The word ‘unprecedented’ is banded about a lot at the moment and, certainly, the world feels like a pretty topsy-turvy place as COVID-19 continues to completely disrupt lives. However, in many ways the residents of Hong Kong got an early taste of what ‘unprecedented’ really meant in 2019, back when the word ‘coronavirus’ was unknown to most people. Having lived in the city for a few years, I returned to Hong Kong right at the beginning of 2019, after 7 months travelling. During my time away, I really missed the place and it was my intention to stay there for the foreseeable future. Less than a year later, I had made the decision to pack up and leave. This is the story of one of my most unpredictable years yet – and it barely involved any travelling…
It was actually on a campsite in Mexico just after Christmas 2018 where I made the fairly spontaneous decision to return to Hong Kong ahead of schedule. I had left back in June after a year of the most horrendous working experience I’ve ever known. My original plan was to continue until the spring and, after months travelling in Europe and Asia, I wanted to work my way down from Mexico down to Panama. However, as much as I loved the trip, after 7 months on the road I was ready to settle back somewhere again. Missing HK life and my friends, I moved my flight forward to January. Now that I’m stuck at home and unable to travel, it seems a bit unfathomable that I would cut short a trip, especially to Central America which has been on my bucket list for so long. But I don’t have a crystal ball and it was definitely the right decision at the time.
I was also lucky in the sense that a friend of a friend was the headteacher at an English learning centre and needed a new staff member, so I was able to secure a job instantly. In fact, everything moved very quickly. Within my first week back in Hong Kong, I had a job, a new flat and had made an excessive number of trips to IKEA. The job was great, I loved my flat and I could eat dumplings all day every day. Life was good.
Obviously the political situation in Hong Kong has always been quite volatile. Until 1997, it was a British colony. It was then ‘handed over’ to China but remains a Special Administrative Region, meaning many of its laws, customs and culture are very different to the mainland. You only have to take a trip across the border to neighbouring Shenzhen and you can instantly spot the difference. Although certain agreements were made between China and the UK at the point of the handover regarding Hong Kong’s autonomy, the feeling has been that in recent years China has been encroaching on some of Hong Kong’s rights. I previously saw this flair up back in 2014, my first year in Hong Kong, when thousands of protestors took to the streets for weeks as part of Occupy Central, essentially grinding the city to a halt but achieving very little.
I was actually pretty ignorant to the fact we were on the cusp of something bigger in 2019. There’s so much political discontent flying around Hong Kong anyway, that it’s difficult to know if something is going to escalate. The issue which swung it in the end was the matter of extradition. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s leader, wanted an extradition agreement with mainland China, something which many people bitterly opposed for fear it could be exploited for political means. It was only on a flight back from New Zealand, where I had gone on holiday for a couple of weeks, that I discovered the extent to which people were against the bill. As I came in to land at Hong Kong, I found out that 1 million residents had taken to the streets to demonstrate. In a city of nearly 7.5 million, that is pretty staggering. A week later, the numbers had doubled to 2 million.
It was difficult to feel anything other than pride at the people of Hong Kong for coming out in such huge numbers and, by and large, managing to keep things incredibly peaceful during those initial demonstrations. However, the more that the government ignored protestors’ demands, the more frustrated people got and that’s when life in Hong Kong changed completely.
Looking back on it now, it’s quite shocking to remember how normalised life in civilly disobedient Hong Kong was. There were shocking actions perpetrated by both sides – literally things that would make you gasp when you read about them. But in terms of day to day life, a lot of people just got on with this new normal. It was pretty good COVID training. By and large, things followed a set pattern. Weekdays were usually as normal whereas weekends would be more disrupted, especially on Sundays. Certain districts and areas were notorious for large demonstrations so it was best to avoid them. I should add (and I’m deliberately making this post as apolitical as I can) that me wanting to avoid these areas was not because I felt the protestors were particularly dangerous to members of the public. In fact, Hong Kong is so small that it was difficult to completely avoid every protest spot. It was more to avoid getting caught in the crossfire between demonstrators and police.
So, essentially, to begin with life became more of an inconvenience. It could take longer to get into work in the morning because there were demonstrations on the metro; shopping centres would suddenly ring out with spontaneous chanting; you wouldn’t go shopping late at night in some areas in case things kicked off; occasionally you’d see crowds of black-clad protestors sprinting past the restaurant you were in frantically shouting ‘popo!’ and certain districts would be awash with protestors on Sundays, sometimes for a very short period of time before they moved on elsewhere. It was on your doorstep but it still felt pretty far away. But this began to change and, when it did, it happened drastically and with next to no warning.
It sounds quite insular but it really is when things like this start to directly affect you that you understand the severity of it. As we moved into autumn, life in Hong Kong became infinitely trickier. I got my first experience of tear gas whilst walking to get food not far from my flat. Although I was several streets away from where the action was taking place, it was potent and my eyes were burning – this stuff was seriously strong. I don’t know people can endure that stuff on the frontline day after day. More and more frequently, buses were ejecting passengers early so they could avoid battlegrounds. Certain shops and businesses were targeted by angry protestors – the Starbucks at the end of my road got smashed so many times. MTR stations were closing, not just in the evenings but in the mornings too. One morning, my usually half hour commute took two and a half hours via a combination of walking, bus, boat, walking some more and then train. On some days, work would close early so that staff could get home before dark, fearful that something was going to kick off. It was still the new normal – you adapted and went with it – but it was definitely heightened. It is unsettling waking up and not knowing what drama is going to unfold that day.
Finally, in mid-November, tensions had boiled over to insane levels. After being hurriedly sent home early from work, I was subsequently told my learning centre was temporarily closed because it was no longer safe for staff to commute to work. It’s quite a big thing to stomach. In one of the safest cities in the world, it was now too dangerous for me to commute to work half an hour away. It wasn’t just my workplace being overly-cautious either. Schools were shut and just about every shop and restaurant in my neighbourhood and beyond had its shutters down. There was this city-wide sense of everyone taking a deep breath, knowing that everything was going to come to a head. And didn’t it just.
University campuses, shopping districts and ordinary streets became literal battlegrounds between protestors and police. By an unfortunate coincidence, my street became one of them. My small street forked off from one of Hong Kong’s busiest thoroughfares so whilst it wasn’t unusual for me to spend an evening listening to tear gas shots and petrol bombs being thrown, it had always been one or two streets away. Just because of geography, now it was literally on my doorstep. I lived in a pretty old building with shabby windows so I had tear gas seeping through into my small flat, combined with a relentless chorus of explosions and shots. Sometimes it would die down for half an hour and then start up again. At one point, literally, the entire road was completely in engulfed in flames from the sheer number of petrol bombs that had been thrown. By the time I tried to get some sleep at around 2am, things were starting to die down.
I was up again at 6am after a terrible night’s sleep, waking up to an ironically beautiful morning in Hong Kong. With my head a bit all over the place (and also fearing being trapped inside again later on), I decided to go for an early morning walk to Hong Kong’s iconic harbourfront. It’s quite difficult for me to put into words the state of my neighbourhood that morning. It’s safe to say I have never seen destruction on that scale in my life. The only thing I could possibly compare it to would be damage caused by an earthquake. Pavements had been ripped up, windows were smashed, cars had been burnt out, bricks were strewn literally for miles down every single road. It was about a 2km walk from my place to the harbour and every metre of that walk featured some kind of damage. I was completely speechless at the scale of this thing.
In complete contrast, the harbourfront was so calm and peaceful. Barely anyone was here this early in the morning, despite it being a beautiful day and it was the perfect place to clear my head. It was in this spot that I decided it was probably time for me to think about leaving Hong Kong something that, a couple of months before, I never would have considered. Clearly, it had been a bad few days and it never actually got as bad as that again in the subsequent months I stayed in Hong Kong. However, just the notion of sitting there waiting for things to kick off again was incredibly unappealing. I had very few ties and so had the luxury of being able to leave. My philosophy has always tried to be to do things until they stop being enjoyable – sadly, living in Hong Kong wasn’t that fun anymore.
As it turned out, due to the outbreak of COVID-19, I ended up leaving Hong Kong even earlier than I planned anyway. Whilst originally due to leave at the beginning of May after a month of travelling, I ended up jetting off in February because my learning centre had to close as a result of the outbreak. It ended up being quite a swift exit from a city I’d called home for 4 years.
I genuinely don’t know what the future holds for Hong Kong. This is not a situation that is going to quickly resolve itself and, sadly, I expect to see the city featuring in many more headlines in the future. At the same time, I’m not sure any other city in the world will ever mean as much to me as Hong Kong does.
The past few years living in the 852 have been balmy, frustrating, exhilarating and unpredictable so I guess it was only fitting that my final few months in the city really took the biscuit in those regards. I’m certain I’ll be back again to visit – until then, ga yau Hong Kong!