Ripped away from home, we are haunted by the Hong Kong taken from us

In April 2022, Hong Kong photographer Ko Chung Ming exhibited his latest work in Dadaocheng, on one of Taipei’s oldest streets. Hanging from the ceiling of a small converted art space were 14 enlarged portraits of Hongkongers who had, out of fear of arrest or unwillingness to live in a diminished version of their city, fled to Taiwan, to start over.

Ko’s previous exhibition captured the wounds protesters had suffered at the hands of police in 2019. Skin split open and fused back together on jagged red lines; black crevasses burnt into flesh by teargas canisters. This new collection shows what happened after the teargas subsided, when authorities turned from the blunt force of police batons to a tyrant’s law. All 14 images were overexposed, erasing the subjects’ faces. The accompanying blurbs identified some of them only by descriptions of their former lives in Hong Kong, and their hopes for new ones in Taiwan.

The exhibit explores the shape life takes when you lose your home, the centre from which all else stems. How to survive the shattering of everything you know to be familiar? Here were 14 different ways of adapting to a new reality that bulldozed the one that came before. Reinventions of the self to adjust to new surroundings, graspings toward a new centre. Some are small: one woman has taken up skating in the cavernous spaces beneath Taipei’s soaring overpasses. Others are fundamental: one student hopes to become a politician in Taiwan.

Another subject resists the need to reinvent herself. She is in Taiwan but undecided, wavering between equally difficult choices: stay here, or return to Hong Kong? Which is less impossible to live with? To return to the comfort of what she knows as it morphs into something unrecognisable, or to embrace an unfamiliar, jarring place, to accept all the betrayals of the self that come with being foreign?

The transformation of Hong Kong has also shaped my own life here in Taiwan, this place of uneasy refuge. I, too, live here ripped away from home, away from the continuing losses in Hong Kong, mired in the knowledge that, as we lose more, we’re not there to bear witness.

A protester reacts after police fire tear gas to disperse bystanders in a protest in Hong Kong on 25 December 2019. Photograph: Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images

I, like so many others, left Hong Kong in the aftermath of the national security law, when we started waking up to mass arrests of familiar faces. As I looked down on my birth city and its harbour sprawled out below the plane, I knew it may be the last time I would see it from above. Nobody knew the reach of the law, anyone could fall afoul of it. Even if I did return, the place would be unrecognisable from the one I had known.

‘Here you can be free’

There is a fervent belief among the new Hong Kong diaspora that the city’s soul can be kept alive beyond its borders. I meet activists who have chosen exile instead of jail, and they speak of lofty ideals of building a resistance abroad, biding time before they return triumphant to a free Hong Kong.

But holding on to that hope means looking simultaneously to the past and the future while ignoring the life in front of you. It means disengaging with the present to fixate on a “one day”. It runs counter to the everyday demands of adjusting to a new place. Because life inexorably continues. It forges forward even as we wish it would go backward, to before – to a time when our lives weren’t premised on a series of impossible compromises. To when we could think and speak without the risk of an arbitrary prison sentence; to before we had to make a choice between staying in a regime of lies, or leaving.

In my first year in Taiwan, as I struggled with Mandarin and a jarringly different pace of life, every month brought new losses in Hong Kong: newsrooms were raided, websites were blocked, unions folded. By the end of the year, most major local independent newsrooms had closed down.

Taipei is, in many ways, the opposite of Hong Kong. Instead of brisk efficiency and blaring wealth, it’s subdued, sleepy, painfully bureaucratic. I take long breaths to quash the swell of my impatience when I wait the five minutes for the clerk to package my purchase behind the counter or when I read the latest government email detailing some new nonsensical hurdle I have to jump through in order to stay here. But in the place of efficiency there’s a polite warmth. I bow now, apologise for the smallest perceived inconvenience. Strangers have time for me here.

Last Christmas, at a dinner party of Hongkongers, the Cantonese banter around the table was whiplash-fast. I sat next to a different exiled professor who spoke about teaching Taiwanese students. “You just keep going,” he said, red-faced with wine, about butchering Mandarin. “Doesn’t matter if it’s wrong, they get the general idea.” He was making light of the heartbreak of starting again in a new place, his brilliance now dampened, his ideas rendered awkward by someone else’s language.

This is what awaits all who have left Hong Kong. On the upper deck of a London bus this spring, a young Hongkonger sitting next to me spoke Cantonese on the phone to his mother. He told her he couldn’t find a full-time job, that there were only casual gigs available. He told her what time it was in London. Snatches of a conversation between a family severed, flung across time zones. Here was just one of the many casualties in the wake of China’s crushing of the city’s democratic movement: mothers separated from their sons, teenagers struggling to find their way in a strange city. Shortly after the Hong Kong national security law passed in mid-2020, I interviewed a former protester who had fled to London. He spoke about his plans to join the French foreign legion. It was his only chance to secure a foreign passport, he said.

We’re all grasping for a home, for something familiar in an unfamiliar place. In London I found myself looking everywhere for glimpses of Hong Kong. The sleek new surfaces of London’s Elizabeth Line remind me of my city’s MTR. In Taiwan, my accent betrays my foreignness, even if my appearance doesn’t. Once, in the back of a yellow taxi, I listened to the driver speak with enthusiasm about Hong Kong. You are very welcome here, he told me. Here you can be free.

‘See you at the bottom of the pot’

Back in January 2021, I woke up to the news of fresh Hong Kong arrests. I went for lunch at Aegis, a restaurant tucked away in a small alley in a leafy university neighbourhood of Taipei. In Cantonese it was called Protective Umbrella, a nod to its mission of employing and protecting protesters who had fled Hong Kong in 2019. Its owner, a pro-democracy lawyer and legislator who had remained in Hong Kong, was among the ones arrested that morning.

Stepping into the space was sensory overload. The walls were covered in slogans and images, a frantic attempt to recreate what had been left behind, now carrying the threat of a lifetime behind bars. It was an urgent, pulsing capsule from 2019. I sat with my milk tea and instant noodles, swallowing the tears that formed at the sight of the three words above the toilets: 㷛底見. I’ll see you at the bottom of the pot – the “pot” being the space outside Hong Kong’s government offices. A way of holding on to the promise of 2019, the promise that they would once again show up at the seat of power and demand a say in the future of their home.

But the people working at Aegis were so far from that promise now. They ferried plates of Hong Kong food to tables of diners whose lives were untouched by the words on the walls. We really fucking love Hong Kong, a small purple 3D-printed slogan blared from next to the cutlery stand. I asked the couple next to me why they had chosen to eat there. “It’s close to work and the food is good,” they replied, casting the stupidity of my question into embarrassing relief. In my post-2019 worldview, I had expected a sentiment of solidarity. I had expected that the act of eating there would be a statement about the importance of supporting a business that supported democracy in Hong Kong. But for them it was just lunch on a Monday.

The disconnect between the Hong Kong mindset – where a choice as small as where to have lunch is tainted with politics – and their response, easy with the privilege of not being entrenched in loss, made the fact of being in Taiwan excruciating to me.

To exist here, to move forward after Hong Kong, means splitting yourself in two, burying the version of you that can’t look away from the ongoing loss, telling yourself you have no right to grieve or wallow when you’re no longer there. It means locking that self away behind more immediate concerns, like how to open a bank account and where to buy dog food.

So now, when I hear snippets of Cantonese on the streets of Taipei, it feels like a small catastrophe, a shattering of that carefully constructed self-delusion that all is well. It’s an intrusive reminder that a 45-minute plane ride away, in a place more familiar than the one I inhabit now, life has turned upside down. In the days before I left Hong Kong, I took long swims in the sea. Floating in the water, I was hit by the sudden realization that here, away from my phone and the gaze of others, I could actually say out loud what I truly thought. I could yell insults at its government; I could rail against the disappearance of its freedoms. The stretch of water between Hong Kong and Taiwan is hardly vast, but that matters little when there’s no possibility of return.

Taipei at night. Photograph: Lim Jit Sheng/Getty Images/EyeEm

As life continues in Taiwan, 2019 loses its immediacy. Barely a year after my first visit, Aegis burned down. An acrid scent lingered outside the space that fall afternoon. Its walls, once busy with imagery from 2019, were now charred. An ugly black hole had burned into the metal shutter. The space has since been stripped empty, awaiting new renters. Another memory to file under “things we used to have”.

And yet, as the disappearances continue, there will always be others holding on. This October, in a converted old house near a busy highway by the river, works by three Hong Kong artists hung on a square upper floor. The exhibition’s title, Never Forget Your Name, was a plea: even if it hurts, don’t lose track of where you come from.

On one wall were square canvases of cartoons by a former high school art teacher: an anonymous hand passing a yellow umbrella to another. An apple being buried in the ground. Children transforming into small PLA soldiers after passing beneath a red textbook. Snapshots in code of what we hold on to, what we’ve lost, and what’s to come in the unending assault on Hong Kong. The price of drawing and sharing them was the teacher’s life in Hong Kong.

In the centre was his best-known work, the one that cost him his job back home: a drawing of himself, hands tied behind his back, drawing a yellow smiley face with a brush between his teeth.

Next to it was a small wall covered in messages of defiance.

The Hong Kong spirit never admits defeat even when beaten to death.

Bursts of anger. May the heavens demolish the Chinese Communist party.

Moments of love. Keep your kindness, remember your anger. Glory to Hong Kong.

And hope. Always remember. We will definitely return home.

In a run-down toilet downstairs, the owners of the space had set out chalk for visitors to leave messages and thoughts on the bare concrete walls. It can be therapeutic, the manager said, to leave your worst thoughts behind in the shitter. There was only one message, scrawled across from the toilet bowl in angry blue Cantonese characters: Who the fuck says we can’t go back to HK?

Who were these messages for? Other Hongkongers? Do we need a reminder of the hurt we carry with us? Or was it for the Taiwanese, who live in the shadow of a variation on the same threat, the potential obliteration of freedoms not so much enjoyed as simply a fact of life here, evident as air? Or were they for the writers themselves, a way to reckon with the emotions swirling just beneath the surface, a way to feel like we’re doing something?

After Hong Kong, Taiwan is an uneasy reality to inhabit. When war broke out in Ukraine I found myself compulsively Googling things like “how to stop haemorrhaging”. I watched YouTube videos of a former marine placing tranches of duct tape on his arm to demonstrate how to sew a wound back together. I took notes, just as I do when I watch videos on how to cook Cantonese food. I spent hours online searching for water filters and space blankets and whistles and a solar-powered radio. When I went into 7-Eleven, I found myself scanning the shelves for food that would last, preparing for a future in which the buildings around me had been reduced to rubble.

‘It could all turn to dust’

When asked how I feel about impending war, I say, “After Hong Kong, I can’t afford to be optimistic.” Having lived through the unfathomable there, I know now that just because something is unthinkable doesn’t mean it won’t happen. In my reluctant preparation for possible war, I recognise the mental reflex developed by those of us who have watched the demise of Hong Kong in the past two years: if you expect the worst, it becomes slightly more bearable when it eventually happens.

Anecdotally, many Hongkongers who have come to Taiwan are now leaving again, frustrated by the government’s lack of transparency and the tangle of a slow-churning bureaucracy that has allowed them to come here but not to put down roots. Hong Kong has faded into a pitiful memory for many Taiwanese, but no longer an urgent one, no longer an existential mirror.

A man sits on a rock overlooking the Taipei 101 tower. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

But beyond those reasons is an overarching worry: even if they did stay, their lives would be tied to Taiwan’s own ambivalent future. Because to be here is to live with the knowledge that it can all come crumbling down. When Nancy Pelosi came and China threw a military tantrum, I sat in our new living room with the possibility that it could all turn into dust around me.

Still, I’m surrounded by Taiwanese who are completely unfazed. Living under the threat of the obliteration of home is just a premise of life here, the barrier to entry for life on this charmingly frustrating island.

Some sentimental part of me wants to think that life here is everyday resistance. That the calm cafes and small dogs in prams and the snail-paced service – the utter banality of the day-to-day – is a constant middle finger to the regime that has already obliterated life as we knew it in Hong Kong. It’s a way for me to wrench from my life here a sense of continuation of what we’ve lost, a way to turn life in Taiwan into one continuation of the Hong Kong story.

Recently, when I went to my local pet store to buy dog food, the salesperson gave me the lottery receipt I’d left behind on my last visit. They’d kept it in a drawer for me, for the next time I came in. I felt a jolt of surprise, and then something deeper: like nostalgia, but toward the future. Later I came to understand it as a kind of relief at being seen, at the beginnings of recognition that precede a sense of belonging.

To lose Hong Kong and choose to rebuild in Taiwan is a recentering, a way of moving forward in a reality we have no choice but to inhabit. There’s no running away from the continuing pain of turning our backs to a disappearing Hong Kong. But at least we can continue our lives in a place that kind of understands.

And after Hong Kong, choosing to rebuild here means choosing uncertainty: the place where we’ve chosen to rebuild could very well be the next place to disappear. Life in Taiwan after Hong Kong is not easy. But it can be meaningful.