by Henry Wei Leung
The Guardian called it the “Umbrella Revolution.” Imagine that: the name came from English-language voyeurism first before being translated back into Chinese for the protest camps. It’s a name that’s still contentious with those who insist on “Umbrella Movement” instead. “Revolution” was romantic and provocational. It paved a road for mainland Chinese newspapers to declare the “defeat of Hong Kong’s color revolution” in December. And if such will be China’s official history, then like a thousand other incidents and suppressions it is an erasure of individual experience. But unlike those thousand others, this erasure was already in place at the beginning, on September 28, with a name stamped on by foreign press, with Hong Kong’s story told by its colonizers again.
In October, Kenny G visited the protest camp in Admiralty. He was the first American celebrity to do so. Signs like, “This is Not a Tourist Attraction,” and, “No Photo Please! Here Is Not Zoo,” were already hanging by then. Kenny G took a photo of himself grinning in front of some tents, and posted this on his website. China issued a warning about foreign interference, with an intimation of him losing sales in the mainland. He replaced the photo with an apology, a note with love for China, and a platitude for peaceful resolution. Like most protest tourists, he didn’t understand that to cross from the sidewalk into the threshold of occupied streets was to join in what the government had declared an illegal gathering. It would be civil disobedience. Of course it’s possible that a bumbling foreigner might trip over an activity about which he knows nothing. But failing to understand is a sorry excuse.
In November, in the lull, I was sometimes asked to guide people in a tour of the camps, people I barely knew. I never did. I never could. Such a tour would have to be an act of intimacy, a tour into myself. Would you give a stranger a tour of your home, of your private joys and traumas? Would you give a stranger a tour of someone else’s home? People wanted to understand. Yet I can’t help remembering the Americans I met, who told me with a perversely excited pride just after they had arrived, that finally, finally, they understood what it meant to be a minority. They were quick to forget that privilege transfers, that being foreign is not the same as being made invisible, and that understanding is not a checklist of pains or conquests. I graduated from a private university in the States, where I lived with kids who owned Porsches and horses and who, for one day a year, volunteered to subsist on food stamps. I grew up on food stamps. These were some of the same kids who would go on to be voluntourists, writers and photographers and artisans of other people’s pain.
In November, Zhou Fengsuo visited the protest camps. He was active at Tiananmen in 1989, and is still high on China’s wanted list. He arrived from California, and took photos of himself in the encampment. What made him different from a Kenny G? Before he left for Taiwan, he gave a short farewell talk in beside the Umbrella Plaza stage. Only about fifteen of us stood by to listen while a light rain fell. Several times he stopped and turned his face away to recollect himself. He was one of the only outsiders I heard whose refrain was not the usual, “Let’s all hate China,” but that very rare, “Let’s all love Hong Kong.” He was asked big China questions by the audience, and he kept emphasizing: democracy in China is not the responsibility of Hong Kong; injustice in China is not the responsibility of Hong Kong. He understood deeply what it meant to see a protest for itself, to see it unnamed and as it is.
The real difference might be in a private moment of his which I witnessed by accident. I was finishing a meal outside the canteen at Hong Kong University where the Pillar of Shame stands: a red tornado of a sculpture with distorted, emaciated, pained figures bulging out from its mass, as though from a single body stripped of flesh. It is a memorial for the Tiananmen Massacre. I spent a whole adolescence sitting by monuments ignored and covered in bird shit; I once watched tourists kneel down by the Goddess of Democracy replica in San Francisco, just to frame a photo from a low angle—worse, to frame it with the TransAmerica building (also called Pereira’s Prick) towering over the Goddess—and then leave without taking those three extra steps to read what she was meant to be a memory of. But what Zhou did that day I’ve never seen at any monument anywhere. He crossed into the field of pebbles surrounding the Pillar, and looked carefully at the unsteady threshold beneath his feet. He circled the Pillar, then kneeled. He reached forward. He pressed his hand against the bodies there.
I never had the right to live as I do, and the story of my illegal birth in China is one I keep revising in my re-memberings. I was cut from a seam and hidden on the other side of the ocean. Freedom is just such a thing: revision and imagination. It is the permission that we give ourselves to live, despite the world we live in.
But responsibility is something else. I’m here on a Fulbright grant, which means I could be proof of foreign interference in the protests. My views and actions do not reflect those of the U.S. Department of State. If umbrellas are in fact contraband, then arrest me and deport me and revoke my funding now. If uniformed men dwarfed by the shadows of their helmets appear at my door one night, I’ll go without regret, quoting an old Gym Class Heroes lyric: “I love my life. Bitches.”
But responsibility is still something else. I never told my family here what I was up to. They never supported the protests. They knew at once that danger went beyond teargas and rifles and shotguns, that in this country and in their lives a security camera blinking in the night sufficed. The worries of responsibility slide sideways. To face this is to face your loved ones across the great wall of a dinner table. Responsibility is anonymous, unnamed, is an invisible suffering which shakes up everyone at your shoulders and in the end merits nothing. It is to stand sweating at China Customs on the way to see my uncle in the mainland, unsure if the white terror of ID checks in Mong Kok had at last caught up to me, if my face had been traced into a system and a stranger behind the screen of a vast machinery had given me a better name.
I can’t declare myself “for” or “against.” These two words are as useless as “us” and “them” in the face of understanding, in the face of all our failures to understand each other. If you ever complained to me about the protests and how those people were a spoiled and irrational bunch, I stopped listening because you weren’t talking about human beings; you were gossiping about objects. “They” is not singular. Human sympathy is not public opinion. Unliking a movement doesn’t unburden anyone of it. A fourteen-year-old girl arrested for drawing flowers in chalk on a wall is not a hashtag or an idea. She has a name and it is not Chalk Girl. As early as October, Ah Lung was struck in the tailbone by riot police and permanently paralyzed from the waist down. You can still find him in his wheelchair on Mong Kok’s sidewalks some nights, where the mobile form of Occupy there still goes on nightly. He never received recompense or even acknowledgment, because the authorities claimed he was genetically predisposed to paralysis. His status was reported regularly from Umbrella Plaza, but his story never made it to big English media. A professor here told me later, “Well, nobody’s been hurt yet.” I explained about Ah Lung. This professor’s first reaction was: “But that’s such a common name, Ah Lung.”
There is a history of erasure here for which privilege is responsible. English is one such privilege. Who controls naming in a place where the language of power is not the language spoken by the people? Who will caption the forces of a movement and, more, who will take responsibility for it?
Among the miracles of my life, I count the privilege of translating an essay by local fiction writer Hon Lai Chu. She wrote it from grief after the Mong Kok crackdown in November, and I read it after the Admiralty camp was destroyed in December. I stood by as the study corner at the heart of Umbrella Plaza—the very locus of a peaceful and diligent protest—was picked up by indifferent machines, then folded and crushed alongside water-filled barriers which were also lifted and squeezed dry. I felt like I was losing a home which had never been mine to begin with. The sight left me broken for weeks. The first part of the miracle was to find, in Hon’s words, the articulation of what I myself had had no words for; the second part of the miracle was to be able to give words back, to be the lyre of someone else’s song. As my translation formed alongside the original, something unclenched inside me and I broke down sobbing. Perhaps that’s the promise of translation, the beginning of understanding: you reach your hand out to a foreign body and discover that it is yours too. The words are your own after all.
But it’s not enough. This will not do. Will it mean anything to an English readership when I say that the title, “I Just Want to See the Sea,” has a light rhyme and alliteration in Cantonese, but not in Mandarin? All you’ll know is: “Translated from the Chinese.” But there are at least three Chineses in Hong Kong and two of them are being erased. The first is a written Traditional Chinese read aloud in Cantonese; it’s the Chinese of the writers, musicians, newscasters, government officials. But it’s now being filtered out: schools receive extra subsidies when they teach “Chinese” in the mainland’s Mandarin instead, effectively translating all text into a foreign tongue. And then there’s the Cantonese you hear on the street, with its own systematic grammar and a unique written form, made up of Chinese lexica, Roman alphanumerics, and recently even emoji. Not only is this not taught in school, but it’s dismissed, it’s vulgar. In fact, it’s the mother tongue. No wonder that in a campaign for suffrage and dignity in the face of an encroaching Chinese empire, many of the protest signs were very distinctly Cantonese, resisting translation. And so what is it to be translated simply “from Chinese” into English? Yet another erasure, folded doubly.
When I made it to the mainland, my uncle kept jabbing his elbow at me as a map. We were in Zhuhai. His other hand made waves around the elbow’s shore. “The sea is everywhere,” he said. “It’s all around us here.” The water goes all the way north, to the snow, where his granddaughter is in college. He kept mentioning the exciting Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge project, which will be finished by next year. Seen from the shore in Zhuhai, the Bridge is a thin wire stretching through the mist, with occasional gaps for the mind to fill. The construction of the Bridge, one of several ongoing white elephant projects, has more to do with the Communist Party getting in than with Hongkongers getting out; local taxpayers are giving up billions to relinquish their city to a foreign machinery. Some see this as another plank hoisted from the pirate ship, a step along the way to sinking. Each unfinished gap in the Bridge already has a buttress in place: pillars jutting out above the water. At present they look like ruins.
“I Just Want to See the Sea” was accepted for publication by a major international journal in English. A contract was drawn up and signed. Then the editors changed their minds. Buried in the rhetoric of their apology was this contradiction: first, the topic was no longer timely; second, the essay’s very timelessness, that is to say its lyrical approach transcending Umbrella Stuff to speak more broadly of Hong Kong and even more so of what it means to be human, had too much of an insider’s perspective. Too much. They wanted a foreign gaze; they wanted a tour. The essay begins with a writer going down to the sea during a painful political time, when suddenly a security guard emerges to coax her back. What does it say about this city on an island if the first assumption is that someone sitting near water must want to throw herself in? And because of that assumption, who is less free: her, or the guard?
The editors broke our contract and did not publish the essay, but they paid what they had promised to pay. After the fact, this felt like hush money. We talk so much about censorship in China, but there are silencings in every language along every sea. And we endure, and the enduring is not noble, and no one is listening.
I have stood on both sides of the water in one day. I can’t see right from wrong anymore. I can walk you through injustices until the land ends, but I can’t describe justice. Goethe said that to know is not enough; we have to act. But Gandhi said that none of us can know; none is competent to judge or act. How can we speak in an era whose censorship is not the blockage of information but the overloading of it, the white noise of privileged chatter?
Listen, I can’t tell you what will be enough. All I’ve done is wipe dust from the pane. All I’ve left is my own thumbprint.
May we never forget the study corner in Admiralty, where solidarity was a kind of solitude: a space for private thought in the center of the throng. May we never forget those altars in Mong Kok which marked its topographic center. That was “Chapel Road,” where the Kwan Tai altar faced the St. Francis Chapel on the Street: a space for prayer. May we hold dear the community libraries on styrofoam shelves in each of the three camps, which history will not remember when it swallows everyone’s stories. On an English shelf in Admiralty was Anne Carson. In Causeway Bay was Kiran Desai. In Mong Kok was the Beckett trilogy: “Yes, in my life, since we must call it so, there were three things, the inability to speak, the inability to be silent, and solitude, that’s what I’ve had to make the best of. . . . I wanted myself, in my own land for a brief space, I didn’t want to die a stranger in the midst of strangers, a stranger in my own midst, surrounded by invaders . . .”
Let me tell you about the stranger in his early thirties who stood alone for a weekend in the Causeway Bay camp holding a yellow umbrella and a sign: “I do not support police violence.” He had come from England four years ago, for work. A woman shouted at him across the barricade in English: “Go home! What right do you have? You are not Chinese. Go back to your country.”
He said, “Thank you for your opinion.”
She paused. She could not understand.
Then she resumed her shouting. Then he thanked her again.
He continued thanking her until some of us intervened to calm her down.
This, too, is not enough. But I give thanks for it anyway. Thank you for your being here. It is possible that none of us have the right to live as we do. That we are all of us always wrong, that this is the only premise on which real dialogue can be built. So thank you for standing alone. For your misunderstanding, for your pained cry. For this dust of words, for the longing to be at all, for we are all afraid in the end. Thank you, and thank you.
And then what? Then what?
"Ruins Above Water" was first published in
Drunken Boat 21 (2015).