The smell was an acrid burning, very unlike the cool sea breeze that usually wafts off the harbor and drifts down Connaught Road in Central, Hong Kong. In Admiralty, I knew, there were students lined around the Tamar government buildings. Earlier I had seen the protestors shouting and shoving past barricades before the pepper spray began. It was hard to believe the same students who had written me polite emails explaining their reasons for protesting and thus being absent from class would one minute make promises to complete all their assignments, and the next minute be the source of this burning and smoke. As I walked across the abandoned street, stepping over empty water bottles and cardboard boxes, I remained skeptical that these same students would cause any violence. And as I came closer to the ramble of dark figures perched on median strips in the road and scattered in the streets, I wanted to see what could possibly be destroying my city.
Saying the phrase “my city” in reference to Hong Kong and not Long Branch, New Jersey, where I was born still strikes me as partially profound and partially profane. When I told people back in New Jersey about being tear-gassed during the protest, they replied, “Why would you put your life at risk? You’re not Chinese.” I am not Chinese. I am African-American; in Hong Kong, children will point at me, old men will stare rudely at me, and the customs officials will always pull me out of line at the airport to be searched. Yet the lush hillside backdrop of this city is as familiar to me as the crisply cut suburban lawns of my American childhood. In the years I have lived in Hong Kong, I have realized myself, grown creatively, and matured personally in the city’s closet-sized apartments and stifling humidity, while I have listened to the clink of Mahjong tiles and the phlegmatic cough of its old men, smelled the scents of ripped open slabs of cows in the markets and the fragrance of sun-drying abalone. I could live the rest of my life somewhere else but suddenly always have a yearning to taste the syrup of iced lemon tea. It would be the nostalgia of home.
Foreigner or gweilo, meaning pale ghost, are often the phrases applied by local Hong Kong Chinese to people from Western countries. I am not a gweilo. Obviously I am not pale. The sun has kissed my skin brown in the womb. Yet I do not escape special labeling, since compartmentalization is important to Hong Kong society. You have locals who are Chinese people born in Hong Kong. You have ABCs, BBCs, and CBCs who are descendants of the Chinese diaspora to America, Britain, and Canada. Interestingly, Hong Kong has a long history of Indian immigration. The famous Star Ferry was started by Indian immigrants. Hormusjee Mody, an Indian immigrant, was an early founder of the University of Hong Kong, the oldest university in the city. Indians have lived in Hong Kong so long that they have a special name, ah chaa, which generated from the majority of Hong Kong’s police force being Sikh Indians until after World Word II. Chai is the Cantonese word for police. My designation is haak gwai, black ghost. These terms are to determine our place in Hong Kong as immigrants; we are not Honggong yan, never Hong Kong people.
On September 28, in the middle of the city center’s streets, no one was distinguishable by the features that usually determine one as a native local or obvious foreigner. Only shadowy figures scampered to and fro over a statue and lifted themselves over rows of metal barricades. In the flickering street light and within the smoky fog wavering over the scene, the mix of students and activists had become a stampede of apparitions. And when you see people running, you run too. As I hurried through the crowd and came to a rest on the railing in front of the Central Library, my eyes were severely irritated. I began thinking it was sandy grit stuck in my eye after my day at the beach, but this was before I knew the night’s air was phosphorous.
I hadn’t gone too far with the rest of the crowd and was about to turn around when a local Chinese man stopped me. He looked as though his school days were long gone and had on thick plastic painter’s goggles. I turned down his offer when he took off his goggles to hand them to me. I wanted to say to him, “I’m not a protestor. I’m not Chinese. I’m heading home,” but he spoke little English, and I didn’t have the vocabulary in Cantonese. So I yielded to his insistent cries of “Need, need, need” as he shoved the goggles into my hands and ran off to his own destiny. After that, I didn’t go home. I could only go forward. Here someone had sacrificed for me. I ran through chemical smoke that progressively burned my sinuses and felt like thickening ash in my lungs alongside white, brown, and black immigrant faces. We were there too, because we wanted to fight for the identity of this city. We were there too, because we are living, breathing, and loving this city as our home.
When the old men, the ones who crouch behind off-track betting broadsheets, who wear white undershirts as their shirts and hock down rains of spittle, shouted out “Foreigners, go home” to the non-Chinese people within the protests, they might have had a point. Are we not foreign? One time during yum cha in a dim sum restaurant, I overhead rising voices coming from a table of five people of ages ranging from grandfather to grandson. I quickly asked my friend to translate. She shrugged, “Just Occupy talk.” After yum cha, I walked through the heavily local Chinese neighborhood of To Kwa Wan, where the anti-Occupy movement tables were community meeting points for the middle-aged and elderly to stop, chat, and shake their heads before entering their public estate housing. They were parents who have fallen on their knees to beg their children to return home. They were grandparents who have lectured until their frail throats were sore against the disrespect and disruption of the precious social harmony. These were families fighting each other over heart and home. And families are not something that foreigners have to fight against in Hong Kong.
Still, there are moments I feel almost-but-not-quite at home here, like a refugee longing for asylum. My Facebook wall was littered with articles, photos, videos, and status updates in firm support of the Umbrella Revolution protests. But my Facebook feed coming out of Hong Kong was quiet about the Ferguson and Eric Garner protests. While some Western expatriate friends warmly consoled me about the nation-wide, centuries-old racist justifications of murder perpetuated in my home country, many of the most fervent foreign Umbrella Revolution supporters remained silent on this issue. Perhaps the images of Ferguson, with its collage of black and brown faces, had brought up similar images to the London and Paris riots, or even perhaps to some of the Black Pete protests of Holland. I wondered if this was because it is easier to express and explore what does not hit home because it does not hurt as much.
The moment I felt most at home in Hong Kong, my entire body was covered in tear gas residue and I sat exhausted on a sidewalk corner. After finally leaving the protest center, I had dragged myself through the empty streets of Central, where no taxis, no buses, and no MTR were operational to take me back to my bed. I could have fallen asleep on the street except for my mother’s call. On my phone, I saw her name, “Mom”; the time, 2 am; and the date, September 29th, my birthday. My mother had not called to wish me a happy birthday. She had called crying. She had seen images of the protest and knew me well enough to know I’d be somewhere in the mix. She pleaded for me to think of my family. She begged for me to quit the protest. In this moment, when both my head and my heart hurt, I felt like more than an immigrant; I felt like a local.
Alicia A. Beale has been living in Hong Kong for six years after obtaining an MFA in creative writing at New York University. She teaches English and manages the website All That Junk HK.