why i am in hong kong

January 1st, 2017

why hong kong, of all places?

i get asked this question sometimes, and sometimes i wonder it myself.

“do you consider yourself from hong kong?”

“are you planning to stay in hong kong?”

“why would you want to stay in hong kong?”

many young people are (thinking of) leaving: 57 percent of people under 30 would emigrate if given the opportunity. so, not only a simple question of residence, or even of identity, of belonging, but also of dreams and hope: is there a future here?

i grew up in holland, born and raised in amstelveen, a suburb just outside amsterdam. i went to high school in amsterdam and lived a big part of my college life in amsterdam. growing up, i would semi-frequently visit hong kong. a place we would go to for holidays. a place where we had many relatives who would buy me gifts and spoil me. a place with good food, cool movies. to be honest, i don’t have that many happy childhood memories, but i cherish my childhood memories of hong kong.

so when i had an opportunity to “come back” to hong kong for work, i seriously considered it. this was unexpected. i thought i would find a job in the states. i never imagined let alone planned coming to hong kong. if it wasn’t for that initial job offer, i probably would not be here right now. but here i am, in hong kong, six years going strong.

maybe this surprises you, but i don’t feel that strongly about “going back” to holland. when i say that, people often give me curious looks.

“wouldn’t you want to go back to holland?

“don’t you miss it?”

“didn’t you grow up there?”

“don’t you miss your friends and family?”

“isn’t amsterdam super cool?”

yes, amsterdam is super cool. yes, i spent most of my years of my life in holland. but no, i don’t really feel strongly about “going back”, at least not right now.

christian morgenstern, a german poet, once said that “home is not where you live, but where they understand you.” i never really felt that holland was that much interested in understanding me. i am grateful i was allowed to grow up there, i am grateful for the good public education i got there, and i am grateful for the many people, including friends, who i connected with and built long lasting relationships with. but as a place, i always felt like i could only be “dutch” in holland. that i had to, what law professor kenji yoshino calls, “cover up” my otherness. and i got good at covering up. i joke that my superpowers is invisibility. but covering up also means covering up an important part of who you are. limiting yourself. and considering the growing backlash against immigrants, not only in holland, but in europe and now also in the united states, there is little reason to stop covering ourselves up. heads down. safety first.

in contrast, hong kong is not only the place where i am better understood, it is also the place that allows me to become myself. in hong kong, i think i can become the better person i believe i can be.

the better me makes a difference.

the better me helps hong kong be free and stay free.

the better me helps students to realize their own potential.

the better me helps the world understand why freedom and freedom of expression are important.

the better me is part of and helps build a community of friends and peers who have in common this aspiration and hope for a freer world.

a war of ideas on the values of freedom and democracy is going on (more on this in a later essay). i know i can make a difference in this “war”. it is hong kong where i think i can best do that.

but is there a future here? well, let’s not forget, the future is open. it is not set in stone. we don’t know what will happen. and because of this, there is hope. as leonard cohen said, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”.

i am grateful hong kong is (still relatively) free. i will fight to make sure hong kong stays free, becomes more free. i also believe there is much we can learn from hong kong, that hong kong plays a critical part in the larger struggle for freedom globally. this is why i am in hong kong. this is why i want to stay here.


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soul mate (2016) a review of some sorts

October 27th, 2016

today was one of those days where i was just not feeling it. but i dragged myself out of bed, got myself a hair cut, and wondering what to do next, decided to say fuck it, and went to watch a movie, in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week.

i ended up watching an amazing movie. i can tell you “soulmate” is a coming-of-age story about the friendship between two girls. that it is based on a web serial that was super popular on the chinese internet in the 1990s. that it is the solo debut of hong kong film director derek tsang. that the two actresses are amazing and deserving of every award they are nominated for.

but what i really want to tell you is that this movie made me feel very very alive again; that it also made me very very quiet. wondering, about the life choices i have made, the person i was, and the person i am now. wondering also, about people i deeply cared for, where they are now., whether they still remember me. heart wide open, life a little bit too much right now.

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remember to breath

October 26th, 2016

lunch was hectic. lunch time, everything in sheung wan is packed. lines, and once you’re inside, you’re crammed into a tiny space with people so close to you, you can overhear their conversations, forced to see their every facial feature. you instinctively shrink your body, hunch your shoulders, to preserve some sense of personal space. you eat, you remind yourself and try to eat mindfully, but you can see the line waiting outside in the reflection of the window. you finish, and you gesture you want to pay. you leave the shop, looking for the next stop. starbucks. you get in, it seems full, you look around, there are actually a few spots not taken yet. you look at the line, and you do a quick calculation in your head, if they all sit down, you won’t have a spot, but these people seem to be here for takeout rather than sitting down. you consider heading over to a spot to drop off your bag, but you decide to just stay in line and order a drink first. it seems safe enough. still, in the line, you glance over to make sure the spots are not immediately taken. once you have ordered your drink, you head over and drop off your bag. even the starbucks in sheung wan is tiny. it’s so busy the folks at starbucks havent had the time yet to clean up the tables. so in some form of coordinated anarchy, people move cups, napkins, straws, to the table that is unoccupied. the middle table, “empty”, has officially become landfill. you sit down, open your laptop, breath a sigh of relief. a few minutes of peace.

hello, how are you today?

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notes on being hospitalized

August 27th, 2016

i was hospitalized earlier this month. because i had a fever that would come and go, but wouldn’t quite go away entirely. the doctors couldn’t find out what was wrong with me.

it is scary: there’s something wrong with you, but the doctors cannot figure out what it is. unable to name “it”, to be able to tell people what “it” is, or more importantly, to know what to do about “it”.

the diagnosis: a “fever of unknown origin”. and therefore i got tested and tested and tested, for all kinds of things. process of elimination. mostly blood tests (confession: i am afraid of needles), x-rays of my lungs, and other tests, some more intrusive than others.

doctors still haven’t found the cause of the fever. but my body responded to the mix of antibiotics they gave me. meaning the antibiotics managed to keep the fever under control. meaning it was probably some bacterial infection, rather than … cancer or something else. that’s a good thing.

a few thoughts and observations:

being hospitalized as a patient feels like being a plant, kind of. the doctor asks you questions and you answer. the nurse comes to take blood and you give it (sometimes at like 2am). you are given food and you eat it. when you try to ask a question, the doctor will of course answer it. but it is also clear that this is not something the doctor has a lot of time for. there are a lot of other patients waiting for her. and you meet a barrage of staff, nurses, doctors that come and go. over time, you will get to know them a little bit better, but in the beginning it’s mostly a blur.

being hospitalized with (seven) other patients in a room, can be really intense. my fellow patients were men, really old, in a lot of pain, often immobile, often unable to eat and thus fed through a nose tube, and often unable to go to the toilet and thus had diapers and other means of relieving themselves. because they were often in pain, they would compete for attention, sometimes wailing, sometimes howling, sometimes screaming, sometimes moaning, sometimes whimpering. sometimes you’d hear a sound coming from the other end of the ward and you’d go wide eyed and be like “… holy shit what was that?” sleeping at night wasn’t always easy.

my friends would ask, why don’t you put on your headphones? but certain things or activities felt inappropriate. i would use my phone, and sometimes read on my kindle, but most other activities felt strange and out of place. you’re in this place where everyone around you is suffering and in pain; are you really going to watch some youtube video or listen to your favorite songs? there is a kind of heaviness, soberness, intensity to being hospitalized, i guess.

being hospitalized also meant being close to death. you get to know your fellow patients around you, you talk to their family and friends who visit them, sometimes when they scream for help and no one comes helping them, you help them get help, and then one day, their bed is suddenly empty. you’re quiet for a few seconds; you hope they are someplace happy, pain free and at peace.

being hospitalized means being super appreciative of things you take for granted. slippers, because it meant i could get up, walk around. big deal. but i had to tell myself, be glad you can do this. because being a patient also meant that at some point you lose interest and appetite in a lot of things. you become passive, in taking care of yourself, in getting up to do anything. but then i would look around, and i reminded myself that i should be grateful, that i could get up and take a piss, that i could eat the food myself.

small things that saved my life: phone charger, slippers, wet napkins. and that second, third, and fourth blanket when my fever was acting up and i had chills again.

small things that sparked joy during my time at the hospital: a cup of milk tea brought by a friend. sudden unexpected visit of a friend. soup, brought by relatives. simple, nice chitchat with some of the staff. friends, who really listened to me. and friends, picking up the phone and calling me in those moments when i was feeling really low.

the good news? i have been without fever for a while now. i need to take it easy, but otherwise im slowly getting back on my feet. and i will be going back next week to see the doctor for a checkup.

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i just want to see the sea

November 8th, 2015

The night they cleared Mong Kok, my heart was so heavy that the farthest I could bear to go was to a stretch of sea not far from home.

When my heart feels heavy, I sometimes go back to the site at Admiralty. I go up and down the escalators, walk around quietly, and remind myself it was real, not a dream, not a fantasy.

When I close my eyes, it’s almost like I can feel the wind on my face again. For a second, the place is packed again. So much energy, so much hope. People really cared. People still care. People in this little town that I have been calling my home for the past five years, but that I have grown to love ever since I was little and came back to visit my grandparents, my uncles and aunts, my cousins.

I walk around the site, walk through the park, and always, always end up at the sea. Because… the sea. Because I just want to see the sea.

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being a space cadet

May 6th, 2014

having dinner at classified, finished my pasta and soup, the waitress suddenly taps me on my shoulder and asks: “are you ok?”

I look at her, slightly surprised and nod faintly yes.

she smiles: “you seemed a million miles away.”

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dear gong gong

November 13th, 2013

I’ve never really known my grandparents. I was born and raised in Amsterdam and my grandparents were some 20+ hours away by plane. Back then, there was no direct flight from Amsterdam to Hong Kong. Instead, we had to make on average three stop-overs. I remember having to make stops in Dusseldorf, Dubai and Bangkok before we got to Hong Kong. It took about 24 hours before we could set foot in Hong Kong.

In Cantonese, we have a different word for grandfather who is from your father’s side (ye ye) than from your mum’s side (gong gong). We have a different word for grandma who is from your mum’s side (por por) than from your dad’s side, ma ma, not to be confused with ma ma meaning mum. Different tones and all that.

I never knew my ye ye because he passed away early and even my dad never knew him. I remember my gong gong. He was big and strong. He didn’t say a lot. He liked it when I brought him his comfy slippers. He started the company that my uncle now is still running. His shop, the office used to be on Hollywood Road. I remember my uncles running the show there after my gong gong passed away. I remember there was a little family store selling all kinds of things, including toys, next to the office. My uncle would sometimes let me pick a toy from there. My gong gong passed away when I was very little. I don’t remember much of him.

I have stronger memories of my por por. She was also a strong individual. Not afraid to let you know her opinion. Very present. She also suffered from diabetes but she’d love it when we would go to have dimsum with her. We used to go to these two dimsum places in Aberdeen – that’s Aberdeen in Hong Kong for you. One was Jumbo, the giant floating restaurant. The other was Sun Kwong, the restaurant around the corner. I loved going to Jumbo, taking the little ferry to the restaurant. It felt like going to a different world, an adventure. I remember giant fish tanks near the entrance of the restaurant. Giant fishes swimming in the giant fish tanks. I remember my mum being super sad she passed away. I remember I was in Amsterdam West, in my room, it was late at night, when I got her call and got the news. I rushed back home and even as of today she still mentions how grateful she was I did. I find that curious: it was the least I could do but I’m glad I could support her a bit.

My ma ma was a real tough lady. She was a single mum before we had single mums as a concept. She raised many kids – my dad was seventh in line and my cousins call him “seventh uncle”. She attended my high school graduation in Amsterdam and I remember being proud she was there. She spoke in a very distinct Cantonese dialect, one I had trouble understanding at times. I remember her as someone who was real no-nonsense, who could take the beatings of life, and still smile at the end of the day. When she passed away, I remember my dad crying. The one thing that really breaks my heart is the thought, the memory of my dad crying.

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to grow up with grandparents around me.

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life on pause

November 9th, 2013

there’s a quiet park near where I live where I go to occasionally to sit and read. there are gorgeous banyan trees with sprawling roots that seem like they have been around forever and have seen it all. there’s a small lake with gold fishes and terrapins. (mostly) old folks sit here to read newspapers, to play chess, to chat or to do taichi.

it’s a tiny oasis in the midst of the concrete desert.

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畫 / 話本

November 2nd, 2013

this is probably my favorite book, by one of my favorite authors.

the book is a collection of images and observations. one image on the left page, a page of her observations on the right. it’s simple but genius.

what makes it so good though are the quality of her observations. you’re looking at the same image, but she simply sees things you cannot see. it’s totally mind boggling. a privilege to see the world through her eyes.

it’s also good practice for any writing. take any image, and try to see deep into it. an exercise of imagination, of cultivating that what jung calls the “collective unconscious”.

so im thinking that might be the way forward with this tumblr. an image a day. or a song. or something else. it could be a phrase. but yeah.

i still remember how i found this book. or this book found me. i was in taipei. it must have been 2001 or 2002. that year i did a study exchange in taipei at the graduate school of journalism of the national taiwan university.

i was walking around eslite with a friend i just met. a girl. she was a writer, a journalist. i asked her what her favorite book was. she pointed to this. i bought it and liked it so much i ended up buying all other books by xi xi. maybe one day she will win the nobel prize for literature. one can hope.

i wish i could say more about the cover of the book, but the resolution is so low that i can barely make out anything. an ominous start. oh well.

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snow falling in april

April 25th, 2010

I remember how surprised I was the first time I saw you. We were in the living room of my parent’s home. We heard the sounds of someone coming down. We turned around and it was you, with a smile so bright, so full of life.

It wasn’t until later that I found out that the smile was hiding a deeper sorrow, a heartache caused by a breakup. But by then, I already had fallen hard for you, and you, unknowingly or not, shattered my heart in return.

I am in my room, sitting on my bed, with a book in my hand, probably a Murakami. A few days before Christmas, it is cold, but the house is alive, with all its family members back, filled with excitement of hosting new guests.

I hear steps coming up to my room. It is you. You ask if you can come in. You ask if you can borrow a book from me. Surprised, but pleasantly so, we start talking. We sit down on the thick carpet of my floor, lean against my bed, and before I know it, we are talking about all the important things in life that people talk about when they first get to know each other – with an understated tension, but a spark of unanticipated excitement.

At some point, you fall asleep in my lap. I am frozen. “Does she like me?” “What does this mean?” “What do I do?” “What am I supposed to do?”. I decide to gently lift and hold you in my arms, carry you to my bed and cover you with a blanket. I look at your face for a long time, serene but so fragile. In amazement of this small miracle. Afraid you will wake up, because I don’t want this moment to end. My finger tracing your neck, thinking I discovered the secret of life. I sit on my bed, next to your side, and guard you, until I forget time.

Hours later, you are up and we are sitting on my bed – a comfortable silence and conversation, deep in the night. And then, there is the blackout. “This can’t be for real”. Sensible as you are, you suggest to look for candles. I go down and come back, you light them. A faint and soft glow envelops the room. We continue our talk, and at some point I mention to you that I don’t know how to tie a tie. You tell me how you used to help your grandpa on Sunday. You look up and ask me if I have a tie, and I hand you one. You get up and sit close behind me. You slowly wrap your arms around me, softly whisper in my ear, gently show and teach me, how to tie a tie.

Days later, and you left. Snow fell the day after, as if to erase the footprints in my memories. Faintly, I still hear you knocking on my door, asking if you can come in.

As if snow was falling in April.

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book and sword : gratitude and revenge

is the first novel written by Jin Yong. The protagonist is Chan Ka Lok, who is the leader of the Red Flower Society. The book title refers to Ka Lok being famous for being well-versed in culture and martial arts, but also for having to make a difficult ethical decision. My father named me and my brother after him.

The subtitle is from a poem Desiderata