In the summer of 1990, 62,000 Hong Kong people chose to flee the city because of the violent crackdown on student protesters at Tiananmen Square the previous year. Now once again, people in Hong Kong were faced with the dilemma: to emigrate or to stay.
Editor’s Note: The following essay is part of a series on The Margins responding to the idea of unfreedom and the continuous and connected struggles for freedom globally. Look out for more in the seriesthis week, and watch “The Sweat of Love and the Fire of Truth: A Reading,” our event featuring writers who reflect on freedoms, whether they be collective, practiced out in the world, or of the body and mind.
Watching the events unfold in Hong Kong this past summer, from protests to crackdown to passage of the new draconian National Security Law, I was reminded of another summer, 30 years ago, when a similar feeling of fear permeated the city.
I was 23 years old the summer of 1990 when I was stranded in Hong Kong and witnessed the panic, the 97恐怖 or “terror” of the coming 1997 handover of the British colony back to Chinese control.
I’d been teaching in Nanjing, China, on a fellowship from my college in United States, when I decided to fly home to the U.S. early rather than travel around the country as I’d first intended. I was tired and sick from the heat and the air pollution and a seemingly endless number of upper respiratory tract infections, so I made my way to Hong Kong at the end of my semester in early June. Because I’d been living under martial law for the year I’d been in China, and news about the outside world was heavily redacted, I had no idea what was going on in Hong Kong.
After I flew into the city, I discovered that all international flights were booked solid, not an empty seat for months. I couldn’t fly out until late August.
It was the summer of 1990, the Year of the Emigration Panic, when 62,000 Hong Kong people chose to flee the city because of the violent crackdown on student protesters in China at Tiananmen Square the previous year. In seven years, the British would hand over Hong Kong to Mainland China, and although the PRC promised to keep Hong Kong’s capitalist economy and its British-based legal system in place for fifty years, the emigrants weren’t buying it. They were applying for visas, they were buying airline tickets, and they were flying, flying away.
I remember the advertisements everywhere in Hong Kong, in the pages of the English language newspapers, pasted onto telephone stands, blown up on billboards, shimmering on the tiled walls of the metro: emigration bouquets from F.T.D. the florist delivery service with the winged god Mercury as its logo, boxes of emigration chocolates, emigration Mylar balloons emblazoned in a happy bold font: “Bon Voyage!”
While tens of thousands of Hong Kong people were leaving, I was stuck. I couldn’t go home to the U.S. but I didn’t have enough money for a hotel in Hong Kong for three months. I didn’t have a credit card to my name. For my year’s worth of teaching, I’d been paid the equivalent of a $1,000, but in renminbi, the Chinese currency, which was not convertible to Hong Kong dollars.
I applied for every teaching job I could find, advertised in the backs of English-language newspapers or on bulletin boards in the hostels known for housing foreign backpackers or shared via word of mouth among travelers from Western countries.
While I lived in China, many tourists told me how they’d made money for their travels while teaching English in Hong Kong. Even those travelers who were not native speakers of English, who spoke English haltingly or barely at all, could find a teaching gig in Hong Kong. They assured me it was a cinch.
But when I applied for teaching jobs, I discovered that no one would hire me, not the regular schools or the night schools or the fly-by-night programs that popped up in offices after hours and that routinely hired international travelers—backpackers or students or tourists—to teach for them. I was applying with another American woman and she was hired almost immediately.
I couldn’t understand how the positions would all suddenly be filled up when I applied. I’d brought copies of my college transcript, which showed that I’d graduated first in my class, and my C.V. which showed I’d been teaching English on a fellowship in China and had a list of my publications in journals and newspapers in the U.S. What I did not understand was that the other American woman was white, and that made all the difference.
Finally one Hong Kong man took pity on me and told me to my face that no one would hire me because I was an ABC, an American Born Chinese, and students would assume that I didn’t have a standard accent but a Chinese accent. They only wanted to learn from standard accents, which they assumed a white person had.
“But I have a standard American accent,” I insisted.
“It doesn’t matter. This is how people think,” he said. “I’m sorry.” And he shrugged.
Neither he nor I knew what I could do to fight the internalized white supremacy that made Hong Kong people assume any white person, educated or not, would speak better English than I, no matter how accomplished. I’d been preceded by nine decades of white British administrators who treated the Hong Kong people as inferior to Whites and countless Hollywood movies that depicted only white people as true Americans. Asians were the jokes, the immigrants with thick, funny accents if we were depicted at all.
I was infuriated and saddened, and I was also desperate to find a job. I didn’t want to camp out in the airport and try to beg for food from strangers, hoping that a stand-by ticket might open up.
Because I could not get hired to teach English, I applied for a position as a barmaid in an “English only” pub in Tsim Sha Tsui. I was relieved when I was hired on the spot. Many of the barmaids were travelers from different countries: Ireland, the U.S., Canada, France. We were all working illegally. I’d checked into a hostel where I would live with another American woman in a tiny room with no window, no air conditioning, just a bunk bed and a noisy metal fan attached above the door. My new salary (paid in cash) for working six nights a week from 5 pm until 1 am was just enough to cover my share of the room.
A few weeks later, undercover British immigration agents came into the pub the night I was working. The Hong Kong barmen spotted them immediately: white, blond, clean cut, overly groomed, dressed “casually” in polo shirts and khaki pants. While two of the bar men supplied them with drinks, a third led us foreign barmaids out the side door to the women’s restroom at the end of a long hallway. “Just stay in here,” he said.
We cowered in the bathroom, waiting. I wondered if we’d be deported. But how could they if there were no seats on planes for months? I wondered if we’d be imprisoned, and my parents would have no idea what had become of me. Or perhaps, I’d merely be fired, which meant I’d have to look for another job or move out of my room and go live in the airport.
My stomach clenched with apprehension.
And then at last there was a knock on the door and voice of one of the Hong Kong barmaids, telling us we could all come back to the pub.
The barmen were laughing together in a clump, the manager shaking his head.
“I can always tell,” said the barman who’d recognized the agent. They were clapping him on the back, but he shook his head angrily. “I hate them. So smug.”
He said he could tell they were undercover agents by the space they took up at the bar, the way they sat spread out, the way they waved a hand in the air for service, calling out “Chop chop,” the way only White British people ever did.
All over Hong Kong there were international tourists and travelers working side gigs—in the infamous English-language side-economy as well in pubs like ours, other jobs—but clearly authorities turned a blind eye. It felt ridiculous and pointless that our pub had been targeted. I could understand his anger. How many times before, I wondered, had he had to endure the arbitrary exercise of a white British man’s power?
“FILTH,” the barmen agreed among themselves, then turning, one explained to me, counting the letters off on his fingers: “Failed In London, now Try Hong Kong.”
Of course the most obvious example of the arbitrary and unfair exercise of white British power was the impending handover of Hong Kong to China.
At the end of summer in late August, when a seat on a flight opened up and I was finally able to fly back to the U.S., I asked my Hong Kong co-workers what they were thinking of doing. Join the emigration panic and try to flee? Stay? None of the employees were wealthy enough to qualify for a British passport.
There was one young man whose family had already moved to Taiwan. He liked to practice speaking Mandarin with me when the manager wasn’t present. He told me he’d been working to help pay for his sister’s future college tuition. He said he dreamed of becoming an engineer—”So I can use my creativity and design things,” he said wistfully—but his father insisted he study accounting. Easier to get a job right off the bat. The family needed the extra income. Giving up his dream for the survival of his family was considered a necessary sacrifice.
There was a Hong Kong barmaid who’d been dating a series of white British men. She said nothing to any of us about the men, but everyone assumed she was looking for a visa out. There were so many beautiful Hong Kong women that summer with rather ordinary British men, with rather awful older white men.
I wanted the beautiful Hong Kong women to see themselves the way I saw them, the way my Chinese mainland students saw them. I wanted them to shed their internalized shame after 93 years of colonization. I wanted them to be the glorious, vain, conceited and extremely hard-to-get Hong Kong women that they deserved to be. Such men should swoon in their presence. Such men should have to work a lot harder. I didn’t know how to convey this feeling, and we could all smell the barmaid’s fear like dried sweat on her skin.
The rest of the barmen were planning on staying. One of them admitted to me shyly, secretly, after my last night on the job, that he’d come to Hong Kong from the Mainland, in fact.
In the meantime, the manager had taken on a second job, managing another bar that stayed open even later than ours. We closed at 1 am. We catered to the after-work workers in the offices around our building, but there were other bars that catered to rougher crowds, to tourists, to sailors, and they stayed open later. The manager proclaimed that he wasn’t afraid to work hard. He would take his chances with the Mainlanders, he said. There was nowhere else he wanted to be.
I understood. At least I thought I could understand. I’d lived for the past 10 years of my life in small, predominantly white towns in the American Midwest where I’d been bullied by white kids for looking Chinese. My family’s house had been shot at, five of our dogs killed over the years. I’d been called slurs to my face by white kids in school and by White people on the street. I’d been treated as a second-class citizen in my own country. I’d hoped that by going to teach in China, I’d connect more deeply with my Chinese heritage, find something beautiful and healing. Learn what it was like to blend in and not be treated as a freak.
In Hong Kong, I found a balance of Chinese and Western/world cultures that was thrilling. I saw my first experimental theater production with all-Asian performers by the company Zuni Icosahedron. I ate every kind of food. I met every kind of Asian, every kind of person from around the world. While Hong Kong people were fleeing, the rest of the world, it seemed, wanted to be in Hong Kong, striving, thriving, hoping to thrive, relishing everything that was Hong Kong cool, dreaming it would rub off on us.
I respected the mad work ethic of the Hong Kong people, the hustle, the side hustle, the extra side hustle…and if you didn’t hustle faster there were the cage rooms, the beggars, the sad-eyed maids and nannies meeting in the park on their one day-off each month, the tiny maid’s rooms as narrow as a fingernail in the British mansions.
I understood why many did not want to leave even when faced with being handed over to the control of an authoritarian nation: they had built this cool culture, this thriving economy, this hustle-bustle lifestyle. The Hong Kong people had survived wars, occupation, the Japanese, the British. They were proud of their hustle-bustle work-till-you-drop culture. The working class was going nowhere else, they were staying. They were going to work harder, they were going to adapt. They’d proved their resilience before, and they were betting their lives that they’d be able to do it again.
A few years later, in 1993, I’d meet one of the emigrants in New Haven, Connecticut of all places. I was in grad school, volunteering with the Asian/Latino House, an undergraduate student collective. On Sundays the House sponsored free translation clinics for locals, and every week I’d meet with various Chinese immigrants who needed help navigating forms or job applications, simple things that didn’t require a lawyer or a professional translator.
Then one week there was a Hong Kong woman. She didn’t speak Mandarin, so I didn’t think I could help her, but she wanted to practice her English in advance of a trip to the dentist, she said. So we practiced the phrases, “I feel pain. I need more Novocain,” over and over so that she would not forget, even if she was feeling pain and panic.
Then after a couple meetings, the truth came out. What she really wanted and needed was someone to talk to, heart to heart. She was thrilled that I’d once lived in Hong Kong and wanted to talk to me—in English—about all the things she missed. She missed everything. The food, the weather, the people, the way the shops stayed open until ten in the evening, the open-air markets and the wet markets with their tanks of live fish and squiggling eels and giant tiger prawns, the Temple Street Market with the stands staffed by vendors who liked to bargain, shouting their prices into the night air, daring the customer to find a better offer, the give and take of that, like a romance.
She missed the hustle-bustle of the city, the polite way everyone queued from the red double-decker bustles, the soft hiss of the automatic doors of the MTR, whisking everyone underground from Kowloon on the Mainland to Central Island and back. She missed the salt-water spray in the wind as she stood on the Star Ferry. She missed the taste of Cantonese on her tongue. “Where can I speak my mother tongue?” she asked me. “No where here. It is no where in this country.” There were other Cantonese speakers, but something was lost in emigration, the spicy snap of the jokes, the salt and hot pepper of the puns, even the bitter sting of the insults. She never realized when she left how lonely she would feel.
“We were so afraid,” she said, “but now I think we might have made a mistake.”
In 1997, when Great Britain turned its former colony over to the government of the People’s Republic of China at midnight on July 1, I watched the fireworks display over Victoria Harbour on television in San Francisco.
That fall, I returned to Hong Kong for an academic conference on the First 100 Days After the Handover. A visiting Chinese American professor showed participants the faculty housing in what used to be the headquarters for British administrators. He gave a tour of his apartment and paused at a tiny closet-like space off the kitchen. “This was ‘the maid’s room’ when the British were here,” he said. It was now the pantry.
I interviewed a number of students at various campuses, Lingnan, HKUST: How do you feel about the future? Did you identify as Chinese? As a Hong Kong person? Something else?
Some students talked about their hopes for their careers, their desire for personal happiness. They hoped the future would be more equitable, less brutally competitive than it had been under British Colonial rule where they recognized that the Hong Kong people had been second-class citizens to the Brits. But one young man’s answer stood out. He said his hope for the future was for Hong Kong people to be able to define themselves and their culture. “We have lived under colonization for so long,” he said. “Now it’s our time to define ourselves.” His fellow students nodded when he said this. They agreed it was a thrilling prospect, this moment of historic opportunity.
At that moment, three months into their life as “Hong Kong, Special Administrative Region,” the students were enthusiastic about the possibilities for Hong Kong identity to develop freed from the weight of white British culture.
However, the British government had not left the Hong Kong people free to determine their own future. They had not negotiated actual democracy for their former colonial subjects. They did not leave the people of Hong Kong the right to vote directly for their representatives. Instead, a “nominating committee” of 1,200 people would vote for Hong Kong’s chief executive. Beijing promised that Hong Kong would have universal suffrage by 2017.
Under the terms of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy that China had agreed to when negotiating for Hong Kong’s return from British colonial rule, the People’s Republic of China promised that the people of Hong Kong would be able to live with their same capitalist system as well as an independent judiciary and civil liberties that they had had under the British. Beijing would be responsible for Hong Kong’s defense and foreign relations. This system would last for 50 years until 2047, at which point it was expected that the economies and the cultures of the two sides—the Mainland and Hong Kong—would be so similar that integration would be achieved smoothly.
Instead, as China’s economy developed and the Chinese people grew richer, Hong Kong became less a role model and more of a sore thumb. Tensions developed between Hong Kong people and Mainland Chinese tourists. Income inequality grew in Hong Kong under Chinese administrative rule; the extremely rich did very well and the middle class decreased and more people fell into poverty with little hope of relief.
Fast forward to 2014 when a majority of the nominating committee, made up of pro-Beijing businesspeople, voted in a chief executive despised by many of the average working people of Hong Kong.
I watched on cable news and Twitter as tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets, demanding one person, one vote.
Then again in 2019 after an extradition bill was introduced that would have allowed Hong Kong people to be tried in Mainland China, another round of demonstrations brought the city to a halt. The children of the generation who had stayed behind in 1990 were fighting for their city, for their home, for the Hong Kong identity that they had so hoped to define.
I watched in horror as the cable news showed riot-gear-clad police officers attack unarmed students, some as young as 13, with tear gas, rubber bullets, batons. I watched as unidentified thugs, rumored to be members of the triad gangs, grabbed young protesters and beat them bloody before cameras with impunity.
Then in 2020 as the world was distracted by the global COVID-19 pandemic, the new National Security Law was passed by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the Chinese legislature in Beijing, on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the handover. It allows Beijing to establish its own security office in Hong Kong, to try certain trials in the Mainland, to hear certain trials behind closed doors, and to wiretap and surveil people suspected of breaking the law, among 66 provisions. Anyone taking part in a protest could potentially be labeled a “separatist” and that was illegal. They could be tried and imprisoned in China. Furthermore, anyone who wrote anything calling for independence for Hong Kong that was published anywhere in the world could now be tried in Hong Kong for “subversion.”
Doomsayers proclaimed that the National Security Law spelled the end of “One Country, Two Systems” and the end of the Hong Kong’s independent judicial system and the end of Hong Kong people’s civil liberties.
Governments around the world pledged to take in Hong Kong refugees, from Taiwan to Germany, even Great Britain, who had started the problems for Hong Kong in the first place. In the U.S. lawmakers in both the House and Senate introduced bills that would allow people “who peacefully protested” for democracy and who then faced persecution would be granted “Priority 2 refugee status” to come to the U.S.
But the U.S. media, lawmakers, and citizens were distracted by both the coronavirus pandemic and the antics of President Donald Trump, who himself tended toward authoritarianism whether threatening to postpone (illegally) the U.S. Presidential election or sending federal agents to Portland, Oregon, to abduct people legally exercising their right to protest the government’s racist and undemocratic policies.
I watched and worried as the situation in Hong Kong deteriorated, as the new National Security Law was used to arrest prominent citizens known for supporting the protests and even to remove books from the libraries. The government announced they were postponing Hong Kong’s legislative elections originally to be held in September for a year.
Now once again, the Hong Kong people were faced with the dilemma: to emigrate or to stay.
Whether one chooses to leave or to stay, as I have seen over the years, there is always heartache, always loss that cannot be recovered. The decision itself is a tragedy for the people forced to make it.
“Freedom/Unfreedom can be the difference between being able to define one’s self and one’s goals versus having to live a lie imposed by colonization or authoritarianism, the difference between pursuing a personal dream versus merely working to survive. In response to the passing of the new draconian National Security Law,” says writer May-lee Chai. “I wanted to bear witness to changes that I have seen over the past thirty years in Hong Kong: not only the fears of Hong Kong people but also their hopes and their ongoing struggle for the freedom to define their own dreams.”