An ordinary talk with Kamal Mirwani, a native Hongkonger
T: First of all, thank you for going out of your way and taking the time to talk to me. We always talk about random stuff – serious or not, so I just thought your input as a Hongkonger would contribute to a better understanding of what is currently happening there.
Kamal: No worries at all. More than happy to help.
T: For starters, could you tell me a bit more about your family background/descent and how you identify yourself in terms of culture etc? Many people may not realize how diverse Hong Kong is in terms of its citizens´ backgrounds.
Kamal: Sure. My family moved to Hong Kong because it had a thriving business climate in the 1990s. Before the internet was really thriving, there was a gaping hole in the market for traders, especially who could arrange goods to be delivered from China to the west. Seeing this gap in the market, my family moved to Hong Kong as traders to seek wealth and a better life.
I was born in Hong Kong, and from a young age, my first language was Hindi. However, after realizing that there were English entrance interviews to get into international and British primary schools and kindergartens, my parents stopped speaking Hindi and Sindhi to me and replaced that with English. Hence, I have a distinct gap in my knowledge when it comes to Indian languages.
Culturally, I grew up surrounded by Sindhis (a group of people of Hindu and Muslim ideologies who lived in India until Partition, when Sindh became part of Pakistan and most Hindu Sindhis fled) and attended youth groups not too dissimilar to Christian Sunday schools. I learnt about the gods, legends and customs of Sindhi people, so I have a familiarity with Sindhi, Hindi and Sanskrit hymns (though I don’t know what half of them actually mean).
As I got older, I attended a British school and my friendship group became far more mixed and international. It was at this point where I became what’s known as a third-culture kid. Assimilating bits of other people’s culture into my own ethos until I was neither of them. This leads to a slight disconnect whereby, I am not really very Indian or Sindhi in my mannerisms, but I am not truly western, either. I guess, the best way to describe it is being a chameleon, able to blend in wherever I go.
T: Chameleon. That’s a really unique way to describe it. I think this is the biggest difference between our cultural backgrounds. I’m Czech, born in the Czech Republic (although back then it was Czechoslovakia) into a fully Czech family. Unlike you, I’m “fully-integrated” within the original society of my country and it was only because I had the life-changing opportunity to live abroad, travel and experience various places and cultures, that I filled up my personal map. You, on the other hand, have lived it ever since you were born. How did being Indian by descent and born in HK change your perception of the world?
Kamal: HK has always been my hub because even when I traveled somewhere else, I’d come back to HK to visit family and be back home.
It’s strange. Those who can go to British schools in Hong Kong are sort of shielded from needing to really assimilate fully into Hong Kong society. Everyone wears a uniform, everyone is forced to speak English and everyone takes the same classes and has the same experiences. We make our friends at school and there’s no room for a lot of individualism. I guess it was here that I realised that I was neither Indian, western or even Chinese. But, because of my easygoing nature, I could hang out in all these groups and be seen as a friend. most people in my school hung out in cliques, sometimes by race, sometimes by interest and sometimes by popularity. I just went between everyone and never really belonged to any group, but also was never lonely because I could fit in wherever I pleased.
This made it easy to travel abroad and assimilate into other cultures later on in life. For example, when I studied in the US, even though I had never lived there before, no one really suspected I wasn’t from America until they found out about my life story and experiences. My accent changed to fit my environment and I found it easy to make personal connections. I’m always ready to learn and do my best to make others comfortable around me, so I guess this ‘sponge’ mentality, to absorb my surroundings and assimilate, makes me great at never feeling too out of place.
The best thing is that many of my friends from abroad see me as a link to Asia, a part of the world they are not so familiar with. It’s great to be able to sort of bridge those worlds and bring different cultures together.
As travel becomes easier, it’s more common for people to seek or find experiences beyond their own communities that shape or change their lives in one way or another.
I think it’s a good thing, as what you don’t know or understand you often fear. Visiting other places and meeting people of other cultures creates understanding and breaks down barriers of ignorance.
T: Definitely. After some time the world seems much smaller in your eyes and there are fewer things that surprise you, right?
Kamal: Yep. Definitely. You need to go further and further away and to more isolated places to be surprised
T: How would you describe Hongkong to someone who has never been? Usually what we see in mainstream documentaries only shows glitz and glamor, but we both know that’s far from true.
Kamal: Hong Kong is often described as the gateway to Asia, or even Asia’s world city, but it’s rapidly losing its soul. The Hong Kong I knew in the 90s was a place of color, neon signs and thriving small businesses. Now, conglomerates own everything, skyscrapers necessitate the need to demolish entire blocks of mom-and-pop shops and brands like Gucci and Prada have taken over the minds of the people. You have to travel further to locate traditional food, green spaces within the city are difficult to find and children often grow up not knowing the outdoors because it is not promoted by many parents in HK. Yet, just beyond the concrete jungle, there’s a plethora of mountains, beaches and beautiful landscapes just waiting to be discovered. This is the Hong Kong I love. Getting away from the large buildings and claustrophobic bustle of people that many tourists seek out because that’s what they’ve been told is a ‘cultural experience’.
The reality is, HK locals live in ‘matchbox houses’ and are forced to part with well over 50% of their salary to afford rent. Many Chinese people from across the border buy homes that they don’t use and these vacant apartments artificially raise the price of rent and housing to the point where the average HK citizen will never own their own house in their lives. I know I certainly won’t and I have a higher salary than the average Hong Kong citizen. This sad reality of crazy rents affects businesses, too. Grocery prices increase often because the consumer has to pay the extra ‘rent tax’ that businesses can’t shoulder. Bars have gotten extremely expensive and the premise of a cheap night out is now non-existent. One need only attempt to book accommodation in Hong Kong to see my point. Many backpackers opt to stay in cramped lodging that is extremely overpriced, but these are seen as ‘bargains’ compared to real hotels.
Many visitors also see Hong Kong as a progressive city, but under its flashy exterior, the people have no say and the members of government are puppets of China, declawed, de-fanged and helpless to fight for freedoms that the citizens so rightly deserve. In 2047, HK is set to become a Chinese territory once again, but already the encroaching reach of China can be felt. This is why the people revolt these days and protest that the government are doing nothing to help them. But, when the nominees of the Chief Executive are hand-picked by China, what can you really expect. We have a false choice that is not a choice at all. It is like drinking from a poisoned well. We all need governance and guidance like we need water, even if we know it will ultimately be our downfall
T: This is actually the topic I wanted to discuss. Over my 5 years of regular visits and hanging out with locals, I believe I know Hong Kong much better than an average tourist who is just passing by; and yet, it’s still kind of tricky to navigate the current situation. The burning point is Chinese armoured tanks lined up at the centre in Shenzhen. When I tried to argue with my European friends that this might be misinformation or misleading, I was bombarded with satellite pictures etc. How can you describe this as a local?
Kamal: A climate of fear is being created by pro-China supporters that paint Hong Kong in a negative light. What better way to get people to stop protesting than to claim there are tanks at the Shenzhen border? Are people brave enough to die for Hong Kong? Let’s think about this logically. The government would WILLINGLY have to allow tanks to pass through security checkpoints at the border or to be brought in by train. If tanks attack citizens on the streets, it will create international turmoil and ruin China’s chances for fixing the global trade war they’re in.
Currently in China, the protests are downplayed, lied about or full-on ignored. Fake images are easily created to show protesters acting like thugs or behaving poorly. This is so the average Chinese citizen will stay in line and not think for themselves about what’s happening in HK. This is especially important as many Chinese now call HK home and can see the truth. Government news vs real people’s word of mouth? You know who’s winning that battle, especially with doctored photos.
Now, let’s look at who is putting out this fake garbage about tanks and stuff. Usually discredited international news sites looking to make a quick buck. Track their sources and you’ll quickly find they reference an article, which references another article, which just states there are tanks with no proof provided. This is garbage journalism. HK Free press and other unbiased Hong Kong news outlets will generally paint a better image since they don’t want misinformation spreading. In HK, it’s becoming common to hear conflicting messages about what’s happening as pro-Beijing parties flood the internet with fake claims and false stories. This is to try and divide the people. A nation of protesters united is far stronger than one that’s divided.
Of course, this misinformation is also prevalent on the HK side of things. So, it’s important to consider both sides and really fact-check. In one of the famous tank invasion images, you can clearly see it’s a photo from a Chinese province nowhere near HK because of the station name in the background of the image.
T: How would you explain the footage showing the Chinese army lining up in Shenzhen? Or the satellite pics?
Kamal: Half the time, it’s not even pictures of Shenzhen. A lot of these pieces of footage are not even from 2019. Regarding the most popular images, The Global Times noted in its report that 12,000 police officers, tanks, helicopters, and amphibious vehicles gathered in Shenzhen on August 6 for what appeared to be anti-riot drills. These drills are what people are equating with an attack force. There are certainly military trucks in that famous satellite photo of a stadium in Shenzhen. But no tanks. And no plans to attack HK. That would be a global disaster.
T: Can we say it’s a move that aims to spread an atmosphere of fear?
Kamal: Exactly. If China does nothing, the citizens will wonder why. So they do these stupid drills as a show of power.
T: Is that the purpose of military trucks at the sport center in Shenzhen?
Kamal: No idea. But they aren’t coming to hk, that’s for sure. Too much garbage information out there
T: In 1997, during the handover, HK represented 20% of the Chinese economy. The estimated number these days is around 2%. Do you think this could make China view HK as “not so important anymore”?
Kamal: I believe that China does not want to rely on Hong Kong any longer, which is why they are taking great pains to create cities like Shenzhen, Shanghai and Guangzhou to act as hubs to China that will eventually take over from Hong Kong. These regions have more flexible visa laws, the internet will be less-censored in certain areas and the infrastructure is going to be new and shiny, so businessmen see this amazing new side of China and have no need for HK any longer. The less important HK is in the eyes of the world, the easier it will be for China to absorb it in the long run.
Just look at what’s happening in Tibet and Xinjiang. Just because Xinjiang province is not somewhere famous in the global eye, the Chinese government can get away with doing terrible things there. Indoctrination camps, an influx of Chinese residence to promote ethinc mixing and eradication of a culture and even the banning of Arabic in the province are all steps to create subservience out of a place that doesn’t really fit what China sees as perfect and obedient. In Tibet, they kidnapped the Panchen Lama and replaced him with a Han Chinese boy. This ruins Tibet’s religious faith and there’s clear oppression where foreigners can’t visit Tibet without a local Chinese guide. That’s some North Korea bullshit right there.
Luckily, HK has public awareness and it’s not so easy for China to just do these things to HK. By making the airport protest an international issue, the world had to take notice and HK protesters got more of the spotlight. But in 20 years from now, when China’s cities outshine HK…who knows if we won’t start seeing worse things happening to the citizens. That’s why HKers fear the extradition bill. Who wants to be tried in a place like China, where there’s an authoritarian rule of law?
T: That’s a really paradoxical situation. On one hand, China tries to attract businessmen and make the country look more “free” (what an oxymoron) and on the other, according to experienced sinologists and experts, the Chinese regime has been progressively more aggressive and oppressive.
Kamal: Exactly! They’re trying to have things both ways. But they’re going to end up opening themselves up to international criticism. In the future, foreigners might be banned from certain areas. Just like North Korea
T: What about HK, itself? Should we be concerned about additional visa requirements or internet restrictions in HK?
Kamal: Not anytime soon. China still doesn’t have enough power to do that. It’s against their best interests.
T: Hopefully you’re right. Considering the experience with China as a brutal and oppressive regime, we never know.
Kamal: But now they’re a global player. Their wealth will collapse if they isolate themselves. They’re not truly communist anymore. In fact, they’re capitalists to the extreme.
T: In terms of economics, yes.
Kamal: But they definitely can’t attack or use force in Hong Kong. It would lead to a huge problem for their economy.
T: Let me ask you. What’s going on in HK is decently covered in the international press, but I’m not sure if it’s possible for people to imagine how it really looks like. I know all the places where the protests are happening more than well, and it hasn’t even been 3 months since I came back from my last visit to HK. Yet, it’s still quite difficult to imagine. What’s the impact on lives of Hongkongers?
Kamal: Weekends, especially, you’ll see protesters everywhere. Be it in small groups or as part of a larger movement. They chant slogans for the corrupt police to get out and for Carrie Lam to step down. Most normal places are okay, but any major public transport areas or tourist hubs are often targeted. Many trains and tunnels are blocked etc. So tonight I’m in tst, but I might not be able to get home until late because a lot of districts will be locked down for protests.
T: What do you think about protesting at the HK Airport? Isn’t that a bit too much? For example your sister, she didn’t make it home after not visiting for about a year because her flight was canceled due to the protests at the HK airport.
Kamal: I think some people took it too far. Blocking check-in desks was stupid. If they had stayed at the arrival hall and just made incoming passengers see the signs etc, that would have been fine. The reason so many of them were at the airport is because the cops have been getting more violent. In the airport, there are international travelers, so the protesters would be safe from police violence there.
T: Things don´t seem going well for Hong Kong. What do you think the future holds for this lovely place, especially after 2047?
Kamal: I think it’s almost impossible to predict exactly what will happen to Hong Kong on the path to 2047, let alone after. Without a doubt, unless something majorly radical happens in that time, Hong Kong will be given back to China in 2047. Personally, I think that to have a progressive city like Hong Kong suddenly become a full-on territory of China overnight when 2047 comes, is unrealistic. Because of this, I believe we will see much more unrest as China tries to slowly worm its customs and culture into the lives of Hong Kong citizens. For example, there is already talk of making it mandatory to sing the Chinese national anthem in all schools, even international ones. I think there will be a slow erosion of power since direct force will draw too much attention and ire from the rest of the world. How it turns out and how China plays its cards can only be known in time, but I am certain more confrontations are ahead thanks to our puppet government and its Beijing overlords.
T: Isn´t it quite sad that there are things we chat about privately, but can´t really publish in order not to put your safety at risk? I think that´s the best possible summarisation of the situation in HK.
Kamal: Yes. Sadly, there are things I cannot openly speak about for concerns of repercussions later on. There have already been approximately 1,000 citizen arrests thanks to the protests in Hong Kong. High-profile people like Joshua Wong have literally been plucked out of their lives and arrested for being at protests. It’s a sad state of affairs that we can’t speak completely openly. It does tie in nicely to just how much Hong Kong has changed from only ten years ago. We had a utopia back in the day, but the cracks are beginning to show and it’s not just because of this extradition bill and the protests surrounding it. Unsustainably expensive housing continues to plague the people and I do believe that at least s small part of people’s frustrations and reasons to protest are also to do with having such a bleak future. Owning a home in Hong Kong is a dream that most people won’t realize – I know I certainly will never own a home here unless the entire property market tanks. Things taken for granted in other parts of the world are being lost in Hong Kong, but luckily we still live in one of the greatest cities in the world, and I hope that these protests can serve as a wakeup call for the government to act in the interests of the people.
T: Thank you Kamal. Really appreciate it.
Kamal: No worries at all! As a closing remark, there seems to be a little progress regarding the bill, as it is being scrapped. Yet there are still many requirements the protesters have that the government must adhere to if there is to be civil discourse and a de-escalation of the situation. In all, there are 5 key demands that protesters want the government to listen to: 1. Formal scrapping of the controversial extradition bill, 2. an independent probe into the use of police violence, 3. amnesty for arrested protesters, 4. ceasing to categorize the protests as riots and 5. universal suffrage. We’ve achieved the first demand, and here’s hoping that the rest are on the way!
Thanks for stopping by!