by Dawn Lo
Chinook fingerlings tumble out of their nets. The little fish take a few moments to orient themselves in wild waters as the current knocks them tail overhead. Everything is new, but natural, as they are. See how they adapt. They steady themselves, bending and ebbing with the river’s flow, like grass blades whipped sideways by wind.
My father wants to see the salmon run on the Don River, which bisects his adopted home city of Toronto. Canadian living appeals to him: he has an SUV, a canoe, and a weekend lakefront cottage that used to be a fishing shed. He likes birdwatching. This salmon fascination is another patriotic identification with his new chosen home.
My parents grew up in Hong Kong, where water collects in saline bodies like bays, oceans, straits. Though we came to Canada when I was a baby, we later lived in China until my father retired. He and my mother moved back to Toronto only six years ago. After a life of hard work, he is happiest when he does not have to talk. Some might mistake his austere ways for tranquillity.
In my parents’ suburban Toronto home, I lie on the sofa, fighting the jet lag from flying more than 20 hours from Singapore, where I now live. I nod at my father. I play the good child on my annual visits. I say, “it sounds fun.” He doesn’t respond. He is too busy sending information in our family group chat, so my brother who lives downtown can see too.
I can hear my mom’s voice saying my English name in a singsong Cantonese cadence, my brother saying ga jie, following the practice of calling me “older sister.” I can’t put my finger on what my father says when he wants to talk to me.
Every year, Chinook salmon are introduced into the Don River. Though born within the confines of hatcheries, they are released for fishing purposes, but also in the hope that they will follow their natural life cycle and one day spawn in this river.
It is in their blood to return to the source.
We never lived as a family in Hong Kong, but my winters growing up were spent visiting my father’s parents’ home in an old public housing estate in Shek Kip Mei. As a kid, I kicked a ball around with my cousins on the open-air landing by the stairs, our uncles towering over us. The corridors lined with the grated fronts of cramped flats were dark, but the sun shone bright on the landing. An airplane roared by overhead. We ran over to the chipped railing to look at it, zooming past so close it looked alive.
My father grew up seven-to-a-unit. A wily child, he played in courtyards between housing blocks, kept marbles he won in threadbare pockets, and, with ink and paper left over from homework, slashed out and pasted in his building corridor anti-British slogans he learned from going to labour union meetings with his father.
When a policeman showed up and found the vandal, he was stumped. How do you arrest a kid? Is it wrong to feel Chinese? My father’s mother pleaded with the policeman, saying her son was only parroting what he had heard from gruff working men. He didn’t know what these phrases meant.
It turned out, he did, maybe better than her.
Yet, in the fall of 1989, he and his wife decided to leave Hong Kong for good. Fearing the imminence of the handover, they emigrated to Canada, with me in tow.
The flow out is easy: follow the river, rest by shaded logs, eat, grow. Gravel-coloured markings gradually turn to a silver gloss; the fingerlings no longer resemble twigs with eyes but have morphed into grown fish.
When they reach the river mouth, they are ready. In schools, they plunge out. Strength in numbers, beckoned by an unknown sea.
Spring, 1989. My father had been sent to Beijing temporarily by his company. He wanted so much to be there.
In Tiananmen Square, student protesters had set up camp, staying day and night. This generation blossomed from a time of economic and political unrest as the nation rebounded from the Cultural Revolution’s human devastation. They knew about the freedoms in the West, and they wanted the same. So they protested for freedom of speech and of the press, democracy, voting rights. They were joined by blue-collar workers and other professionals who shared the same fevered dream.
My father went to these protests. After work, he returned to the rented service apartment, shed his tie and briefcase, and re-emerged in simple clothes. He walked to Tiananmen Square on an avenue called Eternal Peace. He listened to urgent, earnest speeches demanding a response from the state. He knew the revolutionary songs. He had grown up with protest in his blood, hating the colonisation of his home.
How, I imagine, the pieces must have fallen together for him. To be numbered among young protesters in his native land, to call out in unison words whose sentiments he had known from childhood. Yes, he might be from Hong Kong and older than these starry-eyed students, an adult already with a baby, but what did it matter if their hearts wanted the same thing?
During the night of June 3rd, he was in the apartment when gunshots sounded. Voices rang out, “they’re shooting, they’ve opened fire.” He crouched under his only window until morning.
The next day, he flew out of Beijing. Later that year, he emigrated to Canada. But a mere four years later, he moved his family back to Beijing, where he had found work once more.
After years out at sea, salmon find their way back to the very river they were born. There is memory in water that flows through the fish. At the right time, it reminds them to go back. A return, a rewind. As though the vast rolling ocean could be sucked back into narrow river mouths and babble with the brooks.
What does a grown child of the Revolution say to the children fighting in Hong Kong today?
In our family group chat, I described my pain at news of protesters younger than me indiscriminately pummelled by police with unprecedented brutality. Their blood-stained faces were pressed into the ground as truncheons continued to do their brutal carnage. In different circumstances, it could have been me fighting for my future.
To my father, this was just punishment for stirring trouble. “Hong Kong is the top-tier of liveability,” he typed in our online chat. “It does not deserve such violent riots. If some people want to change the law, it is not the place they belong.” No mention of the strain on humanity, only the unwavering logic and ideas of a bygone time. When he would not try to understand that the law should be a mutable thing, that it should live and breathe the same air as the people, I stopped responding to his messages. I could not see the words through my sobs.
The news we watched spotlighted the sensational: protesters in black hurling bricks, police in army-green with weapons, a blazing fire and black plumes as tall as a building. What goes unreported are the intimate moments only those present can see.
I flew to Hong Kong on the last weekend of August. On the fateful 831, I marched.
When the rain began to pour, a woman handed a spare umbrella to a young man, who refused it with a sad smile. “I’m used to getting soaked,” he said. She insisted. He now owns a purple umbrella with frilly ends.
When we marched past security cameras, someone behind me wordlessly raised her umbrella above us, so there would be no governmental record of our faces. Afterwards, we nodded to each other and she disappeared into the crowd.
When we needed to cross a six-lane road, people formed a line, holding hands, to block oncoming traffic. A van braked close to the chain, the driver curious. Protesters put their palms together to apologise and thank him. He threw them a thumbs-up. A countdown from twenty started and, at the end, the chain broke to the side, the black sea dispersed from the road. The van drove off, the driver honking his support, to cheers.
When the people are so united, how do you not listen?
The journey back is treacherous. The Chinook propel themselves upstream in violent pulses of energy. They smash against rock and concrete. Some flop onto a shallow ledge to rest. The river flows on, paying no mind to their bruising, their fight to live and give life.
We did not go on the salmon run but, if we had, it would have looked like this: my father would walk several paces ahead of us, though the path by the river is wide. It would drizzle. We would look lumpy huddled in puffy coats with our hoods up. We might see salmon but that would not determine when we stop, which would be dictated by when my father has had enough. The trudge back would look the same.
I used to feel a surge of relief that my father stopped going to Tiananmen Square after martial law was imposed. Now I understand, with sobering disappointment, that it was because he had faltered. He was born into typhoon-stricken poverty when Hong Kong was nothing but a speck edging into the sea. In this place that was neither China nor Britain, he chose his Chinese affiliation. He saw a glinting modern China within reach and wanted to help mould it. To lift up his motherland. Prosperity was the correct way forward. It must not be sidetracked by granting the needs and rights of the multitude, even those as simple and natural as to speak and be heard.
And, with the battle for modernity and prosperity fought and won, why should instability ensue? The youth of Hong Kong, he believes, should be grateful to be part of China. He does not understand that his interpretation of the story is not theirs.
These days, my father and I talk about Hong Kong in fits and starts. As we get animated, we choke on our words and our voices rise and crack. I inherited his stubbornness, his conviction.
Still, we try. As we do, less optimistic thoughts float to the surface: What becomes of a family whose members do not listen to each other? What happens to a nation that muzzles its youth?
I do not wish to change his mind. I know now that is impossible.
I only wish I could talk to the youth he had been, about what he had wanted to become, about his dreams whose deadlines were still so far that they could put off for one more day, when he was still a boy who stood among looming housing estates and stared up at a sliver of sky.
By the time there are signs of wriggling life in the recently laid eggs, the grown fish have died. The river sweeps their carcasses away. Salmon never meet their young. Water will have its way.
How to cite: Lo, Dawn. “‘Life Cycles.’” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 14 Aug. 2020, hkprotesting.com/2020/08/14/cycles/.
An earlier version of “Life Cycles” was first published in The Malahat Review.
Photograph © Oliver Farry.
Dawn Lo is a Hong Kong-Canadian writer based in Singapore. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from LASALLE College of the Arts. Her work has appeared in Chantwood Magazine, The Merrimack Review, The Malahat Review, and PULP Literature, among other places.