“Why are we not watching the dragon boats?” pined a young girl to her mother, as they strolled through Tamar Park on a sunny, yet notoriously humid, June weekend in Hong Kong. On any other day, this would be a completely valid question. A few Sundays ago, however, the cancellation of the annual Dragon Boat Festival would have been the last thought on many people’s minds. These recent events provided me a sad, but fitting, close to my time in the South China Sea area. For the locals, this is far from the end.
The ‘riots’ of Hong Kong have been very well documented. The mass gathering of people in the streets is in order to, officially, oppose a bill which would expose the citizens of Hong Kong to China’s extremely problematic legal system via the means of extradition. Yet, it is much more than that. This is a case of Hong Kong being dragged ever closer to the dark grasps of its uncompromising neighbour.
Hong Kong’s 7.3million strong population are used to being densely packed into this Special Administrative Region on a daily basis. This past Sunday, however, over a quarter of them voluntarily rubbed shoulders for marches through the heart of the financial centres, toward governmental headquarters. Although, I am sure governmental sources will not necessarily report the same voluptuous statistics.
There is something so very beautifully tragic about seeing people putting their physical forms on the line, in the name of protecting their beautifully romantic city.
I made my way to the endpoint of the marches on Sunday from where I have been living over the course of this year. I noticed something different than to any other day. A distinct notion of emptiness to the streets which snaked their way through the sea of skyscrapers. Sure, the domestic workers were still making the most of their single day off in an otherwise unfair existence, with their numerous dance troupes adorning the streets. The tourists with their stylish sock and sandal two-piece still stood for photographs with Spiderman near the piers. The AIA wheel continued its slow never-ending clockwise rotation, matching the pace of the trams which maintained their unrelenting trundle.
Yet, without the glorious presence of the local Hong Konger, providing a different challenge to dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge around on every pavement there is an element of eeriness. Perhaps this walk is an indication of what the SAR will look like when its special status expires in twenty eight years. Their physicality may still be here but this past month’s events are yet another example of the slow erasure of the last defining features of Hong Kong as a messy, sticky and unique mess of its own.
When I first arrived in East Asia, it was meant to be me that was enduring the breakdowns and personality crises. Rest assured, that definitely did happen. Yet, I could see through my own teary eyes that I had arrived in a city enduring an identity crisis of its very own, stretching back twenty two years before I had even considered boarding the Boeing to get here. In the minor snapshot of time I have spent here I have seen a continuation of previously permanent identities slipping away. ‘Ten Years’, available as a film or literary work makes eerily accurate dystopic predictions over this troubled territory. One of which is the disappearance of Cantonese as the official language. It is not difficult, my fellow University Hall footballers told me, to witness Mandarin undertaking more significant prominence each year in early school curriculums. An FT journalist was also denied his return visa due to pro-Hong Kong independence associations. Additionally, this year saw the ban of ‘disrespect’ to the Chinese national anthem at Hong Kong sporting events. And just a few months prior to the biggest marches Hong Kong has seen as a SAR, the leaders of the Umbrella Revolution were imprisoned for their past actions. It leaves little to the imagination for the fate of the current activists who so heroically stood up to their local government last month.
I’ve rarely seen such unity this year from the locals. In fact, it only really seems like they are united in blocking every pavement and MTR station on a daily basis, especially when I am in a rush. It is an incredibly insular culture, both at the supposedly prestigious University of Hong Kong and in day to day life. Yet, they have shown the world how proud they are. On paper, seven million people against the better part of a billion does not appear to match up. As Carrie Lam announces the ‘death’ of the controversial bill, it gives reason to believe that it may not quite be the processional walk-over of Chinese power as the population disparities suggest. Viewing photographs of the black shirted masses is enough to convince a neutral alone.
But, 2047 edges ever closer and no one knows what that not-so-distant future will hold. I suspect it may not be the Hong Kong that I have come to know and love. Change, as intimidating as it can seem, is inevitable and perhaps I should allay my fears, owing it a lust for the dramatic. But, change undertaken against the spirit of the people is what sparks my nervousness about what will become of the concrete coated city I am leaving behind. Despite the bill’s ‘death’, there will be no funeral and this lingering legislation will find relevance once again, sooner rather than later.
Although my time has since passed, this particular territory’s fight will continue for many years to come. This time next year, the Dragon Boat Festival may not be going ahead and the little girl may end up asking the same longing question. What is a certainty, however, is the continued uncertainty of Hong Kong’s democratic future.