Hong Kong

I visited the streets of Admiralty and wailed at the Lennon Wall. It was naked and screaming, with a few fluorescent Post-Its still stuck to its side. This was three days after the Hong Kong authorities had cleared everything. Traffic bustled, and people rushed. The day was so ordinary. I think it was a Monday.

The months of Occupy Central, or the Umbrella Revolution, had unfolded as an amble becoming a jog becoming a run becoming a marathon, to a destination nobody quite believed but everybody wanted to see.

More than the images of umbrellas and tear gas broadcast around the world, what drew me to the protest sites at Admiralty, Central, Mongkok and Causeway Bay were the large chunks of stillness in-between. I remember standing on the white median strips at midnight and looking up at the stars, between a few fluorescent-coloured tents. Something thrummed.

The unbelievable thing about the Umbrella Revolution is not that it lasted as long as it did, nor that it had such strong support. It is not even that it happened at all. The unbelievable thing about the Revolution is that it happened this way. In a pulsing metropolis where politeness, organisation and money usually have greater precedence than social conflict, the duration of the protests, and its strength in numbers is a strange phenomenon. Thousands of Hong Kong residents sustained both a rebellion and a celebration. At many points those protesting stretched beyond just the student demographic, involving businessmen, the elderly, families, and immigrant communities. It is not a completely alien concept, since there have been other protests in Hong Kong, but none so prolonged, nor so entrenched, seemingly capable of subsisting for years.

When we think of revolution, we configure in our minds a setting of high drama— screams, shouts, police batons, clouds of tear gas. The Umbrella Revolution did have them, but most of the time, the sites of the protests were carved out spaces of quiet humming, strangely akin to a monastery. Yes, there were bursts of conflict, especially as both the protestors and the government made decisions that impeded dialogue. Still, the overall tone on the streets, for minutes, hours, days, months, was gentleness.

The Hong Kong Special Folio here is a stab at putting together the many voices from many parts of Hong Kong. It attempts to showcase a set of writings that encapsulate the Revolution at its most experiential— to come as close as possible, through words, to understanding what it was like ‘over here’. The works here are as diverse as Hong Kong itself is cosmopolitan, young and figuring itself out like a rebellious adolescent.

So you have an American expat view alongside Cantonese-speaking students— a perspective of someone uncertain about the Revolution, to someone who does not know how to place himself in it. Denis Wong, for example, proves that politics is fertile for good fiction. No 9 tells of a father and son on a mini-bus. Their narrative intersects with another story of protestors inside a tent.

Giving Empathy Time also takes place on top of Hong Kong transport, but questions the validity of the protests. Gershom Tse ponders the relevance of a revolution in a city that knows nothing but instant gratification, as he sits across an old lady with a bloody chicken in a plastic bag.

Sharon Wong and Wai Lok Tsang, respectively, are students of Hong Kong Baptist University. Their work, Police Speech Puzzle and Rules and Facilities of the Best Hotel, are both tongue-in-cheek and acutely aware of the powers they’re up against, and are heartbreaking for that very reason.

Joey Chin’s visual puns and Michael Lai’s song lyrics show the duality present in Cantonese, and with it, the embedded double perspective that can see both the necessity and futility of dissent.

While so many images of the Revolution are top-down views, Martin Witness’ images tell the story from the ground up. They speak of surprise and stubbornness. And Henry Leung’s essay, Ruins Above Water, epitomize the spirit of the protests in its tone— of wonder, humility, and an unspoken but urgent need to document, to write, and to tell others. To make it real.

Let's bear in mind, though, that even with such a gentle mode for dissent, a demand to recognize difference is still just that. The psychoanalyst Esther Bick says the reason a newborn infant needs to be handed to its mother immediately after birth, is so it could feel its mother’s skin. That first sense of outside touch tells the infant it's been born. The sensation of skin on skin is a primordial, atavistic understanding of separation. That natural creation of human borders tells us what we used to think we were of, and are no longer of. The borders tell us of our first existence, our initial understanding of self.

Some say Hong Kong is asking Beijing for a transparency it does not yet recognise for itself. What is Hong Kong today without Beijing? What can it be, ever, without the subjectivity bestowed by powers always bigger than itself? When will it begin to feel its own skin? Perhaps it rests in the consciousness of those who were out on the streets, and those who watched from the high rises, and those who drove by and complained. Perhaps it will be passed on to their children, like a family inheritance. In any case, for better or worse, there is now no going back.

Sreedhevi Iyer
April 2015

Sreedhevi Iyer

Sreedhevi Iyer is a double-hyphen — Indian-Malaysian-Australian. Her fiction work at Drunken Boat has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in Hotel Amerika (US), Free Word Centre (UK), Cha: An Asian Literary Journal (Hong Kong), The Asian American Literary Review (US) and Two Thirds North (Stockholm). She blogs for the Asia Literary Review She obtained her MFA in Asian Writing from City University Hong Kong, and has work forthcoming from Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Sardinia.