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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 using it. There have been masks within the workplaces, masks within the lifts, masks within the motels. There have been masks on the late-night ferries throughout the harbour, masks outdoors the outlets promoting masks. When you had come throughout an elephant wandering up the Peak, you’ll count on it to be sporting a masks.

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

Maybe that’s the reason, when a authorities legislation mandating out of doors and indoor masks use was dropped this month after nearly 1,000 days in power, it felt like the tip of an period: one of many very ultimate elements of a worldwide effort that additionally started in east Asia and sought to comprise 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 would be able to commute to work by escalator. For 3 years, what was as soon as one of many world’s most open cities turned considered one of its most remoted. Its strict quarantine measures for inbound travellers weren’t eliminated till September final 12 months and lingered in watered-down kind for months. It was closed off even from mainland China at a time when it was transferring 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 purported 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 refined and momentous modifications, when the unfolding historical past was by no means totally separable from the virus. It raised many questions: in regards to the fading of a British colonial id after the 1997 handover and a future inside, quite than alongside, China — the midway level within the 50-year “one nation, two techniques” interval handed final summer time.

At this time, anybody flying in (probably without cost, on condition 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 tough to establish what was and was not regular in Hong Kong. For my first six months, I lived in a resort. This in itself gave the impression to be a traditional factor to do. However the motels weren’t fairly themselves.

Concerning the pictures

The pictures on this piece have been taken by Lam Yik Fei, an award-winning photographer born and raised in Hong Kong. His most up-to-date guide, ‘Chan Nok Kei’, was revealed in 2021 and exhibits a decade of tumultuous change within the metropolis. He’s at the moment 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 arduous to say if Christmas songs have been taking part in on the breakfast buffet at Easter as a result of this was historically executed in Hong Kong, or as a result of, inside a collapsing hospitality trade, even the music had turn into 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 visitors? After a number of months we have been primarily all the way down to me, a Canadian businessman who was launching a cryptocurrency alternate and a Chinese language-Malaysian resident who launched himself as Nostradamus. I by no means obtained to know the workers nicely sufficient to debate these issues correctly, possibly 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

Many years after the handover, it’s simple to see the UK in every single place in Hong Kong. Probably due to the necessity to counteract the surplus of free-flow brunches, everybody within the expat neighborhood appeared to be always mountain climbing, as if they have been conforming to a specific model of middle-class England (the mountains attain the same peak in each locations).

A number of the trails, seemingly corroborating this, have been named after former British governors. Within the botanical gardens, the bandstand was meticulously maintained, and the statue of King George VI appeared kind of intact — not like the earlier statue on that website, which was despatched to Japan and melted down throughout the second world warfare. Road indicators within the neighborhood of Queen’s Highway, a set of vaguely recognisable surnames that crop up in different former British colonies, left little question 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 remove them by itself. Within the malls, which you should utilize to navigate an air-conditioned route by its central district, I as soon as noticed a gaggle of younger individuals singing “Glory to Hong Kong”, the protesters’ anthem, towards a backdrop of empty designer outlets.

A woman holding waving a union jack is surrounded by police officers in riot gear, Behind her is a crowd of people carrying umbrellas
Law enforcement officials 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 pace, to cheers from the gang.

A couple of 12 months later, within the first case tried beneath the legislation, its rider, Tong Ying-kit — who had been carrying a flag that mentioned “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Instances”, and was additionally accused of driving into cops — was sentenced to 9 years in jail.

In 2020, the protests have 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 in regards to the annual Tiananmen Sq. candlelit vigil in June, which ultimately went forward in Victoria Park in defiance of an ambiguous official ban beneath Covid protocols (in 2021 and 2022 the park was sealed). On the finish of our dialog I checked that he could be blissful to be quoted beneath his personal title. “I’m very previous,” he mentioned with a chuckle, “and never afraid any extra.”

After I requested a pal what he considered the protests, he identified that they’d been occurring steadily because the 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 observe the 2019 French movie Les Misérables, a couple of battle between police and youths in a Parisian banlieue. The one different viewers have been an aged couple within the nook, with whom I had prevented 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’m wondering how for much longer we’ll be capable to watch movies like that,” got here the reply.

Whereas the long run was seen with a combination of worry, 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 Sixties. And, once I began to look extra carefully on the buildings, I realised lots of them had the same structure. A museum within the New Territories, a bar and restaurant advanced within the centre of Hong Kong island, a resort 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 peak of Covid-era Hong Kong, with most different types of train intermittently outlawed, mountain 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 prime of a mountain that I had beforehand missed. It was in regards to the Chung Yeung Competition, when it’s conventional to climb a mountain. As a result of so lots of its residents got here from rural communities on the mainland, the signal defined, “many historical traditions and customs have 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
Mountain climbing 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 condominium in 2021. (I’d needed to transfer as a result of my earlier serviced condominium, the place you possibly can get a beneficiant low cost due to the dearth of consumers, closed due to the dearth of consumers.) The highway is filled with outlets promoting purportedly Qing dynasty antiques, and on lunar new 12 months the queues for Man Mo Temple stretched late into the evening. 

Within the museums, which opened solely sporadically between outbreaks, the indicators have been wealthy in Chinese language idiom (the Maritime Museum: “It’s simple to depart house; what is tough is to return”). The town was an upside-down America the place most of the immigrants had left behind, quite 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 forms, had shifted to an association primarily based round worldwide enterprise. However the metropolis nonetheless appeared haunted by usually unstated features of its historical past. As soon as, I used to be in a gathering with an investor who advised me in regards to the origins of his college, among the best in Hong Kong. It had been a spot for illegitimate mixed-race youngsters, he mentioned, funded by the British fathers they might not meet. After I later seemed it up, its origin was listed as an orphanage.

The town’s strict quarantine measures appeared simple proof of its embrace of mainland norms, to be able to acquire 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 could 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 Eighteen Nineties, British measures to counter a bubonic plague outbreak — together with quarantine on a hospital ship — have been resisted by the Chinese language neighborhood. The 1904 colonial legislation that divided town, stopping ethnic Chinese language residents from residing 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 have been operating 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 delicate. Nonetheless, the consequences have been generally shocking. I used to run each Tuesday evening alongside Bowen Highway, near the Peak. At one level, the masks mandate was briefly prolonged to out of doors 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 will not be merely a spot the place cultures are certain up on prime of one another, like layers of geological sediment. It’s a place that, as soon as you might be really embedded in it, makes you realise in every single place 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. “To start with was the Phrase,” he advised me, was translated into Chinese language as “To start with was the Tao.”

The Covid-19 insurance policies have 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 best way 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 taking part in of a time when it was filled with American naval officers. The closing shops have been promoting CDs at HK$40 ($5) every, three for HK$100.

In his guide 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, have been barely consulted”. At Cantonese-English language exchanges, I met a number of individuals who advised me they have 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 nations however had come again; one Mancunian used the previous pronunciation heon, quite than hai, for the verb “to be positioned”, as if his native speech have been frozen in his dad and mom’ technology.

Affection in the direction of town was usually expressed subtly. The basketball courts have been closed for months as a part of Covid-19 restrictions, however have been routinely swept freed from leaves. The oldest bushes, their roots slowly tearing up the pavements, have been rigorously tended, even when they have been doomed to be toppled within the subsequent storm. One Sunday, I attended an area church reverse an condominium I briefly lived in, although I had no probability 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 approach 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 best way again. It seems that uninterrupted air-con in a confined house numbs your sense of scent. On my midnight launch, as I walked all the way down to the harbour, its return was overwhelming: fish and oil.

When the virus lastly broke by the obstacles and swept town final 12 months, and most different sports activities have been once more quickly outlawed, I joined a operating group the place a distinct volunteer would chalk a path by the hills every week. One week we have been led up a secretive path, at instances verging on a sheer drop, that someway emerged close to the highest of the Peak, on an previous wrought-iron bridge that was that day lined in mist. I’d by then been up the Peak many instances and by no means imagined such a route existed. After I later requested the group chief how she’d discovered it, she confirmed me a YouTube information, in Cantonese, on her cellphone. It was no secret in any respect. However the subsequent time I went, I couldn’t discover it once more.

It’s tempting to grasp Hong Kong in that approach, 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 modifications the angle. Simply earlier than I left, stopping at an area espresso store and checking my temperature for the 1,000th time, as the foundations for entry mandated, I requested the barista if she had ever up to now few years seen anybody who had exceeded the higher restrict. I’ve solely seen it as soon as, she mentioned. It had been her, she added: she had been operating up the hill. 

Thomas Hale is the FT’s Shanghai correspondent

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