Reflecting on growing up in Hong Kong.

We all bear burdens.

We moved to Hong Kong in 1996, just a few months before it was handed over (or back, depending on who you’re talking to). I was eleven. As you may know, Hong Kong was a colony then and as you might expect, the British had left their mark over the years. Hong Kong’s streets are like London’s, not straight but twisting, winding around landmarks and through hills, circling in and out of roundabouts, with names like Waterloo and Aberdeen and Nga Tsin Wai. Cars drive on the left, and their license plates are in the English style, spare white and yellow rectangles stamped with two letters and four numbers. And there are, of course, double decker buses. Ours are painted manila with red tops, more suited to the tropic air.

As for the British themselves, I did not encounter them too much. They ensconced themselves in neighborhoods that went by their English name, places like Stanley and Discovery Bay, that also happened to be difficult to reach by public transportation. They occupied bars in packs, and laughed with a loudness they would not dare approach back home. They even set up a network of K-12 (or P1-P13, as they would say) schools throughout the city, which they called the English Schools Foundation, or ESF, for short.  You could always tell the ESF-ers when school was getting out and students were walking home. Their uniforms were just a little jauntier; the girls wore dresses, the boys wore ties.

For the most part, though, we coexisted in a separate peace, the English and us.  They ignored us, and we ignored them, and the most violent eruption of animosity I recall is a friend muttering “FILTH” under her breath after witnessing some particularly boorish behavior. (“FILTH” is a switchback pejorative, short for “Failed In London Try Hong Kong.”)

I have long wondered how England was able to maintain this civil equilibrium with such efficacy. No doubt, this was led by the bluntest instruments of the state: installing white faces as lawmakers, as judges, on currency. But these were displays of hierarchy in their rawest form; they did not inure the local population to accept their station within it. To do that required something different. It required planting white faces in the positions that exercise a gentler power in everyday life: as counselors, as ministers, as teachers. And can you imagine what the consequence might be for Hong Kong children who grow up, day in and day out, under the constant direction of authority that looks nothing like them?

* * *

Being the city that it is, Hong Kong is host to a multitude of international schools that cater to expatriate offspring of every stripe. In addition to the ESF network, there is the French International School, the Australian International School, the Canadian International School, and so on and so forth. I attended one of these myself, a religious one of an American and evangelical strain.

There, I had a teacher named Mr. Riley. Mr. Riley taught middle school, and was popular among the students. He was young, couldn’t have been older than 30, and liked to laugh and tell jokes. I remember after the holidays, he would always bring back a haul of Sour Patch Kids from America (which were hard to find in Hong Kong then) and hand them out as prizes. He wore glasses, and if you looked close, his dirty blonde hair was beginning to thin. He had gone to a small Christian college in Kansas, and we loved asking him about the American collegiate experience. He would tell us stories about fraternity hijinks, college football games, and Spring Break. It all sounded so exciting.

Like many of our teachers, Mr. Riley was also deeply religious. He would always conclude his tales of college with a familiar coda – he would warn us that college was a dangerous place, and that he himself had become ensnared by its many temptations, and it was not until the fall semester of his senior year that he found Jesus and then and only then, “but for the grace of God,” was he standing before us today. I remember that curiosity got the better of me during one of these talks, and so I had asked:

“So what made you come to Hong Kong?”

He stopped to think before responding. “Well,” he began. “I felt called.”

“What do you mean?”

He scratched his head. “When I was about to graduate, I wanted to serve the Lord, so I started praying. And I prayed a lot. I prayed for months. And after a while, I just knew that He was calling me to come here and serve. I felt it.”

“He told you to come to Hong Kong?”

“Yeah,” he chuckled. “And I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I actually didn’t listen right away. I applied to all kinds of jobs. Big companies, law schools, you name it.”

“So what happened?”

“I think you’ll learn this as you get older, but sometimes God opens a door by closing others.” He paused and put his hand on my shoulder. “It’s all part of His perfect plan, you know?”

* * *

Burdens built Hong Kong. Millions of men and women were called to this place – whether by God or by country or by capital – and being so called, they came. They built. And what they built, both seen and felt, remains today. When I was back in Hong Kong last winter, I was at a gaisee, a wet market where vendors sell fruits and vegetables and meats in the open air. I picked out a clutch of mandarins, and the old lady behind the stall handed them to me wrapped in a red plastic bag, along with my change, a single silver coin embossed with Queen Elizabeth, in profile.

What happens to that child who grows up in a place like this? Maybe you know. Hong Kong is unique, but it also isn’t. And maybe you too are filled with this static fire that smolders as you grapple with how to fight the very structure that you happen to be climbing. I don’t doubt what they tell us. It is incumbent on us, the colored ones, to change hearts, to break glass, to snap bamboo; you must know the system to change the system, hope and grace and reclamation and stuff like that. It is all probably true. That is just the way things are. It is how progress happens. So we keep on keeping on. But sometimes I cannot help myself. I stop and I think. And I take a moment to wonder what our colored burdens would be doing if there was not so much that had to be done to undo the consequence of another’s.

One thought on “A Place Like This

  1. Nice how you reduced your scholarship proposal back to the original question. How do we reconstruct the structures we climb? Perhaps one day white children will ask… Mr. Chen, what brought you to Louisville?


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