The New Normal in Hong Kong

One of the exits of Wan Chai station was on fire on September 29, 2019.

Several oversea friends and family members have been getting in touch after watching media reports of the unrest in Hong Kong. After speaking to many, I see that despite their best intentions, there is a lack of understanding of the political situation in Hong Kong. Honestly, I have been rattled by what’s been happening in the city I’ve called home for the last seven years. My mother has been warning me not to write anything political in these turbulent times, but I can’t help myself (sorry Mama). I have decided to write a personal account of what’s been happening here. I hope to provide some information alongside my personal anecdotes.

Leading up to National Day on October 1, while mainland China was gearing up to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the violence in Hong Kong escalated. Thousands of Hong Kongers marched and chanted on the major thoroughfares throughout the city, some vandalized public properties, set barricades on fire, and trashed storefronts. The raptors, which are the tactical unit of the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF), would eventually storm out from their hiding places and start throwing tear gas canisters, bean bag rounds, and rolling out the anti-riot vehicle spewing blue water. Many Hong Kongers, most of them young, were arrested. Tension peaked on National Day–the streets were the most violent I’ve seen in the recent months. It hit close to home too. There were tear gas canisters fired on my street and Derek and I had a painful time trying to get home.

A member of the raptor surveying the protest. Photography by @an_american_in_china.

Just when the situation couldn’t seem to get any worse, hell broke loose shortly after Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, announced the anti-mask law on Friday, October 4th, 2019. The protests and the accompanying violence intensified. For the first time since I’ve lived in Hong Kong, and probably for the first time in recent Hong Kong history, the MTR Corporation shut down all MTR services. This whole weekend has been a virtual lockdown–with the paralysis of the public transportation system, many malls and stores have shuttered and the usually bustling city of Hong Kong seems like a ghost town.

What happened to the free-wheeling city of Hong Kong? To get the story straight, I need to go back to 1984, when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (U.K.) signed the Sino British Joint Declaration in Beijing. This declaration laid out the stipulation of the then British Hong Kong’s return to China on July 1, 1997. At this time, both the U.K. and the PRC agreed that Hong Kong will fall under the constitutional principle of “one country, two systems” and the socialist system of PRC would not be practised in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) for a period of 50 years. Based on this agreement, Hong Kong maintains its capitalist system and its currency. Its way of life would remain unchanged until 2047.

Graphic design by Derek Matthew Auxier Black.

Under this “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong is supposed to have a great level of autonomy. Hong Kong is to operate under the Basic Law, the constitution of the HKSAR and national law of the People’s Republic of China. Furthermore, Hong Kong’s legal, legislative, and judicial systems are separate from those in the PRC and the rights to freedom of speech and assembly remain. Furthermore, the Basic Law also stipulates that Hong Kong will have universal suffrage by 2017, allowing its citizens to elect their own Chief Executive.

In 2014, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) of 31 August 2014 prescribed a selective pre-screening of candidates for the 2017 election of Hong Kong’s chief executive. This led to the umbrella movement that lasted 79 days. Various groups set up barricades in the central district of Hong Kong and camped out in tents to protest against the decision. Sadly, this movement did not achieve universal suffrage and most of the leaders and organizers have been arrested since. However, it sparked a new generation of politically-minded protestors concerned about their future and freedom.

The major event to ignite the recent protests is when Carrie Lam proposed the extradition bill in early 2019 as a response to a gruesome murder that took place in Taiwan. If passed, it would have allowed Hong Kong to surrender fugitives to be extradited to other countries it does not have agreements with, including Taiwan, Macau, and mainland China. There isn’t an inherent problem to extradite a murderer from Hong Kong to Taiwan, both countries have functioning courts. However, the prospect of being trialled in mainland China is terrifying–its courts have a dubious track record for respecting human rights and have a 99.9% conviction rate. This bill opens up the possibility that anyone Beijing deems unsavoury, such as activists, journalists, or even business executives, could face the opaque justice system in mainland China. This is why Hong Kongers started protesting.

The first anti-extradition bill protest I participated in 2019 was at Victoria Park on June 4, 2020, a peaceful sit-in that coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The Hong Kong government ignored people’s peaceful requests to scrap the bill, and they continued to do in the subsequent protests. Over the next several months, the protests have escalated. During the early summer, the protests in my neighbourhood of Wan Chai were orderly. People, young and old, families with their strollers marched and chanted along Hennesy Road, one of the major roads connecting Victoria Park to the government buildings in Central. There was a sense of optimism in the air, the people of Hong Kong hoped that Carrie Lam would hear them.

However, Carrie Lam not only ignores the peaceful protests, but she also condemns them and calls them rioters. She’s been hiding behind the shield of the HKPF, using them as sticks to strike the protestors who are merely practicing their rights as outlined in the Basic Law. Over the course of several months, many people have been hurt by the police and the reputation of the HKPF has fallen to an all-time low as the Hong Kong people no longer trust the police. People are enraged. All they wanted was the scrapping of an unjust law. Carrie Lam, under the “one country, two systems,” should have the power to do so. But she dragged her feet and refused to do so. Until it is too late.

After months of protests, it is clear that Carrie Lam has no autonomy to govern Hong Kong. What has been suspected all along is true: The “one country, two systems’ principle is a sham; Carrie Lam is merely a puppet of the Communist Party of China. The mood in the protests has taken a turn. After months of not being heard, and knowing that they will probably never be heard, the young protestors are losing patience and are starting to resort to violence. In early September, Carrie Lam did formally withdraw the extradition bill–but it seems to be too little, too late. Now Hong Kongers have five demands and unless they are all met, they are going to continue to protest. Can you blame them? If this was my only home and my future is at stake, I’d be out there protesting with them too.

Protesters in Wan Chai.

Chaotic weekends have become the new normal in Hong Kong. The public transportation of Hong Kong has been paralyzed. What used to be normal, like meeting friends outside of one’s district, has become a challenge. Many shops and malls have been closed, along with movie theatres, restaurants, and other types of entertainment, forcing many inside all weekend. Having said that, the unrest does not threaten my physical well-being. To me, this whole situation is more of a mind fuck than anything else. One day, the city is seemingly trashed and burning, but overnight, the diligent city workers clean up the city and repair damaged properties to allow people to return to work in the morning. The next day, it is business as usual, and all traces of the unrest, besides a few graffiti here and there, have been erased. I feel like I live in parallel universes, and my mind can’t reconcile the two realities.

Many people in Hong Kong, locals and expatriates alike, have been impacted by the recent turmoil. While many are supportive of the young people of Hong Kong, others are dismayed by the loss of income and the inconveniences brought on by the closure of roads and disruption of the public transportation system. I’ve also experienced frustration and anxiety, but I don’t lose sight of the fact that I, as an expat living in this great city, can choose to leave. On the other hand, the people who are out protesting are fighting for their freedom in the only home they have.

Despite my anxiety, I can’t help but to be proud: Hong Kongers are the only people in this world who are openly defying China right now. (Yes, the Uyghurs and the Taiwanese have been defying China too, but not in this in-your-face kind of way– these are topics for another post for a different day). I don’t know how long they will last and how much impact they can make, but I admire the resilience of the Hong Kong people. Add oil, Hong Kong!

If you have any comments or questions, please post them below.

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Dewey Punk Pickles: The Infamous Globe-trotting Cat

Dewey when she was a little tiny baby.

In 2008, I had just moved to Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. During my second week in the new country, my employer moved me from my temporary housing to my permanent one in the heart of bustling Bur Dubai. On my second day in my new neighbourhood, I took a short walk to the nearby bank to open an account. That’s when I walked by and saw a dirty, skinny tri-coloured cat sitting on the side of a dusty street on a warm December morning, watching a group of brown-skinned boys play a game of football. When it saw me, it turned her head and looked at me with its yellowish-green Cleopatra eyes. I bent down, “Hi kitty,” I said, petting its head. I promised myself that if the cat was still there when I finished at the bank, I was going to take it home.

At this time, I didn’t know a single person in town, except for this random girl who had called me up from the security desk the night before. “Hi, my name is Kat,” she had said, “I am wondering if I can come up and see your flat as I am hoping to move into your building with my cat.”

“Sure.”

Within minutes, I opened my door to a smiley, red-headed girl with sparkling green-blue eyes. Kat was about my age, an American who had grown up on a compound in Saudi Arabia. Laughing, she gave me a hug. I was immediately drawn to her larger-than-life presence and contagious excitement. We walked around my furnished, two-bedroom apartment that I had just moved into the day before. By the end of the tour, we became fast friends. We exchanged numbers and promised a night out in the near future.

It turned out that I was only in the bank for a few minutes– I was missing a chop on my paperwork, so I couldn’t open a bank account. Defeated, I walked home, hoping that the kitty would be where I had left her. She was. Is it normal to pick up a cat off the street and take it home? Not knowing what to do, I called up my new friend. “Hey Kat, is it weird if I picked up a cat on the street and take it home?”

“No! You should totally do it!” She yelled into the phone, “I will take you guys to the vet!”

I picked her up the little cat. It put up a fight, digging its little claws into my arm. I didn’t care. I took her into my arms and walked into my apartment building. “New friend?” The security guard grinned.

I smiled and nodded my head as entered the elevator.

Kat came by and took me and the kitty to the vet. After a quick inspection, we learned that she’s a little girl-cat and judging by her teeth, about four months old. The doctor gave me some deworming medicine and basically gave her a clean bill of health.

After a few days of agonizing what to call my new cat, I finally settled on “Dewey.” She is a librarian’s cat, after all. Weeks later, I picked up a book about Dewey, the boy-cat who actually lived in a public library in the United States. Everybody assumed that I borrowed the name from the real-life library cat, but I didn’t–I came up with her name all on my own!

Dewey Punk Pickles surveying her land.

Dewey grew up to be a mean, feisty little fucker. She would bite me, scratch me, and was generally an asshole of a cat and not always the best pet. A good friend once told me, “You can take a cat off the street, but you can’t take the street off the cat.”

Despite it all, I love her to pieces. For the last 11 years, she’s been with me in Dubai, Vancouver, Bahrain, and now Hong Kong. Five years ago, we met the love of our lives, Derek.

Derek and I started dating in late 2014. Shortly after, we were engaged. We started to call each other ‘punk’ as a term of endearment. I call him ‘Honey Punk Badger” and he calls me ‘Punk Bunny Fufu.” We’ve become a family of punks.

One night, Derek slept over. In the middle of the night, he jumped out of bed screaming with a crazed cat latched onto his arm. Apparently, Dewey had a nightmare and attacked Derek, who was asleep next to her. When Dewey finally let go, the damaged was done–there were deep puncture wounds on his forearm plus deep gashes where she scratched the shit out him with her hind legs.

“She’s dead to me,” Derek howled while I handed a towel to clean up his bleeding arm.

Derek had never been a fan of cats and Dewey just put herself in the red with her vivacious and brutal attack. Regardless, the woman he was about to marry came with the cat and he tolerated her existence with disdain and disgruntle. While cuddling on the couch one night, we watched an adult cartoon, “Mr. Pickles.” The show is about a pickle-loving family dog who seems like a normal, friendly dog. It was only the grandfather of the show that knows the true nature of the dog–his thirst to kill and mutilate. While we watched an episode in which Mr. Pickles tore open a man’s stomach and dragged out his guts and bit off the legs of a prostitute, Derek shouted, “That’s Dewey!”

Since that day, Dewey was christened with a full name “Dewey Punk Pickles.” She also goes by Dew, Dewzy-Dew, Punk, Punkles, and Pickles.

Over the last five years, Derek had given her rules and boundaries. From a mean, feisty little fucker, she turned into a mellower version of herself. She gives plenty of warning before she attacks but these days she’s content hanging out on her perch next to the window, watching the world go by. She’s still not the cuddly of cats, but when she sits next to me as I watch T.V., I feel like the luckiest human in the world.

Happy 11th birthday, Dewey Punk Pickles!

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Okay, I’ve got (another) Master’s Degree. Now what?

Left: Masters of Library and Information Studies, 2008
Right: Masters of Fine Art in Writing, 2019

When I showed my counselor two side-by-side pictures of me, one on graduation day in 2008 when I earned my Master’s degree in Library and Information Studies, and the other taken 11 years later, when I completed my Masters of Fine Arts in Writing, she pointed to the one of my younger self and asked, “What were her hopes and dreams?”

I replied without hesitation. “To work as an academic librarian at the University of British Columbia (UBC) or my alma mater, Simon Fraser University (SFU). The plan is to have my university eventually support me in earning my doctorate in communications or a related field. In the future, I want to be a selfless educator who help troubled kids not only academically but also humanely, like my mentor Roman had done.”

However, my hopes and dreams were dashed, and the plan derailed when I realized 2008 was a terrible year to finish grad school. With the looming financial crisis, it was impossible for a new graduate like me to find library work in BC, let alone in Canada or the US. To stay afloat, I wrote invoices for a plumbing company, barely making enough to pay rent. Four months after graduation, when the Dean of Libraries at Zayed University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, offered me the Reference and Instruction Librarian position, I leaped on the opportunity. I left behind a boyfriend, my friends, and a fully furnished apartment. I promised myself that I would return home after one year.

Eleven years later, I am still abroad. Though Vancouver will always be home in my heart, I’ve settled in Hong Kong for the last seven years. I’ve almost forgotten about my Ph.D. dream and instead, earned two more master’s degrees. From 2008 to 2017, I no longer strived to be a professor–instead, as a librarian, I taught classes on research skills and creating citations in different styles. I was tired of teaching the same boring classes and worn out by the politics of wherever I worked.

In the summer of 2017, started to transit from a career in librarianship to one in writing. After ten years of libraries, I found the work uninspiring. I started taking e-Learning classes at SCAD, and after a couple of writing courses, I decided to pursue writing full-time. I wanted to tell unique stories, document the vastness of the human condition, and connect with readers and other writers around the globe. During my studies, I explored different writing careers. I thought about becoming an editor for a literary magazine or be the founder of my own publication. Then I applied for numerous jobs as editors and staff writers. At some point, I even considered looking for work as a copywriter. However, there was always a nagging voice inside my head: I didn’t want any of these jobs.

For the last two years, as I sat at my desk working on freelance projects, writing my thesis (a collection of memoir-essays titled In the Shadow of the Middle Kingdom), and applying for writing jobs, I started to miss the community aspect of librarianship. Freelance writing is a lonely job and I began to miss having colleagues and students around me. I miss building collections and organizing events. I miss making a difference in people’s information literacy and reading habits. I also recognized, that as long as I am at the mercy of my clients, I may not have the mental and emotional bandwidth to pursue my own writing projects. At the same time, I also came to the conclusion that I would earn more working as a librarian than as a junior editor or writer in the publishing/media world. That’s when I decided that working at the library and writing on the side would be the best option for me.

I didn’t know as a 25-year-old that hopes and dreams could change. Back then, I couldn’t imagine being anything but an academic librarian and eventually becoming a professor. I didn’t anticipate that 11 years later that I would be able to look back not only to my 25-year-old self but go back even further–to revisit the hopes and dreams of my 22-year-old self. Back then, I wanted to be a writer but I never articulated this thought beyond my journal because I thought my aspiration was not practical or feasible. Through a lot of soul searching in the last couple of years, I started to take my 22-year-old self more seriously and gave her the space to hope and dream. Today, as a 36-year-old, I’ve gathered all of my hopes and dreams and begin to execute them: To write, to be paid to write, and eventually become a writing professor in a university.

Zadie Smith at SCAD Show in Atlanta, Winter 2018.

In addition to Roman, who I have admired and respected since meeting him as a troubled 19-year-old undergraduate student, my role model is Zadie Smith. I had the pleasure of meeting her in Atlanta when she was touring for her collection of essays, Feel Free. Her talk was engaging and afterward, she chatted with every single person who lined up to have their books signed. I want to be like Zadie Smith, a gracious and genuine individual, an accomplished writer, an admired professor, and an inspiration to many. As for my plan? I am going back to the library. At the end of this month, I will be the Library Manager at Discovery College, where I hope to mentor students, organize fun and educational events, and help the next generation to be critical and independent thinkers. After work and on school holidays, I will write, I will edit, I will submit my essays and stories far and wide. I know it’s a tough road ahead, but I welcome the challenges with open arms.

Now, I know that I am strong enough to be the kind of writer I want to be, on my own terms and chosen path. It took a long time to get here, but I sincerely hope that I can be an inspiration to those of you who have hopes and dreams that you’re afraid to pursue. I have been fortunate to have resources and opportunities, but without the soul searching and hard work along the way, I couldn’t have been where I am today. For those of you aspiring writers, artists, designers, and creative types, I want to tell you (as an older recent graduate): Hope and dreams can change and plans can divert. But I urge you to follow your heart, create (and update) your plan, and always be your best self.

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30 years After the Tiananmen Square “Incident”

The phrase “Tiananmen Square” is blocked in search engines in China. The date June 4 has become synonymous with “Sina Censor Day” as Beijing intensifies its censorship efforts to block its citizens from accessing information about the Tiananmen Square Massacre–a tragic day in 1989 in which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fired at peaceful demonstrators and innocent bystanders. To this day, Beijing tries to hide the truth: There was no massacre, just an “incident.” The death of thousands of citizen is not mentioned in any history books; the Great Firewall of China blocks any words or phrases associated with the event, and to this day, Beijing has never acknowledged, let alone apologized, for their brutal tactics in suppressing the amicable democracy- seeking protesters. Every year on June 4th, Beijing watches closely, ensuring no trouble could be stirred up within China. However, across the border in Hong Kong, thousands of people have gathered for a candlelight vigil every year since 1990 to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the hands of the PLA.

Partial view of the crowd at the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square Massacre.

This year, for the first time (after living in Hong Kong for seven years), I finally attended my first vigil with my husband Derek. From our home in Wan Chai, we walked to Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, which took us about 20 minutes. It was an incredibly humid night; my phone pinged with ceaseless thunderstorm warnings from the Hong Kong Observatory. It took us a while to get through the crowd to finally enter the park, but it was evident that despite the imminent bad weather, spirits were high. Thousands of Hong Kong people gathered for the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square Massacre and to protest against the proposed extradition legislation. If this legislation becomes law, it will be problematic as it could allow the transfer of fugitives to jurisdictions with which Hong Kong lacks a deal, including mainland China. Basically, Hong Kong people can be extradited to Mainland China to be prosecuted under Chinese law–a frightening thought indeed, especially for activists, journalists, and other vocal folks Beijing deems “criminal.”

The vigil was a humbling experience. On the surface, I blended in with the thousands of Hong Kong people around me, but as a Taiwanese Canadian living in Hong Kong, I am an outsider-insider. Though I didn’t understand many of the speeches in Cantonese or receive one of the white candles that the organizers were handing out, I was in awe. Looking at the serene faces lit by the soft glow of the burning wicks, I admire Hong Kong people’s resolute and determination to memorialize those who lost their lives on June 4, 1989. I respect their perseverance to defy Beijing by gathering each year, refusing to let go of the past. I feel a sense of affinity with the people of Hong Kong at the vigil and they gave me a little glimmer of hope: Perhaps with the international community watching, the Hong Kong people’s effort to preserve their autonomy will not be ignored. This leads to me think: Perhaps Taiwanese people can take a cue and organize a vigil next year in Taipei? A vigil not only to commemorate those who died but also as a gesture to show the international community that Taiwan is a democratic society, and should remain free of Beijing’s control.

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