When the Migrants Amass: Notes from the New Territories
Often, when people knew of the fact that I lived in Sheung Shui, they would tell me: “That’s very far away!” and I would ask in return, “Where do you live?” When the other person told me where they lived, I would reply, “That’s very far away, too!” Geographical location decides if people come together or apart, and the ways people interact. People just get used to it. There is no freedom of choice.
The north of Boundary Street is called New Territories. It is the name given by those who govern us. Xinjiang, New Territories, New Reclamations. Everything antiquated must be replaced with something new.
This is what our new governors think. Apart from the country parks, all land in Hong Kong is land for development. All our names can be changed. Tai Mei Tuk (大尾篤) which means “the very end” mutated into “大美督,” meaning “the big beautiful admiral.” Yam O (陰澳), which literally meant “shady bay,” was modified to mean “Sunny Bay” (欣澳). The reclaimed land at Tai Kok Tsui in West Kowloon is now called “where Olympian City is, or Olympic Station.” The memories of custom and history contained in our nomenclature have been washed away by decorative names.
Before 1980, my family and I lived on Queens Road Central, Ichang Street, in Tsim Sha Tsui, Tsuen Wan’s Sha Tsui Road, Fanling’s Luen Wo Hui, and in many other places. We were assigned to public housing in 1980 and moved to Castle Peak Bay in Tuen Mun. We were among thousands of families sent en masse to housing projects in remote areas in the early 1980s, as oxen to plough new land. We moved in 1990 to subsidised housing in Sheung Shui and stayed there until 1997. Later, I lived in Tai Po Market, Tai Wo, Yuen Chau Tsai, and Wong Yue Tan. Recently, I’ve moved back into one of my old apartments in Sheung Shui. From there you can see the newly painted Jockey Club clinic, which is washed in pink. According to my mother, this building used to be the maternity home where I was born.
I have come full circle. Hong Kong, Kowloon, the New Territories, squatters' huts, Tong Lau, shop attics, high-rise apartments, public housing, home ownership flats, village houses—I have lived in all of them. I have lived everywhere but on the streets, in government dormitories, and in luxury villas. As I look back upon my history, I’ve realized that I have always been moving away from the city to more remote areas. I guess that if I were to move further away, I would have ended up in Sha Tau Kok or the outlying islands. Where I end up depends on the real estate market, my family’s income, our job opportunities, government policies on population/housing/education/public transport, the way they are financed, and their permitted rates of return, as well as other factors. People have to put up with where they live. Since I was three, I have always lived behind Lion Rock. I have not been allowed freedom of movement, nor have I been allowed to hope.
The dimensions of my life are partial and narrow. They are realized when my psyche encounters the physical landscape. Often, depression attacks soon after I move into a new high-rise unit. This should not have to be the case, but it is always so. You see: I can judge the distance between one person and another. I am very sensitive to the size of spaces, the tightness between buildings, and the way such spaces constrict the psyche. Residential projects are isolated communities, with boundaries created by walls, patrolled passages, and environmental schemes, in which people are alienated and shielded from each other. The population of these projects may be diverse, but it is subject to uniform management. These boundaries keep the external world out while simultaneously depriving us of a private life. My neighbors are numerous and yet lack vital energy. Our formalities restrain and alienate us from each other. In every cold glance from my neighbors I see gossip. Between cramped buildings, we avoid each other, and we can only manage to relax when we are alone in our confinement.
As I turn off my computer, bathe, and get dressed, I can’t help but check myself in the mirror to make sure my face is prepared to meet the others. The moment I step across the threshold of the estate, I long to turn back. I hate going out. I hate staying in even more. When I am out, I will have to pass through each and every one of the shopping malls that interlink train stations or bus terminals just to get to my destination. I feel victimized simply going inside them. Everyone looks as if they are enjoying themselves at the mall, as if the products on display are completely novel and in mint condition, so new and enticing that the passersby are eager to take them home . . . In the malls, people who walk quickly slow down, and touch every face with their gaze . . . The charming and flirtatious voices of those powdered, fashionably clad saleswomen make me feel lonely again and again, compelling me to shield my face to escape them.
Should I return to the ground floor, I would immediately crash into the traffic. Around me, Shek Wu Hui has been consumed by shopping malls. Its life is atrophying, and its living spaces have been rapidly taken over by branches of major banks, bureaux de change, real estate agencies, and pharmacies, established to cater to cross-border commuters from mainland China. Two luxury skyscrapers have been built in front of Hong Chai Street, arising fresh from the bare ground. Next to them, old buildings, even four- or five- storey buildings, look tiny, as if they were the steps that led up to the new skyscrapers. A single 7-Eleven or Prizemart on the street could put all the other tiny stores that sell groceries out of business.
People say that they can grow “emotionally attached” to places. I do not. Places that attest to personal memories are always being knocked down, and what is built in their place will also be demolished and rebuilt. Yet, should anyone take me back to Tuen Mun, seeing it would unquestionably trigger grief. The new oxen have done nothing but torture the land until it is barren and jejune. The pain that this place has caused me has removed all forms of attachment I have to it, unless hating a place is also a form of “attachment.” I hate each and every one of the spaces that have imprisoned me. I hate my neighbors who squabble and make noise late at night for no reason. I hate being scanned by the gaze of guards and passersby whenever I go out. I hate that my letters have been opened; here in a place that calls itself “civilized.” I hate being blocked by salespeople in the middle of truck-congested, shop-filled, and people-crammed passageways. I hate being rushed on expensive train rides where “i-CABLE news” and pointless phone conversations are forced upon me. I hate the four parking lots beneath where I live. I hate property owners that do nothing but profit from speculation. I desire peace and silence. I am always moving and moving. I am moving next year again, before my furniture has been properly set down, before I have gotten used to its arrangement. Before I’ve become attached, I have to leave. Unless hating a place is also a form of “attachment.”
Historically, the development of the New Territories cannot be divorced from concentration-camp-like resettlement estates, the logistical network, and other resources central to the operation of the city. Even the water from the reservoirs here flows to Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. As I was in Taipei taking a public bus to Xinzhuang, I had the sudden epiphany that the bright orderly lives of city dwellers are due to the blood and tears of those toiling behind the scenes. As demonstrated by these silent toilers, the poverty of city life stems from the poverty of time. Apart from working, commuting, and filling our stomachs, there is nothing in our lives but sleeping and shopping.
Thus, a certain type of shopping mall, a certain means of marketing, a certain architectural style, a certain consumer fashion, a certain mode of arranging space, a certain concept of leisure, a certain network of transportation, a certain eating culture, a certain mode of dress, mannerism, and persona were all mass-produced and duplicated in the newly developed, tax-levied land of the New Territories. Just as these poor-quality goods created only other poor-quality goods, so they also created broken and superficial relationships between people.
In Sheung Shui, the conflictual relationship between preprogrammed life and the violent effort necessary to maintain it is becoming more and more pronounced. People are coded and placed in the city’s ever-expanding logistical network. They are never allowed breaks nor given the opportunity to acknowledge the presence of their fellows.
Sheung Shui station is linked to the community hall, the municipal services building, and six or seven private and public housing estates, extending as far as Tai Ping Estate and North District Hospital. The station is also connected to five or six shopping centers small and large, as well as the Sheung Shui bus terminus. Its ground level exit is connected to the taxi stand and the minibus stations, which connect to the neighboring country areas, as well as Sha Tau Kok, and Lok Ma Chau. There are also illegal and legal village shuttles between Yuen Long and Tuen Mun, and the official shuttle to Disneyland and the airport. Because it neighbors Man Kam To, the streets of Sheung Shui are full of massive tractor trucks, lorries carrying construction parts, and other forms of heavy transportation. Those who cross the border by land (including traders, commuters between the New Territories and the city, as well as logistics, construction, and delivery workers) all get stuck on Sheung Shui’s San Fung Avenue, or in the streets and pavements connecting it to Lung Wan Street. That’s how it is in this place. You do you, I do me, and we show each other our cold shoulders.
This colossal pitch-black crowd that rages unceasingly like the flowing tides of day and night—the fact that they force themselves to be orderly and not cause accidents, that they are able to silently repress their urges, that they could maintain a certain tension and not explode, that they could rub shoulders and quietly bear the toil of being trapped in a cramped train car, silently living a manic life that has lost all semblance of human sense and balance. Apart from work, commuting, and filling their stomachs in between, there is only shopping and sleep, or only sleep. There are no aspirations of which to speak.
translated from the Chinese by Joy Zhu
This essay is originally titled “No Aspirations on the City Outskirts—Scattered Remarks of a Migratory Person in New Territories.” Published in Ming Pao in October 28, 2007. The present version appears in Lee Chi-Leung’s 房間 (A Room Without Myself, Hong Kong: Kubrick & 29s, 2008; Kubrick, 2017).