Sticky Notes on the Lennon Wall
by Faith Tsang
I. Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong (1984), effective 1997
The current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged, and so will the life-style. Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. (Joint Declaration (3(5)))
I was almost born in the Solomon Islands. It’s located just next to Australia, and there are six major islands and nearly 1,000 smaller ones. More importantly, it’s 7,731 kilometers away from Beijing. That’s 4,804 miles or roughly 8 hours by plane.
When my grandfather found out the 1997 handover of Hong Kong would occur, he immediately came back to his small flat that smelled of bok choi and wonton. He was a ship captain for an international trading company, so he spent 11 out of 12 months out at sea. Immediately, he began planning to move out – that is, move out to anywhere outside of China. In one month, he found himself pleading with immigration officials from Britain to allow his family to move to there, but they rejected his request. Running out of options and time, he decided they would move to the Solomon Islands, which were under British rule at the time, in hopes of one day gaining British citizenship and moving to Britain. However, before his plans were finalized, my grandfather passed away from a stroke.
Upon receiving hospital bills, they decided to stay in Hong Kong. My mom had the opportunity to join a foreign exchange program in business school and met my father. Several years later, I was born in New York – the first of my family to be born in the US. And it was in the US that I began my education as an enthusiastic, overly energetic kid.
Sitting on the blue checkered rug in the front of the classroom, seven-year-old me waited for the teacher to introduce our new project. We gathered around, some of us wide-eyed with excitement and others of us picking our noses or groaning with the prospect of more homework.
“Alright class, our next assignment is going to be a fun country research project. Each one of you will pick a different country, and then you’ll fill out this worksheet with some information about the country, like what food they eat and what language they speak.”
As the students chose one by one in alphabetical order, I talked to some of my classmates about what country we wanted. When I stepped up to the board to pick my country, someone behind me yelled, “She can’t pick China! That’s cheating!” I turned around, confused, because I hadn’t even picked up the marker to make my choice.
“She can pick any country she wants,” my teacher replied, with a warning glare.
“But that’s not fair! She’s Chinese, so she already knows about China.” Someone else snickered. “Ni hao Kai Lan.”
“That’s enough! Faith, what country do you want?”
I already knew my answer the moment my teacher explained the assignment, so I answered immediately. “Siberia. That’s where the big white tigers come from.”
My teacher’s eyebrows rose, partially in amusement and partially impressed that a seven-year- old knew about Siberia.
“Of course. You and your tigers. Siberia isn’t a country though, it’s a part of Russia. Do you want to do Russia?”
I nodded, then crossed Russia off the list. Later at recess, one of my Chinese-American classmates approached me.
“You’re Chinese, right? Can you speak Chinese?” I smiled and puffed up my chest.
“Of course, I can. My parents speak Chinese at home all the time, and I do too.”
He proceeded to launch into a conversation in Mandarin, but I was left at a loss. To this day, I don’t know what he said.
“What? That’s not the Chinese we speak at home,” I responded in English, baffled. “Then you’re lying. Ha!”
The boy ran off, heading to his group of friends. I stood there, confused. How could the Chinese we spoke at home be so different from the Chinese he spoke?
That night, I asked my parents at the dinner table if we were actually Chinese. My parents looked at each other, then back at me. “It’s a little complicated, but yes, we’re Chinese. Why are you asking this?” my dad responded in Cantonese.
“Then why is our Chinese different from other people’s Chinese?”
“Because other people speak Mandarin Chinese and we speak Cantonese. There’s more than one Chinese in China, but Mandarin is the biggest language, so that’s what people call ‘Chinese’.”
“But why don’t we speak Chinese? That other big one I mean.”
“That’s because of where we’re from, and we speak Cantonese in Hong Kong.”
“Where’s Hong Kong?”
II. Hong Kong Basic Law (1990), effective 1997
The socialist system and policies shall not be practised in the HKSAR, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years. (BL Article 5)
In junior high, I spent my time afterschool in the computer lab. One of the teachers walked inside the room. She waved at us, and we returned the wave.
“Wait, does she actually think we’re cousins?” I asked.
“Yep,” my friend replied.
My teacher stared, incredulous. “Wait, you told a teacher that y’all were cousins?”
“Yeah, I mean, it kinda flies. We actually have the same last name, so it works,” my friend said.
“Yeah. It’s just that mine is translated from Cantonese and his is translated from Mandarin, so our English last name is different, but it’s written the exact same way in Chinese,” I added.
“Whoa, that’s so cool. I wouldn’t know; my last name is Smith,” our coach laughed.
III. Decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (2014)
The Chief Executive shall be a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong.
I am a dropout. That is, a Chinese school dropout. On Sunday afternoons, I hauled myself into the car, dreading the long ride to a place where the thing I most looked forward to was digging tunnels in the dirt in the breaks during class. My friend and I kept spoons on us at all times, convinced that we were going to one day be able to dig a tunnel under the school to our classroom so we could sneak out of Chinese class anytime we wanted. I struggled with learning Mandarin, as it sounded so harsh in comparison to the smooth conversational Cantonese I was accustomed to at home. I struggled with learning to write straight, mechanical lines when my handwriting in English was already a mess.
Our class was primarily composed of ABCs (American-born Chinese) who already spoke Mandarin at home, but their parents wanted them to receive a more formal Chinese language education. I stuck out like a sore thumb, unable to match their pronunciation, and unable to muster some sort of attitude toward the school other than resentment for the time I spent learning in a building that felt just as cold and sterile as the language itself. I’ve grown to appreciate Mandarin much more now, but as an elementary schooler, my greatest achievement in the realm of “being Chinese-American” was that I was tall enough to be the tail of the New Years’ Dragon in the yearly parade at that Chinese school.
Thousands of miles away, the Umbrella Movement began in 2014, as a result of decision by the National People’s Congress to change election laws that would prohibit anyone from running for public office that was not a member of the pro-Beijing camp. Around that time that my parents began checking the “other” box, and writing in “Hong Kong” on all the forms asking for our ethnicity under “Asian- American”. It seemed like a small rebellion, even though we were on the other side of the world. But it was the beginning of what I understood to be a “Hong Kong” identity, separate from the arbitrary label of “Chinese” or even “American”.
As I entered junior high, I was asked to “say something in Chinese” quite often, and I found myself at a loss over whether to respond in broken Mandarin or in Cantonese. My answer differed based on the person: if it was someone I just met who ignorantly saw me as nothing more than an “Oriental foreigner,” I responded sarcastically in one of the few phrases I can fluently say in Mandarin. Ni shi ee guh ben dan (You are dumb). If it was someone who asked out of genuine curiosity, I responded in Cantonese, saying an everyday phrase or pointing out something in the room. And so my double-identity as a Chinese-American began. Despite my fluent English, Americans never saw me as American, despite the fact that I was born in New York, home to Lady Liberty herself. When people asked where I was from, “New York” never satisfied them. “Where are you from from?” would always be the follow up question, and as the years passed, I wasn’t so sure myself.
At school, I participate in Science Olympiad, and it has brought me some of my best memories and closest friends. When we go compete or when we host tournaments, many of my Chinese- American friends’ parents will come as well, and they will often speak their home language.
These parent volunteers have approached me and began speaking rapid fire in a language I don’t understand, only to be disappointed when I respond in broken Mandarin: Wo bu hui shou zhongwen (I don’t speak Chinese), to which they respond with sighs and mutterings about being a white-washed ABC raised by assimilationist parents, sometimes verbally, other times through a stare. The truth is much simpler than that: I speak Cantonese, not Mandarin, because I am not from mainland China. Of course, many of those parents are well-meaning, and only wanted clarification on instructions or whatnot, but with each encounter ending in awkward silence and stares, I can only feel the isolation build as I find myself rejected over and over again by both the Chinese and American community.
In 8th grade, two sisters moved to Katy and went to my junior high. We became fast friends, and after hearing a song the older sister was listening too, we quickly found out that we spoke Cantonese. As far as I knew, we were the only three students who spoke Cantonese, and our friendship blossomed, as I was finally able to do what students in other ethnic groups could do—gossip in a language the teacher can’t understand. We found solidarity in each other, and her parents were immediately friendly, even buying me Starbucks upon our second encounter. I found myself in a community, even if it only consisted of three people, and it was an incredible feeling, almost like a substitute for the promise of the American melting pot.
IV. Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill (2019)
Special surrender arrangements means arrangements that are (a) applicable to— (i) the Government and the government of a place outside Hong Kong; or (ii) Hong Kong and a place outside Hong Kong; and (b) for the purposes of the surrender in particular circumstances of a particular person or particular persons wanted for prosecution, or for the imposition or enforcement of a sentence, in respect of an offence— (Cap503-3.3(Section 2(1))
The world watched as Hong Kong self-destructed, clashing in a violent explosion (often quite literally) of ideologies, as the “extradition bill” above was presented to the legislature, reawakening the 2014 Umbrella Movement fears of the central Chinese government heightening its authoritarian grip on Hong Kong.
Several years prior, we visited Hong Kong, heading by boat to a nearby island with and plethora of new sights and smells. Around me, shopkeepers called out their products and prices, surrounded by a pier built of wood and bamboo. Giant fish balls were sold in multiples, eaten on a stick, and the smell of fresh mango pudding spread through the air. Water lapped against the shore, and we walked around, admiring local art made by shopkeepers, from wooden bracelets to small statues. As we walked into a restaurant specializing in mango deserts, the shopkeeper seemed impressed by our English, and upon finding out we were from the U.S., he asked whether or not we liked our president.
My family and I looked at each other, unsure of what the correct answer was. At the time, President Trump was on good terms with Xi Jinping, and Hong Kong was not in civil distress, but there was always underlying resentment.
My parents expertly deflected the question, but years later, I still ponder what the reaction would have been they had simply said yes or no. Both of my parents are naturalized citizens and ardent Trump supporters, a topic often discussed during the 2020 elections. Yet, when the Black Lives Matter movement picked up steam this past summer, I thought they would support the protests, knowing how much it mirrored protests in Hong Kong calling for justice and transparency.
However, that wasn’t the case, and it was about that time that I really began to question what it meant to be Chinese and what it meant to be American.
This year, the live-action Mulan movie came out, despite all the controversy surrounding the film. Our family boycotted it, citing Liu Yifei (Mulan)’s support of the Hong Kong police, which have been widely criticized for brutality and collusion. With this release came a plethora of complaints from my mainland-Chinese-American friends, most of which centered on the Western butchering of the story, spinning it into a glorified tale mirroring European conquest with random droppings of Chinese culture in an attempt to make it “authentic”. As one friend so aptly put it, the inclusion of qi only made Mulan the “Jesus of gymnastics” without any more than a rudimentary understanding of its role in traditional Chinese religions.
However, the same can be applied to the entire story of Mulan itself. The original Ballad of Mulan did not feature a Mulan of Han Chinese descent, but of Northern roots, which is where the villains now come from. She was not loyal to a Chinese emperor, but to local warlords. The erasure of authentic storytelling is only a microcosm of the massive erasure of non-Han Chinese cultures by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): both worlds are guilty of the same crime of inauthentic portrayal of the complexities of identity. Cantonese is being erased from Hong Kong schools, and written Simplified Chinese is taught in place of Traditional Chinese. Xinjiang camps erase the culture of Uyghur Muslims, and even the Dalai Lama is not safe in Tibet.
And it is with the release of the new Mulan movie that I find myself at the crossroads of two cultures locked in a tug-of-war that neither wants to win.
V. Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Securityin the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, 2020
…Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be accountable to the Central People’s Government for affairs relating to safeguarding national security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (Article 9)
I should be a blend of liberty blue and lucky red. I should be a combination of both cultures, as that is what being a “hyphenated American” entails, yet I found myself on nowhere near either of those primary colors on the color wheel.
To Americans, I am yellow: yellow as in the color of my skin (apparently), yellow as in the color of the sky as sulfur fills the air in California at the train tracks, yellow as in the stars on the Chinese flag. To mainland Chinese, I am yellow: yellow as in color of the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong, yellow as in the color of the umbrellas used in the 2014 protests, yellow as in a Mandarin slang word meaning “worthless dog.”
The 2020 national security law pushed through legislation effectively bans protests or any form of expressing discontent with the central Chinese government. Quite a few outspoken protestors have already been arrested under this law, “disappearing” from the public. Perhaps it is this that makes the world see red where it is a matter of black and white. It is 2020; this should not have occurred until 2047.
And yet, there might still be more shades to identity than a fractured version of Chinese and American.
In 2014, the Lennon Wall in Hong Kong was built by a group of students during the Umbrella Movement. It is a mosaic on a brick wall made of sticky notes of all different colors – blue, red, pink, yellow, green. There are encouraging messages written in various languages on them, and over 10,000 sticky notes were added by people all over Hong Kong.
Perhaps an identity is more complex than a color or even a blend of colors, more complex than an arbitrarily assigned label due to geopolitics. Perhaps it’s a mosaic built of millions of pieces of multi-colored, imperfect parts.
Perhaps it’s like having an identity made up of sticky notes put together by ten thousand memories and experiences and perspectives on a never-ending wall.