There Is Only One Hong Kong

The Hong Kong protests cannot be easily understood, but that does not mean Hong Kong's youth protestors do not deserve empathy.

5 years ago

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Brittany and I were friendly as coworkers, seated with our backs to each other in an open plan office. She was a white Australian who came to the New York office of the international mega-bank we both worked for (let’s call it IBS, because why not) by way of our flashier Hong Kong office. After just one year, she was completely fed up, and had announced she was going back.

Brittany was dismayed at how little partying New York bankers actually did, despite the image. She was ready for Hong Kong again. Having spent time “working hard and partying even harder” with European expats in the “Pearl of the Orient” — two phrases I heard used unironically by the expat financier class — I understood her frustration with New York City.

“New York is not America’s Hong Kong. There is no Hong Kong outside of Hong Kong,” I told her. She nodded in agreement. At this point we had abandoned whatever work had managed to keep the two of us at the office well into the evening. We swung our chairs to face each other.

Unlike New York, she said, the experience of Hong Kong was that of an adventure akin to going away for college. I concurred, thinking back to a brief time working out of the Hong Kong office. I would spend the days working in our gleaming office in Central, waiting to be gathered up in the early afternoon by a snowballing contingent of young white bankers ready to spill liquor in the Mid-Levels. After that, the more devoted would wander towards the brothel-adjacent nightclubs of Wan Chai. Random shouting, climbing and urinating were the drunken freedom cries of these self-fashioned explorers of the exotic Orient.

As the night transitioned to morning, we would have lost all track of each other in some private pursuit of adventure. I would take a taxi back to the hotel in Sheung Wan. The full morning would come, and the Hong Kong expat workday would repeat in exactly the same way.

“Come and visit me in Hong Kong, ideally when the Rugby 7’s are going on,” Brittany told me. She showed me pictures of her and other expats drinking and partying it up in the stands at Happy Valley, with only a few Asian faces dotting the crowd.

“It’s pure Hong Kong,” she said with a wistful smile.

Image of expats in Hong Kong
Hong Kong 7’s Landing Page

A few months earlier, I had picked up my friend Jason in Manhattan and driven over to New Jersey on a brisk Autumn evening. The destination: a remote outpost of the Filipino fast food chain Jollibee. We and a couple other friends had decided to trek out to the suburban hinterland for a final gathering over two orders of Chicken Joy, to say farewell to Jason as he prepared to move to Hong Kong.

He is Toishanese, and his father swam from the mainland to Hong Kong during the Great Famine. Growing up in America with no identity other than that meager cloth of being “Asian American,” and being more than a decade younger than me, he went about life with an upbeat energy which filled in that ineffable void found in so many of us. He simply could no longer carry on pretending.

Unlike Brittany, he would not move there seamlessly on board a business class flight. He would not settle directly into a furnished corporate apartment in the heart of Hong Kong island. In a reversion to his father’s own humble emigration, Jason would go back to Hong Kong with just some meager savings and a few local contacts who would help him transition. He had no job, a couple friends, and the determination of a salmon swimming upstream in search of its roots.

He was worried he had bitten off more than he could chew. We told him to go for it, don’t look back. I like to give concrete advice meant to inspire brainstorming. Learn to bartend, teach English, and join up with the HK youth movements (which remained active in the period between the 2014 Umbrella Revolution and the chaos now). That advice came from the part of me that was apolitical, unconcerned with what those youth movements actually meant. It was just what seemed to be in the air, a jouissance that he could tap into that was unavailable here. Even though we had marched together in anti-Trump rallies throughout the city — our first forays into public political expression — HK’s movements seemed of a different and more personal kind.

“You’re American, they’re gonna love you,” I said.

I dropped him off that chilly November evening, and that was the last I saw of Jason. I recently DM’d with him on Twitter. He had seen my tweets vacillate between disgust at the nativist xenophobia of the protestors, and sympathy for a generation of lost youth. They seemed to be crushed and ground between two tectonic powers, once locked in a fault line that was now slipping and trembling.

“I’ve been in like 10+ protests, gonna join the chain tomorrow,” Jason typed.

“Please, please, please pod with me about it,” I replied. I had been in a fruitless search of an HK protestor who could explain their subjectivity to me on Escape From Plan A.

“You know for you I would, but I… I just can’t… it’s dangerous. And you’re right, there absolutely are people who are willing to die.”

Photo of Jollibee
Saying goodbye to America at the New Jersey Jollibee

It was my first time in Hong Kong. I was there for work, and so I had boarded the 747 early and settled into a business class pod, mindlessly sipping champagne as the “plebes”— mostly Chinese faces — were forced to march past me. It’s a not-so-subtle tactic to reinforce the difference between those who travel merely to visit, and those who travel for some apparently vital purpose.

The evenings were filled up with work events, mostly drinking and carousing with Australians named Nicholas and Peter and Bridgette. These evenings were about as boring in Hong Kong as they were in Manhattan. It’s mostly a blur, but I remember a Chinese waiter at that brothel-esque bar in Wan Chai becoming visibly irritated by my presence in a place reserved for white expats and Southeast Asian bar girls. A comprador is never given the same deference as a colonizer (nor should he be).

I had one precious evening to myself. I took the funicular up to Victoria Peak, and then later crossed the channel to Kowloon on a ferry. I wandered past the sparkling shopping boulevards and into the quieter back streets in search of a small restaurant. I picked a Vietnamese spot, and sat at a small table over a vermicelli dish as I browsed on my phone.

Across from me was another Asian face, of a similar age, also sitting over some dish browsing his phone. He was dressed like he had just come from work. We looked directly at each other, not giving up the stare for what seemed like a full minute. We were going through some protocol to signal and acknowledge that we, in fact, knew each other.

“Eric? What the hell?” was all I could say.

I was looking at a former coworker who I had been close friends with in New York. We took smoke breaks together between long days spent poring over the pooling agreements and derivatives contracts which, in total sum, became the mortgage and financial crisis of 2008. We had cut our career teeth helping to bring the global economy to its knees. And when we all lost our jobs, I remembered, Eric had left with his family back to Taipei.

There was no gainful employment for a securities lawyer in Taipei, so he fell into a nightmarish arrangement where he would commute weekly from Taiwan to Hong Kong. He lived in a virtual shoe box near Hong Kong Central from Monday to Friday, and spent two precious nights at home with his wife and two young children before leaving again on Sunday night.

The strange synchronicity of that meal inspired us to wander through Kowloon and Mongkok together. We sang in a Korean-owned KTV, accompanied by Chinese hostesses who appreciated my friend’s Taiwanese gentility. We considered taking the ferry to Macau, but ended up instead on the rooftop bar of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Eric and I hung out by the ledge, taking in Hong Kong’s skyline at 1AM while clinking our bourbon glasses.

“This is the same building that Leslie Cheung jumped off, if you remember that,” Eric told me.

I did remember. My sister had come back from Taiwan one summer after partying her mind out on the “Love Boat” cultural exchange program. I think a guy took her to a Leslie Cheung concert; whatever it was, she came back with Leslie Cheung CD’s and posters and spent the better part of a year obsessing over him. We watched almost every movie he starred in that we could find at the video rental in the back of the local Chinese grocery.

“So we both got work tomorrow, which makes it rather ridiculous we were even considering going to Macau tonight,” I said.

“Yeah but when do we ever get to hang out? We could still make it, actually.”

There is nothing left for me to learn about the Hong Kong protests of 2019 insofar as trying to understand the politics which motivate them. The more I read about it, the more a few basic treads are worn into my mind. None of them are satisfactory.

One tread is that wealthy Hong Kong has long looked down on the poor mainland of China. At one point, Hong Kong’s economy was 25 percent the size of the rest of China’s. Now that its global status has diminished, Hong Kongers have erupted into violence out of sheer class contempt.

Another is that Hong Kong is a bastion of liberal Western values which represent the direction the rest of China must follow, and Hong Kongers are fighting for abstract values like democracy and individual freedom in the face of a Chinese communism which brooks no such indulgences.

There are a couple more, all equally improbable as explanations of how, exactly, so many youth are feeling such passion.

As a dissenting American who favors a radical politics of change, it’s hard to get a read on how to feel about Hong Kong politically. Is it challenging the monopolistic business elites who have long controlled Hong Kong as their personal holding? Or is it a pawn in the geopolitical chess game played between the CIA and the Chinese Communist Party? There is no resolution for me, although it seems everyone who comments about it online has definitively picked their narrative.

Then I saw this tweet (which I purposely will not attribute):

"people seem to think that i have my shit together & am plotting some kind of regime change for the hk government but rly im just a 23-year-old without an apartment or a job or a work permit weighed down by existential terror and clinical depression"

All my experiences with Hong Kong are second-hand. I have no family there, and mine never passed through its harbors. I have friends from Hong Kong, but they all seem to either have emigrated there from some other part of China, or immigrated to the West at a young age. I know expats who have moved there, but they’re as alienated from Hong Kong as finance people are from any city they’ve chosen to populate.

I can’t grasp Hong Kong, because I’m not of Hong Kong. And when I saw that tweet, I wondered if maybe those kids and their somewhat ridiculous yellow helmets and gas masks are starting to feel the same way. Do they just want to take all of it back — to be of Hong Kong again — whatever that might mean?

What I’ve learned from the above experiences are: (1) there is nothing more Hong Kong to a white person than white people chugging beer in a stadium while watching rugby, (2) a young Chinese American in Hong Kong without corporate backing will fall in naturally with the protest movements, (3) it’s really nice to see a familiar face in a strange place, and (4) the only part of Hong Kong I was able to connect to the Hong Kong cinema I grew up with, was the place where one of its brightest stars leapt from the 24th floor in the hope of something better.

Photo from top of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Central, Hong Kong
The view from the top of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Central, Hong Kong (source: author)

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Published 5 years ago

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