On leaving one home for another, and lamenting a loss. By Sharon Lam.
The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand
Original illustrations by Renée Jacobi.
I have left Hong Kong many times. The day of departure was always the same, arriving at the check-in counter praying the suitcase wasn’t overweight from a smuggler’s bounty worth of goods: bootleg VCDs and bootleg Japanese stationery, Uniqlo tees and niche lollies. I’d struggle to act breezy and strong while lifting the luggage onto the conveyor belt. Once back in New Zealand I would share my exotic bounty like a benevolent king, telling myself that all the time spent with distant relatives telling me I’d gotten fatter had been worth it.
This time, however, was very different. For one, the airport was empty, shops closed. The staff were unsettlingly nice, waiving the fee for my grossly overweight luggage. There was little bounty, the usual gifts replaced with three years worth of accumulated trash. Pandemic aside, this was one of two reasons this departure felt so different. I hadn’t just visited Hong Kong, but finally lived in Hong Kong. The second reason is, of course, the fledgling authoritarianism. Or beyond fledgling now, well into puberty after a sudden growth spurt in the past year. This makes missing Hong Kong a complicated affair – street food is missed as much as a street protest. Can one still go back safely, and even if you could, would it still really be Hong Kong?
So what is the “Hong Kong” that I will miss? There are, after all, 7.5 million people in Hong Kong and therefore 7.5 million iterations of Hong Kong. In an area just slightly larger than Auckland, these millions of surfers, bankers, cardboard collectors, butchers, models, construction workers, billionaires, people like me and people like you make their home next to, on top of, and under each other.
My own home was in Mong Kok, a busy shopping and entertainment neighbourhood in Kowloon. It was a 10 to 15 minute walk to work, depending on my luck. The part that always slowed me down was the street market, where vendors had been hawking their fish, vegetables and fruit since early morning. As I run-walked through laser-focused helpers and see lais with their toe-trampling shopping trolleys, while dodging bags of frogs and jumping shrimp on the pathway, glimpsing freshly cut heads of giant grouper, their vermillion gills on display, I felt like I was in a gratuitous foreign-country chase scene in a mediocre Hollywood movie, only I was knocking over slightly less stuff.
On weekends, however, slowed down, I’d pretend I was Anthony Bourdain. I would comb the stalls, in the winter looking for lotus root still caked in mud and for the freshest dou miao – snow pea leaves – perhaps the best green vegetable there is. In summer, I would smell mangos, select lemons and buy fresh herbal grass jelly, combining the three with some ice at home. Year-round I would visit a silent man who sold only jackfruit, spending morning to evening popping out and unsheathing sac after sac, a mesmerising and noble trade.
Over time, I knew exactly which stalls to go to. The guy next to the jade stall for the antibiotic-free, free-range eggs. The lady in the middle for the local hydroponic lettuces. The lady just before the turn for hard tofu. I became familiar with some of these vendors, and along with the free ginger or king oyster mushroom here and there, I’d enjoy chatting about cooking and prep tips or even just the merits and demerits of different styles of shopping bags. “Oi, girl! You! Buy these shrimp! They’re $80!” from the aggressive gold-toothed fishmonger turned into “Oi, girl! You still won’t buy these shrimp? They’re $75!” I had never felt more at home.
I became just as particular about cooked food, having no issues travelling an hour for an excellent bowl of hor fun instead of a good bowl of hor fun. But there is one food above all the rest, which I ate every week, if not every day, and have already had torturous withdrawals from. This is the humble siu mai. This is not the type of pork and shrimp siu mai that you get at yum cha, but street siu mai, which is smaller, meaner, more flirtatious. The meat is a “fish” paste wrapped in artificially yellow wonton skin, and then usually steamed and served with sweet soy and chili sauce.
All elements of a siu mai have variations – some places have thinner, transparent skin, some have bouncier centres, some are really just vessels for a particularly good chili sauce. My favourite version was found in Wan Chai, where they add mushrooms to the fish paste, deep fry them and serve with satay sauce. Locally, siu mai are extraordinarily popular, even going through somewhat of a renaissance in recent years with a 46,000 strong “Hong Kong Siu Mai concern group”, apparel, and an upcoming encyclopaedia. But the beauty of siu mai is best summed up in a meme from a co-worker, a flow chart with options like “got dumped/got into a relationship/got fired/got a promotion/hungry/not hungry”, where every possible path ends with “eat siu mai”. Quick, satisfying, comforting, cheap, and found on every second street corner.
There was also joy in the fact that I was using Cantonese to feed myself, both literally and metaphorically. Before, the Cantonese-speaking Sharon had only existed in the realm of the family home. Now she was out and about on the mean streets, taking business calls in the back of taxis, trying to haggle down the price of a melon, apologetically telling waiters that she couldn’t read. What I soon discovered, however, was that because I learned Cantonese from my parents – who haven’t lived in Hong Kong since the 80s – my Cantonese is very, very outdated. Imagine someone earnestly using words like “shan’t”, “cellular telephone”, or “ye olde shoppe” in everyday conversation. And as my parents can speak several languages, some phrases that I thought were Cantonese weren’t even Cantonese but Japanese, Hokkien, or amalgamations of all three. Nonetheless, it was incredibly fulfilling to get around, work a job, feed myself – live a life not in English (and apparently also not Cantonese) for once.
Food and language are obvious parts of Hong Kong’s identity, along with losing all your money in mahjong, Bruce Lee, saying diu ley lo mo et cetera. But underlying all of this is the sense of freedom that gives Hong Kong its edges, its colour. You can feel it every time Chow Yun-Fat smokes a cigarette in a movie, you can feel it every time an uncle clips his nails on the subway, you can feel it as the cha chaa teng waitress calls you leng leuy (pretty girl) and you take the stock phrase more to heart than you should.
This sense of freedom came from Hong Kong’s autonomy. So did its sense of hope. Throughout Hong Kong’s history – from its early days of a fishing port to its multiple influxes of migrants from the mainland, through its time under British colonialism and the handover – there has always been hope that the next stage would be better, and people were always able to openly discuss how they would get there. For many, that hope and final form of freedom was in true universal suffrage, a democratic Hong Kong, and an end to one-party dictatorship in China.
For people to be able to say and do things that their grandparents once couldn’t made freedom a central part of a Hong Konger’s identity. With the passing of the National Security Law last June, freedom and identity have been attacked as one. The deliberately vague law saw an instant increase in self-censorship, Lennon walls and yellow shopfronts quickly disappeared. Stickers and t-shirts became illicit items. There was an instant dulling and dimming to the city.
Things only got bleaker from there. A day of “National Security Law Education” throughout schools saw children given replica guns by police, viral photos showing 10 year olds recreating the Prince Edward attack, pointing guns at each other in a subway train. Books were removed from the library, movie screenings banned. An “oath of loyalty” was now required for all civil servants. A specific law made it illegal to make fun of China’s national anthem. The democrats in the legislative council, dismissed one after the other until they were outnumbered 19 to 70, saw that there was no longer any credibility to the institution. They collectively resigned. Soon after, a new requirement for future candidates was introduced: only “patriots” were allowed to run. Pro-democracy groups disbanded, student unions had funding and associations cut by their universities. Activists fled the city in self-exile. Some who stayed were arrested. Among them was Martin Lee, who had been one of the leaders of the very first million-person protest in Hong Kong, which in 1989 saw a quarter of the city’s population at the time march in support of the weeks-long protest movement in Beijing and other mainland cities. All these events happened in less than a year.
Since 1989, every June 4 thousands have gathered in Victoria Park to commemorate the victims of the Tiananmen Massacre. That was until last year, when the vigil was officially banned by the police under the guise of coronavirus concerns. Tens of thousands showed up anyway. Notable participants, including Joshua Wong, would later be arrested for doing so.
As I write this on June 4, 2021, from the cushy confines of managed isolation in Auckland, crowds of Hong Kong police have gathered in Victoria Park to prevent crowds gathering. Security officials from Beijing are nearby, having recently moved into a converted luxury hotel overlooking the park. The vigil is once again banned, once again under the guise of coronavirus concerns. When a government official was asked if the vigil was a criminal offence, he replied: “Everything illegal is illegal.”
There is still good food and there are still cool, intimidating fishmongers in Hong Kong, and perhaps there always will be. But how long can people go about enjoying everyday rituals as their rights continue to diminish, and with them their identity? Will siu mai sellers be forced to artificially dye their wonton skins a different colour, yellow becoming too adjacent to the protest movement? Will purple siu mais signal the final death blow to Hong Kong?
The truth is, you don’t need to leave Hong Kong to miss it. The people of Hong Kong in Hong Kong already do.