How can I forget the press of the crowd, the feeling of being swept up in history that lunar New Year in Hong Kong? Throngs packed the walkway by the city’s harbor, and we were snugly pressed in the midst of them. We had stopped in Hong Kong for a few days on our way to Shanghai for research on a book I was writing. And those few days coincided not only with the Chinese New Year, but also Hong Kong’s last New Year celebration under British rule.
We stood in the crush of locals and foreigners, parents holding toddlers, teenagers in groups, shop owners, and workers, all training our eyes on the dark sky above, aware that barges afloat in the harbor were the source of our anticipation.
When the thunderous booms began, terrified children sought refuge under their parents’ arms, only to peek and see the heavens fill with giant chrysanthemums of gold and pink fire. The blossoms soon morphed into luminous weeping willows as gravity pulled the sparks earthward. Our “ooohs” blended with others in spontaneous gasps. Green spears pierced the night, crimson lights exploded into shards of blue and pale yellow, scores of stars twinkled a visual nursery rhyme—each spectacle reflected on the water, each more wondrous than the one before.
This lunar new year’s celebration, February 7, 1997, was a celebration unlike any I’d seen. For one hundred fifty-six years, Hong Kong had been a British colony. In only a few months, it would reunite with mainland China, with the promise that it could keep its legal and economic system until 2047, fifty years, under the One China, Two Systems policy.
I was thrilled to be in that place at that time, to be part of this historic celebration, and I was eager to merge with the moment itself, despite a niggling worry about whether China would keep its promise. I wasn’t alone in that worry and, for many, the worry wasn’t niggling. The English-language newspapers often gave accounts of how HongKongers who distrusted that fifty-year pledge had been leaving the colony, seeking new homes across the globe. But for the millions who remained, this was a night full of spectacle and delight.
A parade through Hong Kong’s center the day before had begun the celebratory events—three hours of floats, jugglers, bands, dance troupes, and more. We stood in the masses watching Hong Konger bagpipers, Korean drummers, mixed marching bands, a Hong Kong ballet troupe dressed as cowboys—hats, lariats, and all—dancing to Frankie Laine’s rendition of “Rawhide,” a float carrying Thais enveloped in traditional costumes, and, of course, a fantastical dancing dragon. Roars of delight erupted from the spectators as each group passed by. A palpable sense of excitement and happy expectation flavored the whole afternoon.
We had dinner that evening at the Shang Palace, touted as one of Hong Kong’s best restaurants. The brightly lit room featured walls embellished with beautiful silk hangings—partridges, pheasants, persimmons painted in elegantly muted colors.
Looking around, I noticed an exquisite glass bowl filled with, I surmised from the color, soy sauce and spices. As I studied the bowl, the mixture began splashing, and I felt a jolt as I realized that live fish were swimming in it. Sadness washed through me as I thought of those fish whose destiny was short and all too clearly defined. Were they suffering now? Did the marinade burn; did it sting their eyes? Did they sense their fate?
I couldn’t know, of course but, like it or not, I had to acknowledge that culinary practices differed across cultures and that, in fact, I wasn’t always comfortable with practices back home.
Hong Kong was so much to grasp: a step into another world, a world in which people approached much of life from angles so different from my own, as the experience at Shang Palace and many others of those days, reminded me. It was also an international financial center, an epicure’s dream, a beautiful island holding a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city, a bustling mix of cultures, rich and poor, capitalist and semi-democratic.
But would it remain so?
Twenty-three years later, the world is seeing this question answered as China increasingly imposes restrictions on Hong Kong. And every act of further constraint brings to mind that bowl in which those fish were held. Encroaching restrictions have led to pro-democracy protests, citizens splashing their disapproval, their dissent, as best they can.
The 2014 Umbrella Movement demanded that Hong Kong choose its own leader, rather than the leader being chosen by a large committee of pro-Beijing members. The movement closed down the city for seventy-nine days. Most recently, we watched as pro-democracy protests filled television and computer screens with smoke and gases, fireworks so distinct from those we saw twenty-three years ago. Were some of those protesters the toddlers and children with whom we oohed at the fireworks all those years ago? Those fireworks held such different meaning, dreams fitting for a new year, hopeful dreams. And now, what do these fireworks portend?
My heart wants to remember the fiery chrysanthemums, the dancers, the fantastical dragon, and that part of me that was awakened and intrigued by a culture not my own. Yet, the images of protesters clashing with brutal authority continually turn my conflicting thoughts to that glass bowl, with the protesters like those fish, captured by events, only in this case, all too aware of the threat.
Somehow, when I think of the protesters as the little ones who shared that magical New Year’s celebration, the conflict becomes more personal, as if I were experiencing their angst, their desire to keep their freedom. And, in some ways I am.
The differences I thought I saw between Hong Kong and my own country may not be so great after all. In many ways, I, too, am alarmed and put on guard by events in my own land, real and metaphorical fireworks, tear gas, rubber bullets, clubs in reactions to protests for equality, equality that was a founding principle but hasn’t found its way fully into many lives. We’ve also been inundated by false assertions and power grabs by the highest official in our land, so much so that the continuation of our centuries-old democracy isn’t a sure thing at all.
As I watch the flare-ups, fires, and polarization in my country, I wonder how we can restore a sense of hope, a sense of possibility like those celebratory fireworks ignited all those years ago. And for me personally, how do I answer the call to action, the kind of action that not only reflects our country’s pain, but that is of consequence in moving toward our dreams? I ponder our country’s situation, marinate in my own uncertainty, and wonder how best to splash in my own glass bowl.