Goodbye to Hong Kong

Photo taken of a shrine in Wan Chai dedicated to a protester who committed suicide during the protests

My view of Hong Kong is that it is a spectacular place on the surface, full of fun and excitement; but when you look at the city more closely all you see is an edifice, a facade constructed on a shifting sand of money, corruption and exploitation. Increasingly I look around me when I am out at night in the ‘expat part’ of Hong Kong and am repulsed by the unthinking swilling, gorging and cackling of the people around me, and of course by my own participation in this. It feels to me like we are in the middle of a decadent party, inside an enormous mansion, whilst the city outside is burning to the ground.” 

I wrote these words at the end of May of this year, just as the first mass protests had begun and a month before I left the city. The decision for my wife and I leaving was made weeks before the outbreak of the protests, however the synchronistic nature of our leaving and the protests commencing is still something that I think about each day. Whilst our decision to leave Hong Kong was independent of the protests that began to take place, they were related to some of the issues that the protesters are citing, although related from a completely different perspective.

The increasing “Mainlandisation” of Hong Kong was narrowing the options available to my wife and I, making it fairly clear that our professional future in Hong Kong, if we had stayed, would have been a fairly constrained one. One of the other difficulties was the social tension within the office and in the city as a whole which we could clearly feel soon after we had arrived. This tension and the deterioration of social harmony in the office I was a part of steadily became worse as time went on and was almost unbearable by the time we left in May 2019. This tension finally found it’s release when the government tried to force through it’s extradition law and the initial unrest against this has now morphed into a demand for self-determination, anger against deteriorating social conditions represented by inaccessibility to decent housing, schooling free from mainland influence and declining economic prospects for those outside of the international educated elite.  

Exploitation has been the modus operandi of Hong Kong since the British turned the barren island of fishing villages into a fortress of trade to interface with China. An exploitation that began with the British, has been perpetuated by the tycoons that now act as lords in a modern feudal enterprise. These tycoons, who have been blessed by the mainland Chinese Government to continue with their oligopolies have been conspicuously silent in their response to the protests, wary of upsetting Beijing or the Hong Kong citizens that they rely on to keep their money wheels turning. 

It is no wonder that all Hong Kong needed for this pressure to finally release was a spark, and in the end the hapless government would be the one to light it. The people of Hong Kong have seen the light of what a society based if not on western values than at least on western principles of free speech and separation of government powers can be, and they won’t be pulled into the abyss of an authoritarian system whose legitimacy is held up by the increasing wealth and material freedom of its citizens. How this ends is anyone’s guess, however the comparisons to the various suppressions of the Soviet Union and mainland China are probably inaccurate. Beijing’s hands are tied for multiple reasons; firstly, the risk of using force could actually re-ignite and fan the flames of a previously flickering pro-independence movement. Secondly, the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act, which treats Hong Kong as a separate trading entity from the mainland is an enormous stick that the US is able to wield in the event of any escalation of China’s response. Thirdly, Beijing will not be able to ‘disappear’ the relevant agitators like they did after Tiananmen Square given the nature of relative openness of Hong Kong society in comparison to the mainland in 1989 as well as the fact that the Hong Kong legal system, despite its flaws, is not an extension of the Chinese Communist Party. 

I am hoping for a peaceful end to the protests and the concession of the government to the protesters demands for more self-determination and greater access to adequate housing and economic opportunities. Hong Kong was and always will be a part of China, however as demonstrated by the protests over the last three months, once people have been given a taste of freedom, they fight tooth and nail to maintain it, something that is likely to become more and more prevalent as the year 2047 looms closer on the horizon. For the protesters, who despite the limited prospect of success are risking life, limb and future prospects by bravely demonstrating their opposition to the direction Hong Kong is going in I wish godspeed and hope they can manifest their own philosophy of this “Water Revolution” by being “strong like ice, fluid like water, to gather like dew and disperse like mist.”

The world on the screen

Edward Norton in Fight Club

The world in front of you, the world you know,

Is the world you don’t want, but can’t let go.

It’s path is well trodden the beginning quite pleasant,

There are many familiar faces, and a beckoning premise,

 

That this is a world you are supposed to desire,

Status and wealth, what else to aspire?

With all this on offer the choice seems straightforward,

Acquiescence required, noble interests ignored.

 

But all of these things, these people have done,

The clothes that they wear, their illusion of fun,

Cannot atone, for a sad sense of longing,

A truth once held, a certain belonging,

 

To something they believed in, a bubbling passion,

A fire in their eyes, a youthful obsession,

For something they held dear to their heart,

But which they let go, when shown this path.

 

This path and its pleasures, takes it own toll,

It’s status and possessions wither the soul.

They fell for a trick, this dazzling premise,

Their existence now stuck in an accumulating crevice.

 

As the price to be paid is revealed and claimed,

And the fire in their eyes, flickers and wanes,

The passion they had, that truth once known,

Becomes lost in the ether whilst a new truth is shown.

 

What has been buried? What could have been gained?

If that young person had been steadfast, determined and stayed,

With the passion he had, that unfashionable dream,

Instead of being lured by the world on the screen.

Breaking our bonds

Vasily Kandinsky – Free Curve to the Point – Accompanying Sound of Geometric Curves 1925


This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-hearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life.

Carl Rogers

Bounded. Meaning requires us to have some sort of boundary or bond in order that we can wrestle and fight against them. In lieu of a deeper meaning in life the bondage of duty ties us to a purpose that suppresses the devil’s of our darker nature. This bondage attracts and focuses the minds attention, quieting that incessant voice that is so fixated on sabotaging noble plans made in faith. The bounding of time allows us to enjoy the free time that we do have for ourselves. Remove the bondage of our time and we wander aimlessly through the desert of our thoughts. Removing our bonds we escape the tyranny of drudgery only to find ourselves lost in freedom. In our dreary doing we can rail against the yoke of our necessity, whilst dreaming of a utopia of creativity and autonomy. We can feel righteous in our rejection of the herd, rejection of bondage, walking off with our head held high into the gloriously imagined future, free to craft a life that doesn’t require us to give up our dignity. As soon as we are confronted with this wide expanse of time we find that instead of relishing the innumerable possibilities, we are paralysed by them and those brightly lit uplands of our imagined future begin to be obscured by the brewing storm of our flailing ego.

The only cure for this to to struggle against the ego that wishes for the path of least resistance, for expediency! To remember there is a reason why so few people break from the herd, namely because it carries risk and difficulty, the difficulty that comes with fighting the devil in your mind, the devil that always takes the opposing view to any notions you might have of carving your own path, of truly living. Our inability to consciously live without distracting ourselves with soul sapping work and mindless amusements is a learned habit of existence that becomes very difficult to break. There is a comfort in giving up our agency and following the herd as it occupies our minds and absolves us of the need to take conscious action in our own lives, something which is a precarious and perennial balancing act. After years of conditioning from a school and employment system that is still predominantly based on the industrial revolution, it is no wonder that it is so difficult for people to live with true intention, despite all the modern conveniences that theoretically allow us to do so. To be able to create an independent, sustainable identity that is strong enough to withstand the buffeting winds of societal expectation and egotistical self-sabotage, to live a life of meaning and integrated truth, to be your own person, not anybody else’s, is the ultimate acheivement.

The universe in our heads

Image by Matthias Hauser

The more science discovers and the more comprehension it gives us of the mechanisms of existence, the more clearly does the mystery of existence itself stand out

Julian Huxley

The universe is in our heads. The mind itself is our universe of experience with all the accompanying complexity, contradictions, wonder and awe. We create the ideals and meaning within that. Our mind within mirrors the vastness of the universe above. Similar to how we only know the small spec of space that houses our world, similarly do we only understand a small part of our minds. Our knowledge of experience is so limited to our immediate field of senses that we are blind to all the possibilities of different experience that lie latent within us. The complexity of the environment around us is filtered out through our evolutionary survival mechanisms, meaning that we only see a fraction of the world in our daily experience.

The brain has more connections between its 100 billion neurons and 40,000 synapses than the universe has stars. It is as though our brain is a small projector and all it requires for the universe to be fully rendered above us is an input that will illuminate this hidden wonder for us. All of the firing, connecting, suppressing, communicating, the storms and calm and synchronicity are the micro-equivalent of the cosmic weather that rolls above us. We have evolved over millions of years to be focused solely on what yields the most evolutionary benefit, filtering out all that is superfluous to our immediate gain, and as a result we have a very narrow focus on what the world is. It is a fascinating thought to realise that our lived experience is unique to us and that an aeon of experience is sitting, unbeknownst to us, within our minds.  

Self-help & the religious impulse

The religious impulse and the enormous appetite for self-help must stem from the same part of the mind. If we can boil religion down to the search of and alignment with an ultimate truth that transcends our individual existence, then we can see how easily self-help literature can fill the gap of those who have left religion behind. 

The fundamental essence of so much religious literature focuses on the way to live your life. Jesus offered his own life as an example for those who wished to enter ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’. The most salient message from Buddhism is the path to enlightenment, with Nirvana the ultimate goal. In Chinese philosophy Taoism (or Daoism) means “The Way” which is visually represented by the line that splits the black and white hemispheres of the Yin-Yang symbol, a symbol that encapsulates what is required to live a life that is balanced and harmonious with self and community.

These religions and philosophies are very different in how they manifest and have influenced the cultures where they have become dominant, however what unites them is their talk of “The Way”, the path you should follow if you wish lead a good life.

The self-help guru steps in where the religious authority has departed (or was never present). They offer the promise of a heaven on earth through devotion to The Way they are proposing. The self-help author, whether it is fitness, business or the arts, talks in terms of a set of principles or a path that needs to be followed in order to begin achieving your dreams and living up to your potential. These stories are intended to be a collection of wisdoms designed to open your eyes so that you can see, find and then stay on the path to salvation (whatever that may be). No wonder the seeming inexhaustible appetite for self-help, these stories are ones that we have been telling ourselves since the beginning of time.

A response to Hunter S Thompson on meaning and living the good life.

A young Hunter S Thompson

This fictional letter was written in response to a famous letter written by Hunter S Thompson to his friend Hume Logan in 1958. The original letter can be found here on the wonderful Farnham Street Blog

Dear Hunter,

Your letter, of which I have re-read numerous times, has been an anchor to my thoughts over the past week. You write that only a fool would let himself give advice to another, I suppose only a fool would ask another man how he should live his life!

My letter to you is a reflection of my own dissatisfaction and so I took your suggestion and read up on Sartre; and Existentialism more broadly.

“Existence comes before essence.”

I suppose this phrase is an arc across what you wrote in your letter last week and which is the basis of, as you call it, your credo.

So, we have no core essence in us, no centring counterweight or default setting. We are simply the sum of our experiences and our perspective is coloured by all that we have known? Sartre found this a liberating thought as it means we are not constrained by who we THINK we are, or what we have experienced, rather we are completely free to invent ourselves and as such, carry a burden of responsibility to do so.

It is this burden on my shoulders, which has caused me to write to you and shamelessly ask for your help in bearing it! I have all the knowledge inherent within me to make a choice and yet I am asking you to help me!

I know you well enough to know you are convinced by Sartre’s belief and I want to be convinced by it too, however his nihilistic vision of humanity does leave me a bit cold.

This way of living requires an iron free will and the inner strength to be able to swim against the tide. If we are simply the sum of our experiences than that is our essence and our entire perspective, and the framework for which we make decisions is shaped by what has gone before. Whilst we have a certain freedom, we are not truly free because the decisions we make are based on the information we glean from the experiences we have and some of those experiences will have closed doors on us, for better or worse.

I like Sartre’s premise that we are unencumbered to choose our own morality, but I am not one hundred percent convinced that this individualistic framework for making decisions will allow us to make better ones. Isn’t that why I am writing to you? So your advice will allow me to make a better decision than the ones I have already made?

You say in your letter that a “man must choose a path that will let his abilities function at a maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his desires” and whilst I completely agree with this sentiment, I think that the handle for everything is in the KNOWING of what those desires are. 

How can we truly know what we want? You say that the goal must conform to the man, that we must not adjust our lives to a goal which is ever shifting with our perspective, and yet our desires, the core of what pushes us to act as we do, is also constantly shifting. If we cannot pin down our desires, then we cannot set a path to achieve them and more worryingly, cannot maximise whatever abilities we have.

If we have no essence and are simply the sum of our experiences, then our self along with our desires is continually changing. The consequences of this is that any life we build for ourselves will be built on the shifting sands of our fluid perspectives.

This world view, depending on which side of the fence you sit, is a bleak one in my view. This hyper-responsibility that our true self is purely our own creation, ties in with the individualistic culture we live through. If there is no ‘essence’ to what it is to be human, then there is nothing for us to rally around, and yet we organise into collectives almost by instinct, because we want to be a part of something greater than ourselves.

It is because of this why I think we are more than the sum of our experiences. Our foundation is our heredity, all the way back to our ancient ancestors. I believe this heritage and the experiences of our ancestors and what they learned impacts how we behave in a way that is subconscious, but which we implicitly understand but maybe can’t articulate. Our desire to organize into collectives – religions, communities, families – stems from our universal ability to see a small part of ourselves in each other.

So, whilst we are free to choose and have a responsibility to do so, our choices do not exist in a vacuum and there are numerous factors which colour our judgement and constrain those choices. Despite this I know that we must make a decision, taking action despite the inherent uncertainty, otherwise we will be in the nightmarish scenario of having our decision made for us by circumstance.

Once again your letter has been a great totem for my thoughts and has allowed me to get these thoughts onto paper. I don’t plan on counting myself among the disenchanted for much longer, it is time to start connecting the dots.

Your friend,

Hume