Indelible City

May 18 2023

There’s an uncomfortable constant in Quinn Yue’s social mishaps. At the Circle Ks. At the McDonalds’s. At the Cha Chaan Tengs. At the UNIQLOs, and the H&Ms, and the Forever 21s in the 20-storey-tall shopping malls that she brags to her British friends about in her American accent.

Quinn gets off the MTR just as the train’s doors slide open, holding her head up high. She hurries to the first left, then the next right. She scrambles onto the left side of the escalator as everyone else oh-so-politely stands on the right, stomping up the jagged black steps, two at a time, and then, finally, to the U-shaped corridor. Out to Mong Kok via Exit D. She’s on her way to the family dinner, mother’s side—no need to talk about her father’s, emotionally stunted as he is.

She’s thirsty now and takes the familiar detour over to the 7-Eleven; it’s past the morning rush hour and the stacks of the pro-democracy-or-anti-Chinese-extradition-something-or-other Apple Daily were long gone. Cute, she thinks to herself. As if buying a newspaper would be enough to ga yau to the anti-extradition protests. A bunch of construction helmets and black T-shirts could never mean anything to a bunch of dumb cops with expired tear gas from the mainland. At least the march in August had people show up; not her, of course. She would look stupidly out of place, screaming mangled Cantonese slogans in her English tongue. She stares at the red apple symbol, peeling from the newspaper rack, dust and car exhaust covering the adhesive side. It’s pathetic.

Quinn shuffles over to the counter, handing over her purchase. She opens her mouth, uttering her practiced incantation of ”mmm goi sai” as she takes back the cold bottle of oolong tea. Quinn’s accented Cantonese grating through the cashier’s eardrums sends the false title “ABC” crashing around his native head. His eyes quickly form into contempt: American-born Chinese, and the cashier’s eyes grow distant. Quinn is too tired, too jaded, too fed up to refute the accusation.

That is what she sees. Not that she has the right to assign feelings to a person whose name she can’t even read. She thinks that if he knew what her last name was, he would probably hate her even more. How traitorous of her. How dare she gives up the heritage, the familiarity, the fluency. How language opens a person’s heart. The door that is closed to her, here, forever, as soon as she opens her mouth.

But sometimes, all it takes is the first look. It fills her with a sort of pride.

Oh no, what gave it away? The flannel shirt? The Stan Smiths? Yes, please greet me in English. She much prefers this quicker judgement. She presents herself in that way to make sure this happens. She’s not one of you. It spares the disappointment. The same brand of disappointment her po po administers. The kind she’ll be seeing tonight.

Chinese New Year. Not even at the restaurant and she’s exhausted. The protests will be on everyone’s mind, she’s sure. Especially when her mom’s side is mostly of the rabble. She can already see them bringing stacks of Apple Daily newspapers, bought performatively; maybe one of them will even be brave enough to show up in a black T-shirt.

And now, after the boilerplate hellos and the long time no sees, she’s at the dinner table, and she wonders why she’s even there. She alone sits with an English tongue in her month. Mothers, fathers, brothers, brothers of brothers, husbands of sisters curse and laugh and share Cantonese stories together across four dinner tables, making up for the time when they were two MTR stations apart in this city. What’s the point?

This is a small glimpse into the world she’s not a part of. It’s not so bad to look in, from the outside. There are other worlds where she belongs. Quinn is mature enough to realize this.

It’s funny how Mum acts so differently here.

But the TVB on the television starts showing footage of those protests and her mother quickly fades back into quiet meekness as Quinn’s father glares at the television.

He shouts, “Those idiot kids are ruining the economy. What they did to LegCo—diu, it’s impossible to get any trade now. Risk-averse, my ass. Those kids should know not to get in the way of our business. We made them who they are, diu.”

The laughter quickly tires. Does he not care? She gets that her father doesn’t come to these functions often, preferring the cleaner, quieter buffets at the Four Seasons, but this seemed out of line. Even for him. Especially when she knew some of the people at this very table have worn those same construction helmets. Something at work must have pissed him off. He keeps talking.

Diu, some of them might be in my company! They never show up for OT. I even pay extra. No show.” There it is. But nobody is listening. Or they don’t want to.

Ah Kau Fu slides over and talks to Quinn, directly. An olive branch. “Do you like your meals? We got you the one you like.” Then, something she couldn’t parse. A laugh. The same raucous laugh Quinn had saw him produce at the other table. How his balding, wrinkled face, despite everything, crinkles even more in a way that she can’t help but describe as kind. How his home—half the size and an eighth of the rent—was likely imbued with a mirth that would be unsettling in her own home. She belonged in Tin Shui Wai, not him.

“Yes, thank you. It’s lovely. Mmm goi sai.

Ah kau fu replies with a nod and a smile that doesn’t quite manage to reach his eyes.

“Hey,” her father jeers, eyebrows raised, the edges of his mouth raised in a twisted kind of glee, “Again? We talked about this.” He ends the sentence with a sharp, angry raise of the chin. Dad continues, “Maybe we should keep you here, get your head screw on tight. It’s about time to stopped playing with gwai lous and spending all this money, eh? University is not cheap in UK.”

Quinn looks away, twisting open and closed her bottle of oolong tea. She already regrets what she’s done. What did she do wrong? It’s thank you, right? She knows that she remembers her manners. Quinn refuses to find the words to retort. Her plans for emigrating cannot be jeopardized. The family’s glares are too much. The risk too high. She won’t be here for much longer, why does she need to correct herself? Change the topic.

And then ah kau fu retreats to his actual family. Quinn’s po po quietly clicks her tongue. Quinn tries to take a breath. Neither Quinn nor po po know how to let go of this final outcome. It should have been accepted for years now. Her parents had to fight for her to go to a private international kindergarten. Fight for her to pick up more remedial English lessons. And more fighting as po po laments the loss of her native granddaughter. Then even more as little 7-year-old Quinn begins to babble Cantonese in a Gwailou’s voice. A white ghost. Someone not for this world.

Quinn, wavering, worries if it’s her parents or her po po that mourns their losses more. But this is not Quinn’s concern. They were the ones who made the choice to send their daughter out of this family, into this city, with an incompatible language. She’s managed fine everywhere else. This is one of few places where her resolve is allowed to buckle.

She excuses herself before anyone catches her leaving.

Grit your teeth and bear it, she tells herself. Smile your smile, and don’t let it come in. Move on. Ignore how their whirring stares grind into the base of your neck. Move on, move on. Don’t let it get to you. Stay in your ivory cocoon of English. Hong Kongers can go ahead, they can rot below, languish and fade away in a city they think is indelible. You’ll be fine. Citizenship elsewhere isn’t all that hard to get.

She has a way out. Save a spot for me over the pond, yeah. My mum and dad are saving money to get me into Durham!

That’s what keeps her moving. Strut through the shopping-mall-apartment-complex-subway-station deformities the property developers are so fond of. She does not belong here.

She won’t be a guest here for much longer. This entire city is beneath her.

She goes home on the red line, then the blue, then the minibus. She huffs an empty ”mm goi sai” as she alights.

At home, Quinn permits herself to speak freely. English was spoken here. Her family’s apartment, on the fourth floor of Baguio Heights, is not far from Causeway Bay, but it was, unfortunately, just low enough that licks of Cantonese still seeped through the framed windows of their apartment. An air-conditioned, triple-filtered breeze wafted across her face as her domestic helper (Theresa — or was it Teresa?) sent her an empty wave. Shoes off, now. She’s walking to her room already.

“Hello ma’am.”

“Hiya, Teresa!” Quinn shouts from halfway down the corridor. She opens the door to her bedroom and enters, making sure to close the door behind her. She turns on the string lights haphazardly blu-tacked onto the walls (can’t damage the walls of a rented apartment too much) and buries her face in her Sanrio plushies that she ordered online from Amazon. They were shipped from Japan, through Hong Kong, then Los Angeles, repackaged, and then sent back again for quadruple the street price — not that she cared too much. It was way too hot outside for that kind of street-level scrounging. Besides — it felt cleaner somehow. She couldn’t put her finger on exactly why, but it made it that much easier for her to bury her face into Hello Kitty’s little nose. She gropes around her bedside table for her other, Tik Toking iPhone — you had to be inventive if you wanted to scroll videos in Hong Kong.

And then the algorithm presents a video on universities in the UK and the UCAS application and the visa fees and the visa applications and directions to the UK embassy and she can’t put it away but she can’t bear to keep looking and then she throws her phone across the bed—

Calm. Calm down. You’re having a fit again. Go stare at the ceiling for a bit. It’s 00:40. Go to sleep.

An automatic walk to school at 07:45. The classes and breaks and lunches blur together until the last period, PSHE class. Uni prep. Easy.

Mrs. Wyatt’s running her mouth again, so it’s time to use her laptop productively. She carefully, secretly looks at the work she’s done for university (none), then thinks of her classmates’ carefully prepared, prim-and-proper UCAS applications that their expatriate parents’ vice-vice-secretaries had written for them two months in advance. And then in a blink she’s on her classmates’ Instagrams, looking at their summer vacations in their private yachts in Majorca and Morocco and the Maldives. No invitations, only looking—no one was going to foot the bill for her.

But, they were inclusive. When they felt nice enough, they would let her come along with them to Dragon-I on Friday nights. To the bouncers, Quinn’s race was an acceptable concession when it came with a dozen other rich gwailous.

She belonged there, plastered on that sticky, purple leather couch with five mojitos in her stomach. She belonged there, where she couldn’t see anything between every second measure of the pounding beat, where the people besides her were snogging as if they were characters from Cherub. Her liver may not be so grateful the night after, but there, her mind was free. There wasn’t any need to overthink things. She could erase the yellow insides of herself. Especially when nobody cared for it. Banana was a term she took in stride.

The day after that night, after they spent the HK$400 on taxi fees to Calum’s yacht off Discovery Bay, Livvie, Kirsty, and Chloe got Quinn to buy a set of lingerie from Victoria’s Secret. Quinn was so, so flattered, until she caught herself. They were only being nice. It was still fun, with the giggles in the changing rooms and the shouting between the aisles. Look at you! He’ll love it. They were laughing with her. Definitely. Sure, she didn’t like Calum all that much, but it was fun to gush about him with the other girls. University would be more of this, and she couldn’t wait. This is what her life is supposed to be.

Her campus life will be full of these stories; plus, she can play up her exoticness a bit more. Maybe she’ll even lie a bit and say that she was out on the streets for one of those protests, playing with the gas she keeps hearing about on the TV. I was tear gassed; you know. Man, it’s a rush but like, it felt like I was fighting for something deeper*, you know? More than myself.* She’ll put on one of her determined looks, and they’ll fall in love with her. She’ll find herself a tall, rugby-idiot boyfriend, marry him, get herself a British passport, make money with biology or something while her big husband rakes in millions from some sport contract, and it’ll be end of. The last her family will see of her is at her wedding. She’ll be where she belongs.

But now the final school bell is ringing, and Livvie, Kirsty, and Chloe are talking about their 5 UCAS choices at the other side of the classroom. UCL, Warwick, Exeter, Leeds, Durham. Quinn leaves the room, the school without saying goodbye, and she loses herself to the five-times-a-week-41A-blue-line-minibus routine at 3:45pm.

As Quinn steps off the minibus, onto the street a couple blocks away from her family’s apartment, she’s immediately hit with the aggressive-yet familiar nasal, six-phonetic-toned shouting between what must have been some shopkeeper and their clientele. Both sides hurl at each other epithets that would make most anyone outside of HK turn a few shades pinker — not that it particularly impressed Quinn much. Definitely not. She puts one tired foot in front of the other as she crosses the street, obeying the shrill of the traffic light. Wai, diu lei!

She has a quiet admiration, or maybe even a slight jealousy, of the infinitely raucous ways they’re able to disparage their families and each other. Ham gaa caan, orbulldoze your family tree to oblivion.Her favorite: Pok gai! Drop onto the street. An insult like that only works here. She passes a bunch of schoolboys half her age, clad in white-shirts, comically large cello cases in tow, mocking each other with the same implacable wit that wouldn’t ever be accessible to her.

Quinn was taught from a young age the importance of English. English was to be the language of the home. Cantonese was something that she’d pick up somewhere. They’re in Hong Kong, after all, and she’ll pick it up quickly enough. Where, exactly, that would happen, if English was the language to speak both at home, and at school, was left for something else to decide. It was a tired case of parents trying to live vicariously through their children. Speak English, for that was the language of the sophisticated rich. Forget the poor. British elitism was alive in Chinese Hong Kong.

It was fine. She’s aware of the difficulties that brings, of living here. It’s only temporary. Bulldozing her way through most conversations in English was all that was needed for this brief stage in her life. She approaches the final left to her street.

…God, what is that? Her throat starts to sting. Seasonal influenza? The shouting that she heard a few blocks away prior, in the opposite direction, was even louder. Quinn peeked her head around the street corner.

Gaat zaat! Faan ohk kay!” Sounds of fireworks punctuate the exclamation. Through a megaphone? And fireworks? It’s 4pm on Thursday, and scratched, silver canisters, shooting inches from her face leave trails quickly dissipating white smoke curl around her, sharpening, sharpening inwards through and past her. Toothpicks, glass shards, razor blades that weigh nothing invite themselves inside her eyes. She reels backwards, pursed face-sockets leaking, mouth contorted. She wants to scream, but the tear gas sticks her mouth shut and latches onto her like a wet towel. Pawing at her face, she stumbles down the street, trips onto the pavement, gets up, and stumbles again, this time onto the apartment entrance with a hollow crash and rattle. Eyes still puckered shut — she claws the door open. Shoves her way through the crack. It relents. Spittle flies through her teeth. Smoke is careening every which way from the door she left open. She knows the elevator lobby well enough to get to its buttons. And, thank fuck, the ding of the elevator invites her to slip forwards. Her knee hits some corner of the elevator as she falls inside, but it doesn’t matter. The doors close behind her. She feels the jolt of the elevator taking her away. Her water bottle is still in her hand. Through her sewn-shut eyes, she sees red where black is.

The water bottle is over her head now. Her face is made wet again under the cold Bonaqua. Tears and snot replaced by fake mineral water. The pain sharpens, twists, and contorts, then dulls and drains with the rest of the water it seeps into her school uniform, bottle empty. She looks up, stray water droplets splattering onto the surface on both sides of her. Her eyes. Her face. Her hair.

Quinn looks at the door stupidly and she takes a few breaths. She winces at her knee. The adrenaline wears off. Fuck. Her eyes twitch shut again.

What was that? What was that? This is not normal. This is not something that happened in Causeway Bay. This happens in Tamar, where they were stupid enough to break into LegCo. No, not here. Causeway Bay was the shopping district. It’s like six stations away, 30 minutes away, from Tamar. There’s no way.

Breathe. She’s got this. This didn’t affect her. She’ll go to school tomorrow, and nothing happened today. Her classmates won’t know, and she by tomorrow she won’t either. Why does she need to care?

She grits her teeth, pulling out her house keys from her backpack as she exits the elevator, walking to the apartment door. Time to explain the mess.

It’s the start of dinner, and as Quinn sits down, there’s immediately a familiar tension. The tension brought on by the ker-klunk of the lock opening down the hallway.

Her father’s home. The 7:00 news jingle blaring in front of her acts as a veil of indifference as she hurries to eat dinner, him circling behind her to his spot on the table. Her lips still stings as she brings them to her bowl, swallowing down the remaining rice. White grains slip out the sides onto the square dining table as her father sits down. He hasn’t changed from his work clothes yet. This is different. Different is bad.

“Be careful, Quinn.” His English is always so tired.

After three consecutive weeks of rioting at the beginning of Q3, the Hang Seng Index has reported its biggest loss since the 2008 Financial Crisis, Cable TV has repo—”

The TV clicks off. Her Dad lets his hand sway over both sides of his chair. He speaks.

“We wanted to let you know ourselves. But as you already know, we are not rich.” He’s said that plenty of times, an uncountable number of times, but this feels unfamiliar. The BMW on borrowed money begs to differ. “Because of that, we also want to let you know that you will study in Hong Kong for the future.”

Quinn sits stock-still.

He continues, “We cannot afford you go to England. School is much cheaper, free, here in Hong Kong, do you know.”

Her mother adds, “Yes, that’s what we’ve decided. They usually use English in the courses, I talk with my teachers in English. I remember it was like this.”

Quinn swallows again, mouth dry, feeling stupid. Again. She must have fucked up somehow. This is not making sense in her head. Was it the dinner?

“You will do well there, I’m sure. You are ahead of them already. You get to learn Cantonese too.”

It’s the tear gas. It’s the tear gas and she’s in an ICU over at St. Paul’s. Teresa must have found her. This isn’t—

“Hey, hey. Stop. You’re overreacting.” Her mum prods at her mouth with a Tempo.

Her father keeps going. “It will take time before you can be able to go into public school, so I will have you work at my company for the time being. But make sure you don’t embarrass me again.”

Wait — nepotism? Her thoughts are especially rich given that she hasn’t worked a day in her life and her brain could use any kind of work that isn’t cramming the night before, but still. She is not ready for this. She can’t handle someone talking at her in a language she can only swear in. This was only going to be something to bear for a few more years, right? She’s entitled to go anywhere with her English fluency. She will not be dragged around her dad’s office while he and his employees jeer at both her for raising an infant who can’t tell left from right, to their ears. Is this because of those protests? Those fucking—Couldn’t they have waited a bit longer before they started rioting for a democracy they know will never happen? Where was she going to end up? Not as some chink—

“Do you hear us?”

Mum asks, “Quinn, is this okay? We’ll talk a bit more about this this weekend, when we’re off work. Something new will do you goo—”

“I was tear gassed today.” Quinn says as she places her chopsticks down on the table. A gasp from her mother. Her father groans, right hand to his forehead as he leans away.

“Fuck, serves you right,” Dad says in Cantonese.

Quinn’s breath catches. Dads do not use that language. Who does he think he’s talking to?

“You weren’t careful enough,” he lectures, “and look what’s happened. You should not be walking out on the streets, you know?”

The words themselves mean next to nothing, but his exasperation is clear.

Diu. Take care of yourself better next time, okay? I don’t care what you do with your friends but don’t come crying to me if you get what’s been coming to you.”

His voice shakes, it starts to deepen. “Those idiot kids—”

Quinn starts, “No, it wasn’t—”

“Let your own father finish his sentence.” He mutters an idiom Quinn can’t understand.

Her mother’s reaction says enough. “We’ll talk about this later,” she says.

Mum’s almost too afraid to place her hand on her husband’s shoulder.

“Just go somewhere else now. You know nei goh ba ba; you know how he gets angry like this sometimes. I’ll tell you when you can come out.” Her father glares at the two of them.

Quinn backs away from the two of them. Returning to her room, she slips behind the door as quietly as she can, inching the lock slowly shut. Her hands are shaking. She wants to scream. Is that okay? Can she do that now?

No. She’ll do it, alone, some other time when she knows the house is empty. She’ll keep quiet. She needs a distraction. She pats around her bed. Spots it on the floor.

It takes her several tries to unlock her phone. She can hear them talking outside. There isn’t time to think. Dopamine, now.

On Google — ”tear gas hong kong causeway bay news 2019”:

Riots spread into deeper into Hong Kong Island as police fail to quell rioting protestors”

Police subdue seditious protestors”

Violent protestors attack police”

Quinn does not usually pay much attention to the news. She’s aware of this. She knows this. If you asked her why, she would say that it wouldn’t matter. Everything was already propagandized by the Chinese anyway. Those college students protesting in LegCo she sees on TV, with their broken English and childish slogans doing nothing but hastening the inevitable. Those college students in those yellow helmets…

More scrolling.

Sedition rampant as police struggle to calm violent rioters”

There. The Associated Press.

Hong Kong police fire tear gas, water cannon at protestors”

This was it. Her apartment. Across the street, the bakery selling the best pineapple buns this side of the harbour. The proprietress’s hair she could imagine behind the front window. Not that you could see it behind the riot uniforms. And the larger band of protestors across from there, next to the post office. The 7-11 where she buys her bottles of green tea. Along the road, wet traffic cones with smoke seeping through their tops. A pop another canister launched.

Before it even lands, three yellow helmets rush in. Two equipped with water bottles, the last with another traffic cone, together attack the grenade. Only one with a gas mask, all with those yellow helmets, they sprint towards it, umbrellas out — they almost catch the smoking bomb with the orange cone before it lands, and water is poured into its top end with a familiar coordination, reminiscent of her friends preparing a Jägerbomb. The whole procedure takes five seconds, and the gas is neutered as if it were never there. The three pat each other on the back and rub their eyes as they fade into the hoots and hollers of yellow helmets behind them. “Heung gong yan, ga yau, ga yau!”

She doesn’t know what to think. The video repeats in front of her.

This, this was new. Quinn, ever so world-aware, ever so knowledgeable, seen-it-all—what emotion is new here? Her mind is locked in place, the video locked in view. Every spark of a thought immediately assailed, dragged down, smothered by a shame she hadn’t felt before. A guilt.

Protestors. The cone. Gas, smothered.

Nothing exotic, nothing to brag about. Nothing. Seeing herself, then the bodies in the video; so similar, yet their minds so different. Her being in this body, of this color, felt shameful, unbelonging. She hated this yellow skin. This English tongue. This combination. Her eyes were aching again. Why had she done nothing earlier. She couldn’t even help if she wanted to. What could she have done?

Protestors. The cone. Pain. Gas, smothered.

It was so, so easy to be racist. To otherize the sea of yellow caps on the streets below her. Her tongue would have been freer elsewhere, so she should have just bore it until then, right? She would have been freer elsewhere. But she had no right to be here. And yet…

Home. Protestors. Cone. Screaming. Gas, smothered. A community roaring in response. She slips backwards onto the bed, letting herself drown in sleep.

It was liberating to learn that she was worth nothing.