Be Water, Hong Kong
Eight years ago I got a call from friends who were thinking of moving back to Asia from the UK, with their family of 3 little ones in tow. The discussion was whether Bangkok or Hong Kong would be a better place to live. At the time Bangkok was under a protest and safety was an concern. But there was a moment in the conversation where I reminded them that the long game for Hong Kong was to be absorbed back into China, and that this would inevitably be an uncomfortable tidal shift when it took place. They moved to Hong Kong, and now I am worried.
When I first fled home and headed east, it was to Taiwan for a month, then into mainland China. I was hired to teach English at a private international school outside of old Canton, so I flew into Hong Kong the day before I was to start work, in order to secure a visa into China. Hong Kong was luminous; every skyscraper winked at the next. While I waited for my paperwork, the school put me up in a modest hotel and even sent an employee to buy me dinner and some teaching accessories to get ready for the year, which seemed like the lap of luxury for a recent graduate.
I was struck by Hong Kong, with its modern feel, its particular organisation, and efficient littleness the likes of which you see in the suburbs of London: cute little road signs, perfectly sized taxis, trains that ran on time. I spent the 24 hours walking the streets, taking public transport, and jumping on and off the Star Ferry, which floats between the mainland in Kowloon to Hong Kong Island, a small but deep distance.
With my first view of the mainland, coasting across the divide on the ferry, I noticed a large military-grade submarine with Chinese flags surface in the bay. It was a powerful reminder of the underlying power: the behemoth of the People’s Republic – a reminder that while Hong Kong was allowed a certain fiction of separation, it was owned, it was acquired and it was keenly watched by the motherland.
After that first visit I would spend time on and off over the years in Hong Kong, living there at times, working there, guiding there, biking and surfing there. I took a deep dive into the small chunk of land, and was most recently there a few months ago. And all this time spent there, it has always felt like a floating city, an island, a city in a bubble high in the clouds, an experiment in a vacuum, walled with moats and protected.
And now, while it is hard to tell what will come from the current protests and reactions from the mainland, I wonder if something has forever changed. Time doesn’t go backwards any more than water flows uphill. Has the bubble been broken in some unfixable way? All I know for sure is that I am worried again.