Going South

It's a two way street – a story by Jason Y Ng



Chongjun nearly knocked over a woman when he got off the Southern Airlines plane. This sort of thing happened to him all the time, for even when he walked he had his nose buried in a book or a magazine. Dui ng tsu ah, he apologised to her in halting Cantonese, quickly slipping the book he was reading – The Complete Guide to Low Light Photography – back into his tattered leather attaché. Hong Kong people were squeamish about any form of physical contact, the 32 year-old Shanghai native had to remind himself from time to time.

Chongjun, or CJ as he was known here, had been living in Hong Kong for roughly 18 months. After graduating from Fudan University with a degree in journalism, he worked briefly as an editor and photojournalist for a local newspaper in Shanghai. His claim to fame came two years ago when he posted a scathing article on his blog criticizing city officials for a spate of failed infrastructure projects. The piece went viral on the Internet and a few months later he was recruited by a news magazine in Hong Kong as a staff editor. It was a dream come true, for only the best and the brightest among graduates in the Mainland could nan xia, or go south, to Hong Kong. To the Chinese educated elite, the Pearl of the Orient was really the Land of the Free, a sanctuary where Facebook and YouTube were not blocked and public political discussions were unfettered.

An hour later Chongjun arrived in the office with his luggage, just when his colleagues started to disappear for lunch. It was a hot summer morning outside but it wasn’t much cooler inside either. The low ceilings and the narrow hallways cluttered with file cabinets perennially impeded air flows. The magazine was located on the 19th floor of an old industrial building in Chai Wan, the easternmost part of the island. The weekly publication went to press every Wednesday afternoon, making a mad rush at the start of each week inevitable. The endless cycle of reporting, writing and editing, repeated week after week like clockwork, bore down on the staff like the scorching sun. Taking time off, like CJ’s three-day trip to Shanghai this past weekend, needed to be approved at least six months in advance. But he didn’t mind it one bit. The long hours and the stress went with the territory. That’s the Hong Kong he had heard and read so much about back in Shanghai. Anything less would have been hugely disappointing.

Today, however, was shaping up to be more than CJ had bargained for. Earlier that morning while he was still airborne, Xinhua News Agency issued a press release about the vice premier’s last minute trip to Hong Kong and Macau. The surprise state visit, announced just three days before the bigwig’s scheduled arrival, sent the local press into a tizzy. For the news magazine, that meant the cover story of this week’s issue had to be changed and a new editorial written by day’s end. The sausage machine of print media would once again go into overdrive tonight.

“Ah See-jay, can I talk to you in my office for a second?” Michael, editor-in-chief and arbiter of all things that mattered in the universe, summoned the staff editor in his native Cantonese. The temperature had just gone up by a few degrees.

Chongjun knew exactly what was going to happen in that corner office. The chief had become rather predictable these days.

“So how are your parents in Shanghai?” Michael asked while smoothing his greasy comb over, pretending to care.

Chongjun’s mother lived in Shanghai, but his father left them when he was five and now lived with his new family in Nanjing. He wouldn’t expect the chief to remember such minutia. Just the same, the question doubled as an icebreaker and a backhanded reminder to CJ that the rest of the editorial staff had to cover for him while he was sipping tea with his folks. They said Shanghainese people were tricky, but they were no match against these sly xiang gang ren.

“They are fine. Thanks for asking,” CJ responded to his Cantonese-speaking boss in Mandarin. That had been the way the two communicated with each other ever since they met.

“Great, then you should be well rested for the late night ahead! Ha ha ha!”

The thundering laugh echoed through the room, drawing curious looks from outside the office. “Late night” was a code word for an all-nighter. But all that was just a prelude to the bombshell that the chief was about to drop on CJ.

“With this thing about the vice premier, it looks like that piece you wrote on the Dalai Lama’s successor will have to be pushed back.”

The word “indefinitely” wasn’t uttered but Chongjun had guessed as much. In the past when there wasn’t such an obvious excuse – like the time he wrote an article commemorating the 25th anniversary of Zhou Enlai’s death – the chief would dish out the usual rhetoric that a magazine was a business and that, like any business, compromises were necessary to preserve its viability. “Compromises” was a code word for self-censorship, “viability” for advertising dollars.

Indeed, advertisers had been getting a bit jittery these days. Not everything critical of Beijing made them nervous; just a short list of hot button topics like Tibet and Falun Gong. Chongjun compared the situation to the Garden of Eden. Like Adam and Eve, journalists in Hong Kong could help themselves to anything their hearts desired, except for the apples on that one tree. But the more they couldn’t have it, the more they all wanted it. Two months ago, he managed to pluck a forbidden fruit when he landed himself a telephone interview with the heir apparent to the Dalai Lama. Two months later, he still hadn’t taken a bite of the apple, for Michael kept stalling him with one excuse after another. The idea was to let time, a reporter’s worst enemy, kill the article before the chief had to do it himself. An elegant solution to an ugly problem.

Back at his desk, Chongjun felt he had just been run over by a ten-ton truck. He also started to feel a little hungry. Other than those vile scrambled eggs they served on the plane, he hadn’t eaten anything all day. He decided to sneak out for a couple of hours and go home to drop off his bags. After what just happened in Michael ’s office, nothing would seem out of line. In a defiant move, he grabbed his carryon luggage and made a beeline to the exit. Hai gum sin, he whispered one of local expressions his Hong Kong colleagues had taught him. He thought that this particular phrase, the Cantonese version of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Hasta la vista, baby,” was perfect for the occasion.

To go home, the staff editor normally took the number 8 bus. The double decker picked him up 50 feet from the office building and dropped him off in front of his apartment in North Point. Carrying all that luggage and still licking his wounds, however, Chongjun decided to flag down a taxi instead. He never liked taking taxis in Hong Kong, for his accent would make him easy prey to the crafty Cantonese. Just two weeks ago, a taxi driver took him on the Eastern Corridor all the way to Tin Hau before he detoured back to North Point on the local streets. Chongjun protested as soon as they missed the highway exit but the driver played dumb and deaf. Minutes later came the implausible explanation that traffic on King’s Road was completely backed up due to a burst water main. It wasn’t until he started taking pictures of the driver’s ID on the dashboard when the latter finally agreed to cut the fare by half. Experiences like that reminded Chongjun what a foreigner he essentially was.

There was of course other nonsense too, like putting up with bad service at restaurants and stores, and getting overcharged for anything from a bowl of wonton noodles to an expensive camera lens. When he asked for directions, sometimes people deliberately pointed him the wrong way. That explained his habit of carrying a city map book with him wherever he went. What really got under his skin, however, was the way Cantonese people addressed him using the collective term “You Mainlanders.” You Mainlanders come to Hong Kong and bid up our property prices. You Mainlanders leech off our schools and our hospitals. Some of these accusations might have an ounce of truth; but others, like the notion that all of them were lazy and expected handouts from their Hong Kong cousins, were pure fabrication. He, for one, got up at 5:30 every morning and was almost always the first to arrive in the office and the last to leave.

Chongjun was not used to being home so early in the afternoon on a work day. There was a tranquility to his apartment that he had never noticed before. Inside the 200-square foot shoebox of a place, there were books, magazines and printed materials strewn all over the floor. That’s just the way he liked it – all that paper gave his home a Bohemian charm and added a touch of Kafkaesque existentialism to his Hong Kong experience. In the living room, every inch of wall was covered with photographs he had taken over the years with his Canon Mark III, an investment he made shortly after he moved to the city. He had long been an avid photographer. A semiprofessional. He always thought that he needed something to fall back on in case his editorial career didn’t work out. Near his desk lamp and on top of his computer monitor was a picture of him standing in front of the Tsim Sha Tsui clock tower with the dramatic city skyline as his backdrop. The picture was taken five years ago when he visited Hong Kong for the first time during a summer break from Fudan. He remembered telling his friends back home that just by looking at the picture he could smell the salt in the breeze and hear the pulse of the city. Seeing the picture today saddened him. It broke his heart.

Next to his computer and lying flat on his desk was a printout of his Tibet article. It was staring at him, mocking him. All those late nights he put in writing it and polishing it were all for naught. If this were the first time it had happened, he might have let it slide – Chongjun did not have a flare for theatrics after all – but it wasn’t. These editorial concessions would only get worse. At times it seemed like the problem went far beyond his boss and the magazine. It was all of Hong Kong: the government and the businesses. These Cantonese simpletons thought they were so clever, saying what they thought Beijing wanted to hear and doing what they thought Beijing wanted to see. That’s why they self-censored, self-edited and self-destroyed. But they had gotten it all wrong! China didn’t need another Shanghai or Shenzhen. What she needed was a Petri dish where freedom of expression could grow so she could study it and learn to manage it. Hong Kong was perfect just the way it was.

The more he thought about it the angrier he got. The unrelenting heat suffocated him. It crossed his mind to rip the article to shreds and delete it from his hard drive altogether. Then he thought better of it. The article shouldn’t suffer for someone else’s mistakes. I could use it for my blog, he thought. Just two weeks ago Chongjun’s blog site was hacked and some of his old postings got edited, others deleted. There were two possible explanations: either some rookie hacker had chosen his site for practice, or that his blog was popular enough to be worthy of an attack. Finally a positive thought after a day of bad news.

Chongjun returned to the office an hour later. He went to work the following day and the day after that. On Wednesday, after the week’s issue had gone to print, he waited until everyone else had left the office, dropped a letter on Michael’s in-tray and packed a few personal effects before he left. Hai gum sin, he whispered as he shut the office door behind him for the last time.

Jason Y Ng is a Hong Kong born lawyer and a freelance writer. He is the bestselling author of the books Hong Kong State of Mind and No City for Slow Men, and his short stories have appeared in various anthologies. He also writes a social commentary blog, As I See It, and a leisure review site, The Real Deal

The Hong Kong Writers Circle was founded in 1991 to foster and develop writers of all genres in Hong Kong. For over two decades, the HKWC has been a stalwart of Hong Kong's literary scene and regularly organises events, seminars and workshops for its members, as well as producing an an annual anthology of writing

You can read the sibling to this story, "Going North", here