Performed at “Yay & Nay” on October 14, 2019.
“Are you going to do it or not?” he said to me, tired of waiting.
“Of course I am,” I said. We were at a park surrounded by residential estates. Apartment lights shone yellow in the cold winter night. I took a deep breath, oxygen rushing to my brain. Panicking at the very last second, I ended up half-shouting the safest and most equivocal option: “Add oil!”
“Free Hong Kong!” he roared beside me, as if to make up for my meekness. His voice reverberated among the trees and the high-rises, ever louder in the silence that followed. Nothing changed. We left the park before the security guard came out, and all the way to the main street I felt the quick jumping of my pulse.
A year after the protests ended, you could still hear these random outbursts at 10pm from time to time, the last remnant of the movement after the mask ban, the internet regulations, and arrests. The strike of the gavel: ten years in prison. People were afraid and found solace in the dark where one could yell anonymously and carry on with life, even if it was just to vent and could amount to nothing else. I imagined my mother closing the windows at home to block out the noise the way she had done when the city was black and thundered with people’s anger. At the time, reminded of her childhood, she had stored excessive quantities of rice and canned food in the kitchen, convinced the city was going to be on lockdown. She was thinking about the days when people waved books and slogans in the air, chanting with love for their country, how the streets were littered with bombs then.
Over the span of fifty years, people have envisioned what liberty is for the city differently, and how we would like to live. But to my mother, it was the spectacle that mattered. To her, no ideal was more important than the safety of home, the semblance of order, the trajectory of school, job, marriage, property, kids, even if we no longer felt these were properly achievable aims. While she watched the fighting unfold on television and mumbled her disapproval, I gave her my black shirts to wash, mixed in with the rest of my laundry. I don’t know if she figured it out in the end, but one day she said to me, her eyes never leaving my face, that “China is one country,” and I nodded, choosing not to go into the details, for I could never bring her to my side.
And then, some weeks ago, over dinner with vegetables and eggs and luncheon meat which we picked from the surfeit of cans in our cabinets, my mother said it might be better to go where there would be a future. I wished I’d asked her what sort of future she had in mind. Where could she go? And me? Would we not be thinking of Hong Kong in another place, looking for an imitation of the lives we led?
I don’t think anyone could forget about the protests. Perhaps some would rather, but it had torn across the city like a dredge to the ocean floor and we all lived in its aftermath. In my district, at the top of the stairs leading to a shopping mall, there was an arrow with the words: “THIS WAY TO FREEDOM.” In Admiralty, between the cracks of the pedestrian crossing were tinges of indelible blue dye while red national flags hung, long after the celebrations, on top of commercial buildings. Gradually, the city adapted itself to its new landscape. With many of the fences removed, people grew bold and jaywalked more often, but whenever we heard the wail of sirens, it became hard to focus on anything else. People steered clear of police stations and officers on duty, stopping conversations and keeping their heads down, looking at their phones, their feet, anything to escape attention. The young, now with hardened expressions and battle scars that do not belong on people not trained to fight, looked each other in the eyes when they walked past, searching for old comrades: were you there, a year ago? Were you one of us?
Without its social movement, the city was forced into submission, divided and exhausted. I remained silent, in front of my mother and on social media, with my friends. If I felt sad or useless or cowardly, I did not know what to do with all these feelings, or how I even picked them out from the jumble of thoughts in my head. What if things had turned out differently, what my future held, if I had chosen to believe in the wrong things. There was no end to the questions and no way to answer them.
One day, my friend called me. He was going to resuscitate the million scream in the district we lived. To him, the decision was as simple as yes or no.
“Are you going to do it or not?” he said then, at the park, and I wondered if there was a way to explain all my uncertainties, that yes was a word capable of carrying so much ambivalence and confusion. That if I said yes, which I did, it was just as much for my own benefit so that I could regain confidence in the beliefs I had held so resolutely, revive a version of myself, a version that I liked, when I was part of a dauntless mass fighting for what was rightfully ours. Tens of thousands of us, shouting, before our defeat, that we would resist.
We walked to another cluster of estates, our shadows long under the streetlights. He poked fun at my poor attempt earlier and I laughed it off. Admittedly, I was more content in my room with the windows wide open, listening to people in the night, reassured by those who still believed. Standing here, I felt the thickness of silence, how difficult it was to cut through with my own voice.
Breathing in, he cupped his hands around his mouth. “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times!”
Our yelling was loud to our ears but it would be barely audible through closed windows, and I wondered if this was how we keep a movement alive, for ourselves and for others who strained their ears to listen. Unable to do anything else, we let our voices sink into the night. There was no further call to action, no responses, only a reminder of what had been, and all that we could become. What I wanted. I wanted to be brave.
Some of the apartments were already dark, but I spotted an open window among them. Inside, there was a light from a mobile phone, small but obvious, blinking quietly in support. We fought for what was ours in the only way we knew how.