Familiar Strangers

One Woman, Two Crowds in Hong Kong

Strange Fruit, by rogiro, with Creatve Commons licenceOne of the things that quickly become apparent when attending a protest rally is that despite the age-old accusation of rent-a-crowds, most people really don’t know each other. Sure, they might know of each other, which is never terribly difficult when you come from a small community, but they’re not overly familiar, and names are often the first thing exchanged. In my last post I wrote that internal differences are the real strength of a community, but does this lack of familiarity in a protesting crowd zap that strength, wither any resolve? As it happens, quite the opposite is true.

Two rallies were held in Hong Kong today, one in my small community of Discovery Bay on Lantau island and the other in the Admiralty business district, both as a reaction to the less than transparent way the Hong Kong authorities have been investigating the disappearance and death of Vicenta Flores, a Filipino migrant worker. In a sense the attendance of strangers at both rallies – people who, by and large, knew of each other more than they really knew each other – mirrored the Hong Kong life of the woman we were remembering, the woman in whose memory we were demanding justice be done.

strange, by we-make-money-not-art, with Creative Commons licenceMany people in Discovery Bay knew of Vicenta, but not all that many people knew her. Likewise, or perhaps even more so, on Hong Kong side. Such are the work conditions of a domestic helper, with only one day off a week and a full schedule of chores to fill the day and at least part of the night. In these circumstances, friendships aren’t easy to form, and when they happen they’re often held back by the sheer workload. Vicenta had friends who will remember her dignity, her happiness and her compassion. But to most people here, Vicenta was what Eric Paulos and Elizabeth Goodman have called “a familiar stranger”.

The term sounds awkward but it coveys something of what Vicenta meant to our community, and what the un-met people at the two rallies might now mean to each other. Paulos and Goodman explain that the familiar stranger is the person in your neighbourhood who you pass by but never stop and chat with, the person you can recognise by sight, but not by name. In each location you frequent, familiar strangers will be there, offering you the comforts of home, almost second-hand.

At the longest remove we tend to tell ourselves stories about these people, about who they might be, where they might be from, how their present is shaping itself, what their future might hold. But, in the main, these are subconscious urges and familiar strangers are a bit like friends to whom we’ve never spoken. That’s the sort of community beyond language and communication that I failed to mention in my last post.

yellow crowd, TwOsE, with Creative Commons licenceSo that’s why a few hundred of us joined the rally in Discovery Bay today – because we’d lost a friend to whom we’ll now never get to speak. In Admiralty the same was true. The Discovery Bay community, the Filipino migrant community, both are poorer for her passing. But they’re also richer because today, many more familiar strangers stood together.

In future, we may even have the chance to talk.

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