States of the Union is an ongoing series featuring brief pieces by writers we admire from around the world. Some of the writers are in exile, some communicate from within a country ruled by a regime they defy. Read editor-in-chief Dale Peck’s introduction to the series here. For the full series, click here.
After dinner, we walk home along the westbound tram line, arms linked. The summer air chokes us like a warm, wet palm pressing down on our nostrils. We stop by a familiar building complex, a faded façade of beige and mint. Five years ago, we had lived here on the third floor, broke students sleeping on the upper bunk bumping our heads on the low ceiling every morning.
A young man in a white shirt is standing next to an easy-pull printed with his likeness, his name in bright, bold letters. This is my last day, he says. In 2019, as the protests ripped through Hong Kong, this man won a district council seat. The job consists mostly of helping an aging population fill in forms, dealing with rat infestations, and mediating between residents and noisy bars at midnight.
Now it is July, two years since the protests, a year since Hong Kong passed a draconian law suppressing dissent. Most opposition councilors are resigning; those who have yet to will soon be forced out by the government. Remember to take care of each other. Don’t let the corrupt building management swindle you out of your savings, the young man says. He smiles at the kaifongs in his thin-rimmed glasses, greeting them by their names. The wild eyes of red rear lights glint in the quiet streets.
Isn’t that depressing, I say to my love, and he says yes, although he has a faraway look in his eyes, the way he sometimes does when he dissociates and starts talking instead about the historical trajectory of authoritarian ascent. When I am home I think not about politics or even the young man, but the grandfathers who live alone and now know not who to call when the light above them hisses then extinguishes.
“My Little Airport sings about taking bus 6C to catch a movie at Langham Place in Mong Kok. The audience chants something they are most definitely not supposed to chant in this political climate. Within minutes I hear the crowd around me blowing their noses.”
Pop punk bands are always singing about leaving this town. They hate it here. It is suffocating. Nobody dreams. But when they leave for the big city, they also hate it there. They miss living thirty minutes away from everyone with whom they grew up. When they roam these unfamiliar streets, the city feels like a party everyone else is invited to. They walk into a bodega to pick up a carton of yogurt, bodega, a word that is utterly foreign. When winter comes, they just want someone to play board games with indoors. Instead, they walk past one streetlight after another on a deserted sidewalk, then start running. The only freedom they’ve ever known is the kind where a protagonist sprints down the streets of New York City against a soundtrack of David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” They start writing songs about being a transplant instead, about missing home.
August: I’m at a concert hall in a Kowloon Bay mall. My Little Airport, Hong Kong’s most beloved indie pop duo, is playing. Half the venue is wearing black T-shirts that say, you have to be very strong if you want to do something very wrong. At McDonald’s before the show, I meet up with the two friends I’ve asked to come with me: an ex-colleague who is an artist, and an old flatmate I’ve known for a decade. After I introduce them, we find out that they both went to the same secondary school, five years apart, in Tin Shui Wai. Hong Kong is always described as this monster of a city, but it has always felt to me like a small town. Everybody knows each other.
Sometimes my world feels so small. I’ve never even lived anywhere else. But why would I want to leave a place where everyone I love is always near me? Why would I make home a place to miss, to write songs about only after I leave?
The lights dim. My Little Airport sings about taking bus 6C to catch a movie at Langham Place in Mong Kok. The audience chants something they are most definitely not supposed to chant in this political climate. Within minutes I hear the crowd around me blowing their noses. Some of them are emigrating soon, here to see their favorite band sing about Hong Kong one last time.
Why are you still here, they say. Can’t tell if you’re brave or stupid. When I can’t sleep, I replay these words in my head. Then I google Hong Kong prison inside pictures.
Stop fucking scaring me, I say. I’m not going to go until every one of you is gone.
Then I better get going, they say, and three months later I am at the airport, watching hundreds wave their hands in the air at the departure gate like groupies at a gig. There is still a global pandemic: These families aren’t going on a casual vacation to London to see an Arsenal game. They’ve packed even their Dyson vacuum cleaners into their oversized suitcases (that shit is expensive, and you can’t put batteries in checked-in luggage). The airline staff takes pity on them, forgoes the additional charges. Near me, a group of girls in ponytails and school uniforms are huddled together, exchanging last farewells.
A friend’s partner drives me home. He’s coming back to the airport in two days, to take off for London himself. As we crawl through the Tsing Ma Bridge, an overture comes on the RTHK4 channel. Someone says, 「屌，咁撚傷感仲要播啲咁嘅音樂，拍電影咩」and we laugh despite ourselves. Behind stacks of cargo containers, squares of lights from the windows of tall residential buildings dot the night sky. A crescent moon slides into view then disappears. What I cannot admit to myself is that even though I am still here, I’m already missing this place.
A portal, out-of-time and unanchored in place: The face of district councilor and lawmaker Ted Hui on the curve of the road in Sheung Wan, promising that his party will tackle the pigeon problem in Central. Nearby, a couple of elderly people emerge from a Chinese medicine practitioner clutching little brown bags of powdered herbs, and office workers queue up outside a cheap dumpling place. By the time I see his banner, Hui has fled for political reasons. He will likely never step foot in this city again. An enemy of the state. Yet here he is, grinning at me in front of a supermarket on Queen’s Road Central, talking about bird shit.
Before I reach over to turn off the light, I kiss his shoulder blade. Behind the curtains, a motorcycle growls and speeds off the highway on Connaught Road West. I want to be babied, I say, and he pulls me into his arms and strokes the top of my head.
There’s information I read in the news and can’t help but store away, the way doomsday preppers are constantly adding to their file of survival tactics. For instance: On the inside, you’re only allowed six books a month, but there is no limit for religious reading materials. Your loved ones can bring you Pop-Pan biscuits (one packet per week, 200g-size only), M&M’s (yellow or brown, 37g only), two Bic ball pens and five 100-page notebooks, ten packs of Tempo tissues, and one bottle of shampoo. You should expect to coexist with cockroaches of all sizes and stages of maturity. In summer it is so hot in the cells that inmates commonly get hives. In winter, you shiver in your thin clothes as the north wind sweeps through the bars.
I am alive only because of a specific set of circumstances and routines calibrated to minimize the regularity of suicidal thoughts. I listen to Grouper when I experience that void I cannot articulate, Unwound when I want to hurt myself. Every evening, I smoke exactly eight Marlboro heat sticks I purchase off the black market. I take long baths and bake cakes to unwind. I have thirty milligrams of Remeron and ten milligrams of Ambien with a glass of water twenty minutes before bed. And still, still some days I fantasize about walking in front of a bus racing down a slope.
You do not get to choose what music you listen to in jail. You will not remember the scent of a lover in bed at night. If you are barely surviving out here, chances are you will not survive prison.
Yet I cannot be replanted either. It is too late for me. There is but one type of habitat from which I will grow. Climate: subtropical, with occasional spells of high humidity. Average annual temperature: 22.6 °C. Prone to storms and typhoons.
“You do not get to choose what music you listen to in jail. You will not remember the scent of a lover in bed at night. If you are barely surviving out here, chances are you will not survive prison.”
When the unthinkable becomes reality, you don’t demand the things you thought you would, to live in freedom or even for the government to stop persecuting activists and dissenters. What you truly want is so trivial it is almost embarrassing. Trivial, but impossible. Like this: I want my kids to grow up here. Or just: I want my friends to be able to sleep at night.
I’m in a cherry red taxi that reeks of cigarettes. The driver is manning five phones above his steering wheel, routes and hail-taxi apps flashing on the screens, and it makes me nervous. We pass by a university that still gives me night terrors. A disembodied voice on the radio says, 公主道過海，龍尾：康莊道橋面. I take in everything: the bank loan advertisement on the billboard, the scant trees guarding the brick buildings, the mustard Autotoll signs just before the tunnel.
It is autumn. We’ve arrived at the seaside, watching the blue meld the line between sky and water. Blue is a generous color: I will find blue in every corner of the world. But this exact shade of blinding blue, spreading itself across the expanse of my vision, distant yet also right here between the gaps of my fingers, the light song of Cantonese in the air around me. I file this moment away in the archives, knowing I will never be able to replicate this. It is always the last time I’ll ever be here.
Karen Cheung is a writer and editor from Hong Kong. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Rumpus, This American Life, and others. She is the author of The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir, forthcoming from Random House in February 2022.
Image by Hippolyte Baraduc (1850-1902). Reproduced from L'âme humaine: ses mouvements, ses lumières et l'iconographie de l'invisible fluidique (The human soul: its movements, its lights, and the iconography of the fluidic invisible), Paris: Librairie internationale de la pensée nouvelle, 1913.