I started the year with nightmares: 2019 was no better than 2020 for me.
Things I’d seen had fried my brain, but I didn’t know it. In April 2019 I had been flying to my old home of Taiwan for a two-week vacation and had had a strange interaction in Hong Kong Airport. A clerk with a non-local accent kept my passport from me, flicking through every page, when I asked to change a small amount of money. When I asked her coolly what she was doing with my travel document, she sneered and said she was looking for overstayed visas.
She wasn’t in immigration. She had seen the multiple Taiwanese entry and exit stamps, had taken offence because she considered Taiwan a ‘renegade province of China,’ and was threatening me. My blood chilled. Eventually she returned the passport and I approached my boarding gate.
I had an eight-hour layover in which I had been intending to leave the airport and visit Jordan district, as well as meeting an old schoolfriend. My plans changed. I had no longer any intention to go out. Instead I stared through the window, forcing myself to memorise the mountain range. Later, as the fluorescent pink and orange sunset threw itself across my vision, tears blinded me. I felt I might never see it again.
The next month, when I was back in England, Hong Kong erupted.
I was on nearly every solidarity protest. That was difficult because I am a teacher, with long hours and low wages. But I went along, and was threatened and had my face videoed, and was sworn at in a language I speak but the police don’t, by counter-protesters, who bawled military songs at us in our black outfits like the tunes themselves were a weapon.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, activist corpses appeared. At one point, they appeared daily. Because the police declared all were suicides even when naked women were discovered miles from home, protesters maintained their own narrative, photographing the cadavers. I saw each picture. They also shared two detailed videos of already-dead men falling from buildings. The ragdoll flop of one, his head striking a window-ledge, still nauseates me.
I saw two boys shot. Sieges rolled, fire erupting. A girl’s body floated silently in the ocean. Fleeing to Prague – a popular protester destination – I woke up screaming in a hostel dormitory. In a city where my grandmother’s people were sent to their deaths by the Nazis and the past falls as a midday shadow, I’d had a nightmare that China’s People’s Armed Police were there for me. I did not sleep soundly from then until I went to stay with my parents for Christmas.
By that time, a weird new form of SARS was spreading in Wuhan, and my toxic diet of video footage was punctuated with COVID videos smuggled out by dissidents. At the start of 2020, an unmistakeable shape lay prone on a bed, sheets over the face, a skinny man in a biker jacket weeping at its end. “Who is that?” asked the rebel journalist, who was soon to vanish. “Wo de fujin,” came the reply. My father.
What do you do when you know something bad is coming, but your words sound ridiculous? I warned everyone I could, and was laughed at so many times I regretted saying anything. Two old friends disgustedly dropped my acquaintance when I became an early adopter of cloth masks, but students had other issues: a peaky-faced girl whispered, “Miss, my mum says it’s only a flu. I looked on the internet and you’re right. How do I make her listen?”
The first month of the 2020 lockdown was a strangely spiritual experience, leading me to discover that a nature reserve with a woodland was hidden in my grimy, drug-riddled city, and allowing me to focus on curing my nightmares with a combination of nature’s beauty and Spotify sleep tracks. As spring brushed the barren trees, I penetrated deeper and deeper into the arbour, a robin flying along a path ahead of me. On a misty day, a red kite swooped low as I approached its nest.
From the second month, the protesters’ hard-won freedoms were brutally rolled back by Beijing. All the horror, all the blood. For nothing at all.
I was in the world, but not. My school sent an email roundup of the bereaved every Monday. The uncle of a jovial child had died. The father of a boy who had called me a conspiracy theorist was comatose in the ICU. Much later, I learnt that two of my cousins had taken ill; but at that point I was in numb stasis, cocooned, and knew nothing of it – only that somewhere, people I personally knew were in trouble. Six thousand miles and a plague stopped me going to them.
In June I received a begging message from that same old schoolfriend. She needed me to verify her new BNO passport, to save her and her daughters. I lay in the nature reserve meadow and tapped through the form on my phone screen. “Known to me for twenty-six years.” She had been a nice, middle-class girl. I had always assumed that one day, when fascist darkness once more spread and maybe the world rounded upon Romani again, some kind acquaintance would have had to be doing this for me.
The Hong Kong National Security Law, rolled out in July 2020, criminalised dissent against the Chinese Communist Party anywhere globally, and banned free speech in Hong Kong. That is what I’ll remember the year for. A summer baby, I spent my birthday retching in terror into the toilet. I hope my friend can get out in time, because events are plummeting down a well-beaten and violent path. However, I also know that if fate allows it, we will outlive and defeat the old ghouls who have done these things. I will not forgive, and I will not forget.