Listening to Hong Kong

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BY SIMONE KURIAL

Since September 22nd, pro-democracy groups, mostly composed of students, have been protesting a decision by the Chinese government not to allow free elections of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive as is proposed in the Basic Law. Instead, Beijing’s interpretation of the Law entails a pre-selection of possible candidates for the position by a group of 1,200 people generally aligned with mainland interests. Outraged by what the Hong Kong people saw as a reneging of a promise made during the handover from British to Chinese rule, protestors took to the streets, occupying several busy intersections, blocking transportation arteries, and performing various acts of civil disobedience. Most recently, the Chinese government set an October 6th deadline for protestors to disperse, which was ignored. The protests continue, unique unto Hong Kong in the level of cleanliness, peacefulness, and creativity.

For me, watching these protests unfold over news and social media has had a distinct impact, which I can attribute, for the most part, to the fact that I grew up in Hong Kong.

Now, I admit, that is partially untrue. I’ve never been to Hong Kong or walked the streets of Mong Kok or Causeway Bay. But I did grow up in a city widely known as “Little Hong Kong”— Richmond, B.C., a sector of Greater Vancouver with 200,000 people, more than sixty percent of which are of Chinese heritage. Discounting Richmond proper, Vancouver is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in North America, if not the world. It was an everyday occurrence for me to hear multitudes of different languages, especially Cantonese, on the bus, at school, on the street, in line at the drugstore. I knew where to shop by memory, because the shop names and the sale signs were written in characters I couldn’t understand. To me, “normal” food was dimsum, wife cakes, steamed fish, kai lan, and a whole lot of Hoisin. Bubble tea was what you drank with your friends after school, Yaohan mall was where you went to shop, and Aberdeen had all the best purikura machines. Chinese New Year meant a holiday from school, lion dances, and red lanterns strung up in every window. And so, while it’s true I didn’t grow up in Hong Kong, I can’t help but feel a subtle wave of nostalgia whenever I see the images of a city and its people that so closely resemble my own hometown. I feel inescapably involved, and at the same time, inescapably removed.

To grow up somewhere you have never actually been puts your heart in the hands not of a region, but of a people with shared goals and interests – in this case, a simple call for the protection of a small set of personal freedoms and the pursuit of what can best be described as a diluted form of democracy.

The long and caustic narrative that China has woven, especially with Hong Kong and Taiwan, is one to which I, while not geographically invested, am emotionally anchored by  experiences in my childhood and adolescence. The reason why my city has such a high immigrant population isn’t an accident – immigration to Vancouver erupted in the years immediately preceding the now-infamous “handover.” Multitudes of people left Hong Kong, anticipating the ramifications of a return to Communist Chinese rule. These immigrants and their children transformed my hometown into the vibrant international center it is today. To see the country of their origin under such political upheaval invokes within me a feeling of connectedness through disconnectedness: like a participatory voyeur. To grow up somewhere you have never actually been puts your heart in the hands not of a region, but of a people with shared goals and interests – in this case, a simple call for the protection of a small set of personal freedoms and the pursuit of what can best be described as a diluted form of democracy.

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As I write this, I question my own intentions. Surely if you were to sort through a list of adjectives about myself, you would not find “activist” among them. I often find myself limiting my social involvement so as to avoid accidentally offending anyone (a markedly Canadian trait, I’m afraid to admit). Despite this, I have found it impossible to distance myself from what I now consider to be one of the most important social freedoms: suffrage. My strong beliefs concerning American politics perhaps can be traced to the fact that I did not grow up in this country. The fact that I could cast my first vote in 2008 as a dual-citizen is a privilege I hold most dear. And yet, it is because I value my ability to vote in a democratic election as a privilege that I am able to see it for what it really is: an intrinsic human right. Upon learning about the uprising in Hong Kong, I felt compelled to become more involved, more aware, and more of a resource for the involvement and awareness of others. And while I have not done nearly enough, perhaps through this article I can convince someone who otherwise might not be inclined, why every person, and especially every young person, should be concerned and informed about the situation in Hong Kong.

When I return home in December and I walk the streets of Little Hong Kong, I will consider for a moment what I hope we all take time to consider in the weeks to come: that before our own constituencies, we are citizens of a larger world. The conceptualization and realization of a democratic system of government forms the foundation that supports this country where we have all made our current homes. To be represented is to be acknowledged, and to be acknowledged is to exist. I exist in the context of my hometown, and my hometown exists in the context of Hong Kong.

Words like “Freedom” and “Democracy” are conceptual and thus subject to distortion.  Freedom is not delivered on the knuckles of an iron fist, or in the droplets of a tear-gas can. The political and social freedoms being sought by the protestors in Hong Kong are tangible in their juxtaposition with the suffocating umbrella of Chinese influence under which the region currently resides. It’s true that democracy is not the perfect political system, in Canada, in the US, or anywhere. But its definition lies in its practice – that the pursuit of perfection is galvanized by the chorus of a free people, and the advancement of society relies on the involvement of its participants. Democracy is damn noisy, but it’s a helluva lot more invigorating than silence. In the coming days and weeks, please listen to the euphony emerging out of Hong Kong.

Photo via hurtingbombz // flickr




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