Somewhere in the process of D moving to Hong Kong in 2013, becoming a (failed) social worker in Chinatown, and learning about the 2014 Umbrella Movement, I became consumed with a need to move to Hong Kong. I needed to improve my Cantonese, to eat the food, and to connect with those teenagers who I had seen on the news, those scrawny student leaders who shielded themselves from teargas with umbrellas and wielded Cantonese like a sword. These activists looked like the Chinatown youth I worked with, only these Hong Kongers were sure of their place and hadn’t had their voices stolen from them yet. When I saw them, I realized how strange it was to see activists that looked like me or to think of Cantonese as a protest language, as something to be proud of.
So when the opportunity came, it was an easy decision to choose Hong Kong over New Haven for my second year of divinity school. And after a 13 hour flight, on an unforgivingly humid day last August, my toddler level Cantonese eventually navigated my taxi driver to the Chinese University of Hong Kong where I would study for the year.
It’s easy for Asian Americans like me to idealize Asia as some kind of motherland whose unchanging treasures can be unearthed for us to discover the secrets of who we “truly are.” I wanted so badly for Hong Kong to be a homecoming that would solve all of my cultural problems. But this return/reclamation narrative merely reveals the ways we exoticize ourselves and our culture, turning Asia into a monolith that can be commodified and consumed for our own self-actualization.
It’s silly to think this way, but I get it. Growing up in America, many of us are so profoundly desperate to find pieces of our culture that we will grasp onto any debris from this cultural shipwreck, holding it up as a relic of cultural glory while we are swept away by the waters. What is reclamation for those of us stranded at sea, diaspora folks alienated from land and language? What is “return” to a place that looks nothing like it did when our families left? And what does it mean for someone like me, whose family has lived for over 100 years in a land colonized by Europeans, to travel to another land colonized for 100 years by the British and now handed “back” to another colonizer? The irony of it all is that while Chinese workers were being killed and thrown into ghettos by white Americans (before being barred from immigrating entirely), the British were manufacturing a war over opium to steal the Hong Kong peninsula. So maybe San Francisco and Hong Kong are connected in more ways than we think. Which means that there is only the horizontal movement from one colony to another; nothing to “return” to except the rubble these empires have left behind, the shining, perverse towns built on the splintered beams of greedy imaginations, land drawn into the hands of suitors who needed trade partners for the products they would make with the materials they had stolen. Maybe there is no such thing as reclamation or return, only the recognition that colonial powers have wedged a crowbar into our histories; no such thing as “finding oneself” except in the crossfire of warring empires.
The protests pushed all of this to the forefront in both a painful and a healing way. It all started on June 9, when over one million of Hong Kong’s 7 million people marched against the government’s proposed Extradition Bill, which would allow it to send convicted criminals to be tried in Mainland China. The march itself was beautiful yet uneventful. We plodded slowly under that relentless Hong Kong sun, the only reprieve coming when we were wedged between skyscrapers, but spirits were just as high. When we arrived at Harcourt Road, the major highway in front of the Legislative Council building where the proposed Extradition Bill would be voted on 3 days later, we were greeted by hundreds of police officers. After offering a few choice words and gestures, we tapped out around 10pm. Small incidents of violence erupted throughout the night, but things still felt under control.
On June 12, however, everything changed. By the time I got off the train, protestors had already claimed Harcourt Road and were setting up tactical spaces around the Legislative Council building where deliberations would be held that afternoon. Gone were the pleasantries of the June 9 march; instead, protestors passed metal barricades, umbrellas, and zip ties as they prepared for confrontation with the police. I was with two of my classmates, and we found an elevated spot on Harcourt Road overlooking the Legislative Council building.
Protestors were in the tens of thousands, dressed in all black and wearing construction helmets and hardware store dust masks. About 100 police officers in riot gear, shields up and pepper spray ready, stood like an island in a black sea, guarding the narrow pathways that led into the Legislative Council building. Between the protestors and the police, a 50-foot wide no-man’s land of piled-up metal barricades, wood pallets, and traffic cones. Occasionally, a protestor would sprint into the gap, usually to throw a water bottle or umbrella at the police line. The police would then spray pepper spray back at the protestors, which would prompt hundreds of umbrellas to open at once, a nylon phalanx, the protestors’ only defense. When things would calm down again, chants of “Heung Gong yan, ga yau!”—“Hong Kong people, keep going!”—would break the silence, both as an encouragement to not give up and as a reminder of why we were here: to be a Hong Konger is to keep fighting, to keep resisting.
At around 3pm, the small back and forth skirmishes between protestors and police stopped. The police began retreating backwards into the Legislative Council area and protestors began to cheer. Frontliners quickly moved forward into the space vacated by the police and the no-man’s land was disassembled as protestors pushed forward triumphantly. My friends and I were still on the highway overlooking the chaos, watching nervously and shouting, “Ga yau! Ga yau!” at the top of our lungs as the police backed into a gated area. And as protestors advanced, adrenaline radiating through the masses, two loud bangs punctuated the frenzy. A second later, we saw the clouds of teargas rise above the crowd, and immediately everyone reversed course.
Those of us who were a little farther away were also faced with a choice. My friends and I looked at each other and decided to walk into the haze. The closer we got, the harder it became to breathe, our flimsy dust masks rendered useless to keep the teargas from scorching our throats. When we got to the front, we were immediately met by other protestors who wrapped our arms in seran wrap, gave us goggles, and put construction helmets on our heads. We were beginning to regroup when the next round of teargas was fired, and we immediately retreated, running nowhere in particular, just away, some into malls, some into hotels, others into side streets. As the teargas chased us, I pressed my hands onto the sides of my paper-thin mask, taking short, staccato breaths and praying the teargas wouldn’t immobilize me. There was no screaming, only coughing and gagging and gasping. When we had escaped the outstretched reach of the gas, I offered someone a bottle of saline water to rinse out their eyes. He said something to me in Cantonese but I didn’t understand. It’s strange to be teargassed with fellow protestors and then be reminded that you are an outsider, that your solidarity has clear boundaries.
Eventually, we retreated into the calmer areas of the city, but other protestors fought the police into the night. It was a turning point for many Hong Kong people, a clear signpost that the government would give no ground in the protection of its own interests and that if Hong Kong people were to continue resisting, it would cost them their bodies. The stakes were different for me, obviously. I was at the very end of my student visa, and I had already purchased a plane ticket back to the States. I am not Heung Gong yan, not a Hong Konger; my Cantonese is terrible, my family never lived there, and I have no plans to be in Hong Kong in 2047 when the Sino-British Joint Declaration expires and the Chinese Communist Party officially takes final control of Hong Kong.
So what is Hong Kong to me? And what am I to Hong Kong? And what does it mean for a Chinese American like myself to stand next to Hong Kong protestors in their fight for democracy, which, by the way, is not a system that I am actually all that optimistic about given our problems here in the US? But what does my participation in anything mean? What did it mean when I went to Standing Rock? Or defended Black Lives Matter to my friends? If there are no issues that feel like “my” issues, no identitarian basis for my involvement, then what ultimately informs or guides any of this?
Hong Kong was not a homecoming in the sense that I returned to find myself in Asia. All I “discovered” was contested land and shifting identities—and this is no discovery. What I realized in Hong Kong was that to be Chinese American (or Hong Konger) is not a nationality, race, or ethnicity; it is a posture we take towards the world, or rather, a posture the world has taken towards us. The challenge with Hong Kong is that for so many people it exists only in an imagination, as an abstraction. And as such, it must exist in between the so-called “West” and “East” and therefore becomes the canvas onto which both sides project their greatest (imperial) fantasies. To the West, Hong Kong is the last hope for democracy in the face of Communist China. To China, Hong Kong is their rightful child who has been brainwashed by the West. Either way, no one really cares about Hong Kong people and their flesh-and-blood struggle for self-determination; both sides merely understand Hong Kong in terms of themselves and as a pawn in a war against their necessary ideological enemy. In this framework (per Edward Said’s Orientalism), China and America simply cannot coexist; they will always be the other’s contrasting image and thus need one another in order to understand themselves. So what does it mean to be Chinese American, for these bipolar entities to be at war in our bodies?
It turns out, we are not “Eastern” or “Western” people, or Eastern people with Western values. And if the “East” is a construction within the Euro/American imagination, then there is also no “liminal” space to inhabit in between two fictions: the West and the East the West creates. There is only the disorientation we experience as we move from one colonized space to another, and the realization that “home” is nearly impossible once the land has been desecrated. So maybe home is the no-man’s land we have constructed, all barricade and wood pallet, debris we have fashioned into protection; the chaotic, disputed space we have carved out for ourselves. And maybe all that grounds us as a people are the relationships we have committed to, those who lay their hands upon us in blessing while the powerful lay their hands upon us in violence. And at the end of the day, all we have is our resistance, the umbrellas we raise and the chants we shout to keep fighting. Whether Hong Konger or Chinese American, what constitutes our identity are not the national borders that have been laid around us, but the rejection of the Orientalist gaze that made us out to be objects in an imperial fantasy. We are a people formed in negation, a defiant “Thou shalt not” in the face of every oppressor and empire, be they “democratic,” “communist,” Eastern, or Western, if they look like us or not. All of which is to say, we are a people committed to the land we stand on, people who have cobbled together a community of resistance and resilience under the shadow of empire. The word I use for this is “church” because of the particular Way I have chosen to go about it, but others will have other language. Nevertheless, as protests spring up around the globe, we must remember that we are not beholden to the games of identitarian or national belonging; rather, our commitment is to an embodied stand against oppression wherever it may rear its head: in the West, in the East, or in ourselves.
For more information on what’s happening in Hong Kong:
– Hong Kong Democratic Movement Overview
– “What the Fight for Hong Kong is Really About”
– “Hong Kong’s Last Battle”
– “Hong Kong’s Fight For Life”
– “Insurgent Politics Against the Backdrop of Hong Kong’s Existential Crisis”
– “Black Versus Yellow”