. “Is this the feeling of love? Pride? Is this why people would call their country their mother?” I asked myself. After years of being left behind, for the first time, I felt included.

2002: 🍞 and ⛹🏻‍♀️, Panem et Circenses

I was working for a startup. We were developing software for the Palm Pilot. I am going to claim that we were way ahead of our time. The solutions we were working on were wireless data synchronization and instant messages broadcasting. The only reason why we failed, was because to get the Palm Pilot online, we had to point the device to a mobile phone, using the infrared port. Yep. Nobody was willing to do that. Our start-up failed dramatically.

We had a team of developers in Guangzhou. I had to travel there every week. One week while I was in Guangzhou, it happened to be the week where China and Brazil were playing at the 2002 World Cup. Everything in the city stopped that afternoon. My colleagues and I found a gigantic TV near the TianHe stadium. We grabbed a few beers and heaps of melon seeds and sat down with hundreds of others to watch the game live.

China was in Group C with Brazil, Costa Rica, and Turkey. China had lost 0–2 to Costa Rica on June 4th. (Yep. June 4th). The following game was monumental. China was going to play Brazil, the world’s best team. That team had Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Rivaldo. We got to be on the world stage with the best of the best. Finally, after thousands of years of suppression and being looked down upon, we were part of the elite! China had arrived!

We were also realistic. We knew we wouldn’t beat Brazil. Yet, the beating was utterly painful. Throughout the game, it felt like the ball never went to the Brazilian side of the pitch at all. Our team just couldn’t get the ball out of their feet. They kept coming at us. It was so frustrating and humiliating. Eventually, we lost 0–4.

The 2000s were fantastic for China. We got into the knockout rounds of the World Cup. Beijing was selected as the host city of the Olympics in 2008. Liu Xiang was the fastest hurdler in the world. Yao Ming was an NBA All-Star. These breakthroughs made the progress of China substantial and relatable. They also served as convenient escapes to the otherwise chaotic world: 911 just happened. SARS hit Hong Kong hard, and we in Hong Kong began to struggle with the reality of being a part of China:

  • In 1999, the Hong Kong government decided to seek China’s “interpretation” of the basic law, instead of relying on our own judicial systems.
  • In 2003, 500,000 people went out to the streets to rally against the introduction of “Article 23”, which would “enact laws to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.”
  • In 2003, China opened up individual tourism for Chinese citizens to Hong Kong. The number of Chinese tourists who visited Hong Kong swelled from 6.8 million people in 2002 to 65 million in 2018. This was the beginning of a rapid rise in economic activities and also cultural clashes in the city.

At the same time, the growth and prosperity in China could not be ignored or avoided. Every disappointment in Hong Kong was pacified by news of Yao Ming’s triple-double or China’s double digital GDP growth. More and more people benefited from the growth and opportunities in China. We lived in Shanghai for a few years, and exciting happenings were frequent and glamorous: Gluten-free bread? Cashless society? The world expo? Yep, check, and 有的! I couldn’t contain the curiosity and sense of wonder. What happened in China in the 2000s made me feel more than good. It strengthened my pride and, sometimes, even the feeling of vindication and justice.

Many of us started to look at China differently. I began to appreciate the humongous effort the government managed to put into steering this country forward. I began to label poor deeds as unintended consequences. Many changed our understanding of tragic historical events from anger to empathy. We were trading prudence for prosperity, and it wasn’t easy to detect this slow transformation.

Ultimately, we, meaning both Hong Kongers and mainlanders, were taught to be fearful, to feel self-pity, and that the world was against us: The British fed us opium; 8 countries ganged up on us; the Japanese raped us; the imperialist Americans were jealous of us. Fear and uncertainty drove us to yearn for comfort and appeasement and that feeling of “don’t worry, you are ok. Just follow me.” The circuses were spectacular, and the games felt soul-nourishing. My new mother, although flawed, seemed to have pure intentions. “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Maybe, June 4th wasn’t exactly how I understood it. After all, I wasn’t there!

2019: Climb Every Mountain

It’s Sunday afternoon. It had been four weeks since the government approved any rallies. That meant for Clemence, her decision to join the call from the students to go out onto the streets, could put her in jail. But she had been frustrated with the lack of response from the government. She had to do something.

It was around 4pm when things started to get chaotic. It had been 2 hours since the march began. She had walked for around 2KM, and she was near the government headquarters near Wanchai. Those around her were dressed in black. She wore a sleeveless black top and a pair of black sneakers too. “Wear something you can run in.” She was advised. She wore a surgical mask. Compared to the elaborated respiratory protection apparatuses her companions around her had on their heads, she looked like an amateur. And she was.

Ever since June, both sides had been increasing their level of violence. It had become impossible to find time determining who’s innocent and what’s the right thing to do during the chaos. Everyone was hurling every possible verbal and physical taunts and assaults at each other, waiting for someone “to lose it”: umbrellas, bricks, stones, bamboo bits from one side; tear gas and bean bag bullets from the other side.

Things were escalating rapidly. The police started to charge and the protesters were retreating quickly. The wind had become piercing painful to the eyes. Tear gas had been shot somewhere nearby. Her instincts told her she had to run, but to which direction? A guy decked out in all black, ran towards her, grabbed her arm, and said, “Follow me!” She ran with him for about 2 minutes. She was completely winded. It’s hard enough to run at full speed for two minutes straight, let alone having to do through a thick blanket of tear gas. The guy noticed she wasn’t able to keep up. “See that cafe? See those people waving? Go there now.”

She hesitated. During her preparation for this rally, she learned if she was caught by the police, she might have to endure a slew of unpleasant things, from a brutally violent put down during the arrest, a psychologically and physically abusing interrogation and detention, and of course, criminal charges. If she stopped now and went into that cafe, would that be the safe thing to do? Why should she trust this gothic angry-looking guy?

Then she heard a female voice shouting from a distance, “Get over here now!!” It’s another female protester screaming from the doors of the cafe, waving frantically.

There didn’t seem to be any better alternatives, and the police were closing in fast. The guy in black was still here, clearly waiting for her to get to safety. “Trust me! Get the fuck there now so I can fucking go!” Swearing was his best way of expressing urgency with unconditional love.

She ran to the cafe, and the protesters locked the doors behind her. There was a mix of seasoned and amateur protesters insider the cafe. There was water, snacks, spare clothes, masks, and basic first aid kits. Everyone was cautious, especially towards each other. No one was chatting. There’s genuine fear that under covered cops could have snugged into the cafe. It had happened before in previous rallies, and the place got raid, and everyone was arrested.

She was also skeptical of the place. She had read where restaurants would lure protesters in by offering shelter, yet they would secretly call the police in the back room. The atmosphere was a strange one, where there was a sense of brief pause, yet the air was suffocated with heightened skepticism. Everyone was nervously watching, rapidly considering their next steps, while the world just a street away had turned into a jungle.

She then saw a church nearby on Google Map. This church, according to the secret online forums, was trustworthy. In fact, many churches had opened themselves as shelters during days of unrest. They had decided to contribute to the movement by offering temporary safe places to everyone. Seldom during any movements or protests in Hong Kong had we witnessed the level of support from this many facets of the society: social workers, teachers, religious folks, lawyers, medicinal professionals. Somehow, many had decided to join the protests in their own unique ways.

During previous protests, be it the umbrella movement, or when elected liberal legislators were disqualified, or when progress for universal suffrage was repeatedly postponed, the sentiments of the protesters always varied: Some disagreed with the tactics, others chose not to participate, and therefore the protesters’ fronts were scattered. There wasn’t any truly unified effort, until this time, when millions chose to come out and rally against the introduction of the extradition bill in their own ways.

That’s why Clemence chose to be here. In the past, she was just another mother who didn’t really care and participate much in protests or political activities. This time, however, she couldn’t accept the stance of the government anymore. “When the ignorance and negligence of the government have repeated so many times, and so consistently, it is impossible to wishfully hope that the government will create a reasonable future for my child anymore. 2047 is my son’s future, not mine. He can’t fight for it, but I can.”

I suppose when one (including large groups, say, millions, of people) is pushed to utter desperation, they will evolve and find ways to come together. After years of approaching these societal issues with drastically different tactics, the radicals (those who chose to use force) and the peaceful protesters had come to an approach that would unite them all. There is a saying that has become the motto amongst the protesters: “兄弟爬山, 各自努力.” Some translated it as “We climb the mountains, each in our own ways.” This motto managed to stick because it was probably the most honest and practical expression and acceptance of the inherently polarizing dynamic between the two groups. On the one hand, civility is a virtue that needs to be expressed, no matter what the struggles are. On the other, riots are the last gasps of hopelessness expressed.

When civility and hopelessness are all screaming the same asks loudly and vehemently, the truth must lie somewhere in between …

It has to be …






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