—For my students, in thanks and with hope.
Hope is unrealistic. It is the unhinging of time as destiny, it skips it off its tracks. Hope is not politics; politics is the realm of strategy, hope the realm of gods.
They have umbrellas. We meet in the elevator. I know they are headed to Admiralty. It’s the first night. Before it’s been called the “Umbrella Revolution.” People have been tear-gassed. They live in the New Territories. “We don’t want any of this but there is nothing we can do. If we don’t stand up now it will be all over.” People are texting me that real bullets might appear. That communications might get cut. The networks are owned by the same few who own the properties in Central and Admiralty. The oligarchs. It all seems feasible: bullets, the People’s Liberation Army, cut networks. We touch each other’s shoulders, hold them with kindness. We would hug if we felt we could. History has broken open. Now it is process, not destiny. They leave me at the edges—I’m too afraid to go into the center of it, there is too much uncertainty. What if we get kettled and arrested? They say they need to be with their friends. As I gain my bearings, I understand that I can safely go in deeper. I turn the corner and a young woman is standing on a half-finished barricade of piled-up road barriers, shouting instructions and strategies to close up some roads and open up others. A group is helping her build the barricades. They build then they tear them down having decided another location is better. The streets are packed with people but no one sees the police. We don’t know when they will arrive or how.
The city core, built to maximize the movement of commodities and privilege the private ownership of space, has unexpectedly become the perfect terrain for the occupation. There is always a way out, a passage to escape through, an overpass, a pedestrian bridge, a tunnel, a door. And we still don’t know what is going to happen, or what is happening. Everyone is piecing it together at the same time. It looks different to each of us.
We sat on a stoop in Sheung Wan. It was raining hard, thick and hot. Midnight had long passed and I had just come back from the Admiralty district. Chen and Jin were drinking boxes of sweet lemon tea; I, tall cans of beer. Chen and I live in the same neighborhood. His parents operate the Thai restaurant in the Sheung Wan Municipal Services building six-and-a-half days a week. They worried about him getting hurt or arrested in the occupation, but he had been down to Admiralty a few times with tens of thousands of students, workers, professors, and others occupying the streets. He helped build and defend barricades. Jin’s family owns a factory for air-conditioning parts in Shenzhen. He has a Hong Kong passport and moves back and forth between the two cities.
Chen: “I want to be a graphic designer, but I’ll probably take over from my father at the restaurant.”
Jin: “We don’t see the world like our parents. They fought to stay alive. Poor folks think that working all the time to eat, to wake up in the morning, that working all the time just to stand on two feet is a life. And you look around and what do you see: luxury cars, malls, and expensive watches. We won’t ever have that. And we don’t want it. When all of our work goes toward the people at the top who spend our labor, waste it on stupid things, of course we should occupy.”
“Where do you live, Chen?”
“Right over there.”
“What is your place like?”
“I share a bedroom with my mother.”
“Where do you have sex?”
Jin laughs: “I have a car.”
Chen: “I used to fuck girls in public toilets. We would start things in an alley or something, then she’d meet me in the bathroom.”
“So standing up the whole time?”
“Yeah. But now I just do it in my room with my mom there, I don’t care anymore.”
“We should occupy so each of us can have places to make love.”
I learned Indonesian in a small grocery store at the corner of Possession Street and Queens Road in Sheung Wan. It was tucked inside the podium of a residential tower and like many others in the city it catered to Indonesian domestic workers. Though a Cantonese woman owned it, Yulia ran the shop and she slept in a small illegal room above the drop ceiling. She’s been working in Hong Kong for years.
Three mornings a week she made breakfast for me and taught me Bahasa Indonesia. There were usually three to five other women with us in the mornings, eating and making fun of my destruction of their language. Unlike many others, her ‘employer’ (I use scare quotes because the language in Hong Kong for domestic workers is full of euphemisms, using terms like ‘helpers’ and ‘employees’ in order to disguise the slave conditions in which they work) allowed her to live out of the house. She made ends meet by running the shop and cleaning apartments in the neighborhood. Her employment contract was running out and she needed to renew it or else leave Hong Kong. She asked if I’d help her out, hire her. She’d clean my apartment. Or, I could just sign the contract so she could get another visa and scrape together jobs like she always did. Signing a contract means that you, not the state, are solely responsible for your ‘worker’/‘helper’. Their survival, destiny, and their ability to feed themselves are all up to you. If they get sick or die it is your responsibility. As David Graeber says, had Aristotle been alive today, he wouldn’t have seen any difference between his definition of slavery and contemporary conditions of wage labor.
“Yulia, I want to help but I can’t sign a contract. You know that would make me legally liable for you.”
“Of course. But it’s only a contract. You don’t have to pay any attention to it. That is what I currently have with my employer. He’s a nice gay man who lives close to you. I come by once a week and clean his place.”
“Yeah, but it’s crazy, I barely know you and if I sign this contract you are basically in my life for a year.”
“But don’t worry about it.”
“What else can I do?”
“Adam, listen, you have two options, you either sign the contract or you marry me.”
The next week she went back to Indonesia with no new contract. She hasn’t come back.
“Is banality a good enough reason for a revolution?” she asked.
“We are facing a life they call prosperous. But it is only meaningless work, endless work. Working forever. For what? Can’t we make life into something else?”
“Is this a good enough reason for a revolution?”
Yan thinks that the Americans are paying Joshua Wong. She reads the Mainland newspapers, which claims that the eighteen-year-old activist has been given riches and diplomatic protection for his work. Instagram has been blocked in the Mainland. Over a billion people are being blocked from hearing about any of this.
It’s the sixth day of the occupation.
She’s a commercial lawyer working in Hong Kong. She stayed at the Shard in London and called it great architecture.
“The view is so beautiful, so high, you see all of London.”
“I have visited twenty-two countries,” she tells me.
We talk for three hours waiting for the rain to stop, eat deep-fried sweet dough and salty fish flakes. Her parents are rich and she makes a good salary. I propose we sleep together. She tells me that just last month she stopped talking to her boyfriend of ten years. They both stopped talking to each other at the same time, as if wishing each other out of their lives.
“It doesn’t work like that though,” she says. “He is a ghost now, he’s with me everyday.”
“We began to disappear from each other after he took me to his house in a Shenzhen urban village. I loved just sitting with his mother watching television. His brothers love each other so much. They are so generous. But he never wanted me to come over. In ten years, I only went twice. He would always stay with me at my parents’ house.”
“Is it big?”
“And I have a car.”
“I don’t think we could have gotten over this. I don’t know why. I don’t know what it was. It shouldn’t be the money. Or, was it. Do we have to be the same? I don’t know.”
She went home.
Urbanity is sensual. It is bodies in proximity, making contact, guarding contact, excluding contact. It is gestures transmitted through countless bodies contagiously passing from one to the other. In these past few weeks our gestures have changed and new ones are emerging, suggesting new intimacies: The hand grips the shoulder in a way that desperately tries to overcome its own meekness. It tries to crack the strangeness of strangers, to adequately express the intensity of the instant. The handshake, lock of the eyes, grasp of the forearm. These are gestures that don’t live up to the intimacy passing through them. It is here that we might witness the creation of new intimate gestures because those we have are falling short. By which I mean also new ways of being together—urban, and in proximity.
These new gestures are not only between people but materials and objects too: sleeping on asphalt, waking with the sun on your face in the middle of the road, the pattern of asphalt on your hands. Or, when an umbrella shelters you from streams of pepper spray in a new kind of rain and a new kind of storm. Climbing in and out of the barricades, thickets of plastic wrap, bamboo sticks, umbrellas, twisting your body to add another piece to the assemblage. Hoisting barriers with others, collectively deciding, while in motion, where you are going. Turning a road median into an ad hoc desk, building a flat surface on top to hunch over, to nestle it against limbs in order to complete homework. The body touches the city in new ways.
Intimacy is a form of learning. Physical contact can change what a body can be open to experience in the future, its repertoire of gestures grows, which can be drawn upon and varied in the future. It can create new gestures and new empathetic relations with people and things. In other words, new kinds of urbanity emerge.
I’m standing on the road watching people give speeches in a language I don’t understand while people lie around, texting, cheering, talking to each other. They lie on their backs waiting to take pictures of the cascading lights on the Bank of China Building. The pavement is covered in chalk. A little ways away people are watching a movie, sitting on the steps of the Lippo Centre. Snacks are distributed. It’s late, around 3 a.m. I’ve just moved back into my apartment in Sheung Wan after a month of living in an old factory under a banyan tree on Peng Chau, a small island west of Hong Kong Island. Philippe, a white French guy who I met on the island, comes wandering by with a beer in his hand, drunk.
“What the fuck are you doing here? Trying to find a girlfriend? I missed the last ferry, now I need to find somewhere to go.”
“The prostitutes in Wan Chai are more expensive than before,” he says. “What are you doing here? Just standing like that? You don’t even understand what anyone is saying, do you? Well, I’ll tell you. They don’t know anything, these people… They don’t know anything about revolution. Where I come from, we know. We started them. I know how to fight in the streets. To start fires. Tires, you light them on fire. These people, they are all sheep. They only do what they are told.”
He is always drunk.
He is always boasting… trafficking drugs in Shenzhen, his dangerous times in the golden triangle.
“I’ve been deep in Laos, where you would never go.” He tells me he wants to punch the customers of his wine bar on Peng Chau in the head. “The fucking French, they are so cheap.” And the French Africans, “They all say I’m racist because I say, ‘He’s a good boy.’ Fuck them!’”
Back to the street. “These people, they don’t know anything, they are all sheep. I say send them to the Gulag. All the Chinese. It will be better for all of us.”
“You understand nothing,” I say.
“Go fuck yourself,” he says as I walk away.
No one plays Candy Smasher on their phones on public transport these days. Instead it’s the news, speeches, their Facebook feeds flowing from Admiralty, Mong Kok, Causeway Bay.
How does the cosmos remain open? This is the central practical question right now. We are many worlds. How do we love that? To keep many worlds open and to be open to the entry of new worlds.
Sitting, waiting on the asphalt. The temporal experience of the occupation is a lot of waiting, talking, watching people. As the days have rolled on there is less tension in the crowds in Admiralty. Mong Kok has been different, scrappy, provocateurs have been planted. But all across, all through the occupation, time is at an impasse. A pregnant time. No one is sure what change will come and what it will look like. The police, often absent, are docile. If they attack again it will bring more people. It seems that those in power have two strategies: 1) Hope the students get tired, or begin to compromise their grades, so that their parents will berate them and they will go home; 2) That the inconvenience to residents will break their solidarity. But neither strategy is working yet. So the thickness of time weighs on the present. And we sit on the asphalt. Who is moving? Who will move? But in this waiting so much is happening. The city has been transformed. Seth said, “People have discovered the thickness of a street.” For the first time people have watched the sunrise sitting the middle of Connaught Road and slept under the moon on the stairs of the Lippo Centre. The incompleteness, the delay, is an opening for these new unpredictable relations. This will create a reserve of relations that will be fed off of for a very long time.