The sunlight that shines through the buildings in Hong Kong creates a golden-tinged filter on the streets. I have a vivid memory where, as a kid off school early, I am walking home and I see the buildings’ sepia-toned shadows, with the shards of light illuminating flecks of dust glistening in the air. It is magical. For a brief moment, I wouldn’t hear any noise from the traffic or the workmen on scaffolds with their Spiderman-like deftness scaling the buildings on which they were working. I wouldn’t hear the men and women shouting out discounts as they tried to sell their wares off carts and in shops. All I would feel was a sense of peace and tranquility in the midst of a concrete jungle that was beautifully outlined by a light that to this day I haven’t found anywhere else. The memory of those moments is seared in the canals of my brain emitting a warmth within whenever I think about those days and when I think about the city of my birth.
So much of my childhood growing up in Hong Kong is recorded through my senses. The smells of food being sold at stalls on the street, fish being dried on the pavements, and the scent of the sea. There is the breeze from the harbour that would sweep across my face, warm, humid, and salty. The sights of red lanterns and fireworks at Chinese New Year, and the tinkling bells from the trams as they weaved through the busy roads. I would go to bed with the sounds of the city as I slept in my family’s rented apartment in Causeway Bay. And then, when when we moved to Aberdeen when I was around 9 years old, it would be the chugging noise of Sampans and small fishing boats making their way out to sea for their latest catch. There we had the view of Jumbo, the floating restaurant that would light up at night.
We lived in Aberdeen when it was a small fishing outpost in the western part of the city. There, our apartment building was newly built and on the waterfront. It was the early ‘80s and we had a front row seat to the early stages of the regeneration of this area of Hong Kong. We saw from our sixth floor flat, the removal of the squatter huts that lined the main road leading into and out of the district. And we saw that road expand as more land was reclaimed from the harbour. Signs that Hong Kong was growing by the day and making room for more-more money, more people, and more opportunities. I remember the songs being played on Commercial Radio which my mom always had on at home. The radio was her “constant companion” she would say. Even today, if I hear certain songs from the 80s, I am instantly transported back, especially to that flat in Aberdeen, the flat that had views on both sides, but in an area that wasn’t considered fashionable. Not then anyway. Hong Kong was the only home I had ever known. My entire world rested on this tiny island until we moved to Canada when I was 14. That was in 1988.
We moved because my mother didn’t want to endure what she and her family endured when they left China in 1961. My mother was born in Shanghai in the early 1940s. My grandfather moved to China in the mid 1920s when he was about 15 to earn money to send back to his family in rural Punjab, India. He worked hard, as a night watchman, a security guard at residential and office buildings. He worked multiple jobs until he saved money to buy his own dairy farm. And he became a success. With a hundred cows, a few horses, some hens and ducks, his farm was a testament to his tenacity and his tireless efforts to build a life for him and his family. To locals, he was affectionately known as “Yun Do Lo Pan” (Indian big boss).
He was generous and kind, with a smile always on his face. I remember him as always giving us pocket money that he would take out from a little plastic bag in which he carried his coins. My aunt tells me he took care of everybody. Lending money to those in need, even though he would never be repaid. When I asked about my grandfather’s time in Shanghai, she said, “we used to have so much money. We used to tie up bundles of money under the bed.” But then she tells me, almost instantly, that carefree life that she, my mother, and uncle had known, was gone. China’s Land Reform law of 1950, a law installed by Chairman Mao Zedong, stipulated that property owned by “rural landlords would be confiscated and redistributed”. Foreigners were not allowed to own land. And one was considered a foreigner if you weren’t ethnically Chinese, no matter how long one had lived, worked, and invested in the country. By 1958 all private farming came to an end. My aunt tells me, “overnight we became poor.” All that my grandfather was, all that he worked for was gone. It devastated him.
In 1961, with just enough for train tickets, he, my grandmother, my mother and her siblings, packed up their belongings, only that which they could carry, and left for Hong Kong where they effectively started over. My grandpa was never the same, turning to alcohol to numb his pain and his feelings of being a failure. He went back to working as a night security guard, my mother found secretarial work, my uncle slowly working his way up the ladder at Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) and my aunt moved to Mumbai. My mother never forgot the impact that the Chinese government had on her family’s life. The brutality with which one decision could destroy so much. And she made sure that with the handover from Britain to China in 1997 looming, she, and we, would never have to go through that again. She never, not for one second, believed when the Chinese government promised Hong Kongers they would remain a “Special Administrative Region”, governed by a “one country two systems” principle by which the then-premier, Deng Xioping assured those living in the treasured city they would retain their financial, legal, and administrative freedoms. Business as usual. My mother however, strongly believed, rightly or wrongly, that she wasn’t going to risk our futures on what Beijing said.
Hong Kong as a British colony was the city to which my maternal family fled, it was the city that gave my father a new start in life after he left India to be with my mother. And while they weren’t welcomed with open arms as they faced racism and humiliation, with hard work my parents built a life for my brother and I. They made friends with those locals who were open-minded and who respected their ability to speak Cantonese (that’s mostly my mum). Hong Kong was my home. My parents weren’t rich. We didn’t live the expat life many of my school friends lived. My father worked two, sometimes three jobs at a time, as did my mother. They worked all the time so that they could send my brother and me to good private schools where we could be educated in the British academic system. But we also enjoyed our life.
Despite the hardships, my parents ended up having successful careers—my father as a respected teacher at an all Chinese school and my mother as an entrepreneur. We lived in Hong Kong happily. Weekend junk trips out to one of the outlying islands with family friends. Picnics at Stanley Beach. Shopping with my mother down the narrow lanes in Central buying clothes and makeup from men and women selling them on carts. Learning to ride a bike in Shek O. Watching the Dragon Boat races. Walking home absolutely exhausted after spending a whole day running around and playing hide and seek with my friends at the the Indian Recreation Club in Wan Chai. Going for dim sum and buying my favourite Chinese doughnuts (long fried bread) every Saturday morning from the man selling it down the street. Char siu bao (bbq pork buns) and dumplings at the ready. Sleepovers at my aunt’s flat nearby watching Three’s Company. And celebrating Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Chinese New Year watching the fireworks display with my cousins who lived at the Peak.
We had a community around us which looked out for each other. It was a community built around the city’s only Sikh temple on Queen’s Road East in Wan Chai. Going to the temple was our Sunday ritual. It would be where I would see my Grandpa volunteer, every week without fail, washing dishes in the temple’s kitchen after the congregation had their “langar” where everyone sat together on the floor eating the same free meal, living the Sikh ideals of equality, inclusion, and service. It would be where I would see my friends. It would be where everyone there looked like me, unlike the rest of the week where I was a minority. That said, I never felt like an outsider in Hong Kong. Why would I? It was where I was born. It was all that I knew. I recall asking my mother when we were on a bus one day why some people stared at me. My mother would lovingly tell me it was because I was beautiful. I know now it was because I was Indian. I was different. But I didn’t feel it. It is perhaps in those moments I learned to deflect any negativity when it came to the colour of my skin. So much so, I never felt it if it ever came near me. I didn't recognise it because I didn't understand it. Maybe I was too young to know what racism was. Going back to Hong Kong as an adult however, that deflection turned to defiance when I would clearly see I was a target of a racist slur or when a taxi driver refused to stop for me even after slowing down and then seeing me would speed up only to stop for some Chinese passengers a few yards after me.
That’s the duality of Hong Kong. Protective of its identity yet unable to define it. The majority of Hong Kongers are ethnically Chinese but many, especially those living on Hong Kong island, detest the Chinese from the mainland even though their ancestors are from China. I am born in HK, my son is born in HK, my brother is born in HK but we aren’t recognised with any birthrights. We are, and always have been, seen as outsiders. When we turned 11 we were granted a HK Identity Card and were permanent residents because our parents were. But the rules are different for those who are Chinese nationals who are granted immediate Right of Abode (permanent residency status) if born in Hong Kong. So for those protesting independence and rights to self-rule, defining who they are fighting for and frankly, against; who they want independence for is a question they need to ask themselves and answer. To be recognised as a “Permanent Resident” in Hong Kong, whereby one has all the rights as “a local”, including the right to vote, one would have to reside in the city for seven continuous years. But that doesn’t apply to everyone. People who work as domestic helpers in Hong Kong with valid and legal work permits, those mostly from the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia are not eligible for Permanent Resident status. Some have been in Hong Kong for over 30 years and are denied the right given to everyone else. These people who work hard, who help raise the children of those working and living in Hong Kong, are denied the basic right to call Hong Kong their home. And when they have children in Hong Kong, their offspring are basically living in the city without any rights. And while having the rights is one thing, being treated as a local, as “one of them” is another. It's a blatant reluctance to recognise immigrants as being the backbone of Hong Kong, having always been behind the city's growth and success, knowing that the city the protestors are fighting for is down to everyone working together to make it what it is.
The thing about Hong Kong, even with its dark side, I always felt safe. Always. I started taking public transportation to school when I was 7 or 8. Even when I was living there as an adult a few years ago, I could walk home at 4am and not feel I was in any danger. To witness on television and social media images of people being beaten and assaulted by masked men with sticks, to see police fire tear gas and rubber bullets at the people they are meant to be protecting, was jarring. This isn’t the Hong Kong I know, knew, and remember. Hong Kong has always been a place to fulfil your personal and professional ambitions. Work hard, play hard. With its beaches and banking you could have a great life earning a living working in what, for the past 60 years at least, has been considered Asia’s financial hub. If you’re an entrepreneur this is a city where a can-do attitude and resilience would be rewarded. If you learn to speak the language, even better.
My heart goes out to the protesters, these young and old, some millennial, some from my generation. Everyone who wants their Hong Kong to be independent of China, that Big Brother who is all consuming, everywhere. My heart goes out to them because Hong Kong is their world, like it was for me for a time. They all have their memories and favourite parts of their city, with its glistening skyscrapers, family gatherings on Sunday mornings for dim sum, dense trails at the Peak, a harbour enclave that reaches out to the South China Sea peripherally but for as far as the eye can see, that harbour, Hong Kong Harbour, is their shelter, their fragrant shelter after which the city itself was named (Hong Kong in Cantonese translates to “fragrant harbour). That famous harbour, on the Pearl River Delta that secured the city's strategic position for trade. And while as a British colony, Hong Kong never really had a freedom of choice in who was in charge politically, (that was the Governor, Britain's chosen representative in Hong Kong) there was the separation of Church and State whereby LEGCO (the Legislative Council of Hong Kong) required, under the constitution, the governor "to seek the consent, not just the advice, of the chamber when enacting laws." There was no unilateral governance. There was debate, there was freedom to grow, to earn, to speak out, to question, and to criticise. The Council is still there but things are decidedly different. There is a fear of what Beijing will say and do if defied. When I moved back in 2012, Hong Kong for me wasn’t the same city in which I grew up. It felt weighed down under a cloud of worry coming from the north, like a typhoon slowly gaining strength as it nears the city, ready to rattle the buildings and the people to its core with its One Party, One Leader.
Now that I have left Hong Kong, my family is no longer there, there is a part of my heart that will always belong to the city of my birth, the city where my early years and sense of self were formed. I take pride, when asked where I was born, in saying ‘Hong Kong’. My memories are part of my foundation, my identity defining, to some extent, who I am. I would love to take my son, when he is older, back to place where he was born, instill in him that pride when he sees that ever-so-impressive skyline one that seems to defy gravity, physics and even rationale. That place that is so culturally proud of its Chinese heritage yet refuses to be defined as such, instead wanting to be seen as cosmopolitan, with a unique and proud history, one that amalgamates Chinese flair with an international spirit. But I would also wish for him to see a city that is accepting of all.
Hong Kong has always belonged to someone else. Even as a tiny island, a fishing village, it was part of China's Empire. Britain took control after signing a peace treaty with China for not attacking Nanking and thus ending the First Opium War in 1842. Japan occupied Hong Kong during the Second World War only to be liberated by British and Chinese troops. In 1997 Britain handed Hong Kong over to Beijing under the guise of the city being a “Special Administrative Region” of China. Hong Kong has always “belonged” to someone else. I wonder what it would look and feel like if it belonged to itself.
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