Smashing the Facade of a Hong Kong Ideal

man sitting on top of building
Photo by Brayden Law on

By Denise Tse-Shang Tang, guest contributor for Bunker Bloggers

“I only have time to die but not enough time to get ill.”

As U.S. and Canadian universities catch up with online learning, the trend is reversed for once. Hong Kong academics are offering tips on Zoom, on how to capture students’ attention while webcams flicker in and out, voices come on and off. Unstable connections, they’d say. I’d say, they’re bored stiff. We have become obsessed with assessing and reassessing digital platforms, knowing that the screen in front of us is what keeps you and me still stuck together in this hollow space.

But Hong Kong has not been the same since last summer when the anti-extradition protests broke out. We are already used to a punitive new social order. I am writing this post on March 21. Just eight months ago on the same day, a group of thugs wearing white T-shirts gathered near a suburban subway train station and violently attacked passersby assumed to be returning from a peaceful march in the city. Two patrolling police were caught on camera walking away from the scene. Talks of gang-police collaborations surfaced and yes, it’s not only in the movies. Since then, police brutality has scaled new heights. Distrust of the government is a common public sentiment. Protests were a regular weekend activity.

Coronavirus couldn’t have hit us at a better time. Now I stay home, teach online and read debates on which country is doing a better job at protecting its own people. Living in Hong Kong is unique this way. You still live at the crux of global information and monetary flows, but long gone is the city’s vantage point of being the gateway to China. Rather, the city is conducting its own fragmented social experiment. Finding words to articulate and to defend a local Hong Kong way of life has become a new religion. Demarcating boundaries between Hong Kong and the rest of China is another. Unpacking British colonialism (still not done yet) and questioning blind materialism have begun on the ground level across generations even among those who rendered themselves apolitical before.

With the virus, I think we’re ahead of the game this time only because we’ve been beaten to a pulp a few months ago. We are prepped to take things into our own hands now, even when our hands are tied politically. Covid-19 is not SARS. There are no touching scenes of doctors and nurses sacrificing themselves for the public good. There is only overt anger at the government’s incompetent handling of the overall situation. Sure enough, we are praised by The New York Times as best among “crowded cities” in handling the epidemic along with our favorite business competitor Singapore and our desirable getaway place Taiwan. Yet local sentiments tend to be mixed. Whereas quarantine measures, school closures and Covid-19 tests have been arranged and coordinated, jobs are still lost with little or no compensation. Border controls in the Mainland have stalled global supply chains as construction workers, sales and casual workers across industries are laid off.

If a virus can teach us anything this time around, I hope it’s to not yearn for returning to a state of normalcy. Rather, this is the opportune moment to address acute social inequalities and to centralize class analysis in research. Ask simple questions about why a Nepalese worker needs to work two eight-hour shifts in low-wage jobs in order to live in Asia’s world city. Feel life’s heaviness when a single mother making $5000 (USD 640) per month needs to spend $1000 (USD 128) on purchasing masks, cleaning and disinfection products. Pinpoint the living conditions that made a teenager show up at the police station to bail out his eighteen-year-old brother who was arrested at an anti-government protest.

There’s a saying in Cantonese that is often repeated when one is too busy, “I only have time to die but not enough time to get ill.” It’s time to stop now, pick up a hammer and start smashing the façade of a Hong Kong ideal.

Denise Tse-Shang Tang is Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.  She is an interdisciplinary ethnographer and sociologist specializing in gender, lesbian sexualities, social spaces and cultural politics in Chinese societies. Tang’s book Conditional Spaces: Hong Kong Lesbian Desires and Everyday Life was published by Hong Kong University Press in 2011.

Denise Tse-Shang Tang

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