Henry Wei Leung

Ruins Above Water

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 an insipid musician passing through might stumble into an activity he knows nothing about. But is the failure to understand an acceptable excuse? What is responsibility in the face of an urgency made beautiful?

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 policemen while watching more across the street assaulting a pedestrian crowd which was already turned and running. 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 are more than useless shields – and after seeing young students carried back to first aid stations, I wandered in a moment of respite to the barricade with an altar to Kwan Tai, a god of justice, and lit three sticks of incense, and bowed, then turned to see a photographer leaning over my shoulder with his big camera 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 listen no longer and sat alone 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 your greatest 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 the towering Americans 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; perhaps 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 college 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 had to hide it 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 talk in the Admiralty camp in the early afternoon. 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, 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, but 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 spent my 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 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 revoke my funding now. If uniformed men under the shadow of their helmets appear at my door one night, I will go quietly, without regrets, and will quote that 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 everybody at your shoulders and in the end merits nothing. It is to stand sweating at China Customs on the way to see relatives, 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.

Ribbons and umbrellas aside, it has never occurred 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 spoiled, irrational lawbreakers, 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, is not 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 still find him, in his wheelchair, in the protests in Mong Kok which continue nightly. He never received any recompense or 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 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?

I count among the miracles of my life the privilege of 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 Chinese in Hong Kong and two of them are being slowly erased. The first is a written Traditional Chinese pronounced in Mandarin, which is what the schools teach; it serves Beijing’s century-old agenda in instituting the dialect of Mandarin as guoyu, the “national language.” The second is the same written form pronounced in a formal Cantonese; it’s what you hear especially from writers, newscasters, and Canto-pop singers. But such pronunciation is not taught except in some specialty schools; in other words, no provisions are 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 more 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 is some visual play in its usage, Chinese is, like any written system, designed to correspond with an oral language.) 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. 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.

Capitalist collusions, economic policies, the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge which is costing billions, the hundred and fifty daily quota of immigrants into an already impossibly crowded city – 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 “from Chinese” into English is another erasure.

In Zhuhai, my uncle kept sticking his elbow out at me to use it as a map. His other hand made waves around it. “The sea is everywhere,” he said. “It’s all around us here.” He is excited for the massive 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 holes here and there 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 clawing out 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. They look like ruins.

I 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 my own privilege ever be something more than patronizing? How can I 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?

I think often of 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. I think often of those altars in Mong Kok which also marked its topographic center. That was Chapel Road, where the Kwan Tai altar faced the St. Francis Chapel On the Street. A space for silence, a space for prayer: a voice to go inward. I think often of the community libraries on styrofoam shelves in each of the three camps, which history will not bother to remember when it swallows people’s stories here. 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 ...”

And I think of the man 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 answered, “Thank you for your opinion.”

She didn’t understand. She paused, then resumed her shouting, and he thanked her again. He continued thanking her until some of us had to intervene to calm her down.

Even this is not enough, but I thank him all the more for it.

Thank you. Thank you for your being here, for your being. It’s 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. Thank you for your listening, for your misunderstanding. Thank you for trying anyway.

Thank you for a dust of words.

Thank you for your solitude.

Henry Wei Leung

Henry Wei Leung is the author of a poetry chapbook, Paradise Hunger (Swan Scythe Press, 2012). He has been the recipient of Kundiman, Soros, and Fulbright Fellowships. His other essays can be found in such journals as The Asian American Literary Review, Cerise Press, and Crab Orchard Review.