Hong Kong, in Three Street-Side Scenes
Words are sometimes not enough to express the feeling engendered in a moment, the sense that something ineffable has shifted and changed. There are only glimpses, flashes of memory like single frames in a half-forgotten movie, and if you transcribe it all into prose befitting the moment you’ll lose it to the syntax, the unerring formality of the written word. A series of images might suffice, but even then the meaning will stir somewhere below the surface, not quite escaping, never really extending to anyone else. Allow me, then, to offer a compromise, a word picture, a witness statement of Christmas in Hong Kong.
See first the carollers, singing with conviction that outstrips talent, some shuffling notes to read the words by candlelight, others with song after song ingrained in memory. In a doorway they stand, the entrance to a church. The façade has seen better days and the indifferent crowd shuffles past, drawn by the call of commerce. In Jordan something – everything – is always for sale. But the carols rise above it all, drown even the wail of taxi horns and the deep, deep throb of double-decker buses waiting impatiently at traffic lights. Look back into the doorway and see who these people are. Chinese, yes, and Indians. Africans and Australians. Filipinos and Indonesians.
This moment could be an emblem for everything that Hong Kong so often fails to be. It speaks volumes that the few people who stop to watch do so in patient wait for photo opportunities, as they might with caged pandas and as they do at stylised Christmas displays throughout the city. Sometimes someone else’s idea can be enticing, but not enticing enough.
Now skip ahead a little and witness an even more unusual celebration. In the courtyard beside the church karaoke plays, women dance, two small children run from hug to hug. More carols now, one in Bahasa Indonesia, another in Tagalog. Remember – in a city that largely thinks of Christmas as a white man’s game – that the Christ lived and died east of Europe, afflicted by those who wanted nothing more to change. And these women have felt what it’s like to resist oppression, to say enough is enough, things must be different now. They’re domestic helpers, the clientèle of Bethune house, who have been beaten, molested, tricked and otherwise abused by employers, punished for the poverty that brought them to Hong Kong. But as the traffic rushes past they dance and chat and sing with one thing that this city rarely shows – unalloyed, unadulterated joy. Tonight is recompense for their suffering.
And as the evening drags slowly to a close, watch as a small boy offers a crippled beggar money, not for a moment thinking that the man deserves nothing. His sister gives what she has to a destitute old woman – that this needs to happen still is an almost unspeakable tragedy in a very wealthy city. In the background, not too many steps away, is the International Finance Centre, with its money-sapping mall and tower that houses the might of world banking. But the money comes from children.
This is Christmas Eve 2008, when the poor and beaten are rich in joy and the well-to-do suffer a poverty of attention. Thus it always is, but to witness it – to see these things outside yourself – is to touch the heart of courage and feel it beat beneath your hand. Thank you, Hong Kong, for giving me this gift.