The Guardian called it the “Umbrella Revolution.” Imagine that: the name came from English-language voyeurism before it was translated back into Chinese on banners in the camps. It continues to be contentious with those who insist on “Umbrella Movement” instead. “Revolution” was inaccurate 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 case of 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 once again by outsiders. That is foreign intervention at a deeply epistemological level.
In October, Kenny G visited the protest camp in Admiralty. He was the first Western celebrity to make such an appearance. By then, signs reading “This is Not a Tourist Attraction” had already appeared in Admiralty, and more aggressive equivalents like “This is Not a Zoo” had already appeared in Mong Kok. He took a photo of himself in the encampment, then posted the photo on his website. China issued a warning about foreign interference, with the implication that he might lose millions of 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 visitors and tourists, he seemed not to have realized that to cross from the pedestrian path into the threshold of occupied streets was to join in what the government had declared an illegal gathering, to participate in a phrase inherited from Thoreau, “civil disobedience,” which has now come to be defined in large part by a willingness to accept legal sanctions. Of course it is entirely possible that a passing foreigner might stumble into an activity he knows nothing about. But is the failure to understand an acceptable excuse? What is responsibility?
A few times in November’s lull, I was asked to guide people in a walkthrough of the camps, sometimes people I barely knew. I never did. I never could. “Here’s where I lay down to sleep on the highway for the first time, and was woken at five the next morning by a girl running through yelling at us to wake up because riot police were pushing in from the borders. Here is where I stood at a bus stop and was pushed around by the anti-triad unit while watching a pedestrian crowd assaulted even as they fled. Here is where I saw blood shed, and a student beaten, and here, and here. Here is where, after a night caught inside a crowd while the police kept charging us without provocation, after passing forward construction helmets and umbrellas—neither of which is more than a useless shield—and after seeing young people carried back to first aid stations, I wandered in a moment of respite to the barricade with an altar to Kwan Tai, the god of justice, and lit three sticks of incense, and bowed, then turned to see a photographer leaning with his big camera over my shoulder as though my prayer had been a performance for his sake. Here is where I sat, and listened. Here is where I learned to sit, and shut up, and just listen. Here is where I disappeared to when I could not listen and I sat with my head in my hands.”
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 all your joys and traumas? Would you give a stranger a tour of someone else’s home?
People wanted to understand. But I can’t help thinking of my towering American friends who, upon their first arrival into Hong Kong, told me that finally, finally, they knew what it was like to suffer as a minority. They said so with a perversely excited pride, and were quick to forget that their white privilege transfers over here, too; especially over here. They could not know that being foreign is not the same as being made invisible, that understanding is not a checklist of “been there, done that.” I went to an ivy league university where I lived with kids who owned horses at home and who, once a year, volunteered to subsist for a day on food stamps. I grew up on food stamps. I hid this from them every day of the year. These were some of the same kids who would go on to be war tourists, writers and photographers and artisans of other people’s pain.
In November, Zhou Fengsuo visited the protest camp in Admiralty for a few days. He had been active at Tiananmen in 1989, and is still high on China’s wanted list. He had arrived from California, and took photos of himself in the encampment; to some degree he was also a high-profile tourist. What makes him different from a Kenny G? Before he left the country for Taiwan, he gave a short farewell talk in the Admiralty camp. It was early afternoon. Only about fifteen of us stood by to listen while a light rain fell. Several times he had to stop and cry, turning away to recollect himself while someone else held the microphone. Zhou was one of the only outsiders I ever heard who offered a refrain which 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, for me, may be in a private moment of his which I witnessed by accident. I was finishing a meal outside the canteen at HKU 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 larger body stripped of flesh. It is a memorial to the Tiananmen Massacre. I have spent an adolescence sitting by monuments ignored and covered in bird droppings; 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, sometimes called Pereira’s Prick, towering over the Goddess—and leave without taking those three extra steps closer to read what she was meant to be a memory of. But what Zhou did that day I have never seen at any monument anywhere. He crossed from the pedestrian path 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 my family continues to revise in re-rememberings. I was cut from a seam and hidden on the other side of the ocean. Freedom is just such a thing: it is 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, and my views and actions do not reflect those of the U.S. Department of State, and if umbrellas are in fact contraband, then arrest me and deport me and revoke my funding now. If uniformed men under the shadow of their helmets appear at my door one night, I will go without regrets, 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 the danger went beyond boxcutters and batons, that in this country and in their lives a security camera blinking in the night sufficed. The burden of responsibility slides 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 new name.
It does not occur to me to 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 were not talking about human beings; you were gossiping about objects. “They” is not singular. Human sympathy is not public opinion. Unliking a movement does not 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 police and permanently paralyzed from the waist down. You can sometimes find him, in his wheelchair, in the protests in Mong Kok which still continue nightly. He never received recompense or an apology because the authorities claimed he was genetically predisposed to paralysis. His story never made it to big English media, though his status was reported regularly from the big stage in Admiralty in Cantonese. A professor here told me in November, “Well, nobody’s been really 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 majority? Who will caption the forces of a movement and, more importantly, who will accept responsibility for it?
Among the miracles of my life, I count the privilege of co-translating an essay by local fiction writer Hon Lai Chu. She wrote it from a kind of 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 construction cranes, then folded and crushed alongside water-filled barriers, which were also lifted and squeezed dry by indifferent machines. 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 splendid song. As the second text began forming alongside the original, something unclenched inside me and I broke down sobbing. Maybe that is the promise of translation, the beginning of understanding: you reach your hand out to a foreign object 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 slowly erased. The first is a written Traditional Chinese pronounced in Mandarin; it serves Beijing’s century-old agenda in instituting the dialect of Mandarin as guoyu, a unifying “national language.” The second is the same written form pronounced in a formal Cantonese; you hear this from newscasters, government officials, writers, Canto-pop singers, and so on. But where is this pronunciation taught? Schools receive extra subsidies when they use Mandarin for Chinese-language instruction, and language concern groups formed in 2014 have revealed that as many as 70% of primary and 40% of secondary schools are now teaching Mandarin instead of Cantonese. In other words, provisions are not being made to perpetuate the local language of authority. Nor is this a language you will hear in ordinary conversation. The third is a written form of Traditional Chinese using phonetic characters to faithfully represent the common speech. (I always wanted to slap Ezra Pound for building Modernist Poetry on the foundations of a Chinese he couldn’t actually read and which he fetishized as a hieroglyphic system of “pictures.” Though there can be visual play in its usage, Chinese is, like any written system, designed to correspond with its spoken form.) This written form is unintelligible to non-Cantonese speakers who must read the characters with a Mandarin pronunciation. Not only is this not taught, it is disparaged as a vulgar street language. But in fact it is the Mother Tongue. No wonder that, in a protest against a decades-long invasion from mainland China—politically, culturally, demographically, linguistically—many of the protest signs were distinctly in a Cantonese of this third kind.
Government-tycoon collusions; pedagogic policies folded into economic and political agendas; the daily hundred and fifty quota of mainland immigrants into an already impossibly crowded city; the building of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge which is costing billions—all this looks like displacement and diaspora for the locals. So for the vast majority here whose lived reality is Cantonese, the “Chinese” they are taught is one among many erasures.
As such, to be translated simply “from Chinese” into English is another erasure.
In the mainland, my uncle kept jabbing his elbow at me to use 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 and massive Bridge project, which will be finished by next year. Seen from the shore there, the Bridge is a thin wire stretching through the mist, with occasional holes for the imagination to fill. The construction of the Bridge has more to do with mainlanders getting in than with Hongkongers getting out; very few locals will benefit from it. Some see it as another plank hoisted from the pirate ship, another step along the way to ruin. 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 a contradiction. First, the topic was no longer timely; second, the essay’s very timelessness, that is to say its lyrical approach which transcended 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. Here was an essay which begins with a writer going down to the sea during a painful political time. Then a security guard appears. 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 agreed to pay. After the fact, this felt like a kind of 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. The truth is, I don’t know right from wrong. I can walk you through injustices until the land ends, but I cannot 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. I cannot tell you what will be enough. How can anyone work against a new era of censorship, which is not the blockage of information, but rather the overloading of it, a white noise of elitist chatter burying important voices? What is privilege, what is responsibility?
May we never forget the study corner in Admiralty, where solidarity was a kind of solitude: a space for individual thought and investigation, in the very center of a throng of mass participation. 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, for a voice going inward. May we hold dear the community libraries on styrofoam shelves in each of the three camps, which history will not bother to remember when it swallows everyone’s story. On an English shelf in Admiralty was Anne Carson. In Causeway Bay was Kiran Desai. In Mong Kok was Zola in French; and the Beckett trilogy in English: “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 in the Causeway Bay camp for a whole weekend holding a yellow umbrella and a sign: “I do not support police violence.” He had come from England four years ago to work here. A woman shouted across the barricade at him 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 had to intervene 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. And thank you for your misunderstanding, for your pained cries. Thank you for trying not to leave. For this dust of words, for the longing to be more human, to be at all. For we are all afraid in the end. Thank you, and thank you. And then what? Then what?