Letter to my niece

There are rights in Hong Kong that don’t exist in China, but these have been more and more eroded in later years. Tammy Ho Lai-ming, poet, editor and vice chairperson of PEN Hong Kong gives in a letter some advice to her niece in order to prepare her for the future. “You will realise that words have consequences. And as a writer with a conscience, sooner or later you will experience censorship—forced or self imposed.”

November 29 2018 Text: Tammy Ho Lai-Ming

Dear Krysta,

My aunts—your great aunts—have not yet tired of telling me that you look exactly like I did when I was your age. You are my four year old, pint sized doppelgänger whose cute and goofy smiles melt everyone’s heart. Every day, our purported resemblances give me so much unearned pride and joy. 

I wonder if, apart from looking like me, there might be other similarities between us. Maybe you will love spicy food like I do, and seek it out religiously wherever you go. Maybe you will go to bed late, reading by a gently lit lamp until you drift into vivid dreams. Maybe you will love travelling to Europe and other Asian cities to visit their museums, cafés and, most important of all, their second hand bookshops. Maybe you will love the written word as much as I do. Maybe you will be unafraid to fight for the freedom to use it.

When you become a grown woman in several decades, the Hong Kong I know now may have changed terribly, utterly. In fact, I am certain of it, even if I am not, of course, equipped with the power to predict the future. How are things now, in 2018? How can I prepare you for navigating life in the city—my city—as a young woman? Let me tell you my experience and what I have observed:

- Coming out of your shell will not guarantee everyone will respect you. You will find yourself having to prove your worth again and again. There will always be those who consider you inadequate, or who are jealous of your achievements, or simply want you to fail, fall, and fade. Accept that you cannot please them all. But you must never get accustomed to condemnation, condescension, and inequality. 

- Some men, at different times in your life, will try to pin you to a door or a wall, corner you in your office, take things from you, claim credit for your hard work, attempt to intimidate you with ‘eloquent’ rhetoric, physical strength, or a supposedly fancier accent—women being silenced is the history of women, as Mary Beard told us: it is structural and global. And alive in Hong Kong. Stand up for yourself, and help others stand up too. Begin at home and in the workplace, and then in public. Definitely in public. 

- Love whoever deserves your love and return it in sufficient measure, regardless of their gender, nationality, race, educational background, etc. etc. We now talk of the ‘leftover women’—women who are not married after a certain age, women compared to an unfinished, unappetising dish. Be a leftover woman if that is better than being devoured by an unhappy marriage or relationship. 

- Language is a right, not a privilege. Speak or write in the language or languages you are the most comfortable with. And do not allow yourself to feel shame or discomfort when speaking your mother tongue, which is also your mother’s mother tongue. You first learnt to count apples, chubby dolls, and twinkle-twinkle little stars using Cantonese. It remains one of the most vibrant, playful languages in this world. Don’t let it die.

- If you are really like me, you would be curious about what words can do to reflect truth, to portray people and events, to paint beautiful or dystopian societies that have become realities, and to hurt and educate and punish and praise. You will realise that words have consequences. And as a writer with a conscience, sooner or later you will experience censorship—forced or self imposed. Don’t succumb to it. Talk about it. Talk about it often. Don’t ever let others’ unfortunate inability to speak, or much worse, cowardly unwillingness to speak, poison and contaminate you. 

- If you write things ‘critical’ of the government or do things that disagree with the authorities, you may be ‘vanished.’ There have been or will be vanished and suicided film stars, writers, police chiefs, politicians, dissidents, farmers, educators, environmental activists, linguists, psychologists, and even shoemakers and coffee tasters—such is the absurdity of the theatre of life in the mother country. There was also a rumour—yet to be confirmed—that some prisoners were tortured to death; their lifeless bodies treated using the technique of plastination and put on display. And then there are the re-education camps—confirmed—old and new. And people’s homes being occupied. Everyone must love the country. Everyone must love the leader, or else. Be ready. Be vigilant. Find ways to be critical that are effective and keep you alive. But find ways to be critical always. 

- As I am writing this, my dear niece, there is a plan to build yet another artificial island in Hong Kong—in Lantau. In the end, the ocean and the land will stop living. What are we doing to this place?

Have I said too much? Too little? 

Aunt Mingming 
October 2018