All posts filed under: Essays

Finding Space

Recently, I witnessed a couple arguing quietly and gesticulating wildly across a table in a busy food court. Strangely, my first thought was, they need this space. Physical space in Hong Kong is a coveted prize that can never be won. It’s no secret that it’s one of the most densely populated places in the world. We know that its density negatively impacts people’s mental health, two-thirds of the city’s 800,000 public housing flats are smaller than 430 sq ft and well-designed ‘nano-flats’ are growing increasingly popular. While this is hardly a favourable USP for the city, the lack of space is the reason that, in terms of everyday amenities, Hong Kong is wonderfully Hong Kong. Through necessicity, we improvise — and often with glorious results. Here, things are never where you think they will be (but looking up is a good shout). There’s no reason why a cafe cannot be a make-shift hole-in-the-wall kitchen and a few plastic chairs down a dark, wet alleyway. Nor why doctor’s surgeries cannot be situated in residential buildings, sandwiched between …

Save Our Streets

Anyone who has put foot to pavement in any of Hong Kong’s busiest areas knows that it is entirely its own experience. A bevy of collisions await you and, to conquer the pavement, you must navigate them all, from the umbrella-duck to the squeeze-by. You must exercise your patience behind the elderly and then contort your torso as you slip seamlessly past the mobile phone attached to the person in front. And then you must prepare your senses. The smell of bubbling noodle soup dancing a surprisingly harmonious pas de deux with spicy corkscrews of smoke emanating from burning incense sticks stood erect in a side-street shrine. The prickle of humidity on your skin, slow-cooked beads of sweat sliding to the soundtrack of the second; a distorted singing voice through a static-y microphone, cackles between old friends. These are the things that Hong Kong is made of. In April, a report titled ‘Managing Vibrant Streets’ called on the government to take control of Hong Kong streets. It followed Carrie Lam’s promise that the government would …

When You’re Biracial But Not Bilingual

As a mixed-race person, I can just about find myself on Google. I see myself in articles and the odd documentary episode (still not enough, but that’s a bigger conversation). But as a mixed-race person who cannot speak both languages attached to both of my cultures, I’m nowhere to be found. This is fairly disheartening for someone who, upon lamenting her painfully slow acquisition of Cantonese, is looking for reassurance; a consolatory pat on the knee or knowing nod of the head. Recently, I searched for ‘mixed race but not bilingual’, hoping for a five-page thread or the quotes of a prominent author who once faced the same situation. All that came up was a load of parenting forums debating how to correctly raise a bilingual child (an almost comedic kick in the face). I typed in variations of the phrase, certain that I had posed the question incorrectly, done something to offend Google’s buzzword algorithm, but the results remained the same. Oblivious. I have read many (fantastic) books by biracial writers, unpacking the confusing experience …

Shape-Shifting

At the end of last year, I went to see author Sreedhevi Iyer speak about her short story collection at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. A member of the audience asked Iyer, an Indian-Malaysian-Australian writer, if she felt she behaved differently according to the different countries or cultures she was active in. She said that she found herself unconsciously adapting a lot, and wanted to focus on consciously ‘un-adapting’ more. While Iyer went on to give specific, personal examples, this general notion of auto-pilot adapting is a sentiment familiar to most people of mixed race. Adjusting is defined as: ‘becoming adjusted to new conditions’. But for those who belong to more than one race, adapting is a way of life, a survival strategy, not a temporary spell during which you acclimatise. Being mixed-race is not a condition, after all (although looking at the racial micro-aggressions — and maxi-aggressions — hurled at many mixed-race people, perhaps lots of folk think otherwise). I’ve spent the majority of my life adapting. Nobody told me to, per se. I was not verbally instructed …

More Than A Name

In the winter of 2014, my sister and I took a photo of my dad posing under a street sign. We were visiting Hong Kong and, after alighting the ferry on Hong Kong Island, we found ourselves stepping onto ‘Man Kwong Street’. It was one of the most brilliant things I had ever seen. It had my name in it. After a lifetime of carrying a frequently unpronounceable, misspelt, nowhere-to-be-seen surname in England, there it was, common as muck on a street sign. It was only when I moved to Hong Kong that I realised that the novelty I’d experienced back then had occurred simply because I’d only seen my name on a sign that one time. A few months after moving here, I no longer delighted in seeing my name on street signs, nor above shops, or bus stops, or the numerous other places I spotted it. Locking eyes with a Kwong Wah tool shop or a Chee Kwong restaurant caused a slew of guilt and embarrassment to slope down through my chest like …

Language Swap

In Hong Kong, as a learner of the native language, I spend a large portion of my time attempting to listen to (read: eavesdrop) and converse with locals in Cantonese. My goal is to, one day, be able to think in the language, rather than go through the rigmarole of making slow mental translations and then carefully laying out each word like I’m taking an oath. While nowhere near fully developed, this new tongue is gradually taking some kind of shape. Yet, I was still dumbfounded in April when I arrived at a hotel in Bali and thanked the driver in Cantonese. The words flew, unbridled, out of my mouth with the exact casualness that I yearn for when I’m forcing out broken statements in my daily Hong Kong life. Just like that, no conscious connecting of synapses required. In that moment, pride (admittedly polluted with the faint waft of smugness) emanated from my every pore. Mini triumph celebrated, I had no choice but to sedate the Cantonese if I was to remember that I …

Inked Identity

When I was 18, I got my first tattoo. Perched on my left hip, where the fleshiness of the tummy starts to flatten over the pelvic muscle, is the Chinese character that means the word ‘half’. As in, half-Chinese. Get it? I had thought about getting this, what I deemed to be very clever, sign of my identity for around a year, and was certain that it would be important for the rest of my life, something I could never regret. My logic came from the simple fact that, unlike a boyfriend or a seemingly poignant song lyric, it represented something that would never change — my being half-Chinese. I was wrong. It didn’t represent my being half-Chinese, but rather how I perceived being half-Chinese at the time. I don’t regret the ink — it’s a thought-provoking reminder of how quickly and drastically we change — but it does not resonate with the current me. I might be, by blood, 50 percent Chinese, but what I didn’t know back then, as I reclined statue-still on the black, leather chair, was that …