Formerly based in Hong Kong, Wendy Gan is a writer who has just returned to her native Singapore. Her writing has been featured in Longreads, Guernica, and The Willowherb Review.
HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME
Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.
Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.
T.S. Eliot, ‘The Wasteland’
I am leaving. The thought jolts me as I lay myself down in bed for the night. I’ve done nothing today but clear things out and pack, so the thought of leaving should be no surprise to me. Why else should my days now be filled with desperate dilemmas on what to keep and what to discard? Of course I am leaving. But in the quiet of the night I am finally catching up to what I have done. I have sold my flat and I am leaving Hong Kong, a place I have called home for the past 21 years. Before this thought can penetrate any deeper and unsettle me, I reach for my iPad, open up Twitter and scroll nonchalantly. I am not ready to face this head on. I want to stay in the grip of my task-oriented energies and in the spare moments clutter my mind with the amusing inanities of social media. I cannot give space to this thought. Not yet, at least.
I’m taking a day off from packing and heading to the waterfalls on Pik Shan Path. My mind is frazzled and frenzied by too many small details and I am hoping some time in nature will unravel the knotted tangle of thoughts that sends me scurrying frantically from one thing to another. The start of the path is only 15 minutes away by foot from my flat, but to get to it involves a steep ascent. This has always been an obstacle that has prevented me from visiting the waterfalls more often and, as I huff and puff, I am already regretting setting off. But, as always, once I am on the verdant trail, hearing the soothing, bubbling rush of the many streams that flow down this side of Lung Fu Shan, I am glad to be here. Hugging the side of the hill, the path is one of the few in the area that is flat and it has some superb lookouts over the Western parts of Hong Kong Island. What I love the most about it though are the numerous streams that course down gullies and crevices. Along the way to the main series of small waterfalls are a number of even smaller ones, each with its own individual charm. One is a gentle trickle over sharp-edged rocks. A fallen tree adds a picturesque touch. The next one along gurgles and pools below the path into a smooth-flowing stream that winds its way down the slope. Here, tired hikers sometimes gather to soak their feet in the cool mountain spring water beneath the shade of the trees.
The woods I am in are secondary forests. There is barely any virgin primary forest left in Hong Kong after centuries of human disturbance. The British had attempted to re-forest the hills in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to prevent soil erosion, but the deprivations of WWII had been a major setback. The local population struggling to survive the Japanese occupation had denuded the hills of flora and fauna. What I am walking through, as a result, is a subtropical forest landscape roughly 70 years in age. It may not have the diversity that a botanist would ideally like to find in a forest, but, to my untutored eye, the greenery is lush and beautiful. There are Chinese fan palms with their graceful spiked fronds as large as serving platters swaying in the wind. Here and there are stands of reedy bamboo. Occasionally, I spot a luscious red hibiscus. Then there are the tangles of creepers that are like green nets that have been cast over a tree. Captured as such, they look less like trees and more like ghosts shrouded in a sheet of green. There are commanding Chinese banyans with their curtain of aerial roots and young Yellow Flame trees with their feathery compound leaves and striking seed pods that hang like fingers at the tips of their branches. The more open slopes are covered with a flurry of ferns. Where ugly concrete has been used as a slope-retaining device, lichens that glow gold and green in dim light have colonised the rough surfaces, reclaiming the concrete for the natural world. There is a profusion of flora, a smattering of birdsong, and a sense of an untroubled world humming quietly along.
By the time I arrive at the waterfalls, I am already feeling like a different, calmer person. I turn off the path and climb up. The water gushes strongly here over a series of waterfalls. Most are not more than a foot or two high, though the tallest one at the top of the incline is about fifteen feet tall. The path along the falls has been carefully planned and steps have been artfully constructed using nearby stones. There is also a large flat area in the middle of the series of falls where a small guerilla garden has been planted and a few chairs and buckets have been deliberately left behind. I quite often see older Chinese men hike here with plastic gallon jugs to collect spring water for brewing their tea. There are also some regulars who come to sit and chat. One time, a few had even slung a tarpaulin over the space and proceeded to spend a day there sitting out under its shade, listening to the rush of the falls. I clamber up to the highest falls and perch myself on a rock ledge to watch the frothing water leap its way down a sheer rock wall. Two butterflies trace a delicate path through the air. Am I really going to leave this place for good?
These days I feel like I live in several alternate Hong Kongs. There is middle-class foodie Hong Kong where I meet friends to check out the city’s diverse gourmet riches. Even in the midst of a pandemic, the food scene is still alive and well and the variety of cuisines, the ever-changing seasonal menus, and the enticing dining offers are a constant stimulant for a curious food-lover. This is cosmopolitan, indulgent Hong Kong, still gourmandising without a care as the world burns. Then there is Hong Kong of the natural world where all is serene stasis. With the loss of key, shade-tolerant forest species and the larger mammals that act as crucial seed dispersers, the woods of Hong Kong will very likely never transition into a diversity-rich primary forest with its own unique microclimate with varying levels of habitats from the floor to the canopy. Unless there is some form of human intervention—the deliberate planting of specific tree seedlings or the reintroduction of certain fauna—Hong Kong’s forests will remain as they are: consisting solely of pioneer, fast-growing vegetation that will simply regenerate itself but never develop into a different kind of forest. The ecological damage has been done; at best, Hong Kong forests will remain lush but species-poor. It’s a tolerable scenario, though far from what an ecologist might desire. Still, it promises a certain stability and stability in these times is a comfort.
Finally, there is political Hong Kong, which I have had to increasingly sideline in my life, because with the passage of the National Security Law in the summer of 2020, the realities are too grim. Whatever political opposition we had—whether high-profile politicians, activists, or mere individuals involved in grassroots, pro-democracy organisations—is being eviscerated through threat of legal action, arrests, and imprisonment. Foreign journalists have been denied visas—something previously unheard of in a city that values press freedom—and local investigative journalists are being harassed for doing their jobs, particularly as they probe institutions of authority. Teachers who allow critical debate on sensitive political issues in the classroom have been expunged and blacklisted. The Liberal Studies curriculum for secondary school students, which aims to foster critical thinking, is to be revamped with a more ‘patriotic’ focus and there is talk that civil servants will soon be asked to pledge allegiance to the government. In addition, there is a National Security hotline in place for tattletales to snitch on anyone who does not toe the line on Hong Kong’s place in the People’s Republic of China. We are being disciplined to keep our dissenting views to ourselves. This is the Hong Kong of frightening and heart-breaking repression. This is also the Hong Kong that is prompting me to leave.
But any kind of change is terrifying. After I had signed the agreement to sell my flat, I sat on my sofa immobile experiencing wave after wave of fear. I would be moving back to a country I now barely knew. I would also be switching careers, becoming a freelance writer and a weaver. There were so many new challenges ahead. I barely slept that night. The next day, I plunged into action making preparations for the big move. That helped ease the anxiety and silence the doubts. The truth though is that, unless the political repression touches you personally, there is actually little reason to exit Hong Kong. For most of us who care about Hong Kong’s liberties but stop short of activism, the shadow of the National Security Law is chilling but little hindrance to our daily lives. In spite of the rapid deterioration in political Hong Kong, I could easily continue to live in the other two Hong Kongs I inhabit. You close an eye and live in compartmentalised bliss. When I sit at a table with my friends at a new restaurant, the familiarity of this way of life is a soothing balm. When I am in the woods, the trees whisper to me that Hong Kong is essentially the same, “Live amongst us still; we are more eternal than politics.”
Never underestimate the force of inertia, which is why I cannot stop the sorting, the packing, the logistical planning. To halt and feel is to risk staying. I tear myself away from the waterfalls and rush back to the flat.
The death of Hong Kong was trumpeted loudly in the press and on social media when the draconian National Security Law was hurriedly passed and imposed on the city without much consultation in the summer. The rousing and moving sight of millions on the street protesting against an obdurate government would now be a thing of the past. Hong Kong’s long tradition of commemorating and honouring the victims of the Tienanmen Massacre, the only place within China where this could happen, would likely be severed from here on. All the hallmarks of Hong Kong’s distinctive political culture—its feisty protests and vocal critique—would be extinguished. The less dramatic tutted and argued that Hong Kong people would still be carrying on in its fight for her freedoms and rights, albeit in a more restrained fashion. Certainly to the bankers, Hong Kong was far from dead. I have heard anecdotes of money flooding back into Hong Kong after the disruptions of the extended 2019 protests had spooked investors. The National Security Law was good for business. What is death to one is life to another.
I was amongst the dramatic ones reacting in despair. Coming from a country where the right to protest is so tightly circumscribed that it is virtually impossible to do so, Hong Kong has always stood out to me as a bastion of freedom. For the most part, Hong Kong people are hardnosed, practical, and apolitical, but rile them and out they will come onto the streets to express their unhappiness. They came out in 2003 to protest against an earlier version of the National Security Law (then called Article 23). They took over the streets in 2014 in the Umbrella Movement and then shocked the world with two massive marches in 2019 in the Anti-Extradition Law protests. These were people who, while deprived of the ability to vote directly for their leaders, knew how to vote with their feet and, more importantly, were unafraid to do so. But now, with the sweeping powers given a dedicated National Security office helmed by Mainland officials, fear had arrived. Invisible, amorphous, and corrosive—fear is hard to fight against, especially without the protection of laws that guarantee the right to free speech and free assembly.
I was afraid of this fear and how it would change what I could write and what I could say. This is why I began to make my plans to leave, but what feels like death is sometimes not death. You think you are dying, then realise you are, in fact, still alive. All you had to do was cut away that part of you that was afraid and live—maimed but still breathing, still eating well, still walking the hills.
I am not the only one leaving. My vintage sofa needs to be repaired and the man I speak to about this tells me all his clients are waiting for him to finish their projects before packing up and going. He himself is planning to head to London next year, where he already has clients lined up. ‘Who wants to stay?’ he says in that contemptuous tone I have heard so often before amongst the locals. It has an edge of scorn, as if to imply who would be stupid enough to stay if they had the opportunity to get out. A friend tells me that his friends have consulted fortune tellers about Hong Kong’s future: a major shift is predicted to take place in 2024. The now self-exiled Nathan Law, a former legislative councilor and a compatriot of the better-known activist, Joshua Wong, will return within ten years and a Sun Yat Sen-like figure is set to arise and lead the city within the next few years. The predictions are worthy of a revolutionary drama of epic proportions. His friends are staying put till 2024, hopeful that things will take a turn for the better by then. I am less confident. What if all this repression results in an explosion of resistance in 2024? What if 2024 brings civil war instead? What if Hong Kong is a ticking time bomb?
Fall is Hong Kong’s dry season. The waterfalls are no longer ferociously gushing as they had in the summer. It’s more of a leisurely gurgle. Some of the smaller streams are now mere puddles. The bauhinias are in full bloom, fluttering like large white butterflies atop a green cloud. At a distance, I spot some magenta bougainvillea, having hitched a ride up as a creeper on a growing tree, ablaze at canopy level. The white waxy flowers of the camellia with their striking yellow stamens are scattered and trampled on the ground everywhere, but looking up and around I can never see one in its prime. A butterfly with threadbare wings is twitching on the ground. Intermingled are signs of life and signs of death. All around is a cycle of constant change.
How could I have been so foolish? They promised Hong Kong would stay unchanged, that we would have our ‘high degree of autonomy’ for fifty years, but nothing ever stays exactly the same. Leaders come and go; the political winds shift about unpredictably. But was it that I expected no change at all? Perhaps I saw that the glass was half full and hoped it would grow fuller. Now I see the glass is half empty and is only being depleted further. It’s the dry season for Hong Kong and it is only getting drier, and I need more moisture to thrive. I could survive here, but I know I want more than just that. When the climate changes, even the trees will slowly migrate, finding more favorable ground to settle and grow. So it’s time.
Good night, Lung Fu Shan. Good night, Pik Shan Path. Good night, my favourite restaurants. Good night, my dining companions. Good night, Hong Kong. Good night, sweet Hong Kong, good night, good night.