I don’t know about you, but for me, this not going anywhere is getting strange. As if life in 2020 could get any stranger. I returned to Hong Kong at the tail end of July, and it’s now mid-October. While I was away, COVID-19 cases dwindled, and the protests died down (except for a few quickly squelched splutters). Despite a looming typhoon warning today, even the weather here has been static. A few degrees cooler at night, an erratic breeze, the same green, the midday heat.
Hong Kong is its usual old noisy self. Pile drivers, concrete drills, traffic, trains, vendors, people. Yet the city feels oddly muffled in the wake of the new security law making dissent illegal. On the CUHK campus, where we live, life is back to normal. Students are not yet meeting in classrooms, but they are here on the sidewalks and shuttle buses. Of course, now everyone now wears surgical masks wherever they go.
Despite the noise, Hong Kong feels as muzzled as it looks. On interior and exterior walls around campus, the ghostly outlines of protest posters and graffiti peek through fresh paint. Guards sit under awnings at every entrance, checking IDs. Nearby malls in Kowloon Tong and Shatin have been fitted with new, shatterproof, railings. The former Lennon Walls in Taipo, a riot of creative fury last fall, are stripped back to dirty white tile. When post-its appear, they are blank—a poignant statement about being silenced.
The seeming normalcy of the city, the heat, and the disquiet of the world at large make me feel like doing nothing. But doing nothing leads to mental and physical torpor. Escaping would be nice, but under current restrictions, we can’t return to Hong Kong without negative COVID-19 test results within 72 hours of departure and two-weeks quarantine in a hotel. For now, we’re grounded.
Since we can’t fly off to foreign destinations, the cure for our cabin fever and itchy feet is exploring closer to home. Walking is a good first step. Take that pun and stroll with it.
Last weekend we met a local couple in Fanling, a town a few stops away from us in the New Territories, for dim sum and an impromptu walk through the old town and beyond. Our stroll took us past a small and bear-bedecked temple to the mythical first emperor of China—Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor. We wandered through shop-lined streets and beyond a thicket of high-rises under construction.
Within minutes, we were single file on concrete pathways winding through yellow creeping daisies and banana trees laden with fruit. City noise retreated, and butterflies the size of finches flitted over white ginger and red hibiscus. Amid all this lush greenery, we arrived at the remnants of a village. Overrun gardens, outdoor tables and chairs, and clotheslines mutely attested to recent human activity.
As we followed the path, our friend told us this area was all villages and gardens thirty years ago. Most of the residents relocated when the government and developers purchased the land for conversion to high-rises. At the edge of the village, he pointed to a hand-painted banner over a courtyard entrance and laughed. One of the hold-outs, he said, waiting for a better deal. The sign said the residents aren’t moving until they get the check.
Who needs museums and foreign destinations when there is so much contrast and information to discover nearby? And much as I enjoyed finding a pocket of quiet beyond the city, encountering a little defiance in its midst made me feel hopeful that Hong Kong people will always find a way to speak.