Hong Kong mourns the end of its way of life as China cracks down on dissent

"It's like watching a patient with cancer finally die." Hong Kongers grapple with the loss of their city.

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A woman lights a candle at a makeshift memorial in Hong Kong commemorating the death of a protester who opposed a proposed extradition bill that would have allowed suspected criminals to be sent to mainland China. The light boxes say, “RIP One Country, Two Systems” and “RIP rule of law.”

Hong Kong exists, as writer Han Suyin put it in the 1950s, “on borrowed time in a borrowed place.” Throughout its history, the city has been a bargaining chip in negotiations, its fate decided by other powers, each treaty setting out new expiration dates. Its identity is laced with unease about the city’s inevitable end as we locals know it, with our powerlessness in the face of time.

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MAP BY SOREN WALLJASPER, NG STAFF

There was the countdown to 1997, when Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule after 150 years as a British colony. Britain and China had agreed in 1984 that after the handover, Hong Kong would be guaranteed its capitalist lifestyle and freedoms for 50 years. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre targeted pro-reform students in Beijing, tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents left out of fear. Many later came back with foreign passports, an insurance policy and exit strategy should their worst fears materialize.

Now the countdown to 2047 is underway, to the end of the 50-year arrangement known as “One Country, Two Systems.” But last year, the government proposed an extradition bill that would allow suspected criminals to be sent to the mainland, setting in motion Hong Kong’s worst political crisis in decades. In June, Beijing fast-tracked a sweeping national security law that essentially criminalizes dissent.

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A woman and a man tear up while singing “Glory to Hong Kong,” the protest movement’s anthem, at a memorial event at Kowloon Union Church commemorating one year of pro-democracy protests.

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A billboard on the side of a government building promotes the new national security law. When the law was announced, the Hong Kong government paid for ads urging the public to support the bill, even though no one knew what it would actually entail.

After the law, which allows closed-door trials and life imprisonment, was announced, headlines read like obituaries: “The saddest day in Hong Kong’s history,” “An official death sentence for Hong Kong.”

But what does it mean for a city to die? How do you mourn the loss of a place in which you are still living?

As the people of Hong Kong grapple with the loss of their home as they know it, I asked nine fellow locals where they feel most connected to the city and took their portraits there. I saw neighborhoods through the eyes of those who love them dearly; it was like being invited into people's hearts for a tour. Hong Kong is changing, but parts of it are immutable, safeguarded in the collective memory of those of us who call it home. (See two centuries of growth and turmoil in this visual timeline of Hong Kong.)

Fighting for Hong Kong

It’s been surreal to observe how daily life coexists so easily with the slide into authoritarianism. It wouldn’t be unusual to feel the sting of tear gas in the heart of the financial district one night, then hit the gym on the same street the next day. But I’ve also realized that, like the painted-over graffiti still faintly visible across the city, the trauma of the last year is written into my body.

A few weeks ago, as I descended from one of my frequent hikes into Hong Kong’s verdant mountains to escape the urban bustle, I felt chills when I recognized the area I found myself in. It was here in North Point where, less than a year ago, pro-Beijing supporters at a pro-democracy demonstration had tried to assault me for being a photojournalist. Police targeted my colleagues and me with tear gas before encircling us with riot shields, squeezing us into a tight circle. I had never felt so unsafe in my own city.

The day after the national security law came into force, thousands took to the streets on July 1. A banner was unfurled, declaring: “We really f---ing like Hong Kong.” The message was clear: despite the law, Hong Kongers will continue to resist because they really, really like this place.

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Though Hong Kong is known for its densely-packed buildings and jagged skyline, 40 percent of its territory is protected wilderness. Here, a view of the northwestern side of Hong Kong Island as seen from High West.

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People pay their respects at a small memorial service on the street for Alex Chow, a student protester who died on Nov. 8, 2019. The 22-year-old fell from a multi-story carpark during a protest, and has become a martyr for the movement.

With love comes sorrow: I cried for three days after the law was announced. But it wasn’t the first time I had shed tears for my home. For years, in a piecemeal fashion barely perceptible to most, Beijing has chipped away at Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms. (Here's how Hong Kong’s complex history explains its current crisis with China.)

To love Hong Kong is to be in a state of constant anxiety about its future. “It’s like watching a patient with cancer finally die,” said a student protester at Polytechnic University, who asked that her name not be published out of fear of arrest. “It’s something heartbreaking that would eventually happen. Now, it has happened.”

She feels most connected to the city at her university, the site of one of the movement’s most dramatic events. Last November, the police besieged the campus, which had been taken over by protesters. Thousands attempted to free them but failed. The resulting violent clashes led to more than a thousand arrests and hundreds of people injured.

To her, the siege is a metaphor for the wider struggle for democracy: “Even though we worked very hard, even though we had a sea [of people] stretching from PolyU to Prince Edward [two miles away] ... the power of the masses couldn’t fight against the power of the authoritarian regime.”

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Police walk through the YoHo Mall in Yuen Long, Hong Kong on July 21, the anniversary of a mob attack. The previous year, around a hundred masked men—believed to be members of local triads, or organized crime groups—attacked passengers and protesters aboard a subway train. The police did not appear at the scene for 39 minutes, after the attackers had already left. No one has been convicted, and protesters have accused police of colluding with the triads.

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People pose for photos outside the new Office for Safeguarding National Security on July 8, the day the office was opened and a week after the national security law came into effect.

The language of freedom

Many Hong Kongers feel the city changes too quickly. The landscape is constantly evolving, the pace of gentrification dizzying. Chronic nostalgia is a part of the city’s soul: we cling onto our present as if it were already our past, because we don’t know how long it will last. We lament the disappearance of “dai pai dongs” (street food stalls), “si do” (mom-and-pop stores), and neon signs. Retro shops and restaurants flourish.

Even the mundane gets painstakingly immortalized. Recently, a friend sent me a photo of a coaster she couldn’t resist buying: a miniature replica of a manhole cover. She said she’s started impulsively buying Hong Kong memorabilia ever since the national security law passed: “I’m worried that they might fade away with time or with more new laws.”

Sandy Au, a 28-year-old art gallery assistant, feels this nostalgia acutely at an old housing estate where her grandfather lived. Its circular buildings with hollow centers have made it popular with tourists and Instagrammers. “This is representative of Hong Kong: we’re always consuming these old Hong Kong elements,” she said. “[People] treat them like a product, an old culture, an image, that can be consumed.” (This is Hong Kong’s ‘Instagram Pier.’)

Her generation, she feels, hasn’t had the chance to establish its own legacy, whether that’s because “the amount of control we are under is increasing, or the space that we have to thrive is decreasing.” In any case, she is resigned to loss: “These things that are dying are part of our culture, and the language and shared experience that belong to us will keep disappearing.”

Cantonese, the slangy, colloquial language of Hong Kong that all but requires an irreverent attitude to be spoken authentically, is one of the cultural elements that many fear is under threat. As Beijing’s influence grows, Mandarin, which is spoken on the mainland and is mutually unintelligible to Cantonese, has become more prominent. The government has encouraged schools to teach Chinese language classes in Mandarin instead of Cantonese.

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People march in protest against the national security law in Wan Chai, Hong Kong, on July 1, a day after the law came into effect.

“[Students’] perception will be that Mandarin has a more important role since they are learning it in school,” said Vincci Leung, a primary school teaching assistant.

“Cantonese… has so much to do with our culture,” she said, giving the example of “yum cha,” which literally translates to “drink tea,” but actually means going out to eat dim sum. “Many routines in our daily lives can only be best expressed in Cantonese.”

Her neighborhood, Sheung Shui, is only one train stop away from the border with mainland China. It’s changed over the years because of a sharp increase in mainland Chinese visitors as well as a phenomenon known as “parallel trading,” where buyers resell goods that are cheaper in Hong Kong in the mainland. Local establishments have been replaced with pharmacies catering to tourists and parallel traders, leading to increased rents and to shortages, at times, of essential household items such as baby formula. Tensions have risen as locals grow resentful of hearing Mandarin on the street. (Related: Cantonese opera remains a pillar of Hong Kong culture.)

But Leung says there is one place in Sheung Shui where Cantonese still reigns: the bustling wet market where locals haggle over fresh produce and meat. There, she feels “the most warmth and human touch,” explaining: “You can chit chat with the ‘aunties’ there when you ask them which produce is better, or which sweet potatoes are tastier.”

Lion Rock Spirit

I met a businessman in his 50s, who also requested anonymity out of fear of arrest, at the trailhead for Lion Rock, a famous mountain overlooking the city—the place he feels most connected to Hong Kong. A steep ascent awaited us.

As we panted our way up and down stone steps to the peak, breaks in the trees revealed glimpses of the city. He paused to rest and remarked: “This is like the future of Hong Kong. I don’t know if it’s going up or down, but it’s not going to be easy.”

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A 50-year-old businessman, who asked that his name not be used for fear of arrest, chose Lion Rock Mountain as the place he feels most connected to Hong Kong. He believes all Hong Kongers should make the climb at least once.

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The view of Kowloon from the ridge of Lion Rock Mountain in Hong Kong. The “Lion Rock Spirit” refers to Hong Kong people’s solidarity and perseverance, and has become a rallying point for the pro-democracy movement.

We made it to the ridge not long before sunset. A breathtaking view stretched all the way from Kowloon, past Victoria Harbor, to the famous skyline of Hong Kong Island. Though the impact of the national security law is imperceptible from here, he thinks Hong Kong “is no longer unique. It has become a Chinese city like Shanghai or Shenzhen.”

The “Lion Rock Spirit,” a saying that refers to the city’s perseverance and solidarity, has become a rallying cry for the pro-democracy movement. Later, the businessman sent me the lyrics to the song that gave birth to the phrase: “In life there is joy / and often tears are inevitable / if we as one can meet beneath the Lion Rock / there will be more smiles than sobs.”

With so much uncertainty, one question has almost become a standard greeting: Will you stay? When I asked the businessman, who studied in the UK, he replied: “We never [thought] about leaving, even after 1997.” But now, he’s considering emigration: “If there's no future in Hong Kong, why should we stay?”

But new forms of resistance have already emerged: activists hoist blank sheets of paper instead of posters, and share graphics that replace Chinese characters with shapes, still recognizable as slogans to those in the know. They sing “Glory to Hong Kong,” the “national anthem” penned by protesters, with a string of numbers in place of the lyrics.

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A 19-year-old student protester stands on a pedestrian walkway overlooking Harcourt Road, the site of the main government office and many major protests. “This is the place where everything started,” he said. “The building behind this is the symbol of political power, and we are resisting against the political powers that are oppressing us.

The government has installed fencing along the sides of the walkway, presumably to prevent objects from being thrown. “With the national security law, you have people who are really scared,” he said. “I am quite lost, but I will keep persevering.”

“I still have hope that the people of Hong Kong will not give up on the city,” said Jeffrey Andrews, a Hong Konger of Indian origin. We spoke at the Tsim Sha Tsui Ferry Pier, the place he feels most connected to the city, where one can see the iconic view of the harbor. To him it represents both the city’s progress and heritage. It’s also a place for locals to relax: “We need that now more than ever in this current crisis.”

He believes in Hong Kong’s future. In June, he became the first ethnic minority to run for a lawmaker seat. “Yes, there's this law against us. But freedom is within the heart, mind and soul. I believe in the goodness of Hong Kong people. We will overcome, as always.”

A caption previously misstated that no one had been arrested for a mob attack at the YoHo Mall in 2019. No one has been convicted.
Laurel Chor is an award-winning freelance visual journalist and National Geographic Explorer from Hong Kong. See more of her work on her website, or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.