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When Hong Kong stood still

Hong Kong was already a metropolis of masks by the point I arrived, only a week after the lockdown of Wuhan. There have been masks on the subway, even when barely anybody was driving it. There have been masks within the workplaces, masks within the lifts, masks within the lodges. There have been masks on the late-night ferries throughout the harbour, masks outdoors the retailers promoting masks. If you happen to had come throughout an elephant wandering up the Peak, you’d anticipate it to be sporting a masks.

The entire world was by then conscious of the virus, however few locations had been fairly as conscious of it as Hong Kong: the gateway to mainland China, with its personal lengthy expertise of infectious illness. The masks had been only one small half — albeit probably the most seen — of a fast group and coverage response.

Maybe that’s the reason, when a authorities legislation mandating outside and indoor masks use was dropped this month after nearly 1,000 days in power, it felt like the top of an period: one of many very last components of a world effort that additionally started in east Asia and sought to include Covid-19 by closure.

Transit, whether or not for a number of days or a number of generations, is embedded within the very being of Hong Kong, a spot the place it’s so essential to get some place else that you may commute to work by escalator. For 3 years, what was as soon as one of many world’s most open cities grew to become one among its most remoted. Its strict quarantine measures for inbound travellers weren’t eliminated till September final yr and lingered in watered-down type for months. It was closed off even from mainland China at a time when it was shifting nearer to it politically; the border solely reopened in January, after Beijing deserted its personal zero-Covid coverage.

The Hong Kong skyline in 2020 © Lam Yik Fei

I had been alleged to move by briefly, however my journalist visa to the mainland was repeatedly delayed for 2 and a half years. So, as occurs to many individuals in Hong Kong, I ended up staying longer than anticipated. That layover coincided with a interval of each delicate and momentous adjustments, when the unfolding historical past was by no means totally separable from the virus. It raised many questions: concerning the fading of a British colonial identification after the 1997 handover and a future inside, reasonably than alongside, China — the midway level within the 50-year “one nation, two programs” interval handed final summer season.

Right now, anybody flying in (doubtlessly without cost, provided that the federal government has simply began handing out half one million free tickets) may marvel how Hong Kong has modified. Is it extra just like the mainland? And if a chapter of the pandemic has ended, how ought to we now perceive it, and its varied websites of enclosure?

The pandemic, at first, made it troublesome to determine what was and was not regular in Hong Kong. For my first six months, I lived in a lodge. This in itself gave the impression to be a standard factor to do. However the lodges weren’t fairly themselves.

Concerning the images

The pictures on this piece had been taken by Lam Yik Fei, an award-winning photographer born and raised in Hong Kong. His most up-to-date ebook, ‘Chan Nok Kei’, was revealed in 2021 and reveals a decade of tumultuous change within the metropolis. He’s presently primarily based in Taiwan.

It was unclear whether or not the pool was closed due to Covid-19 or, as I used to be advised, as a result of it was winter (common February temperature: 19C). It was exhausting to say if Christmas songs had been enjoying on the breakfast buffet at Easter as a result of this was historically finished in Hong Kong, or as a result of, inside a collapsing hospitality business, even the music had turn out to be unhinged.

Had I been upgraded to diamond standing far sooner than I used to be entitled to as a result of I used to be one of many solely remaining company? After a number of months we had been basically right down to me, a Canadian businessman who was launching a cryptocurrency change and a Chinese language-Malaysian resident who launched himself as Nostradamus. I by no means bought to know the workers properly sufficient to debate these issues correctly, perhaps as a result of I by no means noticed them with no masks.

People sit high on a  hill overlooking a city as the sun sets
In June 2021, individuals collect at Lion Rock within the Sha Tin district © Lam Yik Fei
People with backpacks walked on a crowded trail that leads between bushes and trees
Hikers on the Dragon’s Again path © Lam Yik Fei

A long time after the handover, it’s simple to see the UK in all places in Hong Kong. Presumably due to the necessity to counteract the surplus of free-flow brunches, everybody within the expat group appeared to be continually climbing, as if they had been conforming to a selected model of middle-class England (the mountains attain an identical top in each locations).

A number of the trails, seemingly corroborating this, had been named after former British governors. Within the botanical gardens, the bandstand was meticulously maintained, and the statue of King George VI appeared roughly intact — not like the earlier statue on that web site, which was despatched to Japan and melted down throughout the second world struggle. Avenue indicators within the neighborhood of Queen’s Highway, a set of vaguely recognisable surnames that crop up in different former British colonies, left little doubt as to the territory’s legacy.

Preliminary warning in the direction of the virus, largely defined in relation to the 2003 Sars outbreak, dealt a blow to the anti-government protests that engulfed town pre-Covid. However it didn’t eradicate them by itself. Within the malls, which you need to use to navigate an air-conditioned route by its central district, I as soon as noticed a bunch of younger individuals singing “Glory to Hong Kong”, the protesters’ anthem, in opposition to a backdrop of empty designer retailers.

A woman holding waving a union jack is surrounded by police officers in riot gear, Behind her is a crowd of people carrying umbrellas
Cops encompass pro-democracy activist ‘Grandma Wong’ outdoors the Legislative Council constructing in 2019, whereas demonstrators carry umbrellas, a logo of the pro-democracy motion © Lam Yik Fei
A large illuminated billboard by a flyover, with highrise buildings in the distance
A roadside billboard proclaims the introduction in June 2020 of the nationwide safety legislation, which suppressed anti-government protests © Lam Yik Fei

Queen’s Highway was generally nonetheless clouded in tear fuel, particularly across the time of the nationwide safety legislation’s introduction in June 2020, which shifted legislative norms in the direction of mainland China and suppressed anti-government shows each on the streets and within the media. The day after it got here in, I went to one of many final protests in Wan Chai. Halfway by, a bike raced previous at an unmeasurable velocity, to cheers from the group.

A couple of yr later, within the first case tried underneath the legislation, its rider, Tong Ying-kit — who had been carrying a flag that stated “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Occasions”, and was additionally accused of driving into law enforcement officials — was sentenced to 9 years in jail.

In 2020, the protests had been nonetheless for some time one of many default matters of dialog, full with their very own dining-room tensions: the contrasting views of the impassioned younger, the venerable previous and the salaried center.

I interviewed a priest concerning the annual Tiananmen Sq. candlelit vigil in June, which finally went forward in Victoria Park in defiance of an ambiguous official ban underneath Covid protocols (in 2021 and 2022 the park was sealed). On the finish of our dialog I checked that he can be glad to be quoted underneath his personal title. “I’m very previous,” he stated with a chuckle, “and never afraid any extra.”

Once I requested a pal what he considered the protests, he identified that they’d been occurring incessantly for the reason that 1997 handover. Their erasure signalled the long-feared arrival of a system to which individuals weren’t acclimatised. In the future, I went to a spatially distanced cinema to look at the 2019 French movie Les Misérables, a few battle between police and youths in a Parisian banlieue. The one different viewers had been an aged couple within the nook, with whom I had averted eye contact as a result of I’d smuggled in popcorn from Marks and Spencer. On the finish of the movie, I requested them what they thought. “I ponder how for much longer we’ll have the ability to watch movies like that,” got here the reply.

Whereas the longer term was considered with a mix of concern, anger and pragmatism, the previous was comparably absent from dialogue. It was not with out its protests; once I had lunch with a retired British civil servant on the cricket membership, he advised me about riots in Kowloon when he arrived within the Nineteen Sixties. And, once I began to look extra carefully on the buildings, I realised a lot of them had an identical structure. A museum within the New Territories, a bar and restaurant complicated within the centre of Hong Kong island, a lodge within the fishing village of Tai O, the College of Chicago’s campus on Hong Kong Island — all, as soon as, had been police stations.

On the top of Covid-era Hong Kong, with most different types of train intermittently outlawed, climbing took on a good better significance. It was additionally not the easy British cultural import I had assumed. On the final day of 2020, I noticed an indication on the high of a mountain that I had beforehand missed. It was concerning the Chung Yeung Competition, when it’s conventional to climb a mountain. As a result of so a lot of its residents got here from rural communities on the mainland, the signal defined, “many historical traditions and customs had been delivered to Hong Kong and have been unfailingly noticed, although with some modifications”.

Figures walk along the brow of a hill on a sunny day
Mountaineering within the Kai Kung Leng mountain vary within the New Territories in January 2021 © Lam Yik Fei

That was on show on Hollywood Highway, the place I briefly lived in a serviced house in 2021. (I’d needed to transfer as a result of my earlier serviced house, the place you could possibly get a beneficiant low cost due to the shortage of consumers, closed due to the shortage of consumers.) The highway is stuffed with retailers promoting purportedly Qing dynasty antiques, and on lunar new yr the queues for Man Mo Temple stretched late into the evening. 

Within the museums, which opened solely sporadically between outbreaks, the indicators had been wealthy in Chinese language idiom (the Maritime Museum: “It’s simple to depart residence; what is tough is to return”). Town was an upside-down America the place most of the immigrants had left behind, reasonably than arrived at, a sprawling and limitless continent; the place a misplaced civilisation was nonetheless flickering just like the final embers of a stick of incense. As with America, it was additionally stuffed with the practices of different locations: Nepal, the Philippines, Australia, France.

The coexistence of the Chinese language- and English-speaking worlds in Hong Kong, initially a part of an imperial commerce paperwork, had shifted to an association primarily based round worldwide enterprise. However the metropolis nonetheless appeared haunted by typically unstated points of its historical past. As soon as, I used to be in a gathering with an investor who advised me concerning the origins of his college, among the finest in Hong Kong. It had been a spot for illegitimate mixed-race kids, he stated, funded by the British fathers they might not meet. Once I later regarded it up, its origin was listed as an orphanage.

Town’s strict quarantine measures appeared easy proof of its embrace of mainland norms, in an effort to achieve approval from Beijing to reopen the border. However additionally they introduced echoes of the previous. The Jao Tsung-I Academy in north Kowloon, previously a colonial-era “quarantine station” the place Chinese language labourers can be separated from the final inhabitants earlier than travelling abroad, hinted that such practices had additionally been fine-tuned way back. The historian John M Carroll notes that, within the Nineties, British measures to counter a bubonic plague outbreak — together with quarantine on a hospital ship — had been resisted by the Chinese language group. The 1904 colonial legislation that divided town, stopping ethnic Chinese language residents from dwelling on the Peak for many years, was launched within the aftermath of these outbreaks. Then, too, well being coverage was inseparably woven into up to date political divisions.

A woman in a mask stands at a reception desk in an office. On the wall outside, signs say ‘Mask sold out’
‘Hong Kong was already a metropolis of masks once I arrived’ — and provides had been working low on the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin in January 2020 © Lam Yik Fei

Like infectious ailments, authoritarianism in Hong Kong has are available many alternative strains. The zero-Covid pressure was gentle. Nonetheless, the results had been generally stunning. I used to run each Tuesday evening alongside Bowen Highway, near the Peak. At one level, the masks mandate was briefly prolonged to outside jogging, on ache of an roughly $600 advantageous. Months later, I might generally move different joggers; even when they weren’t sporting a masks, within the twilight my thoughts would add one, and as I approached them, I might watch because it dissolved into their options.

Hong Kong isn’t merely a spot the place cultures are certain up on high of one another, like layers of geological sediment. It’s a place that, as soon as you’re actually embedded in it, makes you realise in all places else is like that. Two years in, I stumbled on an exhibition hosted by an area priest who usually lives in Rome. The concept was to color the Alps within the fashion of a classical Chinese language panorama, which made them look nearly precisely like China. “At first was the Phrase,” he advised me, was translated into Chinese language as “At first was the Tao.”

The Covid-19 insurance policies had been transformative. However Hong Kong had been altering quickly for a very long time. The place I lived in was now not a metropolis of missionaries, even when, within the basement of the Dr Solar Yat-sen Museum the baptism pool utilized by the constructing’s former Mormon house owners was faithfully preserved. It was now not a metropolis the place the cricket membership was subsequent to the HSBC constructing. It was now not a metropolis of a radical media, the place in 1871 a Chinese language-language newspaper overtly criticised a Qing coverage. It was now not, actually, a metropolis of newspapers in any respect — even when individuals queued as much as purchase the last-ever copy of Apple Every day. It was not a port in the way in which it had as soon as been; I handed by the well-known Fenwick Pier earlier than it closed in early 2022, forged adrift in a reclaimed concrete shoreline. Inside, there have been movies enjoying of a time when it was full of American naval officers. The closing shops had been promoting CDs at HK$40 ($5) every, three for HK$100.

In his ebook The Seek for Fashionable China, the late scholar Jonathan Spence notes that, within the Eighties handover discussions between London and Beijing, “the Hong Kong Chinese language, missing illustration within the colony’s authorities, had been barely consulted”. At Cantonese-English language exchanges, I met a number of individuals who advised me they had been leaving, however, maybe unsurprisingly, they betrayed no emotion to a stranger (I requested one younger man what he would do within the UK. “Work in a manufacturing unit,” he shrugged). Others I met there have been introduced up in English-speaking international locations however had come again; one Mancunian used the previous pronunciation heon, reasonably than hai, for the verb “to be positioned”, as if his native speech had been frozen in his mother and father’ era.

Affection in the direction of town was typically expressed subtly. The basketball courts had been closed for months as a part of Covid-19 restrictions, however had been routinely swept freed from leaves. The oldest bushes, their roots slowly tearing up the pavements, had been rigorously tended, even when they had been doomed to be toppled within the subsequent hurricane. One Sunday, I attended an area church reverse an house I briefly lived in, despite the fact that I had no likelihood of understanding the service. However simply because it started, somebody handed me a headset, and an aged lady within the congregation dashed over to a sales space to interpret the sermon off the cuff. Her English was cautiously paced, distinguished, as if transmitted by the wi-fi.

Lanterns glow at dusk, with small boats on the water in front
The harbour at Po Toi O, a small fishing village within the New Territories © Lam Yik Fei

As might have been true elsewhere, the Covid-19 restrictions generally had a manner of opening up a spot they’d closed off. In a two-year window, I solely left as soon as for a quick visa journey, and needed to quarantine on the way in which again. It seems that uninterrupted air-con in a confined house numbs your sense of odor. On my midnight launch, as I walked right down to the harbour, its return was overwhelming: fish and oil.

When the virus lastly broke by the limitations and swept town final yr, and most different sports activities had been once more quickly outlawed, I joined a working group the place a special volunteer would chalk a path by the hills every week. One week we had been led up a secretive path, at instances verging on a sheer drop, that one way or the other emerged close to the highest of the Peak, on an previous wrought-iron bridge that was that day coated in mist. I’d by then been up the Peak many instances and by no means imagined such a route existed. Once I later requested the group chief how she’d discovered it, she confirmed me a YouTube information, in Cantonese, on her telephone. It was no secret in any respect. However the subsequent time I went, I couldn’t discover it once more.

It’s tempting to know Hong Kong in that manner, as a metropolis of vanished moments, a spot with its personal, nearly infectious sense of loss. However simply as elementary is its sense of humour, which every so often adjustments the angle. Simply earlier than I left, stopping at an area espresso store and checking my temperature for the 1,000th time, as the principles for entry mandated, I requested the barista if she had ever previously few years seen anybody who had exceeded the higher restrict. I’ve solely seen it as soon as, she stated. It had been her, she added: she had been working up the hill. 

Thomas Hale is the FT’s Shanghai correspondent

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