General Strike rally in Tamar Park on 5 August 2019. Photo courtesy of Nikki Lam.

Neither close nor far away: On solidarity from afar

Distance allows us to imagine what this revolution could be.

Originally published in Peril. Republished with permission.

This is an imaginary essay I have written multiple times in my head over the last six months.

This is because words cannot account for my complex and ever-evolving thoughts around the situation: every new development in Hong Kong brings more anguish, more sadness, more of the unsettling sensation that does not leave my body for days on end. At the time of writing, the Hong Kong police have forcefully entered a university campus after a 12-day siege, which student protestors have been defending with all their power. Barricades, Molotov cocktails and flamed arrows—these images of resistance are as powerful as they are haunting.

In my head, this essay would explain the Anti-Extradition Bill movement—or the Water Revolution as it is sometimes called—accompanied by timelines of events, a description of the five demands, and the everyday accounts of police brutality. I would also write about the role of neoliberalism in this movement. And how in this densely-populated city we have a history of operating at the mercy of colonial and economic powers. It is both our strength and most daunting weakness.

As a Hong Konger in the West, I would write about how universal suffrage is the only way to save the city’s pride, how democracy would lead to more active political participation in this former British colony, and how, because of the Chinese Government’s hovering power, this movement has become the kind of rigorous resistance the world needs.

In this densely-populated city we have a history of operating at the mercy of colonial and economic powers. It is both our strength and most daunting weakness.

I would recall my experience on the ground in the earlier days of the protests. I would tell you about how transformative it has been to be among a passionate and righteous group of protestors, ones who care deeply about the future of the city. I would tell you the stories I have heard, the protests I have attended; I would tell you about how, in moments of stress, moments when tear gas is being fired at your comrades and possibly your loved ones, every time you looked around what you saw was hope. Because hope, rather than violence, is the igniting power of all protests. These were all the things that I had never expected from Hong Kong, a city I had left but once again found myself calling home.

This essay would also help explain my uneasiness surrounding the solidarity efforts in Australia. I would talk about how divisive narratives about China have dominated the political dialogue about Hong Kong, how the flaws of western democracy have reduced our ability to comprehend the moral imperatives of this movement. How, in the West, the expectations for Hong Kongers to perform as anti-China agents are problematic and xenophobic, with responses that play into wider racial politics, issues that have lasting concerns for the diaspora.

But, at times like this, I must resist the type of writing that is expected of someone of my identity.

The idea of being a comrade (手足) of the movement, in spite of my participation, has always sat awkwardly with me. Sitting in my sun-lit studio where I now type these words, there is little resonance with the reality faced by my family and friends in Hong Kong. With my windows open, it is not tear gas I smell but fragrant jasmine growing in suburbia. Mediated and far flung, information floods my social media. Messages of solidarity echo through my feed and my mental health thanks the algorithm for it.

General Strike rally in Tamar Park on 5 August 2019. Photo courtesy of Nikki Lam.

I scroll, type and share. That is my current physical relationship with the movement. Every Monday since June, on my morning commute to work, I prepare for my stomach to tighten and for my eyes to well: this is where I catch up on the violence from the night before. A single tweet, or an image of more police brutality, is enough to wrench me out of a peaceful Melbourne morning. The turmoil that lives inside my body matches the increasing chaos and violence that plays out on my screen. Internalising this unease has become a coping mechanism for the deep conflicts I experience: as a Hong Kong migrant who has spent half her life in Australia, land stolen by the same coloniser that Hong Kongers are seeking help from; as a leftist artist who advocates against white supremacy in our cultural narratives who sees protesters align themselves with the Trump government in the US (which resulted in the passing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act); and as a curator who supports freedom of expression, who feels threatened to express political views in public. My conflicts are a pile of internal and ethical struggles that reflect my own experience. But these sentiments are, I believe, sentiments that are shared by many of us in the diaspora.

This distance creates a different kind of turmoil: when caught in between, it feels as if we are neither close nor far away from the violence itself. Feeling powerless, we make attempts to rally for those who are in the centre of the conflict, but there is little tangible impact. We are in the middle of a Newton’s cradle between cultures. We know everything and nothing at once, but more importantly, what we can offer is never enough for either end. Wedged between two hegemonies, our knowledge and emotions can only ever fully manifest within our very own community.

While Hong Kongers from afar grieve collectively for what the city is becoming, our distance also allows us to imagine what this revolution could be.

In this rotting net of colonial promises, we are held hostage by its past. Images of smoke-filled streets remind us of the expiry date for our own Hong Kong identity, one we brought with us when we relocated, or preserved arbitrarily through our families. Despite being adaptive, resilient, diverse and hybrid, the form of this identity is dissipating in front of us. The unrest signals the end of an era. “Liberate Hong Kong” (光復香港) may or may not be the rebirth we had hoped for, but it does offer an opportunity for Hong Kongers to be re-imagined.

While Hong Kongers from afar grieve collectively for what the city is becoming, our distance also allows us to imagine what this revolution could be. This “Revolution of Our Times” (時代革命) could in fact guide us towards confronting the city’s colonial hangover and what its long-lasting impacts have been on the city itself. For Hong Kongers to “reclaim” the “Pearl of the East” (東方之珠)—itself a Western impression of the city—we must re-imagine what it could become without walking back into the tunnel of colonial vision. And here is where I feel most work could be done.

The overwhelming need for collective catharsis motivates us towards something more tangible. I did not end up writing the version of this essay that I thought I would, because performative solidarity from five thousand miles away simply did not feel right. It is only our memory of the city that is under threat, but for our relatives and friends in Hong Kong, it is their future. As Hong Kongers living in the West, to make real shifts in our role as ‘bridges of ideologies’, we must first acknowledge our privilege, awkwardness and peripheral vision of the issue. When standing in solidarity, the diaspora must hold space responsibly. We must resist the binary narratives that are so often reported in Western media. I would like to see this conversation flourish and grow in ways that acknowledge not only Hong Kong’s revolution, but also too our own positions within the diaspora. There is a particular type of solidarity shared by us far-away children of Hong Kong, and for it to be effective we must first find ways to decolonise our own expectations of what Hong Kongers should believe in and act upon. When Hong Kong finally settles and a new chapter, a new awakening, begins, only then will our solidarity be truly tangible. Even from afar, we can assist with the rebirth of the city’s new identity. An identity that is, finally, defined by Hong Kong’s own imagining.

Nikki Lam is a visual artist, curator and producer based in Narrm/Birraranga (Melbourne, Australia).