“We are Hearts in Cages” by R. T.

We Are Hearts in Cages
by R. T.

François, exhausted by five successive nights on high alert, says to me, 
‘I’d give my sabre for a cup of coffee!’ François is twenty years old. 
—René Char, Leaves of Hypnos (1943-1944) 

To those two students who never abandoned their sinking campus. 

I had one apple in my bag—a potential lunch if nothing more could be found. When I arrived at the Lee Shau Kee building, I headed for the café stall, where we used to have our afternoon coffee. The scene I beheld was jaw-dropping: the whole corridor was overflowing with students working tirelessly: packing and unpacking boxes of food and drink, clothes, material for projectiles, medical supplies… The implications were more startling than merely a hint of preparations for an impending conflict; it was an insistence that the students were willing to risk their lives, expecting no help from the outside world. Two boys behind the bar were preparing light dishes; dressed in white aprons they were more professional-looking than the usual staff. Was it, or was it not, a utopian vision that I was witnessing? 

As I think back to those hectic few days I witnessed, I relate this not-so-consistent narrative. 

*** 

The Lee Shau Kee building, otherwise known as LSK, is a stoutly built edifice that is attractive, especially on sunny days; or so it seemed to me, as I walked past one day. It is located on the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s central campus, adjoining both the university library and the Fung King Hey Building, home to students of literature and philosophy. The day after the CUHK incident, I was sitting in an office room designated for our department’s PhD students; nor surprisingly, I was alone, as most students had already left the campus after a night of mayhem. The school was under the “full control of the students”—some were cooking food in the canteens and handing out free meals, some had commandeered the campus security cars and were driving them around, some staying on guard the rear, others were fortifying the campus “borders”.

Had I been a reporter, there were a couple of headlines I might have chosen. “Students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong are writing history—12 November 2019 will surely stand as its most important day since its founding in 1963” or “CUHK students are overthrowing capitalism in the most capitalist city in the world” were but two that came to mind.

People living in Hong Kong are well aware of what happened on the CUHK campus on 12-13 November 2019; journalists have written about it, though I am not qualified to state or evaluate facts. In fact, a Portuguese friend of mine based in Beijing who works for the Portuguese public broadcaster called me the day after the incident to find out what was going on; “straight from a friend,” he probably thought, looking forward to a “great headline”. I wasn’t able to give him a full story, so I sent him a diary-like text that I had scribbled that afternoon. He ended up using only a single line from the two pages I wrote: “We were astounded at the extent of [the students’] preparation, I had never seen so much ammunition and armour (Molotov cocktails, makeshift shields made of flotation boards, etc.) even during my two years in the military.” You don’t need to be a military expert to do a double-check there. The students did improvise a preparation for battle; still, it paled in comparison to the even the most feeble regular army. But the exaggeration was not intended to distort facts; it was rather an attempt to convey the emotional impact of the whole scene on me: astonishment mixed with a sense of urgency.

That afternoon, at the “battlefield”, I came across a professor of philosophy, Sasha. “This is very noble,” he said. I couldn’t help laughing at his dictum (he is a teacher of ethics). Noble? What he probably meant is that the spirit and solidarity shown by students and alumni returned to campus was astonishing. The human chain supplying goods to the front line stretched hundreds of metres, including female students in striped skirts and pink fingernails and white-shirted male students. Everything had come as a surprise. Was it, or was it not, violence? I suppose it no longer matters, what is noble or civilised, amid the burgeoning tragedies of our times.

The CUHK incident lasted for five days, a spectacle of rebellion and defiance, a symbolic fight defending the “sovereignty” of the University—a zero-level protest demanding basically nothing, which I perceive as the most authentic form of protest, an emotional outburst, rather than a well-crafted political scheme. The symbolism of defending a university campus is the meaning itself.

How do we bear witness to the tragedies surrounding or engulfing us? What are the limits of literary or journalistic writing, photographic and video documenting, messaging, and face-to-face conversations? How to write about tragedies without aestheticising the other’s suffering? With these questions in mind, I woke up on the morning of 14 November 2019. Reading of an exodus from the campus, I posted the following message for my new classmates and academic adviser, whom I had the chance to meet only a few times, to inform them of my whereabouts: “what appears to be a mini evacuation of international students, most of whom are panicked, facing uncertainties in almost deserted halls, but I am determined to stay”. What was I staying for, I now ask myself, when almost all the students had already left? After all, I didn’t even have a remedy for my own distress, let alone for my new school, where I had very few friends, if any at all. But now, reflecting on all that happened, this superfluous account would have been impossible had I fled.

In her essay “My Fish Tank Days”, from the widely read Aftershock: Essays From Hong Kong (2020), journalist Karen Cheung writes about artist Leung Chi Wo and his artworks on the 1967 leftist riots in Hong Kong: “Leung and I both instinctively knew of the intangible weight of a historical event we brushed shoulders with, to which we were unable to bear witness.”[2] Perhaps, the historical event’s gravity held my feet firm, as the campus was cast off to its fate, with few people on board. 

Two days later, I was walking around campus; though dozens of students had been injured two nights before, the empty school was even chillier that evening. On the night of the battle, there was a clearly identifiable perpetrator, with the other side responding to it in kind—all-too-visible violence to be scared of; the media unsparingly calling it “a war zone.” But the empty campus was a deserted ship that was slowly sinking. The tension was at its peak when I received a WhatsApp message from my hostel warden of an unconfirmed rumour that there was a bomb near No. 2 Bridge—the scene of the famed battle—and that we should leave the campus ASAP!—with capital letters and an exclamation mark. I was still in my office at Fung King Hey when I received the message, and that was when I decided to make a last decisive trip to LSK.

The scene was uncanny: the confusion of the previous days was gone, the calm suffocating, sleeping bags and medical supplies strewn on the ground – it was like a refugee camp without refugees. There were only two girls there, sitting, calmly eating rice from takeaway containers. I approached them and scolded them: “Don’t you think it’s time to leave? Haven’t you heard that there is a bomb on campus?” “We know,” one of them said, half-smiling, “but it hasn’t been fact-checked yet.” How do you fact-check a bomb? I walked past the bridge that evening on the way to my room, a perilous journey, that met no evil end. 

I still think about those two girls, barely twenty years old, guardians of the unwanted medical supplies—contemplating whether to leave or stay – a spontaneous bet on living or dying.

A friend working as an editor in Beijing once told me hers is the last liberal generation in China (we were both born the same year—1991). In one of her beautifully written essays, she contemplates freedom, among other things, which I translate below with minor alterations: 

[…] precisely because their lives contain so many “have-no-choices”, because they cannot fully and freely choose everything in their lives, and as the oppressed and the infinite “minority”, I see them as my relatives in a remote sense. They seem to cherish everything they get, know way better what freedom and individuality are than those born with the abundance of freedom and material wealth; they know that love and beauty are obtained only through struggle. Their faces are condensed with everything familiar to me.[3] 

I borrow the title of this piece, the predicament that we face—“we are hearts in cages”, as I know that we are precisely we.

It is because of my love for the Chinese people that I didn’t leave the campus, for my friend in Beijing who recognises freedom in her blood and in the eyes of strangers, for my former classmate who, at a moment of patriotic rage, erased my name from her life, and finally, for those two students, who gave me a plate of warm rice fresh from the cooker, and a chicken wing—in exchange for one apple. 

The next day, I was on my way to the four-star Alva Hotel, where the evacuees were being resettled, with an open-air swimming pool on its roof (I would catch a mild cold while there). What happened next was life—life went on as usual. Life always goes on for some: spring, summer, autumn, winter: barely all I know. 

(Photograph: Twitter.)


[1] René Char, Furore and Mystery & Other Writings, trans. Mary Ann Caws and Nancy Kline (Boston: Black Widow Press, 2010), p. 163. 

[2] Karen Cheung, “My Fish Tank Days”, Aftershock: Essays from Hong Kong, ed. Holmes Chan (Hong Kong: Small Tune Press), p. 62. 

[3] I will omit details of that favourite piece. 

R. T. (pen name) is a student of Chinese literature at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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