A Dispatch from Hong Kong
“What does your revolution look like?” The words jump out, bright and clear, from the frosted glass façade of a multistory shopping arcade on a busy Kowloon intersection. In ordinary times, such a tongue-in-cheek question might be an innocuous reminder to strive for positive change, but this is Hong Kong at the tail end of 2019, more than six months into what has been termed an uprising, a rebellion, and the greatest challenge to Communist rule in China since 1989.
I dreaded that I would return to my hometown at Christmas and find it on a knife’s edge – so tense and polarized that conflict was ready to explode at any moment. But now it all feels surprisingly normal, surprisingly calm. Open storefronts in the gentrifying neighborhood of Sai Ying Pun display cured meats that are a traditional wintertime delicacy: fatty lap cheong sausages, ruby-red and savory yet sweet; whole legs of prized Jinhua ham resembling Spanish jamón. Restaurants continue to fill with white-collar workers on their lunch breaks, while Hong Kong Island’s double-decker trams, affectionately nicknamed “ding ding” for the sound of their bells, trundle up and down the streets as they have done since 1904.
I get to catch up with my favorite aunt and a cousin studying in California – my sister’s best friend – at a local restaurant they have frequented for years. The conversation flows freely, and the service is as surly and brusque as one would expect of a no-frills neighborhood diner, or cha chaan teng. Efficient waiters set plates on the table with characteristic Hong Kong speed. “What do you want?!” one barks. Another barely conceals his annoyance at our requests for extra bowls to share our different soup orders. The portions are generous – my aunt offers a slice of breaded pork chop that is perfectly crisp on the outside and yet melt-in-the-mouth within. My own baked Portuguese chicken rice, a specialty of nearby Macau, comes with chunks of carrot and farinaceous potato in a mild turmeric-and-coconut milk curry, not unlike Goan caldinha. The dish was something I loved growing up, but after spending more than three years in Indonesia, where spices and herbs are used in abundance, I can’t shake the feeling that its flavor lacks a certain complexity. Perhaps it is I who has changed.
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When I began planning the trip several months before, Bama was adamant that he’d join me for the first few days. But what if we get tear gassed? I asked him. He replied that I knew the escape routes and places to avoid. Besides, he was looking forward to his yearly fix of Cantonese roast duck and har gow (steamed shrimp dumplings) straight from the source. But as the escalating violence reached a crescendo in the middle of November, his worried, soft-spoken mother called him one weekend night. “Are you sure you still want to go to Hong Kong?”
Then came a period of relative calm following the District Council elections, seen by all sides as a de facto referendum on the ongoing protests. Record turnout (just over 71% of registered voters) delivered the pro-democracy camp a landslide win, capturing them an astounding 85% of all contested seats. In Beijing, state media greeted the results with uncomfortable silence or the half-hearted news that the local elections were simply over. The local government’s persistent claim of a “silent majority” against the protest movement had evaporated into thin air.
This is the Hong Kong we encounter in late December. At first glance, the city doesn’t seem so different from before, though I begin to spot traces of the protests at every turn. Horizontal railings were pulled from main avenues on both sides of the harbor to build barricades, leaving forlorn rows of vertical posts and plenty of opportunities to jaywalk. Billboards at tram stops are painted in swirling gray patterns to obscure protest slogans; steps leading down into certain metro stations bear scorch marks left by Molotov cocktails; and patches of hastily poured cement reveal where bricks were dug up from the sidewalk. In a dense urban environment chock-full with visual stimuli, these reminders are sometimes only noticeable if one makes the effort to look for them.
On the Kowloon waterfront, protest graffiti has been scrubbed off the benches and planters at the once-tacky Avenue of Stars, now transformed by one of the landscape architects behind The High Line in New York. Although tourist arrivals have nosedived in the past six months, Bama and I still encounter a large Thai contingent taking in the views of Victoria Harbour and the Hong Kong Island skyline as morning joggers breeze past. We then hear snippets of Indonesian, Russian, American English, Tagalog, and Mandarin being spoken on the promenade. Evidently the promise of cheap flights, major discounts for hotel rooms and restaurants, and an absence of queues at big-ticket attractions is too good to pass up.
Bama and I spend a few hours at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which quietly reopened amid the protests in late November after a four-year, US$120 million revamp. The institution first moved into its current harbor-side premises in 1991, a dull building clad in peach-colored bathroom tiles that was outshone by the Cultural Centre and Space Museum next door. I visited just once or twice on school outings, and even then I can’t even remember what I actually saw in the galleries. Two decades on, the change has been nothing short of remarkable. Gone is the uninspiring and outdated exterior; in its place a gray textured façade simultaneously recalls the waves of Victoria Harbour and traditional Chinese masonry. Inside, the inviting new lobby is drenched in natural light, all rooms have higher ceilings, and the building is crowned with a new glass-walled gallery that offers panoramic views of both the harbor and cityscape.
Most exhibitions inside the museum are free; buying two tickets for 60 Hong Kong dollars (less than US$8) allows us to admire dreamy landscape paintings by J.M.W. Turner on loan from the Tate. But it’s the underappreciated creativity of local artists and Hong Kong’s lesser-known art history that catches my attention. One showcase opens with Waterfall at Aberdeen, Hong Kong, a small 1816 watercolor that is the oldest known pictorial record of the territory. Formerly a precious source of fresh water for European sailors traveling between Asian ports such as Canton (Guangzhou), Manila, and Malacca, the cascade depicted in the frame still exists, albeit with a much-reduced volume.
The institution houses one of the world’s largest collections of China trade art, which details maritime commerce (and sometimes warfare) between the West and Qing Dynasty China from the 17th to 19th centuries. In a dimly lit gallery, Bama and I quietly marvel at engravings and paintings from the Chater Collection, a priceless trove of artworks lost during the Japanese occupation in World War II. About a quarter of the 400-odd pieces were eventually recovered, more than half of those thanks to the heroic actions of two individuals. One wartime Portuguese resident by the name of F.A. Xavier rescued 30 of the canvases from antique shops, while local contractor Sinn Chi Lam spirited 23 discarded paintings out of Government House – then being remodeled to a Japanese-influenced design – and safeguarded them at great personal risk.
Recent years have seen a city-wide discussion over collective identity and a renewed interest in preserving Hong Kong’s built heritage, by adapting colonial-era structures to modern uses and making them more accessible to the public. Late one morning, my father drops us off at the year-old Asia campus of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, a sinuous glass “treehouse of knowledge” that incorporates a former detention center and the once-overgrown ruins of the 1930s-built Jubilee Battery. The latter still watches over the western approaches to Victoria Harbour from its perch on the flanks of Mount Davis, surrounded by thickets of bauhinia blakeana. We’ve come at just the right time: the trees are in full bloom all across town.
I love the bauhinia’s flowers as much for their vibrant purple-pink color as their symbolic meaning. Not for nothing is it also known as the Hong Kong orchid tree: the species is actually a sterile hybrid that was first discovered here around 1880, barely two miles away from where we are standing. British colonial-era administrators adopted its five-petal blossom as the territory’s floral emblem in 1965, and a stylized version appears on the Hong Kong flag and coat of arms. And Hong Kong Dollar coins minted since the early nineties typically show the flower on the reverse side, no matter the denomination. Even in Jakarta, where I pass a row of eight bauhinia trees every weekday on my way home from work, it is difficult not to look upon their gorgeous blooms with nostalgia and a deep sense of longing.
The bauhinia flowers festooning the grounds of Jubilee Battery are probably the biggest I’ve ever seen. Some greet us at eye and nose level, prompting Bama to lean in close and sniff them. “It’s sweet and fragrant,” he says. “Like the scent of roses but more faint.” I have a harder time detecting the aroma, and must close my eyes before finally getting a whiff of its perfume. All this time I had no idea Hong Kong’s emblematic blossoms gave off such a pleasing smell.
Eventually, on the way out, we approach a cleaner who cheerfully says hello. She assumed Bama and I were botanists because we had spent so long examining the flowers. “So you were just taking photographs! I thought you two were seeing if the trees were sick.” Her friendliness and warmth, not traits one would ordinarily associate with hurried Hong Kongers, are entirely unexpected. “The best part is seeing all the “shy grass” [Mimosa pudica]. They used to grow everywhere in these parts but they’re now so rare.” Bama has just sighted a sizable cluster by the concrete footpath, and we react in childlike glee as their sensitive leaves fold up with the touch of a finger.
Because this is Bama’s sixth visit to my hometown, it sometimes feels as though I am running out of new places to show him. But then I forget there are still plenty of outlying islands and country parks where we can soak up Hong Kong’s astounding natural beauty and the slower rhythms of rural life.
I realize just how out of shape I’ve become on a four-hour hike along the mountainous spine of Lantau island (more on that in the next post), and after getting our fill of art in Kowloon, we while away an afternoon at the adjoining blue-collar neighborhoods of Yau Ma Tei and Jordan. Both are gritty and atmospheric; their tenement buildings have not yet been bulldozed to make way for anodyne malls or luxury flats. Our first stop? Mido Café, one of the oldest and most famous cha chaan teng (neighborhood diners) in the city. Its old-school interior décor, except maybe the ceiling, hasn’t really been updated since the place opened in 1950. A silver-haired proprietor points us toward a teal mosaic-covered staircase the moment we step inside. “How about sitting upstairs?” she asks us gently. And so we do, turning left at the top to settle into hard booth seats by the iron-framed window. Our perch looks straight out over the tiled glazed roofs of the mid-19th century Tin Hau Temple, green and lustrous in the soft rays of the winter sun.
Anyone who comes to Hong Kong should try “soy sauce Western”, which can be described as the inverse of American Chinese cuisine, or more specifically, western food modified to suit the Chinese palate. The extensive menu at Mido Café offers a dizzying array of these dishes: ham and macaroni in broth, an enduring breakfast staple; grouper fillet baked in cream sauce over fried rice; crispy deep-fried French toast topped with a slab of butter and drenched in golden syrup. I end up ordering a glass of iced Hong Kong–style milk tea and a hearty baked seafood rice, one of my childhood favorites. The portions are so generous I only just manage to clear my plate.
We work off the calories by strolling the banyan-shaded square in front of the Tin Hau Temple, and then, after admiring the sanctuary’s exterior carvings, walk northwards along Shanghai Street. There are traditional shops selling all manner of kitchenware: woks, large stainless-steel steamers, waffle irons, wooden paddle-like mooncake molds. Bama suddenly stops and waves me over to a display window. Behind the glass, a well-fed feline slumbers in a bed amid a heap of plastic-wrapped feng shui compasses. Bama’s cat radar never fails him.
Beneath a massive apartment block farther up the road, we find the forlorn “Red Brick House”, the only surviving remnant of a historic pumping station built in 1895. What was once the engineer’s office has now been converted into an activity center for Cantonese opera – a role it shares with the nearby Yau Ma Tei Theater, the sole pre-World War II cinema building that remains in Hong Kong. Directly across the street from the whitewashed theater lies Yau Ma Tei’s sprawling wholesale fruit market: a ramshackle jumble of two-story buildings, some so dilapidated that little Chinese banyan trees have sprouted from the roof, their exposed roots firmly anchored in brick and stone. Not even the full force of Typhoon Mangkhut – which sent construction cranes spinning wildly, tore out windows from waterfront office buildings, and scoured sand from beaches when it roared through in 2018 – could uproot these persistent growers. Later, I tell Bama of my realization that Hong Kong’s most interesting and photogenic areas are often the ones that are more unkempt and rundown. “Well,” he replies, “that’s what makes it different from Singapore.”
I lead Bama into a multi-story car park that straddles and envelopes a two-lane highway. But we’re not here to see the elevated road slicing straight through the middle of the building; we’ve come because this is easily the best vantage point over the Temple Street Night Market, a slightly seedy tourist magnet known for its cheap souvenirs and open-air eateries. We stand in the fading afternoon light on the near-empty fifth floor, waiting for sundown when Jordan and Yau Ma Tei will slowly transform into the neon-lit Hong Kong of Wong Kar-wai’s movies.
Down below, vendors at the ramshackle stalls are busy setting up their wares as a sex worker in a miniskirt waits for prospective clients. She leans against a shuttered shop facing one of the night market’s two traditional-styled gateways, its red-painted pillars now bearing the words “Heaven will destroy Carrie Lam”. This refers to the territory’s deeply unpopular (and unelected) leader who has buried her head in the sand since the unrest began last June, when she tried to force through an extradition bill that would have allowed wanted individuals in Hong Kong to face trial in mainland China’s notoriously opaque and dubious judicial system. I also spot English obscenities spray-painted on the street aimed at the police, who are now so despised by the majority of the population that they must now patrol in groups of at least eight to 10 officers.
How did the Hong Kong police force completely lose public trust? Pro-China newspapers will tell you that the violence is purely the fault of the protesters. But while there are methods used by certain frontline fighters that I do not agree with and cannot condone – vandalizing shops, restaurants, banks, and malls perceived to be pro-Beijing; lobbing Molotov cocktails; and beating up ordinary citizens, with the most horrific example being the immolation of an elderly heckler – all this pales in comparison with the shocking brutality meted out by riot, traffic, and plainclothes police. “They deserve it,” government supporters will say. “Don’t defy authority and you won’t get in trouble.”
Among the protest movement’s five key demands – and one supported by an overwhelming 74 to almost 90 percent of respondents in recent surveys – is an independent investigation of the Hong Kong police in their handling of the unrest. August 31st saw squads in full riot gear storming transit stations and train carriages, indiscriminately swinging batons and targeting helpless passengers with pepper spray. In October and November, news cameras captured police shooting two teenage protesters in the chest at point-blank range. Too many have been admitted to hospital with broken bones and other severe injuries; a 15-year-old fell into a coma after taking a tear-gas canister to the head, requiring brain surgery to save his life; while several journalists and volunteer medics were blinded in one eye by rubber bullets and bean-bag rounds. So far, at least 7,000 people (more than Hong Kong’s total prison population) have been arrested, many arbitrarily detained and rounded up en masse under harsh British colonial-era laws.
In stark contrast, not a single police officer has been held accountable despite the many documented instances of excessive force used against protesters young and old, journalists, and bystanders. Much to the bewilderment of my level-headed father, not a single senior government official has resigned. No one in the highest levels of administration seems to be heeding widespread calls for a political solution to a political problem. It is clear that Carrie Lam can only do the bidding of her puppet masters in Beijing.
The protests have exposed deep divisions among Hong Kong residents, even more so than during the peaceful “Umbrella Movement” five years ago that shut down a number of main roads for 79 days. Society is now split into a pro-democracy “yellow” camp and a “blue” camp that is pro-Beijing, pro-government, and pro-police. This is borne out in heated discussions over the dinner table soon after Bama’s departure on Christmas Day. Several older relatives claim the whole saga is being orchestrated by shadowy foreign elements like the CIA, betraying a mistaken belief that young Hong Kongers are simply not capable of organizing themselves, with the help of technology, into a leaderless movement. “Everything the international media says about it is fake news,” an uncle dismissively says. “America is in the business of fomenting color revolutions. After Hong Kong is finished, the next targets will be Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Just you wait!”
Christmas dinner at my grandparents’ is the usual feast: poached salmon, home-cooked spaghetti in a sweet tomato sauce, roast duck and turkey with stuffing. This time, there are also a few small tins of caviar. But the glistening black orbs taste metallic and terribly fishy; small stickers hidden on the bottom of each container reveal that these are more than 11 months past their date of consumption. It could be said that Hong Kong, too, has an expiry date. The clock is ticking toward July 1, 2047, when 50 years of special autonomy under China’s “One Country, Two Systems” policy will inevitably come to an end. My own long-term anxiety about Hong Kong’s future is shared by millions of others, and it is most keenly felt by the students who will be in the prime of their working lives when that inescapable deadline rolls around.
I left Hong Kong for Indonesia in the middle of 2016, and since then, I have watched from afar with great dismay as Beijing has tightened the screws on my hometown. The government’s heavy-handed and tone-deaf response to the protests has thrown the ongoing erosion of Hong Kong’s cherished freedoms into even sharper focus. It is beyond doubt that those in power wish to turn this free-thinking global metropolis into just another Chinese city well before 2047, with a pliant and firmly “patriotic” populace.
Looking so far into the future raises a host of uncomfortable questions. Will the Hong Kong of the coming decades lose its status as a safe haven of dissent? Will we have the same restrictions on information as the mainland, with sensitive topics wiped from the Internet and libraries purged of books deemed a threat to the government’s iron grip? Will Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus alike be allowed to worship without pledging loyalty to a ruthless president-for-life in Beijing? Will anyone be given a fair trial under the Common Law system? Perhaps Cantonese – arguably richer and more expressive than Mandarin – will no longer be the lingua franca, marginalized and reduced to a mere “dialect”. My father tells me this is a foregone conclusion. “Look what happened to Shanghainese,” he says, alluding to the lilting, melodic language full of va va sounds my late grandparents spoke at home in Canada.
On my last night in town, I meet up with an old friend I haven’t seen in five years. “Do you still remember your Cantonese?” she jokes. My friend encapsulates the Hong Kong story. Fluent in at least three languages, she came from a humble, working-class background, attended university, and now holds a white-collar job. But her family, like so many others in this city, is bitterly divided. The difference in political opinion reflects a wider clash between traditional Chinese values (obedience, respect for elders, conformity) and Western liberalism that demands civil rights and greater political representation. It tends to be the younger generations who desire change, whereas many older residents prefer not to rock the boat, maintaining the veneer of stability that allowed Hong Kong to prosper while mainland China went through decades of hardship and turmoil under Chairman Mao. “I don’t understand it,” my friend tells me over Korean rice cakes bathed in a creamy carbonara sauce. “My own parents suffered under the Communist regime before they came to Hong Kong. But they don’t differentiate between China itself and the Chinese Communist Party; it’s like everything the government does must be right. What about the mass internment camps in Xinjiang?”
At the Hong Kong Museum of Art a few days earlier, I caught sight of a video installation projected onto windows looking out to Victoria Harbour. It was then that I first learned of the luting, mythical mermen-like creatures believed to descend from refugees driven from the heartlands of ancient China to its southern periphery. Forced to live between two different worlds, the land and the sea, luting are said to dwell in Hong Kong waters. Local fishermen reported their last sighting of the aquatic beings off Lantau in 1940, though colonial authorities explained that it was simply a dugong.
In a way, luting can be taken as a metaphor for Hong Kongers and their hybrid identity: not quite Chinese and not quite British, steeped in the ways of Chinese culture but adept at moving in international circles. I realize that I am very much a luting, as is my friend, who spent two years in London on a working holiday to gain some precious overseas experience. And much to the fury of her parents, she recently moved out on her own, breaking an unwritten rule to live at home until marriage. “I’m already so westernized,” she says with a half-smile. Inevitably, our conversation touches on whether she will stay put in Hong Kong or make plans to seek a better future abroad. “If I were to emigrate,” my friend tells me, “where would I go?” That kind of uncertainty is also trickling down into day-to-day life. “What has changed, I think, is that people are more focused on enjoying the present because we don’t even know what will happen tomorrow.” ◊
Practical information for visiting Hong Kong now
Keeping up-to-date and informed is especially important in the days preceding the trip. Concise, balanced coverage is a hallmark of news wires from Reuters and AFP (Agence France-Presse). BBC News, The Guardian, Financial Times, and Al-Jazeera are also reliable sources of information. In the U.S., reportage on Hong Kong has been fair, fact-based, and accurate in The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. Locally run website Hong Kong Free Press provides a mix of news stories and thought-provoking opinion pieces; as funding is entirely crowdsourced, the media outlet is not tied to any commercial interests that might dictate its editorial stance.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s most widely circulated English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post (SCMP), is a mixed bag. Excellent on-the-ground coverage by its reporters is often stymied by editors more inclined to fall in line with billionaire owner Jack Ma’s desire to cultivate a more “positive” view on China. This was evident in the vocabulary (frontline protesters are described as “radicals” and “rioters”) and choice of front-page stories the week I was there. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between the SCMP and Chinese state-run newspapers like the China Daily and nationalistic tabloid Global Times.
The intensity and frequency of street protests has been dialed back since a massive anti-government march on New Year’s Day drew an estimated one million people. An updated protest schedule can be found on this Facebook page or alternatively on Instagram. More significant demonstrations typically take place on weekends and public holidays, although the police are now in the habit of banning them altogether, or cutting approved rallies short the moment anyone steps out of line.
It is recommended not to wear black clothing together with a face mask as both uniformed and plainclothes police on the street may mistake you for a protester. This is especially the case for visitors of East Asian descent.
Large-scale transport disruptions are no longer a feature of the protests as they were in the latter half of 2019. However, certain restrictions remain in place at the airport. Only passengers with passports and a flight itinerary/e-ticket are allowed to enter the terminals, regardless of whether one is arriving by taxi, bus, or train.