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John Batten: Hong Kong as Home

22.11.2019
John Batten
John Batten

One of the regular comments I have received over my years in Hong Kong is, “you are a foreigner and can always leave Hong Kong”. This is technically correct. However, it doesn’t quite capture what I consider a truer aspect of my life in Hong Kong: I chose to live in Hong Kong and from my very first day here I always said that “Hong Kong is my home”. The psychological commitment to place in that statement is incredibly powerful and reinforces the intention to live here and not just be a temporary passerby, happy to take from the city without making much contribution.

My life experiences are different from most Hong Kong residents of my age and generation, whose circumstances coming to Hong Kong are undoubtably more epic than mine. I didn’t swim across the Shenzhen River or Mirs Bay, nor was I on a family reunion waiting list, waiting in limbo to join a family member already living in Hong Kong. As a single man, I didn’t arrive and share quarters with other single men, nor live in rough squatter housing or share accommodation with distant relatives I hardly knew. Nor, in desperation, did I need to accept any menial, dirty or dangerous job on offer; although in my past I have done such work.

But, choosing to live in Hong Kong gives me a temporal closeness with other residents who also made that same conscious decision to live here. Whatever our circumstances brought us, living here is what we do, and our lives are mapped out by slowly putting down roots, work, making friends, saving for the future, raising a family – and have hopes for a better future. We slowly got to know the city and its idiosyncrasies. We engage in our favourite activities at our favourite places. We eat and drink, shop and socialise. We know our neighbourhhoods and become part of the city’s fabric. And when we go away, we happily return. Living elsewhere is theoretically possible, but we don’t, because – like me – we love Hong Kong.

After Chow Tsz-lok’s death, on one of the days of chaos in the streets last week, I saw a man, similar to my age, a worker from a roast meat restaurant, cross the street, and with arms folded, he spiraled round and round, kicking at the footpath stones loosened by protesters. They were not angry movements, but considered, wistful and thoughtful. Inside, the restaurant had no customers; outside, the streets were trashed and empty.

Was he confused, like all of us, about what’s going on? This is home – we can’t easily accept what is happening to our home. We can’t stand silently and watch it wither or burn.

I see no logic in the government’s continued inertia and their support for aggressive police clearances of protesters, and their avoidance to tackle the crux of the protests: political and electoral reform. It is an inflexible, corrosive attitude fueling the fires of protest and escalating violence. So, what else could be going on?

A plausible conspiracy theory is that such government and police actions will eventually cause Hong Kong’s share and property markets to collapse. Then, those assets will be cheaply snapped-up by new (mainland?) owners. Such a speculative idea runs alongside another theory: Hong Kong is just a vast property market – it doesn’t really matter who occupies the city’s buildings. After such an asset collapse, the city’s financial and service economy operations will continue, but a new crop of (compliant mainland?) immigrants will be the city’s new residents.

So, what about us and our home in this scenario?

Haha! By then, we will all be foreigners, “and can always leave Hong Kong”. That sounds like just another implausible conspiracy theory. Or, is it?

Addendum:

As I write, Hong Kong universities are in lock-down, classes cancelled and students are protecting their campuses as if they are fortresses. The dangerous targeting of the general public by throwing debris onto the Tolo Highway and East Rail Line is serious criminal behaviour. Major roads and tunnels throughout Hong Kong are closed. Meanwhile, speculation is rife that rivalry between Xi Jinping allies and former President Jiang Zemin’s Shanghai faction is a significant factor fueling Hong Kong’s political crisis. It is an untenable situation – and must surely crack soon.

After protests, Central, Hong Kong, 11 November 2019
After protests, Central, Hong Kong, 11 November 2019
John Batten
John Batten
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