by Annika Yan
11 November 2019—first day of the strike
The musty aftertaste of the morning Nespresso lingers in my mouth as I applied lipstick which was way too waxy. It was 50% off in Colourmix so I bought it regardless, and put on some concealer to hide the dark circles from having to wake up so early just to get to the office. Monday is tedious enough as it is, and this morning I had to wake at six, just to catch the train. The things you do for work. I have to finish my project before I fly out on Saturday—I am not one of those young office workers who wishes they didn’t have to go to work when there are typhoons, rainstorms etc. It’s a routine, it’s a commitment—a living has to be made—they just don’t understand.
My iPhone rings—waking me from my reverie. It’s Amy. “Hey, the boss just called me to tell you guys that work is cancelled today! He can’t get to the office either.” Panic rushes through my veins, and I gasp, “No work? But our project needs to be finished by Thursday! How can we have meetings?” The TV above me is a bit loud so Amy’s reply is muffled. Anyway, I’ll just be working from home then. When the news is silent for a few seconds I hear Amy asking something about the crab dinner. “Yes, yes, yes, of course I’m still down for crab on Friday! Can’t wait! …Yes, last year’s were so juicy—I hope these will be just as good…” With all the stress from work you have to relax sometimes.
The train lingers in each station today for an unusually long time. I scroll through the long list of emails on my phone. Getting stuck on the train is no good. Kids scream annoyingly—parenting is no good these days. All these spoiled, rebellious kids. After a few minutes that feel like forever, the train stops at Kowloon Tong and I make my way back home. Time to get back to work.
“Ding dong”—with a heavy heart I step into the carriage, into a liminal space full of people who are blissfully ignorant, blindly critical or simply stuck in their routines despite their genuine care for our dying homeland. My headphones are on and Zello, the walkie-talkie app, relays the latest updates of police vehicles near my school; I have Telegram open, receiving message after message at lightning speed from those who are already guarding the barricades.
“0847 Police fired tear gas near University MTR station.”
My heart sinks. I must get back to the campus as soon as I can. Every minute spent waiting at each station feels like years but what else can I do?
It has been four months since the protests began. I still remember the day I stood among a million others, fighting for the same cause and shouting slogans with equal fervour. It was the first time that Hong Kong had felt like home since the Umbrella Movement. Oh, the Umbrella Movement—I was thirteen then. When my father accompanied me to the occupied streets in Admiralty, I was immersed in kindness, generosity and warmth that awoke something deep within my heart. Perhaps it was conscience. Older demonstrators taught me how to fold yellow umbrella origami, and the finished ones lay on the streets next to each other. Each one was tiny, but when they all gathered together it was a spectacular sea of yellow—the colour of hope, of ideals, or dreamers with the same dream. Like dandelions that blossom, they sowed a seed in my heart.
But times were very different then. Such memories are now nothing more than an idealistic trance. Despite our chants and marches back then and more recently in June, the government has yet to budge one bit. Discontent grew and thundered till the withdrawal of the Extradition Bill was too little, too late. The journey to democracy is as hazy as teargas-filled streets that I have dashed through and revisited in nightmares again and again. Hope lost its glow; cynicism rose. Yet it is the very hopelessness that propels us to fight—we have nothing to lose, for nothing we treasure about Hong Kong will be left anyway. Our rights and freedoms, our autonomy, our unique if somewhat hybrid cultures that made Hong Kong an international financial hub in the first place. If we simply let these values erode, Hong Kong will soon become any other Chinese province.
Around me are corpse-like figures that only care to drag their bodies to work—where are their hearts and souls? How can they only be concerned about money when the police fired three live rounds at unarmed pedestrians just an hour ago—even when it is being reported on the TV right at this moment? Their coldness makes me shudder.
All of a sudden, a young student in his white secondary school uniform walks past me, his face half-covered with a black mask. He glances briefly at my black mask, and I at his. In our eyes there is a moment of recognition, a second of silent solidarity. He hurries to the next carriage, then the next one and is now out of sight.
How rare it is to see someone wearing a black mask like mine on the train during the Monday morning rush hour, I think.
The next thing I hear is a woman panicking about not being able to go to work and the next second gushing about a crab meal on Friday night. Her black suit jacket hugs her frame so perfectly that it must have been tailored, and her LV handbag rests on her knees as she tilts her head to hold the iPhone 11 Pro Max by her ear. If a parallel universe exists, I guess this train carriage is one side of it. I am about to roll my eyes when another person brushes past me—a young child dressed in oversized but ironed kindergarten uniform, running wildly past commuter after commuter, daring his sister and helper to catch him from behind. His helper struggles to carry their heavy schoolbags while chasing after them. I smirk at their mischief—own it while you can, before time and tragedies force you to grow too quickly. Their shrieks echo in the carriage, disturbing some passengers who raise their heads from their phone screens. Soon their silhouettes disappear into the next carriage.
I don’t know why my sister and I had to wake up so early today. Yuli, my helper, woke me at 5:30 a.m.! I don’t like school. There is always so much homework to do and I just sit in class and listen to the teachers. Weekends are no better—I had to wake at 6 a.m. yesterday to learn swimming, then violin and finally English grammar tuition before I could go home to rest. But then my mother had prepared extra Maths exercises for me to finish so it was already 10 p.m. when I went to sleep.
Yuli is reading something on her phone, in Indonesian, I guess. The only thing I recognise is a policeman because he is holding a gun and wearing the big, green uniform that I always see policemen wearing on TV. She is frowning and I don’t know why. So many things I don’t know but it doesn’t mean I am stupid. When I was playing Minecraft on my mother’s phone yesterday, a message popped up. It said that some people are angry about police arresting protesters so they are trying to stop the train today. I don’t know what protesters do. Last Saturday, when I was leaving my ballet class with Yuli, some people gave us two helmets and strange-looking masks with two big cups on them. They looked like the astronauts in my textbook but they dressed in black. Were they protesters? But I am smart and I know who policemen are—they save citizens. Teachers always tell us that policemen are awesome people. When I was three, I wanted to be a policeman but firemen have cooler uniforms so I want to be a fireman when I grow up.
It is taking so long to get to school—Hung Hom, Mong Kok East, Kowloon Tong, Tai Wai, Sha Tin… I like to count the stations but it is getting a bit boring today. I ask Yuli what she is reading, but she ignores me even when I ask her again and again. I am bored so I decide to run around on the train. Everyone looks so tired. Maybe they also have a lot of homework too. A few people wear black masks—I sometimes see people like them on the streets too. They kind of look like Batman. Yuli and my sister keep chasing me but I am fast. Running soon becomes boring, so I stop and again ask Yuli what she is reading. She tells me that a police officer fired bullets at some protesters who want to make Hong Kong a better place. She says the police do that to reporters too and her friend got shot the other day. Suddenly, she looks like she is going to cry, like when my mother forces my sister to eat fruit and she doesn’t want to. Poor Yuli! I give her some candies from my schoolbag and I think she tries to smile at me.
The train stops inside the Lion Rock Tunnel; outside, everything is so dark! I see tears falling from Yuli’s eyes. Why do people called protesters stop the train? Why is she crying? Why did she say that the police shoot good people? Maybe I really don’t know many things, but when I finally get to grow up, I will know everything.
Photograph © Oliver Farry.
Annika Yan is a university student in Hong Kong, an activist, and a writer. She is passionate about human rights and freedoms. She protests with her pen, writing about Hong Kong so the world knows what is happening in her city. She has written fiction for Kyoto Journal and South China Morning Post, and hopes to publish her novel about Hong Kong someday. She can be found on Twitter.