There are two Hong Kongs. One contains ordinary life, the same kind portrayed on postcards that rotate on creaky metal carousels: the iconic skyline, neon signs casting lights on neon people, stuffed shopping malls and claustrophobia. But in 2019, a parallel universe flickered into existence. Streets and subways morphed into stages for clashes. Students anticipating ribbons of tear gas from the sky hunched under umbrellas and rhythmically banged metal rods in what became the soundtrack of the summer. Officers cracked down on protesters and in news conferences offered dubious explanations for the police brutality.
I moved to Hong Kong in March 2019, expecting the first world but colliding with the second. Just eight days after I arrived, the Hong Kong government’s amendments to the controversial extradition bill were brought to the legislature, which would essentially open the door to allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial. Many feared that the bill would tear down the “one country, two systems” arrangement that guaranteed Hong Kongers the continuation of certain freedoms until 2047. Although Chief Executive Carrie Lam eventually withdrew the bill, by then the concession was not enough. The demands of protesters had already expanded far beyond the cancellation of the extradition bill.
My parents, who were raised in Hong Kong and immigrated to the United States before I was born, brought my sister and me to visit many times when we were kids. I came to love every part of the city — being surrounded by cousins, trying out my halting attempts at Cantonese, haggling with brusque shopkeepers and watching the lights of millions of households set Victoria Harbor ablaze at night.
My new perception of the city was inseparable from my experiences photographing its seismic shifts. As I followed young protesters flowing through the subway system, I encountered more and more pockets of the city. One day as I walked along a street in the Admiralty district, it dawned on me why I felt like I had been there before: It was the first place I had ever experienced tear gas.
The blend of shocking realizations and mundane experiences became a familiar routine. Once, after a long march following protesters to Causeway Bay, I took a break to edit photos on a sidewalk. Nearby a group of older men and women stood chattering and grumbling about the police. When they spotted me, they insisted that I share some of the fruit that they had brought to feed protesters. As I picked up a cantaloupe cube, the offering seemed both strange and ordinary.
At protests this dichotomy was everywhere. And my eyes adjusted quickly — to the sight of food stall owners wearing gas masks, to hearing the whir of leaf blowers as they dispersed clouds of tear gas, to college campuses with Molotov cocktail assembly lines.
As clashes steadily accelerated, daily life churned forward, too. I treasured having the chance to build relationships with my extended family. I got to cook for my aunt and uncle, celebrate birthdays with my cousins and go to yum cha, or get dim sum, with my grandma. Between eating steaming baskets of siu mai and shrimp dumplings, my aunt would act as interpreter for me and my grandma, who spoke only Teochew. Although I was able to carry on conversations with my relatives using a combination of Cantonese and English, I knew very little of her dialect.
I learned “hiu sik,” or “get some rest,” when she had a stroke in September, which I would repeat at her hospital bedside while she gripped my hand. While I was in the States for a winter holiday, she developed pneumonia and passed away at 104.
Not long after her funeral, the exponentially growing threat of the novel coronavirus, which was first discovered in Wuhan, China, further changed the cityscape. Those who were able to stayed home for fear of catching the virus. Everywhere on the streets of Hong Kong paranoia hung thick in the air. Subway cars during rush hour felt spacious, and shopkeepers talked quietly at empty street markets previously filled with a cacophony of noise.
For me this has been a time of witnessing irreversible change, in my personal life and in society. There were so many moments of wanting to help and feeling helpless at the same time. But amid it all, I believe I did what was most important — as a photographer, as a granddaughter — to bear witness to it all.
May-Ying Lam is a former Washington Post photo editor.
Design by Christian Font. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.