Hong Kong Love Letter
This is an essay that explores how an independant Hong Kong has shaped my life and those around me. I discuss how Hong Kong is a place where east and west meet, a beautiful amalgamation of land and sea, and the numerous souls it inhabits.
When I think of Hong Kong, I think of constructed canyons that conceal rows of cars and crowds with cityscapes that constantly change. Windows of buildings like the topography of rock walls with bright lights that blind under polluted skies as vehicles rush past on swarming streets and massed highways. I think of towering concrete giants that increment in a continuous fashion, corrugated with cemented hills and streamlined asphalt. The lights emitting from skyscrapers as well as the occasional ambience of cars driving by give a sense of companionship to those wandering alone. Companionship is also felt during the day. When the hustle and bustle of rush hour bumps you from side to side and when the rapid flow of pedestrians encompasses you and fails to disperse. You feel it again when cars screech and honk, and when train doors beep and thud shut.
When I think of Hong Kong, I also think of low-rise decrepit buildings, antiquated temples, customary markets and how one day it could all change. Corners are being torn down, developed, modernized and altered. Bamboo scaffolding is now a trademark visual with workers constantly laboring and the city constantly evolving. My absence from Hong Kong has allowed me to become increasingly observant of the community I have been previously acclimatized to. Now disregarded backstreets, raveling pipes, dingy tattered street signs and obtrusive bamboo scaffolds have suddenly become nostalgic in my memory of home.
However, Hong Kong is also so much more than it’s physical structures. It’s made by the people who live within it. People who have grown up in the same village across generations, living off the land and sea, valuing nature rather than artificial substance. The people who have migrated due to the effects of the sino-japanese war, seeking a safe haven and a better life for their growing families. And expats who have come from all over the world, contributing to Hong Kong’s diverse identity, to a place their children will find solace in calling home.
Change and normalcy go hand in hand in Hong Kong. Change is the only thing you can depend on in a fast-paced mega city that is the ‘fragrant harbour’. And as much as the management of Hong Kong has changed over the years, inching closer to a pro-china landscape, the new security legislation is not change. It is an eradication of a way of life so many people have grown up with and built their identities on. But this isn’t a mourning of a freedom we have potentially lost forever, this is a celebration of everything that makes Hong Kong what it is.
COMMUNITY - [FREEDOM OF SPEECH, PROTEST & DEMOCRACY]
My first encounter with any form of democracy was when I was in year 3 at Quarry Bay School. A 7 year old Crystal with no knowledge on protest or politics, barely able to tie up her black leather school shoes. It was 2006 and people were starting to pay attention to the adverse effects our industrial city is contributing to our beloved island, especially through air pollution. Schools of the ESF (English Schools Foundation) were asked to write about this growing concern. Mrs. Chan was passing out the paper and said “Today, we are going to write a letter”. We were no strangers to letters, at an age where kids were constantly passing notes to their peers across the table. And where ‘love letters’ were left in cubbies with tiny heart shaped enamel stickers sealing the profound words of admiration to the boy with two missing front teeth. But this felt more important than that, knowing that these letters would end up directly on the desk of Donald Tsang, the then CEO of Hong Kong. As much as one letter from a 7 year old Hong Kong native would hardly sway a high ranking government official, it was the fact that these letters, written by me and my peers accumulated into a statement of 2,500 voices and demanded the people in power to listen to our plea. That sums up the sense of community experienced in Hong Kong.
Even before the ‘umbrella movement’, ‘Hong Kongers’ have always greatly exercised their freedom of speech, letting their thoughts be known in such a democratic independent city, a great contrast to the ‘motherland’ that is China. I find it baffling that a post handover Hong Kong was granted 50 years of independence in 1997 and have since been constantly fighting for our freedom and the liberal values we were promised. Although the most recent riots have stolen the spotlight in worldwide news, people have long been speaking out against Beijing's attempts to suppress our independent rights.
In 2003, just 6 years after the handover, Beijing attempted to introduce another security reform bill. The anti-subversion legislation drew fiery outcries from the general public, who have longed for independence. More than 500,000 people took to the streets to express their opposition. After forcing a major government party to withdraw its support, 'Article 23' was shelved indefinitely. Although it was a major victory, little did citizens know, the fight was far from over and the protest was only the start of a string of events in the fight for freedom.
I must confess, politics has never a point of discussion within my family or my life. I was always ignorant to the causes being expressed when masses of people took to the streets, bubbling it down to an inconvenience or a nuisance to my weekends. And after moving away to boarding school in 2014 at the age of 15, I felt even more politically as well as physically distanced from Hong Kong. Only recently have I felt more anguish and frustration towards Hong Kong’s political landscape. I feel so lucky to have grown up with the ability to express my thoughts without further repercussions. To have grown up with the emblem of a Hong Kong passport, granting me access to a multitude of countries, allowing me to see the world. Basking in an incredibly diverse environment, filled with people of different backgrounds. Immersing myself in annual art shows and live music, both of which are taken place in expo buildings, made to showcase the most wonderful things from cross continental and international cities. To be able to order pizza on a friday night, or to pop down to a local chinese diner for breakfast. And having cyber freedom to access a range of entertainment and content, created by extraordinary people I will never meet or know, only for their art and work to end up on my screen on lazy mornings and rainy evenings. It breaks my heart to know future generations might not grow up with the same fearlessness and curiosity to explore anything that stretches beyond our horizons. If history has taught us anything, it is that struggles are meant to be overcome, and mistakes are to be learnt from. But what if even our right to grow and learn is threatened? What if our profoundly different and diverse history is erased?
That was the very cause of the 2014 ‘Scholarism’ protests. To oppose china’s attempts to amend the curriculum of Hong Kong’s education system. They proposed to include more topics on china’s history, culture and national identity. Parents, teachers and most importantly students were especially against this idea, it was seen as “brainwashing of Hong Kong’s youth”. Scholarism was led by then 15-year old Joshua Wong and a number of secondary school students. Joshua Wong became a prominent figure in later protests too, encompassing our thoughts as students and conveying what it means to be part of Hong Kong’s youth. Hong Kong, a place where even a 15 year old can start a revolution. By the time Joshua was 17, he was jailed for his involvement in the ‘Umbrella movement’ as well as other protests. Much like modern day white supremacy, the people in power in Beijing have always aimed to suppress the voices and democratic actions of Hong Kongers who demand independence and freedom. Although China portrayed these incidents as largely chaotic and a detriment to safety, it was the peaceful moments of solidarity that gained international attention. People were handing out free food and water to those who needed it and demonstrators set up make-shift recycling stations. The umbrella became a motif for the protests, with protestors using it to protect themselves from tear gas and police violence. That’s not to say everyone was in agreement on what Hong Kong’s core democratic values should be, or in agreeance of what they were actually demanding from the government, but people came together to stand up for their rights, against something that is majorly ‘un-Hong Kong’.
BORN & RAISED - [GROWING UP IN THE 852]
From ages 0-9, I grew up in what would be considered a traditional family. Mum, Dad, Sister, Me. My childhood is full of memories that echo a past that is no longer viable to me. But when I look back at the best bits, I think of them and us. I think of weekends at Ocean Park, watching the seal show, riding horses on the merry-go-round and winning stuffed animals I'd then put over my bed to watch over me. Home videos show me asleep in my dad’s arms, feeling ever so safe from any danger and future worries. I remember the horror when my mum said she wanted to go on a rollercoaster, worrying for her safety on such a big apparatus that towered tens of feet over a 5 year old me. I constantly eyed the exit, counting down the seconds she would make her way back to me. Even a small moment like that mirrors my mum's openness and passion for excitement, which are qualities she then encouraged in my sister and I. The world and I have changed so much since then. I find seal shows controversial and cruel, I no longer sleep with any teddies and it’s been years since I've been on a merry-go-round. But it’s not the things that we did that I keep hold of. It’s the fact that we did those things together, the four of us, that I hold close to my heart.
That’s not to say there weren’t any bad times. Both my parents came from poor families that struggled to make ends meet. Before my Mum and Dad, no one had gotten any kind of further education. It was all about survival and for my Mum, it meant having to get a job in the real world at the age of 15. My mum gradually made her way up the ladder, starting off as a personal assistant, taking up secretary roles and fulfilling basic admin work. Hong Kong has always given my parents the freedom to grow as people, with little to no help from my grandparents. By the time my mum was in her early 20s, she was able to buy a small flat for herself and my great-grandmother, proving all the doubters in her family wrong which was a real turning point in her life. My mum and dad both went on to complete masters degrees, while working and raising my sister and I. Even though they completed those degrees in Hong Kong, abroad from english universities, it was Hong Kong’s cyber freedom and diligent mindset that allowed them to do so.
As hardworking as my mum was to get to where she is now: Vice President of human resources in a major technology company, there was a whole part of adolescence she missed out on. I feel like as my sister and I reached secondary school, she started to feel stagnant and wanted more of the life experience she missed out on when she started working. Both my parents worked, it was the only way they could afford to support both me and my sister. Which meant that they needed help, and ever since I was 3 months old, Benita, a filipino native, acted like a second mother to me. For Benita, coming to Hong Kong to work for my parents gave her a chance to provide for her daughter, Benelyn and her family back home. Her husband passed away when Benelyn was just 3, giving her greater responsibility as a single mother. Benelyn is the same age as my sister and almost 3 years older than me. It was never my place to feel sorry for her, or Benita, but I always felt like I took her mother away from her when she needed her most. And it’s something that has stuck with me for a very long time. Benita lived and worked in Hong Kong for almost 30 years and the money she earned is only a small fraction of what my parents earned. But Hong Kong gave her the chance to provide her family with a better life and gave her the opportunity to explore a country other than her birthplace. My family is forever indebted to Benita. It was primarily her job to take care of me and my sister, but she took care of all of us and made us feel comfortable enough to live our lives.
Although my mum had help when it came to taking care of her kids, it didn’t relieve the pressures of her job, or the stagnancy she was feeling. As someone in my early 20s, the way I unwind would be socialising with my friends, enjoying the city night life and of course, indulging in alcohol. My mum, feeling like she missed out on those prime years gravitated towards the same things. She was a great mum and supported us like no other. But towards the latter years of my first decade, I feel like I barely knew her, I felt like I lost her a little bit. And I can’t speak for my dad but I’m pretty sure he felt the same. We were drifting as a family and there was nothing I could’ve done to stop it. Arguments started ensuing regularly, harsh words were exchanged that couldn’t be retracted and unforgivable actions had consequences. My dad slept in my room for months. I still held out hope that our broken family could be fixed. Stagnancy, it led to distance. And distance, then led to separation.
Since I was 3 months old, I would go with my family to Taipei twice a year to visit my maternal grandparents. My grandfather had split with my biological grandmother when my mum was just 5. A couple of years later he married my other grandmother and immigrated to Taipei. I think the relations Hong Kong has with other countries has always allowed migration to be a choice for people seeking a fresh start in a new place. This has granted my family the opportunity to branch out all over the world, setting roots in places that would seemingly be foreign, but now are home to them. Not long after my parents split up, My dad opted to have a new beginning in Shenzhen, China, where his business was based. His mainland travel visa gave him the choice to do so, with the freedom to go between countries as he pleased. During those times, I felt like my dad had drifted away from me. He was no longer two doors down from my bedroom, or a quick taxi ride away. He was practically in a different country, with a different life, starting fresh. I would often get upset at the thought he was now living his own life away from me, especially because my mum and I weren’t getting along. Why could he start over, and leave me with all this pain and anguish? And why wasn’t that a choice for me? Even though I felt a lot of heartbreak after his departure, part of me still felt lucky that he was a few train rides away. My mainland travel visa gave me the freedom to keep in touch with my dad and try and be a part of his new life in Shenzhen. He eventually met my stepmother Jenny and had my baby brother Toby. I am grateful that I was able to create these connections with my dad’s new family and am able to be a sister to sweet little Toby. However, I also wish that I didn’t have to compartmentalise, or split, what little time I have home, to make sure I fulfill my duties as a daughter, sister and grandchild. That is life and it’s fickleness. As much as things have been taken away from me, Hong Kong has given me things to remedy them, even if it just eases my worries a little bit.
PEOPLE - SOULS FOUND WHILE SEARCHING
Hong Kong is a place where cultures, practices and people amalgamate. It’s a place that's often described as ‘where east meets west’, becoming two halves of it’s previous parent countries. I personally think Hong Kong is more than just a meeting of two sides. I believe that is an international hub for those who are finding their way in the world. Whether it’s just a stop in their travels, a place where they can fulfill their potential, or a family’s new home. The place touches people, I should know. Although I’ve spent the first 15 years of my life there, I feel that there is still so much more to discover and learn about my culture. Remnants of Hong Kong always follow me wherever I go. I am always comparing the places I wander to, to the first city I fell in love with. What has touched me most, are the people I have encountered. I grew up meeting the most eclectic mix of people, with their own stories to tell about their experiences and connections with Hong Kong.
Ever had a 40 something year old great uncle? In my family there were alot of weird technicalities. Henry is around 6 years younger than my mum and out of all my relatives, I always felt like I related to him the most. Henry went through a lot of the same things as me when I was a kid, things that contrast a traditional chinese upbringing. My sister and I grew up with english as our first language. This was due to my parents’ choice to enrol us into international education from a young age. Being brought up with western education changes your perception of Hong Kong, as you are influenced less by chinese tradition, and more by western exploration. I often wonder how different a person I would be if I didn’t go down this path. Almost everything that shaped me as a child was a form of western export; music, TV, fashion, sport. No one in my family shared the same excitement about things I was interested in. But I would always express these things to Henry, whether it be during family meals or between each trigonometry equation when he tutored me in math. I’d tell him about the new Maroon 5 song I learnt on the guitar, or that Juventus was playing in Hong Kong Stadium on their summer tour, or how I fared in my football game the other day. He was always a good sounding board for the things I didn’t share with the rest of the family.
People always wonder how Henry is related to me. My maternal great aunt is actually half korean. Her father was a sailor who often stopped by Hong Kong during his travels. With my great grandfather working in China, my great grandmother began a romance with this man. Soon after, she got pregnant, but by then, the sailor had gone. It was actually my great grandfather who convinced her to keep the baby, at a time where people who couldn’t have children, would try and buy one for as little as 500HKD (£50). He said “There is no greater gift than family, and this child is your blood.”. So, because of my great grandfather's advocacy, for a child that isn’t even his, my great aunt Sylvia was brought into this world. Henry is great aunt Sylvia’s half sibling, born korean, but raised chinese, and a relative I don’t even share blood with. But he felt more like family than a lot of the distant aunts and uncles that judged me for the way I was raised. So yes, as my great grandfather said, blood is family, but blood didn’t create the bond I had with Henry.
James was the boy next door. He lived in the flat below me and we grew up going to the same primary school. Our family backgrounds could not have been more different. He was half canadian from his mum and half fijian from his rugby coach dad. We were somehow brought together, just a few doors apart. I remember we used to race from the podium lifts to our block after school in the apartment complex we lived in. I remember the afternoons we’d play 1 on 1 in the park. I remember the pool days, where we’d compete to see who could make the biggest cannon-ball. I remember the times all the domestic helpers would gossip about the drama that went on in his house. I remember the pain he silently felt, feeling like he couldn’t turn to anyone. I remember how I understood that there were no words to describe the anguish you feel seeing your family fall apart. I remember the Cristiano Ronaldo and Man United posters he had up in his bedroom. I remember that’s how I fell in love with football. I remember the pet bird his mum got him and how it pooped absolutely everywhere. I remember the childish fights we used to have, but how the next day it would somehow automatically get swept under the rug. I remember the Dreyer’s mint chocolate chip ice cream and the nights we would play Crash Bandicoot on the PS2. I remember feeling safe to knock on his door and hang out for a couple of hours to escape from the intensity I felt at home. I remember thinking, I hope our friendship never comes to an end, wishing that things could always be that way. And I remember coming home from vacation, being told by the security guard that he and his mum had left and he tried to see me one last time. I remember feeling lost and sad, that I never got to say goodbye to a person that brought me such solace.
I was lucky enough to grow up not having to worry about earning extra money to keep afloat. That’s one of the ways my life differs from life in England. It’s such a normal thing here for teenagers and students to have part-time jobs in order to have spending money or to pay rent. I recognise that I was privileged, but also realised that I was not always able to rely on my parents. At 16, after my first year of boarding school, I decided to get a part-time job to avoid asking my parents for money that summer. I managed to get one at a small pizzeria called Piccolo, 5 minutes from where I lived. Even though pizza nowadays is largely commercialised, with chain brands like pizza hut and dominoes reducing flavors to names like cheese, pepperoni & spicy meat, it was interesting to see that Piccolo strived to be as authentic as possible. Manny, the head chef there, was a filipino native. Like Benita, he came from a small village and immigrated to Hong Kong in search for a better life and more opportunities. That summer, learning from Manny was quite an experience. He would spend hours telling me about each italian dish, where it originated from and how it was made. He told me about his earlier days working in even smaller kitchens, trying to perfect his craft. He told me about his disdain for ‘fake carbonara’ made with cream, reducing it down to laziness. He hated how people preferred convenience over authenticity. “It’s disrespectful” I remember him saying, “Cooking is like art, and you can’t disrespect the artist by painting over their heritage.” His pizzas never came out a perfect circle and burnt bubbles of dough surrounding the edges were never to be popped. It was a sign of craftsmanship, letting the pizza oven do it’s thing. I was amazed at Manny’s love for cultures that weren’t even his own. And that’s what Hong Kong represented, a love for culture and allowing people of different backgrounds to cultivate their passion.
It’s hard to pay attention to news about Hong Kong when I’m 6000 miles away from home, knowing there's little to nothing I could do in my advocacy for cosmopolitanism, freedom of speech and independence. Even though I am against alot of China’s principles, I’m not anti-China. After all, my Dad lives there and my ancestry stems from the mainland. But I don’t resonate with China, a place that technically gave me life. I resonate with Hong Kong, the place that let me live and let me live freely. A lot of the conversations I’ve had about the subject might be, to others, meaningless party chat. And I’ve seen my friends joke about fleeing England after brexit. And other mixed-raced acquaintances flaunt the fact they’re of dual nationality. So yeah, they’ll be fine. And having been in England for 6 years now, as well as my plans to stay, means I’ll probably not be affected by the things conspiring in Hong Kong. But it’s not about me or us. It’s about the children who could grow up constricted by a socialist government. Children like my 5 year old brother. Or maybe even my own children if I ever return in the future. It’s about a place of diversity losing its identity and in turn preventing millions of other people from finding theirs. Yet I still hold out hope. Hope that future generations can relate to the comforts of my upbringing. Hope that someday I can be guided home. Not because I am forced to or because I’m no longer enjoying life elsewhere, but because I want to and want my future kids to experience the eclectic life I had. And even though every time the hope I hold out gets shattered, I still feel it and I’ll still say it, I love Hong Kong.