Hongkong Condensed with Disconcerting Voices

After we crossed the Tsing Ma Bridge, a marvel of a suspension bridge that connects the city from the airport, it was only then that I told myself, I will see this city with a new set of lenses.  I will scour my traveler’s suitcase of a lens that listens, from a distance and from within, on the voice of this “pearl of the orient” city.   I would see this place transfigured, redeemed, with a poetic force and with an imagination of a youth trying to taste the secret taste of water after drinking it with tempered modesty for years. I had been here several times in the past; a young sales achiever, a presenter in one meeting, an accompanying guide for professionals attending a scientific conference, and a rapturous father bringing his young family to Disneyland.  Admittedly, I have grown and had traveled for quite a distance, and I am back once more to a city just one and a half hour plane ride from Manila; without malice and prejudice, without Nabokovian desire to lust on a place, and without a conspiracy of an all-knowing person.  

We were eight travellers walking through the city, beleaguered by the headlines of chaos and protests.  I looked at Marissa, my wife, she with a blush of family memories. I looked at Daxe, my daughter, she with an active exuberance and with an organized attendance of fireflies in the itinerary she had set for us.   We decided to risk getting closer to the  maelstrom of political tug-of-war and uncertainty.    In my own iniquity, would I see Hong Kong reveal its soul to me. How would its human predicament speak to me in a voice not seen for quite some time? I was hopeful. I was looking from the bus window the parade of silence and closed shops yet with Cantonese characters still vociferous in their redness and golden vocals. So serene at ten. So calm from the marginal buildings to the onslaught of towering steels in the Kowloon area. As if I was sensing a kind of piano music in extended pause for the next high shrill note to take its place in a space of sublimations, of aesthetically air-conditioned vertical totems to urbanity and glimmering neon lights of fashion and shopping meccas.  

Looking at Central from Tsim Sha Tsui in the Kowloon Peninsula, Bernard Chan’s lines overpowered me because that afternoon was a wild lust vista with a large volume of sunlight and an equally large patch of looming darkening clouds. Streams of images flooded me, all intelligent, ruckus, ecstatic and varicolored in their fusion from our wanderings of the city for the past two days;  Mongkok district by night, the feast of the dim sum, skyscrapers view from Victoria Peak, the Peak tram chugging its way up while the dull sound of the city murmurs, and the ravished primal boat  slicing the bay with odious graphs of throughs and peaks of navigation. From the harbor, there stood conical, triangular and architecturally Medusa-like structures that grow from the loins of the many hard currencies that crisscrossed the global pathways of economics, trade and finance.  

“The spies take a patchwork of blonds,

The pavements, a not-so-shiny copper,

To the harbor go a few drops of bronze,

Even clouds get but a listless amber,

Though when long day is growing old,

The sun, parting, never forgets to rain

On you, on no other, a splurge of gold.”

                                   Bernard Chan

In a city that nests on the nocturnal touch of diversity, colonial intersections and cosmopolitanism, the most difficult thing to do is to listen.   Listening with profound hope, that something in this city bequeathed to Hongkong from the British in 1997, surfaces as a unique sound or soulful image of the moment and from that vantage point remember this city like no other.   Metaphorically, I was thinking of an old professor waiting for the class to calm down and give way to the wisdom of the thunderstorm-bathe night reveal itself completely as a vindication of his wretched patience.   I told myself, listening is mine, both from a flimsy to cafe-smoked filled conundrum perspectives. I will reserve this space and phase like a desolate desert, looking for that strange and stray cloud to fall with exasperated force on a certain exclamation of an oasis.  I need to be patient, I told myself with civilized dictation to a place in my brain that still listens with patience.  Paradoxically, I wanted to listen as a child cohabitating the space with other children and adolescents, churning echoes of youth, our natural capacity to wander and long for the tacitly adventurous and novel, activated.   I did listen. Truly listened, at first a discomforting and heartburning sensation but later listened with a heart so possessed with the thinnest and crispiest of syllables. 

Hongkong peruses and follows the inaccessible trumpets of capital. It circuits the electricity of money and the raison d’être of being a jewel in the Pacific. I walked through Central Park, the towers of Citibank, China Bank, Hang Seng and the headquarters of the multinational corporations muster the skyline with a lexicon of risks and investments.  I stood alone, my heart bloated by the extensions and telescope of possibilities and at the same time bloated by the abject poverty of exclusions with the bronze statue of Sir Thomas Jackson of HSBC looming behind me.  These modern colossi that surround me are the movers and frowning shakers of businesses and economic gloatings. I folded my arms in estimation and surrendered to the shadows that enveloped me there while the slow rushing fountains tried to startle me and keep me distracted and grounded with the sound of water’s hypnotizing weight. I saw men and women walked by, of different races, the suit reeking of the obsessive strength of neatness and organization. They disconnect, and they connect with a frozen smile of winning and achieving the sublime, the analytical on the embankment of the siphoned corporate persona and interests.  I saw in them the sound of the itch of indescribable ascent through the steep ladder of competition and brilliant cutting edge technology. I heard sharpness, distinctness, and innovation attained and scandalized to perfection.  These are the dedicated servants to the globe-trotting businessmen that ventures the Pacific in jets and private yachts and close deals with refinement, with brutal grit, power, and jingoism.   

Hongkong is sympathetic, no doubt, and prophetic seer too of the maddeningly reverent, posh and tactful existence. For one, it is filled with a haunted curiosity and the despair of a paperless immigrant. If this Hong Kong can talk with the gentleness of a Chinese junk ship that moored in the harbor in the past, she will say now, “I am the dress hooker and late-night bus driver that ply that off-been tracks going to the congested areas of the bustling city. I am a drowsy entity dismissed and nowhere to be found on the benches where my co-octogenarians are busy with their martial arts moves on the pocket parks of the city.”  

She will further say,  “I am one of those who may live on those high rise apartments that looked so prosy, hermetic and landlady-corroded with age-old molds and typhoon-beaten windows.  Those windows that I seldom approached to see the windows of other solitary families overflow with a boudoir of laundry willing to be scorched by the sun and the established institution of the soot. ”   

She might also say,  “I am lovely, I am the music that comes out from the lively resilient corners of the streets of central Hong Kong, in Albert Road, in Dudell and House Streets. She will say, I am a lake of musical genres that sways from the local to the international, the Latin, the African, the sound of indie music and bohemian protest. In the labyrinthine belly of my streets, I sing of songs of thousand museums and extinct temples bitten by the snakes of mundane chores. I sing of calligraphy directed to the remote flowers of mountains. I sing of a pugilist’s thumb broken by the swagger of numbing smoked-filled clubs.”   

She will intone as languid lark, “I am Hong Kong the fusion, of the mortal spell, of the secret passages to the taste buds of the common tao to the twitching pedigree of the Michelin textured and torched glazed post-modernist cuisine.”

Lastly, she will say,  “I am Asian, a scholar of chameleonic choreography of political undercurrents and tremors, exists, learns, dances and recites the poems of my Cantonese tongue and English afternoon teas and sweltering heat of a tropical enclave. In my veins run the the lost empire that engulfed me and dictated on me their Lolita prose and treasure lust.  In my eyes run amok of a future that fuses me with the mainland.  I bore many poets and artists from my womb of despairing fetuses and sleeping dragons.” 

Hongkong is an hourglass fornicating with fate, holding on to the past, extracting the present and filling the future with unobtrusive certainty.  It occurred to me while listening, that the sound of time ticking and licking that small device is as inaudible but powerful on the territory of Hongkong.  It is symbolically simple, ancient as how sailors used it, moving through a thrombotic isthmus of a body of sand, independent and ingratiatingly calm. 

I saw this on the face of the policeman and the police force that formed just outside of the church where we attended a late-night Sunday mass. A battle-ready police brigade was on standby as young demonstrators were marching two blocks away from them on that weekend night.  One young policeman who was there may have been thinking of spending his Sunday on the island of Lantau with his young wife working in one of the flashy stores in Causeway Bay.  Probably, he was called late in the afternoon to reinforce the tired police force in the Nathan Road Police Station. Most likely, he is just three years in the service. A possibility is, it was a miracle he was accepted in the force given the extreme difficulty of joining the elite force but with perseverance, from the bottom of his expectation, he managed to make it with humility and sweet idealism and be counted as one of the young policemen with a bright future.  He may have decided to take the train instead of the bus earlier on, stopped by 7-11 to buy gum and walked to his station. There was a sense of tension. In him, an agitation, a tinge of fear maybe, a sense of duty to serve.  He may have looked at his superior who was so serious and solidly courageous in his stance.  He may have said to himself with confidence, “He is our leader who is calm and determined. Decent and others say, has the ear to listen to concerns yet firm and decisive. This is our leader I will obey orders to.”  

And now this anonymous cop is standing behind the lines of police shields. A possible thought surface maybe, “again I may inhale the violent smell of tear gas if the demonstration would turn violent just like the other weekend.”   That smell potently reminds him of things past, his childhood; the smell of being bullied although there was no tear gas in their neighborhood.  It has the peculiar nauseous smell of being pressed for air when he experienced bleak haunting nightmares.  The good thing about it is his wife was always there to shake him thoroughly and expunged the tinge of bad spirits. Yet today, he told himself, “maybe this would just be tolerable. I am together with my colleagues. I feel there is the invisible arms of physical strength that urges us to press on.”  

When there was no action happening at the scene where we stood, maybe a thought came to him as he was the kind of man his colleagues would taunt to be the reflective type and who tries to pause first in an obscenely long period before taking action.

“What are those on the other side thinking right now”, he thought. “Are they going to charge against us and take our wits or disarms us? I will defend myself. I will follow the orders”, he thought with clarity as what he’d learned in the academy.  

 “So young, those people, one there could be my own younger brother who just got in the university, Like him he may be hard-headed at times, but generally, he is someone I can play with and share my stories as a policeman”, he was surprised to have thought about it but his brother usually reminds him of happy thoughts growing up, and these thoughts keep him calm during tense times. 

Across, just two blocks away is this scene, young students from the universities in the city, thoughts in their mind running were running too.  

“Now is the time, how can they not listen to us?”, a voice of desperation and hopelessness. He knows they have started since last June and it has been three months and the leaders are still adamant and firm in their decision.

“Those policemen are brutal perpetrators of mainland China’s puppet government, my parents are also fighting with us, they even joined us during the million march”, a passionate and determined voice of thought from a veteran protester. He believes that the fight is a moral imperative and a right to be free. 

“I just hope the media captures well the voice that we are raising.”, another thought as he feels frustrated with media who unquestionably helped them in their struggle but for a lot of times, have failed to articulate what they have articulated clearly.  

“This black mask seems not to fit well in my face, I may need to ask a new one from those who have extra masks”, one with a practical concern thought. 

“My parents didn’t know I am here tonight, they will understand.”, another one thought with a validated conscience knowing that whens she left the house with her black shirt, her mom knew how she will spend the day with her classmates from the University of Hong Kong of urban studies majors. 

“We need freedom. We cannot just wait for China to give us what is rightfully ours.”, another leader thought as he shouted to his colleagues to maintain the rank. 

Meanwhile, we crossed the street coming from the church with the Scottish Catholic priest asking us to head home directly and be safe. We felt fearful and for a moment disconcerted not fully knowing well the situation coming from a solemn mass inside the church.  Would there be possible skirmish here in Chatham Road as what happened earlier in one of the subway stations where police and protesters clashed with batons and tear gas?  

Yes, those voices and thoughts filtered through the hourglass called Hongkong cry with desperation, with fury, with a sense of loss, with forbidden and the hopeful contradictions, with sheer madness and the resolve against the demented indifference, a longing for freedom and the pulse of rebirth of a territory. Ben Johnson, the English poet echoes, 

“Do but consider this small dust

Here running in the glass, 

By atoms moved…”

 Is time running out? Can the hourglass be flipped once more? Will the loud voices of protest make a dent on the silence of time ticking? I have no answer, the voice will linger if one cares to listen with a soul of empathy, with critical soundness and anchor on the human’s existential search for his purpose. I have no formulaic answer to swear by. The hourglass, the passage of time imbued with Egyptian and Babylonic mysticisms may have fleeting glimpses from their vantage points. The alchemists may purport to coax the stars to provide them the magic potion and the fool’s gold that litter Nathan Road and Temple Street.

After two days of closure of the international airport, we finally were at the departure area for our early evening flight back to Manila.   As we waited in the spacious and ultra modern designed Chek Lap Kok Airport,  the voice was clear, Hong Kong telling me “Maxim, hope to see you soon, whatever the future holds for us”.     


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