Free Hong Kong
And to all your friends.
Dear Hong Kong,
I think it’s about time I wrote you a letter. I have been coming to see you for 14 years now; since the very beginning of my career, and have been madly in love with you this whole time.
You were the first place I ever visited in Asia, I remember it like it was yesterday. As I waiting at the airport express station with my colleagues, I was struggling to contain my excitement; I started to feel something bubbling up inside, vibrations, electricity, I don’t know… And from the minute I laid eyes upon you it was true love, love at first sight.
My boss at the time, jaded and worn down from so many visits to the Far East, mildly delirious after our long red-eye, became infected with my enthusiasm. She decided to forgo the taxi and to let us get the shuttle bus from the station to the hotel; the long way round, so I could see out of the window. I was transfixed. I had never experienced anything like this place before, only on the television, it looked like the set from a film. I stuck my sleepy face to the glass and stared hard, trying to absorb everything that was going on outside.
I knew right away you would be special to me forever.
Since that first encounter I must have visited more than one hundred times, I have seen you go through many changes, each time rising triumphantly like a phoenix from the ashes. Now there are more changes and I don’t think it will so easy to recover. So I need to make sure you know how deeply I care about you. I thought it might help you to stay strong.
I could fill a whole book with all of the adventures I have had with you.
From hiking the deserted paths of Discovery Bay to seeking out special little boutiques in Tsim Tsa Tsui. Stuffing my bag full of goodies at the market in Sham Shui Po, riding the Star Ferry back and forth across the harbour for no reason at all other than the fact that I love riding the Star Ferry.
The first time I rode the peak tram to the top, there was one restaurant at the Peak. That’s it, just one! I have been wined and dined in some of the most exclusive (pretentious) hotspots, where I have marvelled at your breathtaking beauty. We have shared some of the best nights out and some of the worst hangovers.
There was the time when my trip was finished, I was all ready to return to the UK, and a volcano erupted in Iceland, can you imagine that? A volcano! My flight was cancelled, and after spending several hours trying to sleep on the floor of the airport hotel, I was ushered onto a bus and transported back into Kowloon. Too tired to appreciate the luxury of the Mira hotel, who were kindly putting up all the stranded waifs and strays, not too tired to brave the humidity and have one last stroll around the city.
Never too tired for that.
I have marvelled at the Monster Mansion complex in Quarry Bay, beamed at the pastel-coloured buildings by the basketball courts at the Choi Hung Estate, bought far too many pairs of sneakers on Fa Yuen Street.
I have even brought my Mother to meet you, and of course, she was swept away by your eclectic charm.
Then something happened to you. We saw it on the news.
First of all, there were umbrellas, a lot of umbrellas. Then there was anger and violence, your friends rising to protect you. There was fire, and the crunch of broken glass, batons, shields a lingering odour of tear gas, and fear.
So much fear.
I returned to see you once again in October 2019; I always miss you. I went to meet the big Buddha and all the happy cows, hiked around the peaceful oceanside paths stopping to take in the unspoiled views. I hopped on a ferry and arrived in Causeway Bay.
And you seemed different.
There were messages of support emblazoned on every billboard, bus stop, lamp post, pavement; anything that could be written on. Your friends all wore masks; they carried umbrellas. I joined the march in solidarity, and as they belted Chandelier out over the speaker, I found it hard not to feel some positivity, some hope. There we all were together, strangers, united over our love for you.
We marched for some time but kept being cut off by the police. It ended up being more back and forth than a parade. Your friends thanked me for joining the procession, for holding a balloon. I felt proud, proud to be there in that time of need and to be able to do that one tiny thing to try to help.
I watched your friends begin their preparations. Hidden under the safety of their umbrellas they cut through the chains between the bollards, broke locks on fences and gates, bins were set alight. It became apparent that there was an order to what was about to happen, and as more people began to assemble, I decided to break away from the crowd.
I walked up to the Peak, rewarded immediately by these funny little boars, when I reached the top I could see something was wrong. I looked out across the harbour, your glittering lights were dim, you looked dark, sinister.
I sat there a while absorbing this eerie unfamiliar new view wondering what I would return to, after all, I was several miles from the safety of my hotel. I started to make my way back, passing a security guard idly watching what was unfolding on his phone. I felt a little frightened. I have never felt unsafe in your company before.
The first station was closed. I walked to the next; closed. My phone battery was low, I was trying to stay calm, I found my way to the next MTR station, and it was open. I sprinted to get on the first train, found a seat in the carriage; as I was sitting down, I remember glancing around at the faces staring back at me — frightened faces. I looked down, some of their shoes had dye on them, they had been on the front line; bloodied elbows and knees, patched up with makeshift bandages. Outfits were quickly changed before we arrived at the next station. The train didn’t stop, it kept going, in fact, three more stops passed. When we were finally able to disembark, we could smell the lingering odour of the tear gas and as we traipsed up the steps and into the night the mutual feeling was that of sorrow. We came face to face with what looked more like a deserted war zone than the normally civilised, orderly, hustle of folk going about their evenings business. Every single window of the station had been smashed, spray painted — ‘Free Hong Kong’ the sound of the protest was not far in the distance, we turned a corner and made a collective gasp as we came face to face with the pandemonium.
And why did this happen?
Well because that night a policeman shot one of your supporters. A teenager.
How can you ever recover from that? How?
I walked with more of your companions crunching through the shattered glass, and together we watched the police provoking the protestors, waving around their guns, threatening more tear gas. There were desperate attempts from the crowd to release hostages from the riot vans.
The violence began to escalate quite suddenly. I was tired, I had walked miles, I retreated to the safety of my hotel, now a few minutes away. Almost all the shops and restaurants were closed, I managed to pick up some snacks from a convenience store, and lay on my bed, heavy heart listening to the sirens and the faint sound of chanting in the distance. I am not sure if it got quieter, if it stopped even, but I was so exhausted I was soon sound asleep.
The next day I checked out, and one of the staff from the hotel insisted on carrying my case to a taxi rank around the corner. A lot of the stations were still closed, people were on edge, he helped me into the taxi and waved me off, telling me to stay safe. It was only once we began driving away from the Island and into Kowloon that I could appreciate the extent of what had happened the night before.