【by Fiona Ng, Dec. 2021】
I stopped watching the news a year ago. The protests were dying out. The National Security Law was in effect. Covid was in full throttle. The city felt pummeled. I didn’t have the heart to keep watching, so I’d turn on the TV after dinner, skip past the Cantonese news channels, to land on just about anything else.
The TV was always on during the protests, piping news directly from Hong Kong through a pirate cable box into my living room in Los Angeles. I have to admit, I am obsessed with this almost antiquated device and experience. That I work in news (radio) certainly has something to do with it — but not all of it. I watched government pressers, standoffs between protesters and the police, and somber-sounding news anchors giving me the lay of the land. Live. Somehow that felt important, that I was watching the same thing that people in Hong Kong were watching. Just a click of the remote.
I had none of that growing up in Los Angeles. My family came to the States in the 1980s, when I was just a kid. Statistically we could be lumped in as part of the great brain drain, but our departure was actually decades in the making, via our aunt who has been in the US for over half a century. Thing is, our parents would never have the means otherwise to come to LA. The diaspora was growing in the city then, and growing still, but the distance now feels more like a rock’s throw than a continental drift. That I am able to watch Hong Kong news in my living room is but one example. Back in the 80s and early 90s, we took the bus to Chinatown to get the Chinese newspaper. Also Chinatown to get music in the form of CDs and the latest TV shows on VHS tapes. We had to dial a string of numbers on a phone card to call home. I remember my sisters and I tuning in to a short-lived Cantopop radio show that broadcasted an hour or so a day on the AM dial. The novelty of hearing the latest hit songs from Hong Kong made us all a little giggly, a little dreamy.
Now, all that and more are on our phones. I have been thinking about what it means to be able to turn it off, shut it out.
In the last year, my source of news about Hong Kong has been my 74-years-old mom, who speaks not a lick of English. At any given time of the day she could be found blasting her pirate TV box, the local Cantonese radio station, and YouTube on her iPad — sometimes at all the same time. She’s the one who told me about the raid of Apple Daily by the Hong Kong police, the loyalty oath imposed on civil servants, and last week, about the Hong Kong government mandating the use of a contact-tracing app to contain Covid. Many HK people, alarmed over a more insidious surveillance, have opted to buy burner phones, causing a shortage. Mostly, I half-heartedly listened, but always I was in awe of how much she knows.
For those of us who live amidst the tug and push of different cultures and languages, our immigrant parents are the tether to home. I often wonder what’s going to happen to that connection for me after my mom dies. I wonder, too, who is going to be that person for my niece, who was born in a different place than the one my sisters and I call home.
My niece is 11, and she showed me some curios she recently bought and asked if I knew what they were. Har Gow, Shumai and another kind of dim sum — each knitted and with a smiling face in front. My sister then told me that her friend, another Hong Konger in L.A., had rented a stall at a flea market to raise money for protesters who defected to LA. Those were some of the things she sold.
There are others, too. Like a group of folks I know in LA, old-time Hong Kong expats like my family, who organized flash mob singalongs of “Glory to Hong Kong” at the local mall in LA during the protests. They’ve been at it for decades, and are at it still: rallies for the Uighurs, remembrances for those who lost their lives during the protests, boycotts of the winter Olympics.
In the past year, the messages between me and my friends and our remaining family in Hong Kong have become less frequent. During the protests, we chatted a few times a day. But now, no one knows what to say, especially me.
In the past year, my mom has stopped reminding me about renewing my Hong Kong identification card. More than two decades ago, she had lined up in Wanchai, in front of the immigration building, for untold hours to put in our initial applications. Out of my whole family, I was the one who used that piece of document the most — to travel in the city, to live in the city, to work in the city, to live in China. I have renewed it once, but this time, I am dragging my feet. It’s Covid but it’s not.
It’s a different kind of heartbreak to see Hong Kong transformed from afar. A lucky distance. A heartbreak you can turn off, shut out. Never to return to.
The last time I was in the city was during the protests. I flew out the day after the police cracked down on the occupation of the Hong Kong airport by protesters. I was at work, watching it on one of the many TV screens in the newsroom, watching the black-clad throne scattering to avoid getting hurt or arrested. Mom called to ask if I were still going. Her voice was taut. Yes, of course. I spent the next week going to every protest I could, mostly by myself, sometimes with a friend. Not for any reason other than to be in the presence of such an undeniable assertion of a singleness of purpose, despite the impossibility of it all — a few hundred thousands of people, marching in the heavy rain for an entire day from Victoria Park to Central.
During that trip, I met up with a friend at a cafe in the New Territories. We haven’t seen each other for a few years and talked about everything, but the conversation always returned to the protests. It felt like an unending sigh. I remember telling her about a tweet I came across, from someone I don’t even know, in reference to something else that was happening in the world.
Weeks after my return, with the experience of the trip still tugging at me, I got a photo from my friend. It was of a Post-It stick, fastened with tape on a Lennon Wall somewhere in Hong Kong. She had written on the pale yellow not the very words that I had told her about, from the tweet that had somehow struck a chord: Hope is a discipline.
Fiona Ng, writer and radio broadcaster, USA