Last year, in July, a month after the protests over an extradition bill began in Hong Kong, I renewed the lease on my flat. For the first time since I turned 18, I would be living in the same apartment for more than two years. It felt like an accomplishment, like I was a real adult.
My place is almost 300 square feet, and it has a view of trees and steps, which is such an improvement from my last flat that sometimes just looking out the window makes me emotional. I ordered a cheap Ikea carpet and put up old posters. I started buying vinyl records and physical books again. I could be here for a while. It began to feel like home.
There are so many reasons Hong Kong is not a particularly habitable city, so many reasons you might want to leave, even without the Chinese Communist Party threatening to throw dissidents in jail.
Windowless apartments, subdivided flats, bunk beds. If you have children, your choice is either to send them to local schools, where they face an unforgiving education system, or international schools, which can cost as much as $13,000 a year. The high rents or archaic land regulations and bureaucracy can force out anyone trying to run an independent space for music, art and expression. Rates of depression have recently reached a 10-year high, but quality mental health care is too expensive for ordinary people.
I am 27 now, and when I was younger, I desperately wanted to leave Hong Kong. I grew up in a neighborhood that, at the time, felt like a cultural backwater. There were no bookstores, no art, no record shops. I attended a conservative Christian school and never really fit in. I went to concerts alone. I wrote fan fiction and spent all my time on Tumblr.
I thought I wanted to go to school in London or New York, where I’d finally find “my people.” The longest I’ve ever managed to be away from the city was four months, for an exchange semester in Scotland. I never really ended up going anywhere.
But that was OK, because eventually I did find my people. I met community activists and other young creative types who showed me an alternative way of living in Hong Kong. I became a regular at the cha chaan teng diners in my neighborhood, where I’d be given a second bowl of soup at dinner once the staff found out that I didn’t live with my family. There were local musicians whose shows I’d never miss. In university, I began going to protests.
There is an annual march on July 1, the anniversary of the British “handover” of Hong Kong to the Chinese, and soon I took it for granted that about this time every year, I would be marching through the streets in the sticky heat. I belonged, and I was proud to be here and not anywhere else. Hong Kong was still unforgiving, but we could expand the space for what is possible here.
The poet Maggie Smith writes, “Any decent realtor,/ walking you through a real shithole,/ chirps on/ about good bones: This place could be beautiful,/ right? You could make this place beautiful.”
This year, on the evening of June 30, the condolences started coming in. Earlier that day, China had passed the new national security law, which took effect within hours. The sky had cracked with a coral sunset that seeped into the horizon like a warning.
Friends living abroad sent me texts: I’m so sorry, hope you’re OK, thinking of you. Restaurants started peeling protest stickers off their glass windows. Some writers I know have been trying to scrub their work from the internet and deleting their chat records. The law is broad and gives China new ways to punish protesters and silence dissent.
Former classmates are discussing immigration plans or getting married, so that if they need to, they can flee with their partners. Others are figuring out how to renew their British National Overseas passports, the documents issued to Hong Kongers born before 1997, which could allow them to stay in Britain for five years.
Before the new law made the chant “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” possibly illegal, my favorite place to hear it was at tiny music clubs, “livehouses” that stink of beer and sweat at the end of the night. After the encores, the last guitar note still reverberating, someone would yell the first half of the slogan, and others would answer in unison. At the end of December, I celebrated New Year’s Eve at a small pro-protest cafe where a friend played the unofficial protest anthem, “Glory to Hong Kong,” and everyone sang along.
After six months of street protests and police violence, we were all exhausted, but it still felt like we were on the cusp of change.
I was 10 when the Hong Kong government tried to introduce a national security law in 2003, and it was quickly withdrawn after half a million people took to the streets in protest. That proposal was a sword that hung over us for nearly two decades, a threat to what Hong Kongers hold most dear — a culture of protest, the rule of law, freedom. We’ve been fighting for “freedom,” that abstract concept, for so long, with no idea of what losing it would look like. It was delivered with devastating speed — the whole process took less than two months — in the form of a 66-article piece of legislation that we had no say in. Hong Kongers, academics and overseas commentators say this is the endgame, that after this law, Hong Kong will be “dead.”
But I don’t really know what that means. Seven and a half million people still live here. On July 1, some protesters unfurled a banner with an obscenely worded message professing love for Hong Kong, and soon that phrase became a hashtag. The subtext is that we might not have a place to love anymore. I have a law degree, and I am a former reporter, so I am conditioned to have an almost religious belief that legal processes are fair, that the annual protests penciled into the calendar are allowed to take place. That version of Hong Kong is now a relic.
But not everything has disappeared. The bookshop near my flat posted a message on social media: “Life goes on, resist fear.” A reporter I know tweeted, “I’ll just try my best to pretend this law doesn’t exist, keep calm, and carry on.”
I don’t want to downplay how terrifying the national security law is. People were arrested under that law on the first day, some of them just for carrying a flag bearing suddenly “outlawed” slogans. Courts can deny bail and hold secret trials. No one knows how to navigate this new reality.
Yet people are already coming up with cheeky, humorous ways of circumventing the new rules, resisting the temptation to be too obedient and give in to the chilling effect. We will continue to find defiance in unexpected places.
Over the past week, I have read report after report about how there would be an exodus of Hong Kongers from the city after the law was passed. But leaving is not an option for the young people who don’t already have British or B.N.O. passports or whose families don’t have the means to send them abroad to study.
Ahkok Wong, a musician-social activist I know, actually moved back to Hong Kong recently, telling me, “I think it’s an important time to be here.” Life in Hong Kong has always been about demanding the impossible, trying to make seeds blossom in cement, he says.
After the law went into effect on July 1, I tried to write. But what I wanted was to walk around the city, and then go to the seaside where the breeze reeks of salt and summer, where couples make out and uncles jog near the pallets unloaded from cargo ships at the Western District pier. To see the city through the eyes of someone who’s just moved here and think, “I want to stay here forever.”
I used to see leaving as abandonment, but the cost of staying could now potentially be life imprisonment. When Nathan Law announced that he had left the city, I thought about the last time I saw him, a month ago, canvassing for an upcoming election at Hill Road. I wish I had stayed longer to thank him for trying to make this city more habitable. Four years ago, when elections still seemed to matter, I had voted for him, to make him the youngest legislator ever elected in Hong Kong, before he was disqualified. There will be new forms of resistance, here or elsewhere, and I know he will be a part of them.
I remember the night before July 1, it seemed like all my friends were posting the same song on social media, a cover by the Hong Kong band My Little Airport. It goes, “Take care tonight/ Things might not look like this tomorrow.” In between the verses, there is an archival recording of Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, saying, “Now Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong, that is the promise and that is the unshakable destiny.”
That promise has been broken, but this is not the end. We will continue to make a home out of an imperfect place. To wipe down the mold, repaint the walls. One day we could be forcibly evicted, or this could all burn to the ground. But for now, we’re still here. Maybe we can still try to make this place beautiful.
Karen Cheung (@karenklcheung) is a writer in Hong Kong.
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