A poem for Hong Kong, inspired by Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning”.
* * *
Stolen land, you say,
The shame of a hundred years
Redeemed on a midsummer’s night.
But the mind is quick to forget
The hardships that brought you here.
Do you remember?
You came to me, the Barren Rock,
Because your dreams could not be snuffed out.
You came because you believed in your right to live,
Your right to think, to speak, to start anew,
To choose your own destiny.
You built a house from scraps
Up there, on the hill.
And when the winds lashed its walls,
When rain turned the soil to rivers of mud,
You held fast to a distant hope.
Inside the temple, the church, the mosque,
You bowed your head in prayer
When it was outlawed from whence you came.
You read whatever you wanted in pursuit of knowledge,
But over those protective hills,
Teachers who knew too much were shamed.
I had little to give, only this land;
A place of anchorage in the storm,
An outpost for you to mould a future,
And I watched as you set to work.
The sweet-smelling incense of the past
Became the diesel fumes of progress.
Fireflies turned to a million stars
Spread out over the folds on my back,
Beneath the stony lion’s watchful gaze.
Do you remember why you came?
Nations rise and fall;
Dynasties are but a fleeting vapour,
Like morning fog on the mountaintop.
But I remain, firm ground for your weary feet.
I am the place where you built this impossible city,
A fortress, a haven, a fragrant harbour;
Yours to fight for and yours to keep.
* * *
I penned this because a sizeable proportion of Hong Kong people have no issue sidling up to the same regime responsible for causing their forebears much grief and suffering.
“Stolen land” refers to how Britain wrested control of Hong Kong during the Opium Wars, while the second line invokes the ‘Century of Humiliation’, a concept in modern Chinese nationalism that is taught in history textbooks and often parroted by the Chinese Communist Party. It was “redeemed on a midsummer’s night” as Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese sovereignty took place on June 30-July 1, 1997.
The ‘Barren Rock’ is the derisive term famously used by Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary, when Hong Kong was ceded to the United Kingdom in 1841. He described the new colony as “a barren rock with nary a house upon it,” adding that “it will never be a mart for trade.”
After World War II, Hong Kong became a refuge for hundreds of thousands fleeing dire economic circumstances and political persecution. My own grandmother, who studied to become an English teacher in Shanghai, was forced to confess her “Western poison” after the Communists took the city in June 1949. She escaped to Hong Kong roughly a year later.
In the fourth stanza, “You built a house from scraps/Up there, on the hill.” refers to the shantytowns that sprang up on hillsides around the city. I remember a squatter settlement near my school that existed well into the 1990s – it was one of the last to be razed. “And when the winds lashed its walls” refers to the seasonal typhoons that buffet the territory, while landslides – a common occurrence in the summer – also make an appearance. Both are metaphors for the challenges settlers faced in their new home.
The next stanza speaks of the freedom of worship and access to information that Hong Kong enjoys, in contrast to Mainland China. Growing up, I remember a story from my piano teacher who lived in Beijing until the 1980s. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Mao’s Red Guards stormed her apartment, confiscating her classical music books and smashing her vinyl records. Her mother saved two precious volumes on the works of Chopin by hiding them on the balcony. At this time, teachers were forced to wear dunce caps and students humiliated them with verbal and physical abuse. Things have greatly improved since China reopened its doors in 1978, but restrictions are still in place, with strict controls on religion and widespread censorship of “sensitive material” both on and offline.
“The sweet-smelling incense of the past” alludes to the legend that gave Hong Kong its name (‘Fragrant Harbour’). Before the British arrived, Hong Kong Island was a centre for trading incense made from the native agarwood trees. It was said that the fragrance could be smelled many leagues out to sea. Finally, the “stony lion” stands for the distinctive peak known as Lion Rock. Rising almost 500 metres above the city, it played a starring role in a TV series that first aired in the 70s, depicting the lives of everyday people living beneath its slopes. Four decades later we still speak of the ‘Lion Rock Spirit’, the shared values of perseverance, solidarity and a can-do attitude that helped propel Hong Kong to greatness. ◊