As I watched a video of riot police firing pepper balls at protestors from point-blank range, chasing many, screaming, down a steep flight of escalators in a metro station in Hong Kong, I remembered a time I stood at the foot of the same set of escalators over ten years ago. Tai Koo, the site of the station, was where I grew up, and where my mother and I would frequently walk through underground passageways to reach a sprawling mall near our home. My mother had stepped on to the escalators, fully expecting I’d do the same. Instead, I stared—frozen in fear—as the rumbling mouth of the machine before me ate each jagged-edged metallic step with eerie precision, at a speed so fast I couldn’t imagine beginning the ascent.
Noticing me and my mother—who by then was calling me from above—a stranger held out her hand so that I could alight the escalators by her side. Stronger than my embarrassment in that moment was my relief that this guardian angel had entered the scene when I most needed a hand. I glided upwards and upwards, past the mottled red tiles that characterized the interior of Tai Koo station, full of gratitude—and, as I’d later learn, ignorance.
How could something violent ever happen in a world I grew up knowing as the opposite: where strangers held out their hands in metro stations, and the streets were always calm and clean? It took only a handful of years for dozens of people to find themselves thrusted down that crunching, metallic beast, the only hands offered carrying batons and plastic shields.
I was born in Korea, but it was Hong Kong that raised me. My father’s job moved our family to the city when I was four. I hardly knew that we’d spend the next fifteen years calling Hong Kong our home.
And Hong Kong, in every way, was home. It was where I was educated in multilingual classrooms, where the world could make sense in so many different words. It was where I learned to love the outdoors, juxtaposed as it was against rising skylines, during the early morning hikes I would embark on near my home. It was where I met some of the most important people in my life: friends and mentors who, even after my eventual departure from the city two years ago, make me feel like I’ve never left.
But distance has always been engineered into my expatriate’s life. The fact that my family could easily move back to our country of origin, our foreign passports in hand, was only the start. I had been educated my whole life in international schools, surrounded by multiethnic peers who would end up going to boarding schools or moving abroad. Many of those who stayed—both my Chinese and international classmates—spoke English with friends, and, myself included, never learnt to speak Cantonese. We’d spend our weekends hanging out in foreigner-friendly neighborhoods, shopping at international stores, eating Tex-Mex and quinoa salads. Only ten students out of my graduating class of 105 chose to stay in Hong Kong after graduation; as a reference, seven ended up going to the University of London.
My foreignness sat uncomfortably on my conscience, like a sticky film on my teeth.
Yet the discomfort was easy to wash away in the company I was in. Citizens of the world was the optimistic way to put it. Rootless, was how I felt. When I returned to Hong Kong this past summer for the first time in a year, I was sometimes overcome by shame and regret: why hadn’t I learnt Cantonese? Why hadn’t I explored neighborhoods other than the ones I found myself walking through, as if on repeat, time and time again? Why did I feel like I’d put my Hong Kong life on hold just because I’d moved elsewhere?
But there was one question that festered deep in my mind. In the context of the protests that have wracked Hong Kong this summer and beyond, catapulting the city onto front-page headlines across the globe, I wondered something I was embarrassed to admit: why am I not speaking up more for this city?
When I was in the eleventh grade, a movement dubbed the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ swept through Hong Kong, leaving the roads of the city’s financial center at a near-standstill for 77 days. I remember watching protestors, yellow ribbons on their shirts and umbrellas in hand, unrelenting in their demand for universal suffrage: a political promise enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law that Hong Kong—which was a British colony for over 150 years before the handover to the Chinese in 1997—would one day allow every citizen to vote directly for their chief executive. (As of 2019, universal suffrage has yet to be implemented in Hong Kong.)
One day, in lieu of biweekly debate practice, I asked my teammates if they wanted to go to Central—home to Hong Kong’s biggest banks and the heart of the demonstrations—to see the protests. We’re living history, I remember saying, this moment will make history.
Yet the history was not mine to make. That’s how I felt, walking through the throng of people with my large schoolbag on my back, eyes flitting from here to there in a gallant—yet awkward—attempt at bearing witness to something big. Of trying to make sense of it. I remember the conversations that ensued back at school, once the protests had been ongoing for several weeks. Many of us privileged, often expatriate, international school students would ask: what role do we play? Some, especially those of us who weren’t originally from Hong Kong, would question the responsibilities we had towards a city that our families would likely move away from in the near future. I don’t think anyone really doubted the necessity for democracy; it was more the idea of claiming that the fight was also ours, when in reality we were unsure about our commitment, and conflicted as to what space our voices would take up in relation to those whose children, grandchildren, great-great grandchildren would likely call Hong Kong home.
Many of these same doubts and insecurities resurfaced in June, when Hong Kong bore witness to a protest larger than any it’d seen before. After a man from Hong Kong murdered his girlfriend in Taiwan, the Hong Kong government put forward an extradition bill that would allow suspected criminals in the city to be extradited to Taiwan, Macau or mainland China to face the legal system in which their crime originally took place. The only issue? After five staff members of a Hong Kong bookstore went missing—and later, were confirmed to have been kidnapped—back in 2015 for selling books that were banned in China, Hong Kongers’ fears of the Chinese government’s encroaching power in their city were affirmed. Theoretically, anyone could be taken away to China for anti-government activity. Anyone could disappear, just like that, and Hong Kongers were nervous. Unsure.
And, as the world has seen, defiant.
When a fifth of the city’s population came to the streets for the first time, everyone was shocked. Throughout the whole summer, the Hong Kong protest never left the newsfeeds that kept me connected to the rest of my world. Looking at images of millions on the streets, crowding the green football pitches of Victoria Park, I’d feel a rush of awe. Seeing an image of an older woman shouting at riot police—cane in right hand, eyes full of anger—gave me hope. But seeing a paramedic lose her eye, a police officer pulling out a gun in the middle of the street, a young protestor shouting ‘I’m sorry’ in a pool of his own blood—it was nothing short of chilling, and left me shaken for days.
And throughout it all, I wondered: what can I do? What am I supposed to do? There were posts circulating on Facebook about ways in which I could get involved; one of them, and perhaps the most pragmatic, was to donate to the movement, contributing towards protestors’ legal fees and for the helmets, gas masks and other paraphernalia that became increasingly warranted in the face of mounting police brutality. Yet anti-protest propaganda—most, if not all, backed by the Chinese government—would claim that the movement was foreign-funded, or motivated by foreign forces, leading to rumors online that people couldn’t donate from overseas. (After some fact-checking, I discovered that people can donate to local fundraising initiatives from non-Hong Kong bank accounts—but the rumor had been enough to make me doubt my own involvement.)
Like it was in 2014, all of this raised the question of what role I—and all of us who inhabit that strange limbo space in expatriate Hong Kong—play in the protests. If I am foreign-educated, spending most of my time in the United States as I do now, would my voice add to, or detract from, what is happening on the ground? And what does it mean, or look like, to stand up for a place in which you aren’t physically present? Immigrant communities in places like Melbourne and Vancouver were very vocal in the aftermath of violence. But because my strongest connections to Hong Kong lie in a widely dispersed community that teeters between being local and not-local, I struggled to find that element of solidarity outside of social media. Even when I did, in phone-call or in-person conversations with friends, my commitment to the conversation felt wavering, ambiguous. Ungrounded.
There are moments of hope—I think now of an image I saw of two young protestors holding each other in an MTR station in between protests—amidst moments of anger and desperation. But clarity only really comes with time. You need to read the articles, see the pictures, watch the videos. Then the fuller picture emerges.
When do we gain the right to call a place home—and what responsibilities do we hold to the place once we do?
It’s been twenty weeks since the protests started, and I still find myself asking these questions. These weeks have not been easy for anyone who in some way have a connection to Hong Kong. It is strange to be resuming life, business as usual, when something big and unprecedented continues to unfurl in a city that I still introduce as “one of my homes.”
Having returned to campus for the fall semester, I’ve found myself in multiple situations in which friends have asked me about Hong Kong. I read your Facebook post, they’d say, in a late-night party or in passing on campus roads. I’d written these Facebook posts in moments of helplessness over the summer, watching the protests unfold via status updates and Twitter threads from place that weren’t Hong Kong. How are you feeling about everything?
With each mention of Hong Kong, I am brought to that memory of the escalator in Taikoo Shing. I am brought to that mental image of millions on the street, of post-its covering the insides of tunnels and the sides of roads. And each time, I am filled with a quiet gratitude that other people care, even if they’ve never walked on Hong Kong’s crowded roads, climbed its verdant peaks, meandered through a park in the heart of an urban jungle, falling in love with the city again and again.
Looking forward, no one knows whether Hong Kong will remain the city it is when Hong Kong, according to its Basic Law, is scheduled to lose its status as a Special Administrative Region—and fully join China legally and politically—in 2047. Heck, no one knows whether Hong Kong will be what it is in 2020. But what will remain true is that the tireless effort of Hong Kongers and their persistence for protest will not cease anytime soon. It is a model many of us—living in societies nursing hearts heavy with the need for change—should all look up to. We all have something to learn from Hong Kong, local or not.
And for some, the lesson might come down to what it means to cherish a place enough to fight for it with everything you have. That’s a lesson I—with my liminal, cross-country, local-not-local identity—am still learning, and Hong Kong brings me closer to an answer every day.