tear-like orange was there like a clove
of garlic melting in my mouth. It wasn’t
a time for complaints and nobody
murmured a word of discomfort. It was
the silence of refugees longing for an identity
foreign to this tiny, floating, motherless city.
–Kit Fan, ‘BN(O)’
A fortnight ago, a story about rumour’s power to fuel a whirlwind of nationalistic indignation, stoked online and then as quickly averted, played across the news channels in China. The trigger was a photo circulating on the Chinese-language internet, which seemed to show an act of recent vandalism. In a piece of iconoclastic violence uncannily reminiscent of the faceless Buddhas in the Mogao Caves, the heads had been knocked from several of the mustard-coloured Buddhas sitting in teal niches on the glazed exterior of the Hall of the Sea of Wisdom, one of the most treasured buildings in Beijing’s Summer Palace. Was this the work of mindless vandals?
A couple of months earlier, another furore had broken out among Chinese netizens when a photo emerged of a carved stone relief inside the famous Luxor temple in Egypt: one of the 3,500 year old statues had been defaced across its torso by a Chinese tourist’s incised graffiti, sparking a hunt to shame the person responsible for so tarnishing China’s global reputation. The perpetrator had made the rookie mistake of scratching out his full name, and before long the crowd-sourced force of one of China’s increasingly notorious Human Flesh Search Engines had tracked him, a fifteen-year-old boy, to his home in Nanjing.
It looked like it was all happening again, this time on Chinese soil, until the Summer Palace’s curators came forward to explain that no modern vandals were involved. The restorer’s glue responsible for re-affixing the reconstructed heads onto the Buddhas’ necks, expanding and contracting with the seasonal temperatures, had caused them to fall off again. In fact, the ceramic heads had been smashed over a century earlier, in 1900, when an army of allied foreign forces marched into Beijing to respond to the Boxer rebellion.
The story was not, it turned out, about modern morals at all, but rather was part of a historical narrative about China’s ‘century of humiliation’ familiar to all Chinese school children from their history textbooks. The ruins of Beijing’s Old Summer Palace, ransacked by British and French soldiers during the Second Opium War, are a symbol of foreign imperialist aggression which the Communist government are keen to keep fresh in people’s minds. As Julia Lovell explains in the opening pages of her recent history of The Opium War, tales of China’s past sufferings under feudalism on the one hand and foreign imperialism on the other are a crucial part of the current regime’s narrative of its own rise to power, and thus its legitimacy. What English school children learn about Beijing’s looted Old Summer Palace, reduced to marble rubble by British troops? For the Chinese authorities, those Beijing ruins are an important spur to patriotic feeling – a reminder of the nineteenth-century wrongs against the Chinese nation that were only symbolically put right when Hong Kong finally returned from British control in 1997.
I only partly understood it then, but I spent the first eight years of my life, in Hong Kong, living in the shadow of a countdown. The Joint Declaration of 1984 – the agreement between Beijing and London that started the clock on Hong Kong’s eventual return to China – was signed when I was a year old. That number, 1997, loomed everywhere – was the subject of so many of the adult conversations I listened to half-comprehendingly from below. Many Hong Kong Chinese started looking for an exit strategy, especially the middle-class, which my father had watched grow so numerous in the decades since he first arrived in the colony in the ’60s. In the years leading up to the ‘Handover’ of 1997, three quarters of a million people emigrated from Hong Kong (some unofficial reports suggested even higher numbers), out of a population of six million. These people’s fears tell us something about colonialism’s paradoxical legacy in Hong Kong. Would the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ approach to the island’s gradual reintegration into China end up eroding the freedoms put in place by the British?
In his poem, ‘BN(O)’, from his first collection, Paper Scissors Stone, the Hong Kong-raised poet Kit Fan who now lives in the UK, looks back on a curious phenomenon of the pre-handover years: the British National (Overseas). The class of BN(O) was created in response to the question of what would happen to the people of Hong Kong after the return to China, but actually spoke more to British anxieties about immigration from their former colonies. Not the same thing as citizenship, BN(O) status didn’t grant right of abode in the UK, and needed specifically to be applied for. In the poem, Fan recalls standing, in 1987, in the long queue to register in front of the British Consulate, ‘at the junction of Supreme Court Road / and Justice Drive’. His grandmother peels and segments an orange, handing him the pieces one by one as they creep forward in line. The fruit’s sourness in the mouth is a taste the speaker indelibly associates, in later years, with the feeling of being ‘abandoned / by two countries, between two continents.’
My family left Hong Kong in 1991, with six years to spare, but a Chinese friend whose family stayed on a few years more, before leaving for Australia, recalled the empty desks that would appear each week in his primary school classroom, every empty chair marking another emigrated family. When Chris Pattern, Robin Cook, Tony Blair and a mournful looking Prince Charles lined up on the red podium at the exhibition centre in Wan Chai on the night of 30th June 1997, my parents watched the ceremony not in real time but on the VCR in the lounge. The video player is long gone, but I think the tape is still in a box in the garage.
I watched that footage again for the first time this April, on a writing trip to Hong Kong. In the Hong Kong Museum of History, although there are one or two displays covering post-1997 events, the last room before the exit is a twilit cinema where you sit to watch the film of the Handover ceremony on a loop. I was there at the tail end of the day, just before closing, and I so was alone when I sat down to watch it. Stray details struck me: Prince Charles’ lugubrious ears; the strangeness of the fact that the Prime Minister we sent was Tony Blair, who somehow feels like a figure from too recent memory to have been involved. I found myself unexpectedly moved by the experience, less by the video than by the news clippings from all over the world covering the event, which had been pasted onto the cinema’s walls. In the screen’s half light, I got up and padded around to glance through articles and editorials from The Times, The New York Times, The South China Morning Post, and many others I don’t recall. I suddenly had a feeling of how momentous that night in 1997 had been – as, among other things, a symbolic end to the British Empire. That was my history, my origin, my explanation. I blinked to stave off silly tears.
Wandering round the history museum’s exhibits, I spotted a white sign next to a wooden crate which had been used to store black balls of raw opium as they sailed from the fields of British India towards China’s southern ports. It described the morning when British troops first planted their flag at a place on the island’s coast which came to be called Possession Point. On 26th January 1841, Sir Commodore James Bremer, rear-admiral of the Royal Navy during the First Opium War, took over Hong Kong island, though The Treaty of Nanking did not formally incorporate the territory into the British Empire until the year after. As the Union Jack was hoisted at 8.15am, a gun salute from the harboured war ships rang around the otherwise empty bay. Away from the lines of royal marines and a few visitors from the mainland, the ceremony was observed by a handful of hawkers: the island was almost uninhabited at the time.
I was staying in Sheung Wan, an area on the northwest of the island. It was not on my mental map of the Hong Kong of my childhood, and perhaps I never went there then. I had chosen it because it was quite central, and because there were some good deals to be found on short-term sublets. The roads in Sheung Wan wound in parallel along the hillside, which climbed eventually up towards the Peak, meaning that if you wanted to cross from one hill-hugging road to another you had to walk down a ‘ladder street’ made up of a multitude of narrow steps. Some days before my trip to the museum, on one of my late afternoon walks, I had noticed a sign that read ‘Possession Street’, and mentally filed it as something to look into. It turned out that the front door of the block of flats I’d been staying in on Hollywood Road was about twenty feet from Possession Point – or at least where historians now suspect it lies. A small area of greenery crossed by pebbled paths called Hollywood Road Park now marks the site. Because of the land reclamation which has crept the coastline further and further into the harbour, Possession Point is now marooned, lying several hundred metres away from the current seafront. When I asked my mum what she knew about Possession Point, she said she had read about it in a history before I was born, but it seemed to her nobody was ever really interested. She made an effort to find the place – in those days there was no salmon pink signboard marking its location – and when she eventually tracked it down, further inland than she’d first thought, it was the site of a public lavatory.
During my Easter on Hollywood Road, I would go and sit on a bench in the park overlooking the fishpond, which reflected a red-columned pagoda capped by a tapering green roof that looked like the stem cut off an aubergine. The orange carp seemed happy enough, but the pond’s population of terrapins was struggling, as the park’s designers hadn’t incorporated any little islands or rocky outcrops for them to sit on. When they wanted to emerge into the dry, they had to arduously clamber up twenty centimetres of green plastic mesh protruding vertically from the water, designed to hold in the water lilies. When they made it to the top, the terrapins had to balance, without falling off, so that their ventral shells seesawed on the top edge. I watched one terrapin the size of a makeup compact heave himself up a few inches and then plop back several times over the course of ten minutes. When he finally made it to the summit, a heavier, soup-bowl sized companion bounced onto the plastic net nearby, flinging the little one back into the water. This was the place where it had all started, the hundred and fifty year history of British Hong Kong.
Reading about the Opium Wars that Easter, I would come across details that seemed to reach forward into my life. The two Scottish magnates of the nineteenth-century opium trade, William Jardine and James Matheson, secured a prominent role in the histories with their canny trading. I had heard their names as a child under the guise of Jardine Matheson & Co., a powerful Far Eastern trading house, or ‘Hong’, which grew up around the two Scots’ opium profits. Having expanded out of opium into a variety of trading areas, including insurance, Jardine was the company my father came to work for when he first moved to Hong Kong in the ’60s.
Or there was Yin Je, who would come to our Midlevels flat to cook during the day, and from whom I learnt whatever smatterings of Cantonese I had as a child (Fi di sic la! Hurry up and eat your dinner!). She would turn up each morning in an amah’s sam fu, or pressed uniform of starched white tunic and black trousers. It was only years later I discovered she had sewn those clothes herself: when she was first sent to Hong Kong, aged eleven, to live with an aunt, she had earned money by doing piece work with a sewing machine. At that time they lived in one of the many tin hut shantytowns that pressed the Hong Kong hillsides. It was only later, after she had started work as a cook for an ex-pat family, that they were moved to one of the new resettlement estates – blocks of flats built by the government after a series of devastating fires spread through the ramshackle hillside shelters, killing many of the recent immigrants who squatted there.
Yin Je had been sent to Hong Kong, my mother told me, because her family had fallen on hard times. Her father had been the son of the head of the village, and so their family was the richest in the area. But one year, when times got hard, the villagers resorted to growing poppy. In Yin Je’s village, men and women all laboured in the fields. But Yin Je’s father, knowing how to read and write, was deemed unsuitable for physical labour, and so his appointed part in the venture was to do the numbers. It also fell to him, as an educated man, to test the village’s product. He got hooked (my mother’s word) and finally sold his fields and house to feed his habit. When I came back to Hong Kong for the first time, for a fortnight, aged 17, my mother and I met Yin Je at a food hall deep in a part of Kowloon I didn’t know, where the hills outside were covered in lush green ferns. She had forgotten whatever small English she used to know, and I had done the same with my scraps of Cantonese, so the two of us couldn’t really communicate any more. Her black curls had silvered in the intervening years, and she suddenly looked very small. I felt bad when, smiling, she handed us a round blue tin of those sugared Danish biscuits you used to get in the ’90s. We hadn’t brought anything.
Hong Kong’s Hollywood Road has nothing to do with California, and in fact predates the settlement of the American Hollywood. The first road ever to be constructed in the nascent colony, in 1844, it seems it was named by the Governor after his family estate back in England. The many antique and curio shops that still line it had their origins when Hollywood Road was still on the coast. Foreign sailors would try to hawk the artefacts they’d picked up in China before sailing back to Europe. Until I asked her about Possession Point, I never knew that my mother had lived near this area of the island when she was small, and would walk along Hollywood Road on her way to school when she was five or so, playing hop skip jump on the many concrete flights of stairs that wind off the main drag. She remembered the antique shops, some of whose windows now display prancing terracotta horses and rare carved jades excavated from mainland tombs, with a price tag only for tycoons. My mum also remembered the various coffinmakers who still have workshops there today. I had never seen a Chinese coffin before I peered in under the garage-like metal shutters, where the light-wood coffins, clover-shaped at each end, would park while the craftsmen were still carving or lacquering them.
My stay on Hollywood Road happened to coincide with the Qingming Festival (Chingming in Cantonese). Also known as the Tomb Sweeping Festival, or the Day of Clear Brightness, it is the day when Chinese families go to their ancestors’ tombs to care for the grave, pulling its weeds and adding fresh flowers and offerings. On the pavement outside the buildings, people had set up blackened metal tins or little braziers, orange flames licking up from inside. They would stand by, feeding offerings into the fire, including Hell money in vast denominations (‘Bank of Hell, $100,000,000’) for their ancestors to spend in the afterlife. (The currency of the Underworld usually strikes foreigners as resembling the notes from a monopoly set.) In the narrow backstreets of Sheung Wan, I came across several shops selling paper votives. Their wares ranged from basic necessities (socks, polo shirts, baskets of dim sum) to modern luxuries (iphones, speed boats, Ferraris), and even a four-storey mansion resembling a paper Barbie house. All were constructed in three dimensions from printed and folded card or tissue. I couldn’t help chuckling to myself when I spotted a lifesized gold watch that read ‘RLOEX’ across the dial. Perhaps the afterlife has its copyright enforcers too.
That day on Hollywood Road you could see the whole history of Chinese funeral offerings – from an emperor’s tomb-stowed terracotta horse in the antique shop window, to the 3D paper roast suckling pig a waitress or taxi driver might burn for a hungering relative. Walking through the streets on Qingming, passing the smoking braziers converting a descendant’s proffered love to ash, I felt very much an observer to these rites. I have never fed a wad of banknotes into a can of fire, or left a saucer of apples in front of a joss-sticked shrine.
...foreign to this tiny, floating, motherless city.
My mother’s abandonment as a baby means that, other than her, I have no Chinese family, no ancestors to whom I might give sacrifice. She told me once how, when she was very small, her adoptive mother had sublet for them a room in a flat rented out by another family. Her mother slept in the tiny room, while she was put out in the corridor, to curl up in the opened trunk that held the other family’s winter clothes. She fell asleep each night seeing, in the darkness, the smoldering orange tips of the joss-sticks bedded in the sand of the other family’s ancestral shrine. In a world where your ancestors deserve worship like gods, what happens to people who have none?