“The Last Fire on a Day that Can’t be Named” by Cleo Adler

The Last Fire on a Day that Can’t be Named
by Cleo Adler

25 June 2020

Summer silently crept in amid hysteria over masks and hand sanitiser. In those days of beautiful sunshine—sometimes punctuated by erratic storms—we spent our days staring at pixellated videos and black screens. After the previous hectic five months, not wearing a face mask had become almost unthinkable as leaving the house naked. In hot and humid Hong Kong, to keep masks on outdoors is torturous, but as a species embodying obedience and resilience, we have come to uncomplainingly endure sweat and skin allergies in exchange for a little more security for ourselves and others. Instead of giving in to physical confinement, we found our way to a new and serene way of life, becoming better cooks, artists, writers, critics, and so on, and because of which we harvested limitless creativity. Perseveringly, we counted down the days till the summer, telling ourselves that, with a bit more prudence and consideration for others, things might gradually return to normal.
It has been our minds, not mobility, that they were after. Now that we could finally resume our daily lives, we had limits imposed on what we could do, what we could say, and even what we could think.

Once the pandemic eased a bit, I sneaked out and met my friends to salvage the last bit of liberty we were left with. The streets were busy as usual. Under the glittering neon and bright shop windows, I walked to the cinema, passing on the way dozens of police in full riot gear, a scene I no longer found astounding. Over a cluttered dinner table, my friends and I joked about the stress and strain of work, and appeared at ease to say whatever in our mind. For some reason, however, we kept something to ourselves. I sensed that deep in our heart, we knew that our free time was numbered, and life would no longer be as it was.

As we left the restaurant, little pale yellow sparks glistened here and there in the darkening street. The air tightened and became still and solemn, a familiar atmosphere on this day of remembrance. All of a sudden, we fell silent. In the faint smoke, we smelled something different this year. The crowd, which used to be stationary, broke forth from imagined cordons and boundaries and flowed freely. We shuffled in this sea of white candles, glancing cautiously sideways at the shimmering blue and red lights coming from the other side of the street. Everything became spontaneous. Someone laid a poster on the ground and placed candles of various sizes on top of it. The impromptu little stage never ran short of candles; more of them were deposited as people came and silently paid tribute.  

“Isn’t this like an altar?” I said.

“It is an altar,” one of my friends replied.

We passed by metal roadside railings lined with the contours of tall and short white candles. In no time, the ordinary barrier, burning in a sacred golden radiance, was transformed into an even larger altar, more artistic but no less makeshift. The sticky humid heat could not quell our attachment to the glimmers from these impromptu sites of commemoration. In the occasional breeze, yellow and red hanging origami birds stretched their wings and gently whirled. As the night fell, we crowded against one another and took photos of this little spectacle. Some of the paper caught fire but responsible mourners or passers-by, who throughout the past year have already undergone unexpected emergencies, calmly put them out with bottled water and relit the candles one by one. Across the street, someone was scratching dried wax dripping off the ground.

A few steps away, we saw another shrine at a quiet corner beside the avenue––a circle of candles on the kerbside. In the middle was a bilingual sign with slogans in imperfect English. Blue and red lights glimmered. Suddenly, there was a little fireball. The bystanders put their phones aside, stopped one person from dousing it with water, and discussed among themselves the best way of handling it.

For a moment, my vision was blurred. Amid the the sparkling lights, I remembered from a film a foreign exile treading along a dry river bank holding a burning candle, shielding the flame from the wind. Twice he tried but failed. Only at the third attempt did he make it to the end. It was the protagonist’s wilfulness, not just his hands, that protected the little flame and carried it all the way to the end. As if by sheer coincidence, this ten-minute tracking shot in Andrey Tarkovsky’s film Nostalgia seemed to foreshadow what might be the last public vigil in Hong Kong. On this day, we realised that we need no leader nor official permission to light our torches. Every one of us took the initiative to commemorate lost young lives in our own personal ways, a long-standing insistence out of nothing but a shared devotion to this city. From now on, it would no longer be the grand principles, rituals or media sensations that dominate the meaning of this day, but small, personal acts from re-adapting slogans as creative euphemisms to helping with the clean-up—things we are all capable of but do not always persist in doing. If even humanitarian care for those who have suffered is outlawed as a threat to “security”, then let us humbly partake in what we have always been good at—responding to oppression with spontaneity and responsibility. I asked myself, isn’t this struggle to safeguard our memory also a fight to safeguard our hearts? At a time when darkness prevails, one either holds firm or becomes a part of it. The heart is in the midst of all.

A flash erupted, leaving nothing but ashes. You may say that something forever disappears from the world, but in our experience, what we thought of as the “last” has often given birth to something “new” and unimaginable. From then on, the commemoration would be nothing like the customary annual event followed by chats over Cantonese desserts and a ride home on the MTR, as if life could go on as usual. However captive we might be to our times, we are still free as inventive individuals. Vigils, candles, ceremonies, and songs may be buried in our mind, but memory will reincarnate, blossoming in countless more enduring lives.

How to cite: Adler, Cleo. “The Last Fire on a Day that Can’t be Named.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 28 Nov. 2020, hkprotesting.com/2020/11/28/last-fire/.

Photograph © Oliver Farry.

Cleo Adler grew up in an old and vanishing community in Hong Kong, which shaped her senses and imagination. During the daytime, she handles artwork and exhibitions; at night, she tutors, writes, or reads. Collective memory, heritage, postcolonialism, national identity, etc. inspire her research and writings. She also translates works by established Chinese writers, and is one of the co-translators of the local novella Love Lyrics of the Sinking Isle (to be published).  

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