Departure for a Disjointed Reality

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Content warning: this article contains written and audio references to the Hong Kong protest movement and police brutality.




[The other side of Harcourt Rd]

It feels humid and warm. A fire in your chest and a lingering headache. Inhaling through the face mask, you are reminded of what ‘dreams’ are made of. You start to lose sight over the details of the dreams, how they started, why you are here.

You feel everything through the multitudes of screens, through the action of your finger swiping up.

You are as awake as you are asleep.

 

•   •   •

 

Dear internet,

I hope this message finds you well during these unprecedented times.

I am writing to let you know that I have found comfort within you during these times. You have granted me access to a gathering I never thought I still had access to. It’s been a very long time since I felt a sense of belonging to this homeland.

Everything you know about me leaves a trace. My complexes, my insecurities. You know every gesture, every word and character that I read, write, delete forever. Every thought I have written on my phone passed through you, before it was archived into a beta version of eternity. Nothing will ever be forgotten.

Do you remember last July, when I was finally on the other side of Harcourt Rd? I couldn’t get a signal, so perhaps you would remember it as a glitch, a black-out afternoon with no information. When mass bodies gathered in black, dripping in sweat, you always opted out. Like you were designed to turn away from organised chaos, while only us, with bodies and hearts, would endure the impossible task that is a revolution.

 

•   •   •

 

dream

There are thousands around you. The sticky summer heat makes you closer to each other. You are moving slowly, or not moving at all. Anxiety sucks up the oxygen around you. It’s humid, and there is the stinking sun. We are patiently waiting for the unlikely breeze of fresh air.

This is supposed to be a peaceful protest, and legal. It’s how we express our dissatisfaction with the government. It’s our rights.

You hear a gunshot from a distance. No one flinches. On Harcourt Rd, you think. The other side of this monument.

You move with the crowd towards a different direction. A black flag is flying in the air.

Tear gas has been fired. 

 

•   •   •

 

I tried on a HK protest face filter on Instagram. It’s a little ill-fitting, but it’s the closest performance I could give as a protestor, wearing a full 3M face mask, the kind you see on the news. At least now, I look the part. Except, my backdrop separates my body from my purpose, a purple wall in a suburban rental in Melbourne.

When I exhale, it doesn’t fog up. No plastic seals pressing on my forehead. This digital face mask protects me from nothing. It’s a performance of solidarity, and mostly for an audience who have no stake back home.

The scar is invisible.

 

•   •   •

 

dream

A little girl is standing in the middle of a crowd. She is wearing her hair in a ponytail with a pink ribbon, wearing all black otherwise. Her shoes flash in rainbow when they touch the perfectly polished airport floor.  

光復香港 Liberate Hong Kong,’ she chants loudly. 

時代革命 Revolution of our time,’ the crowd responds with strength. 

In a sea of black, it rings out across the arrival hall of the international airport, echoing through its grand architecture. Curved steel and glass, symbols of success and an aspirational spirit. A hub of opportunities, where slick business attire feels like it has a use-by date.

She is not wearing a face mask.

Walking through the incredible Lennon Wall on the perfectly polished floors, messages of anguish, of love, of sorrow, and encouragement, are endless.  

You are reminded of the countless Lennon Walls you have walked through in Hong Kong, as well as the ones where you have never been. Each of them has taken over entire underpasses, tunnels, bridges and school campuses.

‘If we burn, you’ll burn with us,’ a poster writes. A quote from Hunger Games. The poster has replaced Katniss Everdeen with the image of a female protestor holding a slingshot. 

Streams of arrivals see tourists and visitors responding to the protestors. ‘Fight for Freedom’ is greeted with a thumb up from a tourist. ‘Democracy is a good thing!’ Chanted in Mandarin when a flock of Chinese visitors arrived.

As he walks pass the crowd, a flight attendant in a Cathay Pacific uniform holds up a phone that reads ‘香港人加油 Hongkonger ga yiu (add oil)’ on the screen.

Earlier that week the airline had bowed to the economic power of PRC and announced a ban on employees participating in the protests, or expressing pro-protest sentiments on their social media. The crowd applauds when the flight attendant enters the arrival hall.

A string quartet is playing Do You Hear The People Sing? Why would there be a string quartet at an illegal sit-in at the airport? You smile with confusion.

 

•   •   •

 

Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now Flag code for Animal Crossing New Horizons

 

It’s 4 June 2046 on Free HK Island; residents have removed the purple tulips and made room for white roses. A black bauhinia flag is flying next to walls of rainbow coloured squares. Since late 2019, Lennon Wall could no longer be displayed IRL on the streets of Hong Kong without being removed straight away. Empty walls repainted at the height of the COVID pandemic. Bumpy surfaces left traces of unauthorised posters. Coloured squares contained no messages on Free HK Island, but the symbol is appreciated.

Taking centre stage is the now cancelled fact-checking news program from RTHK. A few visitors are gathering around in their black bloc outfits with yellow helmets. They are masked, against the perfect blue sky.

Another group of visitors are gathering by a banner that reads ‘Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now.’ Surrounded by candlelight, they are performing the song ‘Glory to Hong Kong.’ In the absence of actual music, speech bubbles pop up with lyrics. They are gathering codes to recreate a reality that can no longer be achieved.

There’s no rush to leave. No tear gas. Only vetted ‘yellow’ visitors are allowed. Upon entry, one must express their rage towards police brutality.

It’s a peaceful gathering, everyone is moving around gently.

They are mourning together, in their respective living rooms. Nintendo Switch in hand, they are reliving a peaceful version of the revolution. It’s almost utopic.

 

•   •   •

 

但有一個夢不會死記著吧
無論雨怎麼打
自由仍是會開花

But there’s a dream that never dies,
let’s remember
It might rain hard,
But the flowers of freedom will bloom
— 自由花 (Flower of Freedom)

 

•   •   •

 

Tear gas percolates my screen like a Sunday ritual. My chest tightens. This tension is too familiar. A stream of content floods in. My heart sinks every time news arrived from afar. Debris of our emotions are being uploaded, transmitted, shared with strangers. Memories of physical and digital presence converged into a collective, disjointed reality.

In a million pieces, the little bits of ourselves are holding each other in this collective trauma, often disembodied. Our broken hearts are not yet healed, and there is no code of solidarity that would save us from this heartache. But we are, at this brief moment, together, across bodies and digital screens, one.

 




Audio recorded via livestreams from Apple Daily, Stand News and Australia-Hong Kong Link from the Tiananmen Square vigils held simultaneously in Causeway Bay (HK), Shatin (HK), Kwun Tong (HK) and Melbourne (Australia). There were many more vigils held all over Hong Kong and around the world but I only selected locations resonated with me the most.
Songs played at the vigils were 自由花 Flower of Freedom and 願榮光歸香港 Glory to Hong Kong.

 

The distant echo still rings,
scattered in different bodies,
across worlds and timelines,
here.

 

Explainers on Hong Kong:
9 Questions about Hong Kong you were too embarrassed to ask (Vox, Nov 2019)
Hong Kong: What are the implications of anti-sedition laws? (The Guardian, May 2020) 
Hong Kong’s new security laws usher in new era of Chinese control
(The Guardian, July 2020)

Extended reading:
The Infinite Heartbreak of Loving Hong Kong (The Nation, May 2020)
Banning the Tiananmen Square vigils must not stop us from building solidarity with the mainland (Lausan, May 2020)
Hong Kong was never built to stand up to China (The Nation, Nov 2019)
The Hong Kong movement must stand with Black Lives Matter (Lausan, May 2020)
Some artists planning to leave Hong Kong in response to a new security law (The Art Newspaper, July 2020)

 




[The other side of Harcourt Rd]

It feels humid and warm. A fire in your chest and a lingering headache. Inhaling through the face mask, you are reminded of what ‘dreams’ are made of. You start to lose sight over the details of the dreams, how they started, why you are here.

You feel everything through the multitudes of screens, through the action of your finger swiping up.

You are as awake as you are asleep.

24 May 2020, Livestreaming Hong Kong protests in Hong Kong via Stand News

 

•   •   •

 

I scrolled through my social media feed. Statements over the last twelve months have been deleted. Many have feared the implication of this new National Security Law will eclipse their freedom of expression.

On 22 May 2020, I installed a VPN. Traces of my existence are now filtered through data via a location where my body is not.

Dear internet, let the record show, I did not self-censor.

 

•   •   •

 

There’s a lot of chatter about a new normal in a post-COVID world, one that divides our physical realities into multiple, digital ones. Migrants and others in the diaspora have long been transmitting their bodies in the digital realm. Participation of any kind is often made only possible, via a rectangular existence. We are used to the glitchy live-streams, pixelated backdrops, the feeling of isolation and displacement from a longing that is mostly hidden in our physical presence. Tongues that we hide. Words that we save for messages across oceans. We are used to the unresolved conversations, the disrupted breathing, the long pauses that almost replicate a physical presence. We are no stranger to this separated existence, awkward and unflattering most of the time, and the one-call-for-the-whole-family during special occasions. Being drip fed news from afar, one livestream or one message at a time, is often our only connection to a faraway home.

Within these rectangles, we connect through pixels and codes. Where our bodies are divided into fragments of ourselves, our presence often relies on quality of information being transmitted and the infrastructure that supports it. Since June 2019, these little devices have become the only portals for information and assemblies for many, both on the ground and overseas. Gathering where our bodies couldn’t, whether it’s too risky or too far, we participate in online forums and anonymous Telegram groups. Communicating via avatars, information is shared between strangers. Debates often happen, too, on strategies and escape routes. It is organising at its best.

It also allows me, five thousand miles away and oceans apart, to provide real-time information to my family in Hong Kong. In a strange way, it pulls us together but also further apart.

            ‘have you closed the windows? TG is coming,’ I put my phone away and wait for a response, while doing grocery shopping in Footscray.

These online gatherings, unlike physical protests, offer no performance for the camera. Their function is often practical, on both levels of safety and solidarity. While the pandemic has brought Zoom meetings to every living room around the world, HongKongers often prefer to stay anonymous.

We recognise that traces of data could potentially be incriminating, we recognise state-owned apps could provide backdoors to our digital devices, but most of all, we recognise the power of networked technologies and also the failings of them.

Read and delete. Leave no trace. You wipe your phone before setting foot outside, when molecules come back to your body from the digital reality. Your faceted presence remains crucial in building solidarity.

 

•   •   •

 

Watching the endless live-streaming of protests over the dinner table—any—dinner table has become a nightly activity. ‘Those trashy kids need to find something better to do, rather than vandalising the streets and setting things on fire!’ A middle-aged man is yelling at the television across the room. The tiny restaurant hosts a few tables of young families. They shake their heads and quietly finish their meals.

Sirens are ringing from the screen. We were only a suburb over from the scene.

My cousin and I exchange looks. We havn’t seen each other for a year but that look told me they had been ‘dreaming’ too. We turn to our phones, probably opening the same encrypted messaging app to get the latest.

A major cross-harbour tunnel has just been blocked.

‘Be safe. 加油 (Ga yiu),’ I text them after the meal. They responded with a sticker of Pepe the Frog in a yellow helmet, tears running down its face.

 

•   •   •

 

Anonymity is a great shield. Hong Kongers are no stranger to concealing information in codes that only comrades would understand. A ‘dream’(發夢) is a protest; ‘stationary’ (文具) is gear; ‘pick up from school’ (接放學) is rescue from strangers with vehicles. 612, 721, 831 came from dates of extreme violent events during the Anti-extradition bill movement. Organising efforts are often categorised through an abundance of changing codes. Not only do they communicate, these codes help strangers identify each other.

Another coded identifier is the colour spectrum used to describe one’s political alignment. From businesses to individuals, you must align yourself with a colour: deep yellow (pro-democracy/protestors), light yellow (non-violent but pro-democracy), light blue and deep blue (different levels of pro-establishment/pro-China). The yellow-blue divide has created their own ecologies that generally separate businesses for their political alignments, taking conscious consumption to the next level. Preceding the recent protests, there were codes such as 8964 (Tiananmen Square massacre) and 689 (former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying) from previous social movements for democracy, including the Umbrella Movement in 2014. It is also important to note that when it comes to dissent in codes, underground Chinese movements have been using them for a long time—the Great Firewall limits diversity of opinions. Amongst countless evolving codes, Chinese Feminists used ‘rice bunny’ (rhymes with Me Too in Mandarin 米兔 ‘mi tu’) and more specifically their emojis 🍚🐰 as a way to get past the authorities. These codes would shift as the posts were taken down, evolving at a pace that kept the dialogue alive and within the Great Firewall. These codes protect and enable conversations of dissent, and, more importantly, they spread hope.

Hope sustains culture. The codes used in Hong Kong protests are not only reflections of the generation’s digital literacy and awareness of their own digital footprints, they also add to the unique Cantonese culture in Hong Kong. This coded language records and preserves a culture under threat—adding a digital dimension to the bilingual slangs that are so poignant to the city’s history, and specific to a generation. Cantonese culture in Hong Kong—nine tones that speak to the city’s colonial past and its diverse migration history—has become a distinct identity in itself. These codes form a shield against the diffusing edges of Cantonese, guarding the identity from within.

 

•   •   •

 

『去2046 的乘客只有一個目的,就是找回失去的記憶。
因為在2046 一切事物永不改變。』

‘Every passenger going to 2046 has the same intention:
they wish to recapture lost memories.
It’s understood that nothing ever changes in 2046. ’
— Wong Kar-Wai, 2046 (2004)

 

Wong Kar-Wai’s epic romantic sci-fi 2046 (2004) captured a projected sentiment for the final year of Hong Kong’s autonomy. A sequel to In the Mood for Love (2000), the characters in 2046 longed to return to their past, or to reunite with a projected version of the future. Portraying 2046 as a destination of no return, the final and safe place for a broken heart, it signals a deadline for our desires to be free. Somewhere between those numbers, 2046 and 2047, is where a heartbreak enters eternity.

2046 signals the year when Hong Kong’s autonomy, according to the Sino-British Joint Declaration (1984), will end. A borrowed time, with a borrowed sense of freedom. That 2046 moment is now, in 2020. Twenty-seven years too early.

At the time of writing, The Chinese Communist Party is introducing a National Security Law in Hong Kong that bypasses local legislation. This new law has a focus on anti-sedition and anti-terrorism, which, when in place, will see Hong Kong lose its freedom of speech and freedom to protest. Not only is this a direct violation of the Sino-British Declaration, it also poses a threat to the jurisdiction of the Hong Kong legal system.

One Country Two Systems has been a failing experiment. We barely had time to decolonise before our freedom was under threat again. Our autonomy is over.

 

[ June 1997: How do hongkongers feel video ]

 

– dream – 

You are cramped in a tiny corner on the train. Bodies are climbing on top of each other to make room for more. Rumours say the anti-riot police is gearing up and ready to charge. You can’t get a signal on your phone. There is no way to verify. Even those Telegram fact check groups won’t help you right now. 

It’s a combination of fear and anxiety and you can see it in everyone’s eyes. We thought we were prepared for this, but we weren’t. 

Someone is holding up a portable fan, pointing it in your direction. ‘Thank you,’ yells the young woman next to you, her voice caught under a face mask.

‘Move in closer if you can.’ Everyone is profusely apologising to each other for being too close, too hot, too sweaty, taking up too much space… 

A young couple is beside you. They hold each other tightly as the train doors are closing. ‘Beep beep beep beep beep…’ The doors close successfully after a few attempts.

The carriage starts to move. A sense of relief fills the packed carriages. Everybody cheers for safety. Someone is making a joke about how everyone is piling on top of each other. We are all laughing hysterically now.

香港人 Hongkongers,’ chants are echoing from a carriage to another.

加油 Ga yiu.’ 

Sometimes you wonder if we are dreaming the same dream, since you are no longer one of ‘us.’ Perhaps, the opposite is also true. This identity is only held by each other. This is the closest all of us have been to each other.

In this disturbing and disjointed dream, perhaps, you are also a Hongkonger.

 

•   •   •

 

Tear gas percolates my screen like a Sunday ritual. My chest tightens. This tension is too familiar. A stream of content floods in. My heart sinks every time news arrived from afar. Debris of our emotions are being uploaded, transmitted, shared with strangers. Memories of physical and digital presence converged into a collective, disjointed reality.

In a million pieces, the little bits of ourselves are holding each other in this collective trauma, often disembodied. Our broken hearts are not yet healed, and there is no code of solidarity would save us from this heartache. But we are, at this moment, together, across bodies and digital screens, one.




Audio recorded via livestreams at Apple Daily, Stand News and Australia-Hong Kong Link from the Tiananmen Square vigils in Causeway Bay, Shatin, Kwun Tong and Melbourne. Songs played at the vigils were 自由花 Flower of Freedom and 願榮光歸香港 Glory to Hong Kong.

 

The distant echo still rings,
scattered in different bodies,
across worlds and timelines,
here.