I just spent a week in Macau and Hong Kong, the West’s last two possessions in Asia. There, I heard an Indian joke from Filipino writer Charlson Ong, “You Brits think you can just come and take our chicken biryani and chicken tandoori? No, we’re coming with you!”
A great irony of colonialism is that many of the colonized nations have managed to stay more coherent, intact and true to themselves than the colonizers, so that seven decades after the Indians kicked out the Brits, for example, India is still essentially India, if not more so, while England has become relentlessly less English. Despite all the physical and psychological violence of colonialism and its aftermath, Morocco, Algeria, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have retained much more of their heritage than France, incredibly.
Ong and I were in Macau as guests of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators conference. Preparing for my trip, I went on Duolingo to learn bits of Portuguese, a totally unnecessary task since through several days of walking many miles through various Macau neighborhoods, I didn’t hear Portuguese once.
I asked a Macau-born taxi driver, “Do you speak any Portuguese?”
“That means ‘You’re welcome,’ right?”
In Cathedral Parish, I did see some Portuguese schoolchildren in uniform, for the Escola Portuguesa de Macau was there. Since these girls were sitting on benches and minding their own business, I didn’t inch up to overhear what waxed from their mouths. News, “Vietnamese-American creep arrested in Macau for aiming unclean ear at terrified white teens, now recovering in hospital.”
At Hou Fung Cafe on Alameda Dr Carlos d’Assumpção, there was a tall and hefty waitress who appeared to be Macanese. The rest of the staff were obviously Chinese, as were all the customers. On the menu, there were “Portuguese Specialties,” so I tried the bacalhau and mashed potato casserole, then Portuguese fried rice, which contained bits of a Portuguese sausage, onion, tomato and a single black olive.
One of the conference organizers was Portuguese Helder Beja, but he’s a recent immigrant who arrived long after Macau had been returned to China. Whites on the streets were likely to be tourists. There are more Filipinos in Macau than Portuguese, I’m sure, for I saw Pinoys all over, working in hotels, casinos and bars. At the American themed Roadhouse, there were Filipino bartenders and a Filipino band, singing Dire Straits, Eric Clapton and other classic rock hits. (A side note: as others in our group sat at tables, I found myself at the bar with Ed and Ravi Shankar, and though none of us were white, we were Americans, damn it, and American men tend to sit on high stools at the bar. Born in Detroit, ethnic Chinese Ed began each day with oatmeal, which he had to buy in bulk in Macau.)
Long a Cantonese city, Macau is now swarmed by mainland visitors, mostly provincials, judging by their tacky clothing, but that’s true of most casino visitors anywhere. On Rua de São Domingos, I stood near a middle-aged man in matching T-shirt and sweatpants that were like black velvet paintings, with a lurid yellow sun, tigers and roses, and a large black purse draped around his neck. A woman wore a salmon colored hoodie emblazoned with a young white girl sticking her tongue out sideway, “YOU’VE GOT TO GET SID OF THE DRAINS EN YOUR LIFE. ONLY DEAL, WITR FOUNTAINS.” Did I just see a yellow jaguar on a white T-shirt, with “THANK YOU HAVE A NICE DAY” in primary colors? The bare shouldered peekaboo blouse with fluffy arm holes was clearly in fashion. Large man in a pink muscle-T, “BIGGER THAN SATAN BIEBRE [sic].” Slurping noodles, women squatted next to baby strollers, with the boy toddler sporting that familiar military crew cut.
Suckers all, they’re enthralled by the grand settings, so swarm into casinos to squander their hard earned Yuans, or they splurge at the many glittery brand name boutiques, with some boasting tall and handsome white greeters in suits. Wandering wide eyed through faux palaces, these peasants are happy to be fleeced, so they can go home and boast of having been to Macau, where there’s the Palazzo Ducale, Rialto Bridge, Saint Mark’s Campanile, Place Vendôme, Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower, etc. They have been to something like Europe. And America, too. At Joyride, they can manspread in a convertible and chomp on a burger, hot dog or an authentic ice cream sundae. They’ve seen it all.
In December of 1966, Macau Chinese demonstrated then rioted against their Portuguese overlords. The mob toppled the statue of Colonel Vincente Nicolas de Mesquita and broke the arm from one of Jorge Alvares. They tore oil portraits from the walls of City Hall, and flung books and records onto the street, and set them on fire. After eight protesters were killed and 212 injured by police, four Chinese warships appeared offshore and thousands of Red Guards threatened to invade. Forced to back down, the Portuguese governor signed a letter of apologies under a portrait of Mao Zedong, no less. Afterwards, Portugal’s foreign minister described his country’s role in Macau as “a caretaker of a condominium under foreign supervision.”
Vox populi, so these folks got to be Chinese in Macau, without suffering under a Chinese government. The Cultural Revolution didn’t rape them.
In Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and everywhere else they’re left alone to do business, Chinese have always thrived, and for the longest time, the showcase Chinese city was Hong Kong, and many will argue it still is, with some claiming it’s simply the best fuckin’ city anywhere, period, ever, for it is as sophisticated and beautiful as any, with all amenities readily available, and perfectly safe. Until very recently, that is.
Hong Kong is livelier than Singapore or Tokyo, has much better weather than London, and is not blighted by the types of run down or dreary neighborhoods you must dodge in New York or Paris. Granted, it has no world-class museums, but few live in a place to be near great art. Restaurants matter much more to daily living, and Hong Kong is second to none when it comes to satisfying chowing, and we’re not just talking Cantonese, of course. On a brief stroll through SoHo, I passed mostly packed restaurants offering Persian Fusion, Peruvian, Greek, Italian, Italian American, French, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Japanese, Portuguese, American Smokehouse and Californian dishes, etc.
On High Street in Sai Wan, the range was more limited, but still staggeringly diverse and impressive, with even a Vietnamese craft beer available. I took the train to some generic shopping mall in Tsing Yi. There, I could choose from Taiwanese, Thai, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, American steaks, Western Seafood or Italian, etc. For less than $9, I had a pretty good plate of fettucine with steak strips and mushroom in a pesto sauce thickened with parmesan. Compared with the pasta I had been eating in Vietnam, this was nirvana.
On Wyndham Street, I noticed Frank’s, Italian American, so had to walk in. In Philadelphia, one of my regular haunts was Dirty Frank’s, and I lived among Italians in South Philly for over two decades. Hong Kong’s Frank’s was owned by two brothers from New Jersey, and I quickly found out, but they weren’t Italian. The cook was a black guy from Queens, and the manager was a Chinese Canadian. The featured beer was Brooklyn Pale Ale. There was a middle-aged black man at the bar, so I said to him, “We’re probably more Italian than any of these motherfuckers!”
Born and raised in rural Saskatchewan, David taught English in Korea for 18 years, so spoke Korean fluently, he said, and had just moved to Changchun. China is fine, but Shanghai or Beijing can’t touch Hong Kong as far as worldliness, David asserted.
So Hong Kong enjoys the best of multiculturalism, a great variety of food from all over, without having to import many foreigners. Ninety two percent of Hongkongers are Han Chinese. By comparison, about 40% of Londoners are foreign-born.
On Hong Kong streets, the most conspicuous outsiders are Filipinas and Indonesians. Many of these are domestic servants who, by law, must live with their employers, with Sunday their only day off. Needing to escape their daily confines, yet with no shelter of their own, these women congregate at any large public space, where they sit or lie on pieces of cardboard, chatting, playing cards, putting on makeup, doing their hair, sleeping or just staring into space. It is a startling sight to visitors, and at first, one naturally assumes they’re homeless, until one notices they’re too clean and neat to be long-term sidewalk dwellers.
With 7.4 million residents, Hong Kong has roughly 2,000 homeless people, an astonishing low number compared to American cities. With a population of 8.5 million, New York has 61,000, and Los Angeles (pop. 4 million) tallies 59,000. About 200,000 Hongkongers must endure absurdly tiny and sometimes squalid living spaces, however, with bed, kitchen and toilet all in one room, so to bathe, one must squat and keep the shower head close to one’s scrawny body, to not splatter water onto one’s bok choy or whatever. Many have no room at all, just a coffin like cubicle or wire netting around a bed, like a chicken coop.
So what’s causing the Hong Kong protest/riot, now over six-months-old? The extradition bill that triggered it doesn’t sound unreasonable, for any suspect should be put on trial where the crime was committed, so Hong Kong can’t be a haven for financial criminals, for example. The territory is a major hub of banking shenanigans. This bill doesn’t mean Chinese security thugs can come into Hong Kong to snatch dissidents or whoever, although this apparently happened in 2015 with Lee Bo, a British citizen who was associated with Mighty Current, a publishing house specializing on political, personal and sexual dirt among the Chinese Communist leadership. Four other Mighty Current directors also disappeared at the same time, with one dragged from his home in Thailand, and the rest nabbed in China itself.
With the extradition bill scrapped, the only substantial demand is for universal suffrage for Legislative Council and Chief Executive elections, that is, for direct democracy, but even if this is conceded, I suspect this protest will continue, or others will flare up down the line, for this simple reason, many Hongkongers can’t stand the thought of being absorbed into China, and the United States is exploiting this sentiment to provoke and discredit China. Although many protesters are appealing to the US for help, with some even waving the American flag, Uncle Sam would like nothing better than for them to be massacred by China, the more the merrier, so that China could be condemned as a moral pariah.
Knowing this, China has not intervened, for the longer this protest/riot drags on, the less support it will receive from ordinary Hongkongers, for already, they must deal with damaged or shut down subway stations, paralyzed airport, blocked streets, reduced business income and chaos that can erupt anywhere, anytime, with all of it instigated by the protesters/rioters.
With its extrajudicial killings that respect no borders, and now the seizing and public humiliation of a famous political opponent, Julian Assange, the United States should be the last to lecture anyone about dodgy extraditions.
Graffiti, “Free always,” “Free HK,” “NO CHINA,” “ANTICHINAZI,” “HK IS NOT CHINA,” but of course, Hong Kong is China, and not just legally, but geographically, historically and, most importantly, demographically. Hong Kong is not just Chinese, but China, and it is not Singapore or even Taiwan. You must remember that Hong Kong has no history of self-rule. Occupied by the UK, it always had a British governor appointed by London. Although Hongkongers enjoyed freedoms, it was never democratic. Hong Kong protesters who wave the British flag are screaming out to the world, “We’re missing our white daddy,” and this act is so pathetic, I half suspect it’s done by Beijing agents.
Who wants to be Chinese anyway?
At the Macau conference, there was a panel, Multifaceted China, and this is how it’s described in the official program, “China may appear monolithic externally but within lies a deep diversity of ideas, writing and opinion—a multiplicity further complicated by the plethora of Chinese communities living throughout Asia and the world. Get a taste of the immensity and the paradoxes of the country in the 21st century through this panel featuring award-winning authors and scholars representing various aspects of Chinese writing and experience.”
One of the featured writers was a very young woman, Shen Xingzhou, who immediately stated that she didn’t understand why she was on this panel, since she didn’t feel very Chinese, and frankly didn’t feel like she was anything at all, and though she had lived in Shanghai, Hong Kong, London and Singapore, she didn’t belong to any of those cities. Moreover, she wished that all traces of her in all those places would just disappear.
Later, I met an even more rootless writer, and this is his bio in the program, “Kiran Bhat is a global citizen formed in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, in the USA, to parents from South Canara, in India. A world traveler, polyglot, teacher, and digital nomad, he has travelled to about 130 countries, lived in 18 different places, and speaks 12 languages. Whether it is in his mother tongue Kannada, or in languages as intellectually distant as Mandarin or Portuguese, he uses these experiences to dismantle literary borders and create globalised art. He has called too many places at the moment home to do justice to a list, but he considers Mumbai the only place that he wants to settle down in. He currently lives in Melbourne.”
Shen Xingzhou is also called Jojo. Cornering her during a break, I asked this striking woman, “So Jojo, where will you go next?”
“Do you speak Japanese?”
“No, but I can learn.”
“Amazing,” I chuckled, jangling my bad, loose teeth, accentuating our age gap.
Gucci ad spotted in a high-end Hong Kong mall showed a gorgeous Chinese woman marvelously dressed. Standing in the middle of an American Southwest desert, she was hitchhiking with a cardboard sign, “SOMEWHERE.” The American romance of the open road has been drafted to glamorize universal alienation.
Surfing over this entire globe, Jojo and Khiran represent an ideal of the latest generations. Two years ago, I met a 23-year-old poet in Toluca, Mexico, who spoke nearly flawless English. “I would like nothing better,” Oscar Cortes declared, “than to move from hotel room to hotel room.” Except for a couple of pimples, his face was remarkably smooth, unmarked, uncreased and unscarred.
“Jojo, you’re very much like that guy, Khiran.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Of course, you are. You both think you can be at home anywhere. He told me he could speak 12 languages, but I’m sure that’s bullshit. No one can do that. Still, he’s moving from place to place, a global citizen, just like you.”
“But I don’t belong anywhere, and I don’t want to be anywhere.”
“That sounds so depressing, but you don’t look at all depressed!”
“You don’t know me,” she smiled.
In Macau, we all stayed at the same hotel, Grand Lapa, which featured a rather impressive breakfast buffet, with Chinese, English, Portuguese and American offerings. We stuffed ourselves in a grand, high ceilinged room with airy arches, fluted columns, louvered windows, amphora shaped balusters and cushioned rattan chairs. There were flowers at each table, and visible from each was the semitropical lushness, just outside.
To my eternal shame, I must admit that each morning, I just couldn’t wait to taste the hash browns with ketchup, then baked beans. Jojo, though, always went for the congee, dim sum or fried rice noodles, and she never touched, I noticed, any of the Western items.
Just like the Hong Kong protesters, she is essentially, unmistakably and eternally Chinese, albeit uneasily. Lin Yutang, “What is patriotism but love of the foods one had as a child?”