by Kenneth Meyer
The car in the middle of the Yuen Long light rail track was what brought Yanlei to a full stop. It was a yellow Toyota Starlet hatchback, a nineties-vintage model, and it was resting in between the platforms where the passengers would queue up to enter the trams. Had a group of people carried the car there? How had they done that? At any rate, there would be no light rail today, with that obstacle sitting there.
Earlier, it didn’t rattle him when his wife Gongzhen reported, “WhatsApp says there is no metro running today. A mob wrecked some of the card-readers at the station. Another friend says no buses are departing the Andafang station either.” Yanlei usually caught his bus at the Andafang station, one block away. When he heard his wife’s warnings, he was sitting in his usual chair at the breakfast table in their apartment in Yuen Long, in the northern part of Hong Kong. He drained a cup of tea, had a half-eaten banana in his left hand, and was contemplating the coming day in his office at the Central District branch of the Bank of Communications.
Frankly, he was just happy that everyone in the territory had gotten past 1 October, the People’s Republic of China national day, without the People’s Armed Police being sent over the border to lockdown the whole place. It appeared that cooler heads in Beijing had prevailed, even though everyone in Hong Kong had seen the photos of the armored personnel carriers lined up in neighboring Shenzhen, ready to go. Thankfully, somebody in ruler Xi Jinping’s circle realized that cracking down on Hong Kong would look bad all over the world and hardly encourage semi-independent Taiwan to rush into Beijing’s embrace.
“That bit about the buses might not be right,” murmured Yanlei, always the optimist.
Gongzhen threw down her napkin and stood up. “Have it your way,” she retorted, and left the room.
Not the best beginning to the day. Yanlei sighed, finished the banana, bid his silent wife goodbye, and departed. A short walk brought him to the Andafang Bus Station, where there were no buses (vision of Gongzhen in his head: “I told you so”), and that included Yanlei’s 968 to the Central District on Hong Kong Island. An attendant told him the buses might pull up around the metro station, which was one kilometer to the east.
“This is not very good,” observed Yanlei, to no one in particular.
Delays and outages in the Hong Kong transportation system were normal now. Since July, the local government under Chief Executive Carrie Lam brought forward a bill that would permit Hongkongers to be extradited over to the mainland to face any pending charges. The bill sounded like another erosion of Hong Kong’s special status, voted into law when the territory was returned to Chinese control, with the territory guaranteed “a high degree of autonomy” for a period of fifty years. The extradition bill was put forward in a current climate in which the mainland – that is to say, Beijing – had recently grabbed four Hong Kong journalists whose local publications offended the mainland ruling party. The persons in question later turned up before cameras charged with various crimes, some of them having nothing to do with press activity. In at least one case the arrested person still hadn’t been heard from. Similarly, in January 2017, apparently the mainland Ministry of State Security—China’s equivalent of the old KGB—had whisked away the billionaire Xiao Jianhua in the middle of the night, without explanation. An article emerged twenty months later suggesting the “disappeared” accused would soon face charges for “manipulating stock and futures markets” and “offering bribes on behalf of institutions.” After being held incognito for what would be at least two years? What happened to due process? Or any process…
It was almost impossible to find anyone in favor of the extradition bill. 1.7 million people (or, okay, perhaps only one million people; pick your reporting) had demonstrated against it on Hong Kong Island in August. If the 1.7 million figure was correct, that was 22.67 per cent of the total population of the territory out on the streets! In September, Chief Executive Lam reluctantly withdrew the bill, but there were still calls for her to resign, and there were also demands that there should be an investigation of police brutality in handling the demonstrations, and so on. Small groups of young people continued to cause disturbances, damage property such as local branches of the Bank of China, and sometimes even beat up citizens who voiced impatience with the continuing disruptions.
Entering Qingshan Gonglu, which was the main thoroughfare of the New Territories suburb of Yuen Long, Yanlei came upon the light rail station with the car on the tracks. Other commuters were also standing around, going nowhere. Men and women in business attire gathered in groups, speaking in whispers.
The automobile lanes of the main avenue provided another spectacle. In traditional Chinese practice, each district put up a theatrical stage—made out of bamboo and rods—in the street on feast days, but today it looked like the theatre troupe had gone berserk: groups of protesters (disrupters? rioters?) had tied twenty-foot bamboo poles, hundreds of them, to the metal barriers by the sidewalks, with the poles leaning down across the road. No vehicles could enter or depart the downtown area. The poles extended all the way down Qingshan Gonglu towards the metro station, a one kilometer distance.
How did they do that? It must have taken half the night and dozens of people. The township would require hours to clear the roadway, and no one had even started doing that.
Yanlei was tempted to turn right around and head back to his apartment, but no, he wasn’t finished trying yet (also, he would have to face “I told you so” from Gongzhen). Maybe the metro is working.
He commenced walking to the east. As if all this were not bad enough, his favorite dim sum restaurant, Fu Lum, in the eastern part of the suburb, closed in September. The management cited a decline in business. What do you mean ‘decline in business’? I’m still eating there!
His father used to say, “Just remember: no matter how bad it gets, it can always get worse!” And the old man was right. It could always get worse. You had to be thankful if it didn’t.
These gloomy thoughts were interrupted by a shout: “Yanlei!” And he looked up to see his high school comrade, Kenan, also in tie and white shirt, who worked at the Stock Exchange in Central. Central seemed a long way away just then.
The two men shook hands. “It will be a short work-day,” observed Kenan. “The metro is out too – “
Oh God. Visions of Gongzhen.
“But I heard 968 is picking up passengers east of the Bo Ai Hospital.”
That was nearly two kilometers away. “You’re kidding!” expostulated Yanlei.
“I wish I were.”
Yanlei, ever the statistician, wondered how far back all this would set the territory’s GDP. A few weeks of this might knock off ten percent for the year. Don’t dwell on it. We’re heading into recession.
“I heard you sigh,” observed Kenan. “Don’t worry. Let’s go have a naichaat Café de Coral. There’s obviously no hurry.” The local branch of the ever-present café was a ten-minute walk to the east.
Near the intersection with the pedestrian walkover—west of Li’s shop of old coins, which Yanlei was pleased to see was unharmed—they went upstairs to the café, where they found only two workers on duty, instead of the usual fifteen. Apparently even the eateries had been affected by the local disruptions. A woman in her twenties was at the register and some old codger stood behind the preparation counter. The workers had the distinctive Café de Coral white tunics with tan caps and shoulder boards – but no smiles.
“You’re still open, eh?” asked Yanlei, just to make sure.
“We’re standing here, aren’t we?” responded the woman testily.
The two men ordered, picked up their tea at the counter, and sat down. There was desultory chatter at the twenty occupied tables in the room. Ordinarily such a diversion for a refreshment would have been a cause for delight, but not this morning. Yanlei was tempted to have a plate of chicken wings – one of his favorites – but it was nine in the morning.
Kenan spoke about his daughter and how well she was doing in school. She was attending one of those Catholic schools. Whenever you read about the resumes of the high-level government officers and a good many of the prominent businessmen, they all graduated from these local Catholic schools. Yanlei was only half listening.
After the conversation stalled, the two men descended to the street-level and trudged east. At the next traffic circle, the blockade of bamboo poles came to an end and cars were picking up and dropping off people in the circle, but the amount of traffic was much diminished.
“The subway isn’t running,” said several people in the circle.
Yes, we know.
Passing the Sam Yuen Long Zhongsam, the New Yuen Long Shopping Plaza, Yanlei was again sad about the recent loss of his nearby restaurant. Those wonderful bowls of the chicken feet, gone now. After November, the bitter melon soup, no more. The dumplings with the bouncy shrimp, Gone! The two old friends came to the Bok Oi Interchange of the Yuen Long Highway.
“It is easier walking now,” admitted Yanlei. “Not much traffic. Fewer chances to get hit by cars.” Accentuate the positive.
“And we need the exercise too.”
When they passed the hospital, one of the largest in the Yuen Long area, they saw the lines for the buses on the sidewalk beyond. There were only about three hundred people waiting. This is looking pretty good!
“Since there are other buses stopping here, we might actually get on the third or fourth 968,” said Yanlei hopefully.
“That means we should get into Central just in time for lunch,” agreed Kenan.
The crowd was more animated among the throng waiting for the buses, as if the people knew deliverance was close at hand. Someone said they heard Beijing was going to yank Carrie Lam out of office next year, maybe around March. There was a satisfied susurration.
But is that really helpful? Won’t the next person “elected” by the one thousand hand-picked electors just be another toady?
“Wouldn’t that be something like progress?” mused Kenan. “The extradition bill has been withdrawn. There will be an investigation into police behavior by the Independent Police Complaints Council.”
“But how independent is that?”
“If Lam is replaced, that would be three of the five general demands met. You would have to call it some kind of victory.” But even Kenan was a little doubtful. “Well, anyway, a little bit of a victory.”
One 968 bus appeared and the crowd cheered. Both men estimated they would get on, not the next bus, but the one after.
Yanlei mopped his forehead with his handkerchief. He didn’t want to be a spoilsport, but he thought, if this is a victory, I would hate to see what defeat looks like. But what he said was: “We’ll surely get a bus!”
Kenan nodded. “I know we will.”
Although he has been a Whatcom County resident for the past six years, Kenneth Meyer spent most of his adult life abroad, first as an exchange student, then later in several assignments to U.S. embassies and consulates. His short fiction often has a Middle Eastern or greater China area setting. He participates in several local writers’ groups, is a returning student at WWU, and reviews on North African topics at African Studies Quarterly.