Wan Chai Grammatica: Past, Present, Future Tense

Studying an acrylic painting of green shrub and concrete, Dewey Punk Pickles knows right away what she’s looking ata pathway in Wan Chai she passes by during her morning runs to Victoria Harbour. Yeung Tong Lung’s brush strokes remind her of Cézanne’s obsessive and repetitive dabbing of paint. However, unlike Cézanne,  who took up to 100 work sessions to complete a still life, Dewey doubts this artist had put in as much effort.

Dewey is at Wan Chai Grammatica: Past, Present, Future Tense, an exhibition celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Wan Chai Arts Center, Hong Kong. Lately, she has attended many shows and openings to enhance her skills as an art writer. For a Hong Kong-based writer who doesn’t want to work in finance or PR; art writing is her best bet.

As a Wan Chai resident of almost seven years, Dewey is interested in how artists see Hong Kong from the past, present, and future. Looking at an acrylic painting by Galylord Chan, she recognizes that this is an image of Vicotria Harbour of Old Hong Kong the low-rise, not-skyscraper buildings, the old-timey clothes hanging to dry, and the airplane flying near the mountains on the Kowloon side where the old Kai Tak airport used to be. Though she wasn’t alive in Hong Kong during that time, she’s seen enough of Fan Ho’s photographs to get a sense of what Hong Kong was like in the past.

Chan’s painting looks as though the viewer is viewing at the harbor from the mountains, and the artist uses child-like lines to render the cityscape, evoking a sense of innocence. However, there is a depth to it too, like the way the artist illustrates the stacking of concrete buildings in Kowloon to show its population density. Also, by placing a ferry in the middle of the painting, the artist highlights the importance of ferries in Old Hong Kongbefore the MTR (the reliable and inexpensive transportation system of Hong Kong), people relied on ferries to get from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon and vice versa. These days, the Star Ferry that takes passengers from Wan Chai to Tsim Sha Tsui has become a relic from the past. Although Dewey thinks it’s romantic to ride the Star Ferry, she only does so when she is not in a hurry.

Harbour (1969) by Gaylord Chan.

Dewey looks at an ink and acrylic painting by Luis Chan that reminds her of classic Chinese ink paintings.  She’s always enjoyed the serene mountain scenes created by the elegant strokes of a calligraphy brush. This one before her is a modern take of an old form, a painting of hilly Hong Kong Island with the sea and Kowloon in the backdrop. There are a few buildings in the picture, but the hills are mostly bare, except for a crazy tree with blue, yellow, and red leaves. In the harbor are junk boats with crimson sails, and at the foot of the hills are some obscured figures they look like they are carrying something.

Other objects that remind Dewey of traditional Chinese landscape paintings are over-the-top dioramas created by MAP Office.  She stops before a snow-capped mountain made of mini plastic palm trees covered in glue. All around the hills are soldiers wearing green uniforms and white helmets who have climbed towards the top using ropes secured by divers down below. The diorama depicts a scene of an invasionthe soldiers are storming around the Godzilla-like monster on the top of the mountain, trying to destroy it. Dewey thinks that this work shows the transition between old Hong Kong moving to a more contemporary Hong Kong.

Dewey’s favorite diorama is the landscape of seashells, fan-like corals, and a sand dollar covered in shiny pink beads, plastic palm trees, faux pearls, and female figures performing lewd acts. Some of them are lifting their skirts to show their asses; some are standing around naked sticking out their tits, others are sitting on the ground, submitting themselves to the male gaze. This glittery, pink world reminds Dewey of the neon lights on Lockhart Road, where young women from southeast Asia in short short skirts holler at Gweilos to entice them to stop for a drink.

Close-up of Wanchai Islands: Wanchai Colonies (2018) by MAP Office.

Dewey stands before Xyza Cruz Bacani’s photographs of street scenes of Wan Chai. They are typical scenes of the neighborhood: Laborers hanging out on the steps of the Southorn Playground, a Gweilo (Cantonese slang for a light-skinned European descent) passed out on the infamous Lockhart Road, (Wan Chai’s red light district), and a couple kissing on the crowded sidewalk off Johnston Road. The image that captured Dewey’s attention shows the closing of an iconic Wing Wah Noodle Shop in Wan Chai. The store sign made up of four Chinese characters were covered carefully with characters printed on white paper, “gloriously finished business.” Wing Wah had been serving tantalizing wontons noodles and mouthwatering braised pork knuckles for the last 68 years. She’ll miss Wing Wah’s wonton noodles, especially after a night out.

Dewey enjoys these images because it’s fun to identify the locations in her neighborhood. They are current, like something she’d see in her day-to-day life. However, in her mind, they lack that unique little details that make her love the photographs. Or, perhaps she’s too fixated on identifying the locations to find the details.

So far, Dewey has explored the past and the present of Wan Chai. However, the only object in the show that reflects any inklings of Wan Chai in the future tense is MAP Office’s aquarium tanks stacked on top of each other. There is nothing special about the tanks, except when she bends down to take a closer look.  Upon seeing at the construction projects outside of the window through the tank, Wan Chai has been turned into an underwater world inhabited by fishes. If the government and corporations don’t stop with the reclamation projects, Dewey thinks, we’d all have fishes as our neighbors.

Close up of Wanchai Islands: Wanchai Island (2018) by MAP Office.

There were a lot of artworks in the three-level exhibition space. There are photographs of Hong Kong skyline floating over a pint of beer by South Ho Siu Nam. There is an installation of leftover Indian food on banana leaves by N.S. Harsha, its realistic qualities grosses her out a little. There are more paintings, installations, and photographs, but after a while, her mind checks out.

Thinking back, Dewey wonders if Wan Chai Grammatica was an exhibition of quality. As a budding art writer, she needs to be analytical of her observations. She likes many of the objects in the show, though she is aware they are the ones she can relate to based on her own experience. She wonders if she would have enjoyed them if she didn’t live in Wan Chai. Also, she is also keenly aware that she hasn’t paid attention to everything in the show—there are just too many damn objects.

Yes, the exhibition makes an effort to show Wan Chai from the past, in the present, and what the future might hold, but, but Dewey’s not sure if the show has cast a new light on how she sees the city she calls home. Many of the objects illustrate Wan Chai’s multi-cultural identity and its colonial past. There are also some reflections on its seedy reputation and over-consumption. Many of objects also evoke a sense of nostalgia while documenting Wan Chai frozen in time. None of this is revealing or challenging though, Dewey thinks to herself. She’s not quite sure what deems revealing or challenging, but she’ll let you know when she comes across it.

 

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com

Dewey Visits Cao Fei’s “A hollow in a world too full” at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong

Dewey Punk Pickles doesn’t understand art. She’s never studied art in school though she was a librarian at an art and design university. She goes to art exhibitions because it seems like the cool thing to do. All the cultured, intellectual, creative types, the type of people she associates with, are all going to drink wine at the art opening.

Dewey goes to the JC Contemporary at Tai Kwun to see Beijing-based artist Cao Fei’s show, A hollow in a world too full. Tai Kwun used to be a prison complex back in the colonial days of Hong Kong. The Jockey Club spent a fortune restoring and renovating the previously abandoned space. Dewey thinks it’s ironic that the institution that makes its bucks luring Hong Kongers with horse racing and gambling is now the city’s peddler of art and culture.

The entrance of JC Contemporary and its lobby is full of pretty, well-dressed people.  They stand in clusters, chatting while sipping on their wines and beer. Dewey stands with her husband, Mean Dean, while drinking a glass of white wine. For free wine, it isn’t bad at all, she thinks to herself. She says hi to some friends, people she knew when she was a librarian. Then, with Mean Dean, she walks up to a grand staircase leading to the exhibition space. The place still smells like fresh paint. She has no idea what to expect.

Rumba (2015-2018). Video capture from the exhibition. 

The first things Dewey encounters are some seemingly mindless yet hyper-aware disc-like robot cleaners roaming on a minimalistic landscape. They navigate the narrow passageways from one island to the next without aim but always swivel at the edge of the raised platform.

“I don’t get it,” Dewey thinks to herself, “what are these Roomba vacuum robots supposed to say?”

She keeps these thoughts to herself as she doesn’t want the people around her to hear her stupidity and ignorance. She clutches her exhibition catalog, hoping to glean some insight from it. But she has trouble reading while walking, and Mean Deans has already moved on to the next room.

The next room is a darkened theater. On the wall outside, it has a sign indicating that only those over the age of 18 are allowed to enter. The film shows a post-apocalyptic fantasy world filled with miniature architectural sets and figurines. Dewey sees the derelict golden arches of MacDonald’s restaurant and abandoned Porsches. There are people in this film too, and they look scared, in pain, or like zombies.  Then, the scene changes and a man and a woman start to have a conversation in French. Dewey feels a little voyeuristic at this point as she stares at a pair of figures fucking on the screen. The woman is on the top riding the man. Dewey can’t help but notice that it looks like the woman is riding a metal rod, the rod is the man’s dick. Riding a rod doesn’t sound like a pleasurable experience.

Dewey is not bashful or anything, but while the film is fascinating on some level, it lacks plot. It doesn’t have a beginning or an end, and things are happening randomly. Sitting there in the dark room, she starts to feel sleepy. She curls up next to Mean Dean and falls asleep.

Prison Architect (2018). This is a close-up of one of the installations.

She wakes up when Mean Dean stands up to go to the next room, which has distressed walls with grey, peeling paint. Close to the back wall is a desk with an old-timey lamp on it. The lamp is on. Dewey sees a black rotary phone, a glass ashtray with two boxes of matches, and a file on a prisoner open for all to see. Behind the desk is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II hanging crookedly on the wall.

“Ah,” Dewey thinks to herself, “this must be one of the offices when Tai Kwun was still a prison.” This she understands and thinks is interesting. She feels that she understands culture and history better than art.

At this point, the exhibition space has closed. Dewey Punk Pickles and Mean Dean leave the exhibition, having seen only half of it.

A week later, Dewey returns to the JC contemporary. This time, she reads the exhibition catalog before going to the show, so she has some vague idea of what to expect.  After seeing the vacuum robots, the film with the zombies and the fucking couple, and the prison room, she finds herself on the top floor.  There are two screens flashing with animations. She looks at one of them for a while. It looks like a city in China but like a Chinese city on crack. It has a crazy, over-the-top color palette, and the perspective spins as if we are seeing the city from a drone.  At one point,  Dewey sees Tiananmen Square. In the place where Mao’s portrait should have been is a picture of a panda. She chuckles.

She doesn’t bother to look at the other screen in the same room. Instead, she climbs down the grand staircase and continues the exhibition.

Prison Architect (2018). This is the space where the film is shown.

The next exhibition is another film, and according to the catalog, it is called The Prison Architect, a newly commissioned work. The film is only a part of the work, as it also includes installations that span three floors. The film takes place in Tai Kwun in the past as Victoria Prison and in the present as Hong Kong’s hub of art and culture. The protagonists of the film, a female prison architect and a male poet-prisoner, exist in parallel realities–she lives in the present while he stays in the past. Cao creates illusions in the physical space by installing prison-style bunk beds, the same ones from the film, in the theatre, which allows Dewey and the other people watching to immerse themselves in Cao’s imagination.

Dewey recognizes the prison office where the poet-prisoner is getting yelled at by a crude, mango spewing guard. She becomes excited that the exhibition is coming together through this film. The open file she saw during her last visit must belong to this poet-prisoner.

In another scene, she notices that the prison architect is slicing her mango carefully in her modern Hong Kong apartment, and placing them in a bowl. Later on, there was the poet-prisoner, holding a half-peeled mango.

She wonders about the mangos.

Dewey has her Eureka moment in the scene that takes place in a starkly white room that looks familiar. There are three ghost-like prisoners with painted faces that are spinning around the poet-prisoner as if trying to suffocate and swallow him.

“Oh! That’s in the same room where the Roomba cleaners are!” She shouts inside her own head, “the robots might be a representation of the prisoners prowling in a random yet cognisant way.”

Dewey feels pleased about making this connection.

The rest of the exhibition doesn’t interest Dewey Punk Pickles as much, now that she feels like she’s figured it out. She walks down the grand staircase and notices fake mangos dangling.

At home, Dewey tells Mean Dean about the exhibition and what she figured out. Then she remembers the mangos.

“What is up with the mangos?” She asks.

Mean Dean tells her that there used to be a massive mango tree in the Victoria Prison complex, and the guards used to eat the sweet, meaty fruit from it.

How does Mean Dean know this? Dewey has no idea.

A Solo Exhibition by Cao Fei, A hollow in a world too full @ Tai Kwun, Central, Hong Kong. On view until December 9, 2018. 

 

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com

Lesson on Love, Part III

Dear Reader, this post is part of a three-part series. Please read Part I and Part II before proceeding.

At an impressionable age, Mama and Ama, my parental grandmother, taught me what I know about love. Ama chose to be with a married man in exchange for a financially secure life. Mama broke down when she found out that Baba was cheating, but eventually decided to swallow her pride because she didn’t have economic means of her own (and she also loved him desperately). I would never want to be in a situation where I have to make the choices they made.

As soon as I got my graduate degree in library studies, I took a job in Dubai to start my career as an academic librarian (the alternative was to stay in Vancouver to write invoices for a plumbing company.) Since then, I moved to Bahrain, and then to Hong Kong for work, to ensure that I am always financially independent. That’s all I learned about love from the women in my life—I must never rely on a man.  

In 2012, I arrived in Hong Kong for a new job, a few months before my 30th birthday. With a failed marriage behind me, I still didn’t know what a healthy, lasting relationship looked like. Regardless, I plunged myself into the world of online dating. It was something I dabbled with in the past, but I always disabled my account the minute I found a new boyfriend.

At first, it was fun. Hong Kong is a transient place, and I met men from all over the world. After dating a string of men that didn’t materialize into a steady boyfriend, I was disappointed that it wasn’t as easy as when I was younger. Was it the curse of turning 30?

After venturing into the dating circuit for a while, I begin to feel that I wasn’t good enough. I was in my 30’s; I couldn’t compete with all the skinny 23-year-old Hong Kong girls. Having been in relationships my whole adult life, I didn’t know how to date. For example, a guy I was casually dating didn’t text me back, and that was supposed to be normal. Some of my guy friends suggested I shouldn’t expect so much; I was too needy, too emotional and maybe a little too weird. I didn’t know what to do. I drank, I danced up a storm, and I flirted shamelessly. I did everything to hide that confused and hurt little girl behind a carefree facade. I gave men what I thought they wanted, in the hopes that one of them would love me. Instead, they walked all over me, and I hated myself for it.

I was miserable. How do we end up living in a society where people take sex for granted, and fear intimacy? Why can’t a woman expect the man who she hooked up with to return her text and have an adult conversation after a night of fun?

For years, I put up with a lot of bad behaviors from men. One day, after ending an on-again, off-again relationship I decided enough was enough. I vowed that I would never allow a man to make me feel like I wasn’t good enough ever again. If he thought I was “too” something, then he wasn’t the right person for me. I vowed that I wasn’t going to be apologetic for wanting a serious relationship and that I wasn’t going to settle. I vowed that I would rather be alone than to be with someone who wasn’t going to accept and love me for who I am. I resolved to my fate: I would rather be single for the rest of my life than to be with the wrong person.

It’s not that I stopped dating—I just had zero tolerance for men who mistreated me. I had expectations and boundaries, and I commanded respect. Men called me demanding, bitchy, crazy. I didn’t care. I stopped putting up with shit.

Then it happened one day.

I had known Derek for almost a year at this time. I met him at SCAD Hong Kong, where I was the head librarian, and he was one of the graphic designer professors. He borrowed a bunch of books on typography. I told him about my fifth-grade teacher who made us practice calligraphy. We became friendly and eventually, our paths started to cross.

One night in the fall of 2014, he and I went out for a drink with a bunch of our friends from work. At the end of the night, Derek texted me. “It was great seeing you tonight. You looked cute, even though you were wearing a cat dress.”

He hates cats.

I was wearing the cat dress the day before my wedding, while my best friend Sarah and I were buying flowers for my big day.

“Is Derek flirting with me?” I showed the text to my friend Kuba, who was visiting me at the time.

Kuba confirmed my suspicion.

The rest is history. After a whirlwind engagement, Derek and I married a year later. We will celebrate our third anniversary on Halloween this year.

It’s very ironic that Derek, who hates cats, ends up marrying a cat lady. 

Last summer I resigned from my position at SCAD to work towards my M.F.A. degree in writing. I plunged myself into the world of freelance writing. I no longer have a regular paycheck, which taps into my primal fear —to be dependent on a man, like Ama and Mama. Sometimes I freak-out, doubting my abilities and decision. Derek has spent hours comforting and encouraging me. He won’t let me quit and go back to the library.

Sometimes I still can’t believe my luck: my husband not only loves and accepts me, but he also supports me in my writing career. By choosing not to put up with shitty men, I in return found the best man ever. I couldn’t dream of having a better husband.

So, this is what I learned about love. From my Ama and my Mama, I learned to be financially independent. From my dating experience, I learned to stop taking shit from men, and that I had to love and accept myself before I can find anyone who would do the same for me. From Derek, I learned to let go of my fear (though I still have moments of doubt). I couldn’t have got to where I am today without these lessons. Finding love was hard, but I was lucky. For those of you out there who are still looking, don’t despair: You have someone that has been through it all rooting for you.

 

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com

The War Between Traditional and Simplified Chinese

In early June, Harrow International School sent a letter to parents announcing that the school will adopt simplified Chinese characters for their kindergarten and primary school curriculum  to better prepare their pupils for “the context Hong Kong will be in by 2047.”

Why is this controversial?

Language, spoken or written, has a significant impact. In a previous post, “Do You Speak Chinese,” I wrote about the transition between Hokkien and Mandarin in Taiwan and how Baba’s teacher punished his classmate for speaking Hokkien in school. This story demonstrates that language is not only the soul of a society, it is also a powerful weapon that can be used to control the populace.

It’s starting to happen in Hong Kong too.

Simplified Chinese characters were introduced in China in the early 20th century to increase literacy rate. During the latter part of the 20th century, the PRC government made it the official writing system of China. Other Chinese speaking countries, such as Singapore and Malaysia have also adopted simplified Chinese, but Taiwan and Hong Kong are still using the traditional script. The use of traditional characters sets Hong Kong (and Taiwan) apart from the PRC. It is a not-so-silent protest: “We are not part of the People’s Republic of China!”

The pro-independence camp in Hong Kong, those who were involved in the umbrella movement, are against integration with Mainland China. They see Harrow International School ‘s decision to adopt simplified characters as kowtowing to the PRC.

The Umbrella Movement, a series of pro-independence protests, kicked off in Hong Kong in September 2014. It lasted 79 days but did not succeed in creating permanent changes in governance.

To the dismay of many Hong Kongers, Hong Kong will unlikely be independent of China. It has been geo-politically part of the PRC since the United Kingdom handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 after a 150-year rule.  The stipulation is that the PRC would have sovereignty of Hong Kong, but they would rule Hong Kong under “one country, two systems” model, meaning that the PRC’s would not enforce their socialist system in Hong Kong for fifty years.  However, PRC is already exerting their control over Hong Kong in many ways, like in education. Recently, the Education Bureau mandated a new Chinese History lesson in all secondary schools in Hong Kong.

The PRC’s effort to influence education in Hong Kong made more progress when Harrow International School decided to adopt simplified Chinese characters in their curriculum. They are the first international school to do so—how many more will soon follow?

Reading the article about Harrow International School is just another reminder that the clock is ticking for Hong Kong, and possibly Taiwan too. Taiwan has a slightly different situation than Hong Hong—its status in the international stage is ambiguous. However, living in Hong Kong, I can’t help but feel what’s happening here will eventually occur in Taiwan too—the PRC is patient, they are taking their time and making substantial progress in changing Hong Kong. First, they modify the school curriculum, then they take away the language.  Slowly but surely they are taking over Hong Kong, one step at a time. Most recently, the PRC plans to enforce Chinese law on a new train station on Hong Kong soil. 

Before we know it, Hong Kong will have centralized media and censored speech.  Residents will be living in constant fear as there will be more people like Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel laureate, and democracy activist who died in Chinese custody. He had spent his life protesting against the one-party rule in China and was serving an 11-year sentence when he was diagnosed with liver cancer. I don’t want to live in a society where people are imprisoned and denied access to medical care because they criticize the government.

Sadly, that’s the way the world seems to be going right now—and it is frightening.

 

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com

Do You Speak Chinese?

There are many different Chinese languages with up to 200 dialects, and most of them are mutually intelligible. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

With Beijing’s growing influence, its dialect, Mandarin, also known as Putonghua (the common language), has become the most dominant Chinese language. But this wasn’t always the case, not according to the speakers of other Chinese languages.

In the late 80’s, my family moved from Japan to Taiwan. This was just a few years after the Taiwanese government finally lifted the martial law. I was six years old.

Let’s quickly revisit Taiwanese history and its languages: Historically, at least up to the 1940s, most people in Taiwan spoke Hokkien, which is a version of a southern Chinese language from Fujian province, where many Taiwanese people came from during the 1700’s. During the Japanese occupation, some Japanese words and expressions were integrated into the Taiwanese Hokkien language. I remember clearly my grandparents speaking this Japanese-fied version of Hokkien.

When the Kuomintang (KMT) took control of Taiwan, they made Mandarin the official language and forced everyone to learn it.

I spoke neither Hokkien or Mandarin.

This is me as a Kindergartener in Japan.

Regardless, my parents threw me into a local school.

During class one day, I needed to use the toilet. Unable to communicate with the teacher verbally, I stood up and made my way towards the washroom. I only made it halfway down the hall when my teacher caught up with me, led me back to the classroom and sat me back down in my little wooden chair at my desk. A few moments later, I got up again and made another attempt. The teacher got me again and scolded me as she led me back to my seat.

I didn’t know exactly what she said, but I understood that she was displeased with me. I didn’t dare to get up again. Instead, I sat in my chair and concentrated on holding it in.

Eventually, a warm stream trickled down my legs and created a large, dark stain on my pleated navy blue skirt and a yellow pool around the legs of my little wooden chair. I burst into tears—I was powerless without speaking the language.

This sad little story is a segway to discuss the power of language, and specifically, the Chinese language. Spoken Chinese is organized into five main groups, Mandarin, Yue, Min, Wu, and Hakka. These languages are mutually intelligible.  Within those groups, there are hundreds of dialects, limited to small geographical areas.

Mandarin is only one of the hundreds of spoken Chinese languages. The Beijing dialect is the most common, spoken by approximately two-thirds of the Chinese population. At 55 million speakers, Cantonese, which is part of the Yue family, is the second most common Chinese language.  Hokkien, a language that is common in Taiwan and other countries where Fujan ancestry is common, is part of the Min language family.

How did Mandarin become “Putonghua,” the common language of China?

When Sun Yat-Sen overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Beijing became the capital of the new China. After some debating, the leadership decided that Mandarin is the official language of the new republic (This is strange because Dr. Sun and many of the leaders of the new republic are from Guangdong Province, and their mother tongue would have been Cantonese).

In Taiwan, Mandarin is known as “Guóyǔ”, literally translates to “the national language.”

During the occupation, the Japanese didn’t force the Taiwanese people to learn the language of their colonizers.** However, when the KMT arrived, they did. Baba told me a story of how his classmates were punished for speaking Hokkien at school. They had to wear a humiliating sign that said, “I spoke Hokkien” for the whole day for speaking the “uncivilized” tongue.

Here in Hong Kong, 97% of the population speaks Cantonese. If Beijing had their way, they would eliminate Cantonese completely. However, that would create an outcry that Beijing is not prepared to deal with. Instead, they slowly influence the educational curriculum in Hong Kong, to teach the next generation their version of the history.

The truth is, Mandarin is already common in Hong Kong. When my parents passed through Hong Kong in the early 90s, they said people didn’t speak Mandarin and yelled when spoken to in Mandarin. Thirty years later, the majority of people still speak Cantonese, but I can now get by speaking Mandarin if English fails.

Hmm. I wonder what the common language will in Hong Kong in another thirty years.

**As it turns out, The Japanese implemented an imperialist movement during their occupation. It was an assimilation initiative that forced Taiwanese people to adopt Japanese names and learn to speak Japanese.

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com

Where Are You From?

It’s complicated. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

When I lived in Dubai, taxi drivers often asked, “Where are you from?”

“Canada,” I would say.

Studying me through their rearview mirror, they always looked doubtful. “But where are you really from?”

Ugh. Taxi drivers in Dubai aren’t that interested in me, personally. They wanted to put me in a box and be done with it.

Here in Asia, I face a different set of boxes. When Derek was in China for business, a woman asked him where I was from.

“She is a Taiwanese Canadian,”

The woman scoffed. “No, she’s a Chinese Canadian,” she said indignantly.

Ugh. Clearly, this woman and I have a different definition of Chinese-ness. I hate it when people deny me of my cultural and political identity without my presence.

I used to think it was easy for Derek when people asked him where he’s from. Most often, he would say, “The U.S.”

People are generally satisfied with this answer.

However, when we are traveling, he sometimes tells people that he’s from Hong Kong. People would look at him like he has lost his mind. The look on their faces basically says: a white person can’t be from Hong Kong!

Derek was born in Louisville, Kentucky and grew up in Madison, Indiana. Madison is a historic port city on the edge of the Ohio River. Back in its heydays, with over 100,000 residents, it was one of the busiest river ports in the country.

However, steamboats lost their place as the king of transportation with the advent of the railroad. These days, Madison has become a relic of its past, with only 3,000 people living in the downtown area.

In many ways, Derek is very American. My friend Kuba’s description of Derek as a “Gentleman Redneck” is perfect.  Derek has a polished, educated exterior, but underneath it all, he can skin a deer like nobody’s business. He’s a good boy from rural  Midwest.

He is also a product of American popular culture— he listens to Cat Stevens and Biggie Smalls.  His favorite movies are Spaceballs and The Princess Bride. He also loves the food of his land— when I came back from Savannah earlier this year, I basically brought back half of Krogers— my suitcase was filled with peppercinis, Texas Pete hot sauce, and Old Bay seasoning. Culturally, he is American through and through.

Derek and I did one of the most American things during our last trip— a bourbon tour!

However, Derek doesn’t identify as an American because he has such a disdain for the governmentHe thinks the two-party system serves the interests of corporations, instead of the people. Also, he believes that the function of the American federal government and state governments have skewed from their original intention— the federal government has far too much power, often overriding state decisions. This imbalance of power is one of the causes of the many problems in American society, such as gun violence, the gutting of public schools, and police brutality.

“The United States today doesn’t align with the values I was raised with,” he said. “The country needs to steer back to these ideals, but it won’t happen without great peril to the average citizen.

Another reason Derek chooses Hong Kong to be his home is that he wants to witness the next shift in power. At the turn of the 20th century, his great-grandfather witnessed the transfer of power from Great Britain to the United States. Derek wants to experience the next shift when China takes over as the superpower of the world. By staying in Asia, he is in a better position to navigate in this new world order.

Ugh. I don’t want China to rule the world.

Derek, on the other hand, is excited about the transfer of power. This is going to sound crazy, but he said at least with Chinese rule, he would know who is in charge, whereas American politicians hide behind the ruse of democracy and do horrible things.

Anyway, to answer the original question of this post, “where are you from?”

“I am from earth.”

If you had asked me, “Where do you call home?”

Now, that’s a question that leads to many stories, as long as you have the patience to hear them.

Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

 

 

 

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com

Why now? Why me?

On March 20th, Xi Jinping made a speech at the closing of the 2018 National People’s Congress. It was a nationalistic speech in which “he warned against challenges to China over Taiwan, Hong Kong or other regions where Beijing’s claims to sovereignty are contested”.

Xi Jinping

“All maneuvers and tricks to split the motherland are sure to fail,” Mr. Xi said. “Not one inch of the territory of the great motherland can be carved off from China.”

Some might say this is nothing new. China has always been sensitive about Taiwan and considers it one of its wayward provinces. Taiwan’s reunification with its “motherland” is integral to the “One China” policy. However, many people in Taiwan, my family included, have been in Taiwan for many generations and consider ourselves Taiwanese. This is a problem for China.

The dear leader claims that we are all Chinese.  Well sure, there are overlaps between Taiwanese and Chinese cultures; my ancestors came from a town near Xiamen, Fujian province in the 1700’s. Having said that, Taiwan had since been colonized by Japan and it’s populace absorbed some aspects of its language and customs into their culture. Also, our resentment towards “the motherland”, also make us uniquely Taiwanese. My point is, many people in Taiwan don’t consider themselves Chinese.  But… do we consider ourselves ethnically Chinese? That’s the tricky part. I don’t know what to think about that.

Mr. Xi’s speech spurred some anxiety with me, not only because I am Taiwanese, but also because I live in Hong Kong. In the same speech, Mr. Xi  “vowed to strengthen the national identity and patriotism of the people of Hong Kong and Macau.”

Map of South China, including Taiwan, Xiamen, and Hong Kong. Courtesy of http://www.johomaps.com/as/china/chinasouth.html

Hong Kong had been a British colony until 1997. Upon its return to China, Beijing guaranteed that the city, as a special administrative region, will have a high degree of autonomy, and China’s socialist systems will not be implemented until 2047. However, incidents such as the disappearances of Hong Kong booksellers, and the imprisonment Joshua Wong, a young activist who was one of the leaders of the umbrella revolution in 2014, are indications that civil liberties are going away fast in Hong Kong.

So yeah. Mr. Xi’s speech posed a double whammy for me. He made me uncomfortable about who I and where I am.

 

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com