Life on an Island

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“The Maldives are sinking and soon they will be completely underwater!”

I was under the age of ten years when this piece of trivia was made known to me. My young imagination conjured up images of island natives wading about their lives knee-high in water. In my mind’s eye the swirl rose gradually until they had to hold their breakfast bowls up above their heads to stop saltwater splashing onto their Cap’n Crunch. Eventually some wise island elder would say to the others, “Okay, its no longer a good idea to live here, it’s time for us all to leave.” And then they would all swim off to a more suitable habitat.

It has only very recently occurred to me that one possible reason that the thought of the sinking Maldives struck me so vividly as a child was that growing up in Hong Kong, I too lived on an island whose permanence was questionable. No, we were not in danger of physical submersion, but as citizens poised to witness the end of Britain’s reign over our home, there was a shared certainty that change was afoot.IMG_4247

Perhaps this is why Hong Kong has been described, quiet accurately, as “New York on Crack”. It is a city on fast-forward. It is the rush of drink orders at the bar’s last few minutes of happy hour. It is a region-wide flash mob, a spontaneous moment that you had to be there for, in order to really appreciate. On some level everyone in Hong Kong knows that change is coming for us and that is why we’d better live it up, play it up, work it up while we still have a chance.

The thing about the Maldives – God bless them – is that, other than a child’s imagined advantage of being able to swim (instead of walk) to school, there really is no silver lining to their situation. Once the inevitable happens to the Maldives, they are, well, sunk.

This is where Hong Kong has proven very interesting, as a small city we have taken more than our fair share of hits in recent years: the 1997 Handover, SARS, Swine Flu, Article 23, China’s National Curriculum, to name some of the big ones. But like one of those inflatable punch bags with the weighted bottom, Hong Kong has always sprung back to life, and usually with more vigor than could reasonably be expected of a little city taking such a pummeling to the face.

But some people can’t handle it. The transient nature of Hong Kong means that at any given moment there is a pocket of people poised and waiting for an event that will serve as the final push toward their departure. Each of the above listed headlines would have given some of these guys enough reason to throw up their hands, book the movers and leave. Meanwhile, the rest of us sat tight – either due to stubborn devotion to the city, lack of awareness or plain lack of options – and we watch until the dust clears just enough for us to continue on our frenzied ways. Our city has always recovered.

After SARS we bounced back with elevator buttons disinfected hourly and hand sanitizing stations all over the place. My in-laws bought a steal of property to boot.

I was born in Hong Kong and have, until recently, assumed that I would live there forever. I was passionate about my home to an unhealthy degree. I judged people as they left Hong Kong, calling them lightweights and concluding they never really loved the city as much as they had once claimed. I eyed up newcomers, trying to ascertain the purity of their motivations for moving to my city. Users, fair weather friends of Hong Kong, I presumed.

About two years ago my young son went through a season of illness that coincided with my own self-inflicted and culturally-approved season of over-scheduling. The too-many commitments and sick child collided and threw me into a state of stress/burn out/whatever else you want to call the feeling of I-can-no-longer-function. Something needed to give, and it goes almost without saying, that something was never going to be Hong Kong’s pace of life. Fortunately for me, my husband chose that moment to propose a sabbatical leave from his job of 11 years. We chose to move to England for a year. We planned to be gone from Hong Kong for 12 months.

Half way through our time in England we realized a year was a very short time for which to have performed such a major relocation. We had only just recovered from our departure from Hong Kong, and now it was time to start planning the return. I hadn’t recovered from my funk and we were just starting to see some positive developments in our son’s health. I had to admit that we were loving watching our daughter enjoy her school’s relaxed open spaces and low expectations. (I got a letter last September telling me there would be a grand total of one homework sheet sent home per week and it was to be understood that the completion of it was not compulsory)!

We chose to stay on in England. At that point we didn’t know how long we would be gone for, and at this point we still don’t have any answers. I started my PhD and Tom is enjoying new opportunities in his work. It seems we have officially moved away from Hong Kong. This was not something I would ever have imagined us doing.

I didn’t see the Umbrella Revolution coming. But boy oh boy, once it happened I couldn’t peel myself away from my computer. One tab for Apple Daily’s Live Stream, one tab for Facebook, one for Twitter, one for the SCMP and one for BBC World news.

It is hard to express the disbelief you experience when watching your city, your streets turn into front page global news. To frantically search the faces in the crowds on the slightly delayed and distorted live feed, looking for your big brother because he’s just SMS’d to say he was heading over to the protest site and not to worry. Not to worry!?

Every cell in my body wrung with flashbacks from newspaper front pages reporting on the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Each cell sick with fear because several loved were taking a stand and I could lose the lot of them. Then came the pangs of remorse over the fact I was not standing with them, and finally a heavy realization that my being there would not change a thing – my city, my tiny beloved city had decided to engage in a standoff with an unrelenting bully. A Pomeranian picking a fight with a Pit Bull.

China is not famous for being reasonable. With my human eyes I cannot see how this is all going to work out – not in Hong Kong’s favour anyway. I have always underestimated the tension between Hong Kong (my birth place) and China (my Grandparents’ birthplace). My Porpor made dumplings and thick noodles like it was going out of fashion (it was). She wanted the whole family to be well educated and cultured, to speak both the Queen’s English and proper Beijing Mandarin. I didn’t know she was the exception rather than the rule. Having family roots in the capital, I always associated myself with the Mainland and felt sad when Hong Kongers dismissed Mainlanders as uncultured or worse. Why can’t they embrace their motherland? I wondered, naively.

Then I educated myself on some of China’s dark history and came to accept the fact that I was wrong to assume the Chinese government was at all interested in goodness, nor in the general pursuit of the betterment of society – local or global.

Thank goodness for “One Country, Two Systems” I thought, again naively. It’s a good thing Hong Kong has that fifty-year margin to figure out how to make this all work. And thank goodness we’ve got Britain there, keeping an eye on things. They promised to help out if we needed it. Fortunately it didn’t seem we did. It is true that after the 1997 Handover very little changed in Hong Kong – nothing overtly noticeable really. The Police force’s uniform changed, and the RSPCA changed its name to the SPCA (it was no longer Royal). Nothing major.

But then property prices starting going up, and luxury malls starting popping up. These malls are filled with designer label shops and hardly anything normal people can buy on a day-to-day basis. I’m no fan of the Golden Arches, but there is something sad about the day you realize McDonalds is no longer welcome in Pacific Place.

The new malls sit beneath massive luxury apartment buildings that hang garish crystals in their lifts and have a dozen security personnel to verify your right to exist on entry. The flats are inhumanely boxy but they are all kitted out with top of the line whathaveyous. Like shit rolled in glitter. And if this is the state at the high-end, what hope is there for anyone? The average Hong Konger can’t afford to own a car parking space, let alone a home.

Now that we’ve been in England for over a year, my children are well and truly not bilingual. If/when we decide to move back to Hong Kong there is no chance they could attend a local school (even if I were to join the mass hysteria that is the application process/hoping for a place somewhere, anywhere). I don’t really want them in the local system for education-related principles anyway. If they can’t go to a local school our alternative is International schooling with extortionate fees. Since Tom and I are both alumni we’d probably get them in, but since we aren’t bankers or teachers one of us would have to work damn hard just to pay the fees while the other one earns for housing and food. This scenario is not impossible, and this is not an article about why I no longer love Hong Kong. I love it more than ever, and I’m in deep lament. The truth is I believe one can create a happy life anywhere (and I’m daily thankful for the privilege of having that option) but since the first canister of tear gas was dispensed I have been carrying a heavy heart and this is how I work things out. My city has changed and this deserves my attention.

Property prices rocketed, and Disneyland came to Hong Kong. The sharply increasing numbers of Mainland tourists became noticeable. Friends from the West complained about how they pushed in lines and unashamedly photographed blonde children without permission. This broke my heart again. It’s very complicated. How can we presume to place our cultural expectations on them? Don’t ask me who our and them are to me, I’m not even sure.

My city and I are similar; we have parents of two different cultures. A third culture has emerged as the result of a lifetime of trying to reconcile the first two. There are literal Eurasians like myself; I am the most common kind, a product of a British father and a Chinese mother. But there is also a city-full of metaphorical Eurasians who are born to a Chinese Daddy, and have inherited his surname and looks, but who live at odds with the western and third culture heart inherited from their British mother.

In less coherent moments I like to blame the invention of long-distance travel for most of my issues. If my Chinese grandparents hadn’t been educated in America they wouldn’t have met, and they wouldn’t have had their number three daughter, my mother, who wouldn’t have met my Welsh father, who wouldn’t have travelled via Kenya to come to Hong Kong to work at the university here, and would never have married my mum. I wonder if maybe we all just should have stayed put where were born. There are several logical fallacies at play here, I know, but stay with me if you will. Or, perhaps not so much the invention of long-distance travel was to blame, as the penchant of world super powers to dominate substantial chunks of the planet.

In the opening chapter of his autobiography Going Solo Roald Dahl makes mention of meeting some of the “endangered species” that were the British Colonialists. The British Empire was winding down and with it came the “extinction” of several of the byproducts of colonization. I had never thought of it this way. As a byproduct of a specific moment in history we, the Hong Kongers who spanned that time, are an endangered species. We are dying out, and taking with us all that was the place we inhabited during that era. Now, the exact same principle could easily be applied (quite annoyingly) to anyone existing anywhere in any span of history, but I still argue that there is something poignant, potent even, about the combination of factors that collided to make Hong Kong what it was. If you were there you will agree.

It is hard to express to non-Hong Kongers just how exceptional a place Hong Kong was, and to some people still is, and to others still, hopefully one day will be again. There is nothing the rest of the world would consider conventional about the place. It is a small but beautifully formed land of possibility where you could find anything you want as well as several other things that hadn’t even crossed your mind. It’s no melting pot: it’s a flaming wok of people and ideas. It’s a paint pot accidentally knocked onto an old canvas to create a priceless and irreplaceable work of pure art.

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Around the time I had both my babies in a local hospital there was a big issue about pregnant Mainlanders trying to get over the boarder to have their babies in Hong Kong. Many benefits for them were to be had by doing this, to the degree that some ladies were hobbling through immigration, poker-faced, after their waters had broken. Hong Kong was up in arms about the scarcity of hospital beds. At the time I thought it rather ungenerous of us, but today as I try to picture life in Hong Kong after that behemoth, the Hong Kong-Zuhai bridge is built I am finally starting to see things differently.

Hong Kong is a game of musical chairs. The players are beginning to cotton on to the fact that unless they fight hard, play dirty even, there is a very real chance that they will be caught out when the music stops. The players feign nonchalance to cover frenzied dismay as they notice that with each round, more than one chair is being removed, yet at the same time more players are joining the game.

Scarcity is a real problem in Hong Kong. In my opinion it’s the main one. I’ve begun to see Hong Kong as a prophetic vision of what the rest of the world has in store for it. I thought about writing my PhD on this but decided it was too kooky a thesis. Not too kooky for a medium-length blog post though.

With over-population, diminishing resources, and an abundance of corruption I think we can expect to see what is happening to Hong Kong eventually happen everywhere else too. There aren’t enough chairs to go around at the rate mankind is demanding them. World leaders need to care about this, and care enough to take action.

Inch by inch small changes can lead to a total overhaul of anything. An old sermon illustration I’ve heard many times in my church-going career says that rather than getting permission from the committee to move the organ from one side of the church to the other, the best way to do it is to move it slowly and gradually, an inch a week until you get it to where you want it. I suspect China knows this.

I don’t know if China’s goal is actually to overhaul Hong Kong and rid it of all that it ever was. Maybe it wants to erase all memory of the British years; maybe it wants to remind stubborn Hong Kongers who their daddy really is; or perhaps it innocently wants its own citizens to experience the uniqueness that is Hong Kong, not realizing said uniqueness will be diluted due to scarcity.

Most likely it all just boils down to money. Hong Kong is a cash cow, it always has been, and whoever gains power over it will enjoy its benefits. Hong Kong has been used and abused by more than one power in its history, and the fact that things always seem to be playing up shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who cares about the city.

The two bits of bad news that I think the Umbrella Revolution have brought to light are, first, Hong Kong’s problems are worse than many of us were willing to recognize, and second, the international support we have is substantially less than what we would have hoped for.IMG_4288IMG_4294

The good news is there are a lot of Hong Kongers who are unreasonably passionate about their city. They are intelligent, orderly and proactive enough to fight for it with grace and dignity. In light of the good news, who could possibly know where things will go from here?

The protests that erupted 76 days ago caused quite an inconvenience – both to the traffic and general functioning of the city (as planned: bravo you inspirational protest leaders). The protests have also stirred the minds and emotions of everyone who considers herself a Hong Kong Belonger.

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Wherever in the world we find ourselves, we have been forced to remember, and grapple with the thing that we have all known, on some level, all along – that Hong Kong’s (the Hong Kong we knew and loved)’s very existence is not a given. It is a forever shifting landscape. I grieve now, because only now have I admitted that I think the change has happened. It is done. I can’t pinpoint where the line was crossed, but I have to concede, the organ is now halfway to the other side of the church.

In absolutely no way do I think that this is the end for Hong Kong. More likely it’s the beginning of yet another glorious comeback – another new incarnation, and for the future generations I pray that it is. But my city, the Hong Kong that I, part of that endangered species, knew and now mourn for, is gone.

Maybe this is just a normal part of getting older – nostalgic feelings for the place of your youth – the time before you took up your share of the burden that is the world’s problems. None of us can go back to there, whether it’s a former colony under threat or a small hometown somewhere in the countryside. We can’t go back because it’s not a place, it’s a time.

There are two different issues at work here – first, the need to let go of the past, and second the garnering of strength to join those who are fighting to ensure an acceptable home for future generations. I have nothing but admiration and the desire to support those in the second category, and at this time of writing I am reasonably satisfied that I have taken a decent step toward dealing with the first.

The home of my upbringing was a fantastically beautiful blip in history; a foothill village sat perfectly happily in the shadows of an active volcano; or maybe even a tropical island paradise surrendering to the deep blue inevitable.IMG_4308

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One response

  1. Beautifully written, emotive and passionately stirring. It was like you reached into my mind and spilled out all my thoughts on my homeland. Amazing peice…

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