Irene is a journalist. She grew up in Great Britain, but Hong Kong is her home city. She writes opinion pieces about her generation, enjoys going to gay bars, and belongs to the privileged Western bubble. While many young Hongkongers her age take to the streets to protest, she has lost hope in politics. She strictly rejects violence. But the fear for her hometown remains.
Irene is actually not her name. She does not want to go by her real name because she is afraid of the consequences of the National Security Law (NSL)The National Security Law went into effect in Hong Kong on June 30, 2020. It is intended to “prevent, stop and punish” everything that the Chinese government believes could threaten national security. Due to the vaguely worded text of the law, it has caused great uncertainty among the population since its implementation.. As a journalist she is used to publishing under her real name, but in her diary she wants to share her innermost thoughts and personal views – nobody knows how much leeway the law leaves when it comes to politics.
Today’s first day is part of a longer conversation that started a few days earlier. Before Irene shares anything personal with us, she wants one thing above all else – to make sure that nobody recognises her. Already three days before we started our project, she had decided on the name Irene.
Did you think about your name in our project?
“I chose the name Irene for this project because Irene is the Greek goddess of peace and that’s what a lot of us hope for after over a year of turmoil here in the city. It would just be a dream for us to finally find an amicable solution to all of this. So here is some hoping.” *
Actually we want to get to know Irene better today. Who is she? How does she live? So far we have only seen her on her profile picture on Twitter. We only had regular phone calls in advance, no video chats.
In the beginning, Irene is concerned about how she wants to appear in front of the camera. When she records her first video for us, she feels uncomfortable. Irene thinks everybody can tell it’s her, even if she covers her face. That’s why she goes out and buys a darker pair of sunglasses.
I’ve made some other videos for today but I actually have some strong thoughts after reviewing.
The fact that I am concealing my face to this degree feels a bit dishonest to me
My unwillingness to appear on camera or show my name has more to do with wanting to be able to speak honestly about my experiences and also maintaining my privacy. But concealing my face feels like I’m portraying myself in a position as an activist or frontliner when I am not.
I’m really happy to be an honest voice of a normal Hong Kong person but I don’t feel 100 percent comfortable with appearing in a position of being more political than I am.
Of course you should not appear like a frontliner if you don’t want to. Maybe you could cover your face just with a scarf?
It takes another week before Irene decides to show her face and tell us more about herself in a video. It is a time when she opens up from day to day, because at the beginning she is still a bit cautious. We find it difficult to discover what she really thinks.
Then she sends us this video in which she tells us why she wanted to join “Hong Kong Diaries” in the first place.
In the meantime, Irene tells us how she lives.
How do you live?
I live alone in an apartment on the west side of Hong Kong Island. It has 2 bedrooms, and the spare room is my study and closet. I lived at home for many years in Hong Kong as an adult before moving out, and it was always a dream to have my own space.
This is my study, where I spend most of my time. I am a freelancer so I work from home mostly.
Because my apartment is so small I had to buy this piece of furniture which is a coffee table that can be extended into a large dining table accommodating four.
At what age did you move out?
I moved out at age 26, with the blessing of my mother, although this move was somewhat frowned upon by some of my relatives
Hong Kong, of course, has one of the most expensive housing markets in the world. For many people, owning property is a distant dream, sometimes one that’s simply not achievable
In traditional Chinese culture, young people are expected to live at home with their parents until marriage and then financially support their parents in adulthood this makes it really difficult for young people – especially those working at low-paying jobs – to ever have their own space
We would love to see more.
I am lucky to have my own space, even though it’s under 300 square feet – and with a kitchen so small that I sometimes need to move the trash can out of my kitchen for more space.
* This material was originally sent on the 25th of September.
** This material was originally sent on the 29th of September.
It’s just one day before the 1st of OctoberThe People’s Republic of China was founded on the first of October, 1949. Since then this date is considered a national holiday.. Normally a lot of protests take place on that day in Hong Kong. Irene already mentioned that the society in Hong Kong has become extremely divisive since the protests started and after the National Security Law (NSL)The National Security Law went into effect in Hong Kong on the 30th of June 2020. It is intended to “prevent, stop and punish” everything that the Chinese government believes could threaten national security. Due to the vaguely worded text of the law, it has caused great uncertainty among the population since its implementation. was adopted.
The protesters even began to declare many food and drink establishments “yellow ribbon” or “blue ribbon”In Hong Kong, the color yellow stands for the democratic camp and blue for the pro-government camp. Many Hong Kong residents communicate their political affiliation by wearing bracelets in the respective color..
It seems to play a big role that companies stand with the protesters or with the police and the government. What do you think of that?
Last year I wanted to write an opinion piece about something related to this and lots of colleagues and friends advised me not to because some people are too angry.
“I wanted to write a piece about businesses being targeted by protesters when it emerges that the business isn’t pro-protest or has voiced its support for the government. Then they become a target of vandalism, like Starbucks in Hong Kong. And I am for that fight for democracy, obviously, but attacking someone just because people don’t support the protests, that’s not a reason to go and trash their shop. That’s actually against the principles of democracy. I wanted to write about that, but pretty much everyone said it’s not a good idea to write about this as an opinion peace. My friends said I might jeopardize my safety. That’s a good example of how divisive our society has become.”
As Irene tells in her voice message, Starbucks was vandalized. Protesters used hammers and a fire extinguisher to smash glass shelves, while others threw plates and trays on the ground, the New York Times reported. The dispute between protest supporters and opponents extends to her own family.
How do your family and friends discuss this topic?
My mum has some friends who are business owners, and they fight at their regular dinners and on their group chats all the time about Hong Kong protests and the political situation. Some of them are blue ribbon and some of the others are not
They have been friends for 40+ years. And because of these tensions some of them no longer talk. Some of the others may not make up again
Did you also talk about other topics?
I know that some of them are angry that the people who hold foreign citizenship are pro-Beijing. It’s also like how people are angry that Carrie Lam’s whole family has British citizenship
We ask Irene a bit more about Carrie LamCarrie Lam has been the head of government in Hong Kong since July 1, 2017. She is the first woman to hold this post after the former British crown colony of Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997..
Are they angry because people with foreign citizenships could leave Hong Kong at any time?
I think they are angry because they think it is hypocritical to support Beijing while also possessing foreign citizenship. The idea is, if you love your motherland (China) so much then why do you have a foreign passport?
What is your opinion on Chief Executive Carrie Lam?
I think she really f**ked up (sorry for my language).
She once said in a televised interview (with pro-Beijing TVB) that she told her sons to stay in London because Hong Kong is not safe. And that makes people angry
What about the safety of all the children of the parents of Hong Kong?
Who do you like the most if you could decide for one political leader?
I think due to the political situation being such a mess, it’s easy to feel so fatigued by it and not really have any “favourites” anymore. And the question of who I would want as a leader is not something I have given a lot of thought to because it seems impossible for us to have universal suffrage
But I think it’d be great for Joshua Wong to be our leader
It always amazes me how far he has come and we are proud to have him be the voice of the movement.
Since when do you feel fatigued by the political situation? Was there one particular turning point?
“I don’t think there was ever one turning point, when I became fatigued by it all. It more just a gradual process of like “This is awful, this disappointing, this feels really hopeless.“ Then you gradually just begin to feel numb, it’s just feels like: “What’s the point in even caring?” **
Irene is visiting her mum today for dinner. On this occasion, we wanted to know what her mum is thinking about the political situation in Hong Kong. She sends us some videos while they are preparing dinner together.
This is my mum while she is cooking
In the evening, Irene sends the recording of a conversation between her and her mother.
Hi again! I recorded conversations we had in which my mum explained her views on how dangerous Hong Kong is. ***
Mum: The situation in Hong Kong now is very bad. I’m scared to talk. I’m scared to go on the streets [to protest] tomorrow [1st October]. I’m scared to write my things on Facebook.
Me (Irene): I’m not scared, I’m just – not going [to protests] – you could say I’m scared of things, whatever, but I just don’t want to be in the middle of it
Mum: Yes, yes, that’s true.
Me: But of course if I was reporting on tomorrow, writing it for a publication, I wouldn’t actually be scared because I could do it without fear – but I don’t want to come out if I’m not working …
Mum: But I’m actually scared. I’m actually scared of being arrested. When they charge you, they charge you for rioting. Honestly, I’m not that brave, I’m 60 and I’m not NOT afraid, I’m scared really, and I don’t wanna go out there – You can see that a lot of people will walk out on the street, even an office lady, being arrested – coming down on their lunch break to shout some slogans, and being arrested for it. That’s how bad Hong Kong is.
Mum: Do you know the Hong Kong government is completely not [doing] “one country, two systems“ anymore. It is completely under the control of the CCP (The Communist Party of China). If you ask me, would I leave? No, I will not leave. I don’t want to see the young people like this. I really –
Me: Don’t you want to move overseas?
Mum: I want to move overseas, but I don’t want to move away from here. I want to come out and fight on the frontline. But you can say I’m a weakling or whatever – I’m scared of being arrested. I don’t want to go to jail. So now this is scaring people like us. There are lots of people like me in Hong Kong. I am honestly afraid. I don’t just have me to think about – I have a mother, I have children. They will worry about me if I go to jail, and I need to think about how they feel.
Mum: We don’t even have an election [Legislative Council]. I’m very sad.
Me: We might not ever have elections again.
Mum: We might not ever have elections again.
* This material was originally sent on the 5th of October. On that day, Irene gave us a more detailed answer on that question than in our chat.
** This material was originally sent on the 5th of October as a video. On that day, Irene gave us a more detailed answer on that question than in our chat.
*** This voice note was recorded for us by Irene. We have had the Cantonese translation checked by a professional translator. We also distorted the voices so that Irene’s mother is not recognizable.
The 1st of October is Chinese National Day. Last year, a lot of demonstrations took place in Hong Kong on that date. This year, protests were expected all over the city again, but they were largely cancelled due to Covid-19 restrictions (at least that is the official reason). Protesters, however, still decide to gather on this symbolic day. For fear of getting into trouble, it isn’t really communicated where they are going to take place. Irene has plans to go downtown today, but she wants to try to stay away from the demonstrations as she goes about her day.
What are you up to? Where are you right now?
I am now at home trying to figure out if there will be protests in Tsim Sha Tsui (the ferry pier on the other side) and Mong Kok. If there are protests, then I will need to avoid those areas
“I try not to deliberately go to areas where I know there are protests happening. Logistically, I would like to be able to get to places and do what I need to do without being caught in the middle of them or having a hard time getting home. So I kept an eye out and couldn’t find any information on what’s going on, so I’ll just go.“
I am on my way now as I am only seeing protests in Causeway Bay and not where I am going. I also chose not to wear black today to avoid associations with protesting
“If there’s a protest and you’re wearing black and you’re near the protests, you could be implicated. Black is the colour typically associated with the protesters. You could say this is being a little bit overcautious. It hasn’t gotten to a point where if you wear black, you’re going to be arrested for inciting hatred or illegal assembly or what protesters are arrested for. I own a lot of black clothes and I wear them all the time. I don’t avoid wearing black day to day; it’s only on days like the 1st of October, when you know there’s stuff going down. It’s becoming part of the psyche. It’s really sad. It’s gotten to a point where we need to think about the colour of our clothes because you might be arrested. That was unimaginable a couple of years ago. What could happen if I wore black clothes? The thing is, we don’t know. We might get stopped and searched. I don’t have anything to hide, but you still don’t want to be taking those chances. Even just for the sake of your sanity. You don’t want to be mistaken for a protester, so you’re like: I don’t want to wear black today.“ *
Shortly after that, Irene texts us some impressions and observations of what is happening downtown.
I am in Mong Kok now
There are some riot police but not too serious
The two guys in black, are they protesters?
I am not sure. When I finished filming, they were stopping and checking someone but I didn’t want to film that part.
“So here on the streets of Mong Kok it’s actually looking pretty normal. Fairly busy. But you do see a riot police presence, which can be a bit unsettling. They can be quite intimidating. One thing that I’ve noticed is that in areas that see a lot of protests, like here in Mong Kok and also in Causeway Bay, authorities are taking away all of the rubbish bins in the streets. Bins are used by some of the protesters. They would throw them around and set them on fire and things like that. It becomes an inconvenience: I’m a smoker, and I never know where to put my cigarette butts away.“
Irene later tells us how, even though she supports the cause, she finds the ongoing protests in her hometown very tiring.
The protest movement reached its pinnacle in 2019. The Hong Kong government remained relentless, and the protests became more violent over time. We ask Irene how she feels about the protests now.
* This material was originally sent to us on the 3rd of October. It has been transcribed and edited for clarity where necessary.
What did you do today?
I went to a pub quiz. It was sponsored by my friend’s boyfriend who just launched a sex toy business, so the quiz’s theme is sex education
How openly do people in Hong Kong talk about sex? In Berlin, people are generally really open-minded
I think people are now becoming a bit more open minded (like in the last 5-10 years). Now there are more sex shops that are ground-level (they are mostly hidden upstairs in commercial buildings), but sex / sex education is not a topic that is very openly discussed. I was told by some friends who went to a local school in Hong Kong that sex ed is not taught until age 15+, but I started sex ed in England when I was 11.
Do you have any people in your inner circle who are part of the LGBTQ+ community?
Yes, my friend the protester is gay, and we go to his favourite gay bar all the time together
What is the situation for LGBTQ+ people like in Hong Kong?
“I think that Hong Kong has never had gay rights. There’s a lot of discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, from the authorities and generally within society. Traditional Chinese thinking doesn’t always go well with gay rights, which is very sad. But I think that’s something that is very slowly changing. We have the Gay Games being hosted in Hong Kong in a couple of years and there are several high-profile Hong Kong people who are openly gay, which helps. As China gains more influence, that situation isn’t really going to get better for the community. I think the focus generally isn’t really on that in the moment, because on the political side, with the erosion of freedoms and human rights, that’s where the focus is. Hong Kong had that, but China seems to be taking that away from us, whereas Hong Kong has never had gay rights to begin with, so people are just talking about it less, because it’s already a bad situation. There are already no rights, so how can it really become better or worse? There are so many other things going on. That’s unfortunate. There’s not that much attention paid to how the LGBTQ+ community will fare as China gets more influence.” *
Only in 1991 homosexuality was decriminalised in Hong Kong. In recent years, however, a larger LGBTQ scene has developed in Hong Kong, just like in many metropolises on the Chinese mainland. Nevertheless, queer people are still stigmatised by parts of the conservative society.
In China, homosexuality was even classified as a mental illness until 2001. However, gays and lesbians are still met with hostility and discrimination in China. Many therefore hide their sexual orientation.
Later, Irene sends us videos from her golf trip one day before.
Irene was accompanied by the above mentioned friend. They used to work for the same company and have known each other for many years. She mentions that, unlike her, he is an active protester who even got arrested in 2019 – twice.
Can you tell us a bit more about your protester friend who you went golfing with?
He and his friends went to protests pretty much every week at one point. We also went to a few peaceful ones together last year. Unfortunately, they were arrested twice for illegal assembly. They were able to get out on bail, and the cases were dropped. As a result, we now talk about politics much less. He is trying to stay low-key to avoid saying anything that might get them into trouble. I don’t think they have been to protests this year. **
And why did you choose not to be a frontliner yourself?
“As far as me not doing the same thing as my friend: I don’t think I made a conscious decision not to be a frontliner. I had gone to peaceful protests, but I just didn’t want to be part of protests that involved a large amount of violence. If I were to be involved in protests as a journalist, I would be covering them and not participate as a protester. Many protests last year were organised in groups on Telegram. Being part of these groups would mean having a relationship with protesters, which for me could prove troublesome down the line if I did a story that involved them as sources.” ***
* This material was originally sent on the 5th of October.
** This material was originally sent to us as a voice memo on the 2nd of October. It has been transcribed and edited for clarity where necessary.
*** This material was originally sent on the 2nd of October. It has been transcribed and edited for clarity where necessary.
Irene is going to a restaurant tonight. From time to time she also writes restaurant reviews besides her opinion pieces. Her best friend will join her. Both feel strongly connected to the Westernized world, its values and rights. But there are differences between them.
Irene’s friend had already been very actively protesting. Irene decided to not to be a frontliner. Besides her fear, there is also another reason for her reluctant attitude. It is a privilege that her best friend does not share.
In a phone call one day earlier, Irene told us more about it after we asked several times about her passive behavior.
“It’s not that I don’t want to pay attention or don’t want to be a part of it (of the protests) or don’t support it. I just really want to find some semblance of normal life and because I am in such a privileged position where I can go to a lot of different places, no problem. That is maybe why.” *
Irene admitted, that she doesn’t feel comfortable talking openly about her privilege to leave the country whenever she wants to. She was afraid to put herself out there to be judged.
“I don’t really like saying stuff like that because it sounds really doushy, I am so privileged and I know it and for me to say I can just go and so I don’t need to invest that much in this place. To me that’s a litte bit despicable, but I think there is an element of truth to it. I think for a lot of Hongkongers they really just don’t have hope and they only have Hongkong residency so maybe there is more at stake for them. So for me in comparison – I have options but then when I say that it’s just sound so ‘Oh I don’t have to fight for my city, because I am so privileged.” **
The best friend of Irene belongs to these people who don’t have foreign citizenships. His opportunities to leave the country if the political situation worsens are limited.
Do you feel guilty towards “normal” Hongkongers which don’t have a foreign passport and not the same options to leave as you do?
I think more sympathetic than guilty.
In the aforementioned phone call, Irene hinted that she might marry her best friend if the political situation would worsen.
At the end of the day, Irene sends us videos of her way home.
* This voice memo originally stems from a phone call recording on the 4th of October. On the 5th of October, Irene allowed us to publish parts of it.
** This voice memo originally stems from a phone call recording on the 4th of October. On the 5th of October, Irene allowed us to publish parts of it.
Today marks 100 days since the National Security Law (NSL)The National Security Law went into effect in Hong Kong on the 30th of June 2020. It is intended to “prevent, stop and punish” everything that the Chinese government believes could threaten national security. Due to the vaguely worded text of the law, it has caused great uncertainty among the population since its implementation. was imposed on Hong Kong. It has already affected parts of the media world and the press freedom in Hong Kong.
The effects are already felt by journalists and international media: in August, the Apple Daily’s editorial office was searched, and its editor-in-chief Jimmy Lai was temporarily arrested. Apple Daily is one of the independent newspapers in Hong Kong that are not afraid to openly criticize Beijing.
We ask Irene whether she has already been instructed to censor her texts or even censors herself.
Where you somehow prepared or instructed by your employers as to what to avoid writing after the National Security Law (NSL)?
It’s important to note that no one has been instructed outright to avoid saying anything — this is because we just don’t know what the NSL really means or what is or isn’t ok under it.
“We’re not like China. Maybe one day we will be, but not now. There’s Apple Daily criticizing China all the time. The New York Times and the US television channel CNN are here in Hong Kong and they are not self-censoring. So it’s not factually correct to say that’s the case right now. It’s not a black-and-white-issue.”
How do you deal with writing politically sensitive things?
For any potential pieces that are politically sensitive, I wouldn’t write it and then self-censor, as there is not much point. My editor said if I do write anything about that, she can look over them first. If it’s something too political, I just wouldn’t write it. *
But where would you draw the red line for yourself? Is there any political topic you wouldn’t write about?
“I wouldn’t write about Hongkong independence right now. Because we know for sure that’s not a topic that will be well received by the government. If I would ever write about it, that would be a thing I would think about.” **
Later, Irene goes to the market with a friend to buy vegetables. Tonight she will have dinner with her mother, best friend, and brother. They are going to prepare dumplings, a traditional Cantonese dish in which pieces of dough are wrapped around a filling. Although Irene attended a British boarding school for almost ten years, Great Britain never became her home.
But even in Hong Kong – her home – Irene lives between two worlds: the Western and the traditional Chinese.
When I went overseas, I realized, wow, you can actually be celebrated for your own opinions.
In the evening Irene, arrives at her mother’s house. She wants to lay tarot cards to predict Hong Kong’s future. Irene tells us that she has taught herself to do this after spending a lot of time at home during the summer because of Covid-19. Before each tarot spread Irene asks one open question.
Even though the cards promise Hong Kong a better future, we want to know what would have to happen for Irene to pack her bags and leave the city with her family.
* This material was originally sent on the 1st of October. It has been transcribed and edited for clarity where necessary.
** This voice memo originally stems from a phone call recording on the 7th of October. Irene allowed us to publish parts of it.
It is Saturday, and our project is slowly coming to an end. We don’t chat that much with Irene this weekend. She has already given us so many interesting insights into life in Hong Kong in the past few days. But we do have a few questions left.
What is your biggest fear when it comes to the future of Hong Kong?
A few days earlier, Irene had already described her feeling of fear and uncertainty in the current situation. She sent us a voice message in which she tells us how she remembers some of the turning points in China and Hong Kong during the 1990s.
“I actually think that the biggest fear, when it comes to China gaining more influence in Hong Kong, has already been realised, and that’s the NSL, which is why so many people refer to that day as the death of HK. I was born in the early ’90s, and while I was growing up, 1997, the handover of Hong Kong from the UK back to China, was the biggest fear. We saw people leave and thinking that there is no future here. People thought that they needed to go to places that offer democracy and stability. When ’97 came, with a little bit of time that had passed, people thought, “well, it seems as if it’s going to be OK, as if China is going to honour the 50-year agreement.” That seemed to be the case. But then, slowly but surely, it felt like our freedoms were being eroded. It became obvious that China was getting its claws deeper into Hong Kong. And then last year, we had the whole extradition bill fiasco, and even then, even though it felt like it was the worst thing realised, we thought with so many of our voices coming together and fighting against it, it would go away. And it did: it was eventually withdrawn, but by that time, it was just too little, too late. The government really had an all-out revolution on their hands. But then, who would have thought this time last year we’d be under the National Security Law and that essentially freedom of speech would be dead. This is where we are today. The fact that we’d always been so afraid of China gaining more influence and specifically the part having to do with our freedoms and basic human rights – it feels like that’s all been taken away from us.” *
The day before, Irene met a few former colleagues for dinner. She tells us that one of them was a girl who went to school in Hong Kong all her life. Irene and her friends had a vivid discussion about going to local schools versus being educated at international schools or even abroad (like Irene). Irene makes some interesting observations about how the education system affects young people in Hong Kong.
Could you tell us a little more about your experience with the education system?
“When I was at school here in Hong Kong, I was never encouraged to think independently. That changed when I went overseas. You can always kind of tell from how someone appears if they studied abroad or went to a local school. I think people are able to distinguish that very quickly. It’s an entirely different mindset. It’s encouraging to see people having their own opinions, defying their teachers and parents, going to protests and fighting for what they believe is right. It’s an exciting time for the people of Hong Kong. I hope we see more of that. Our children need to be told, “You don’t need to be a doctor or a lawyer to be a success. You can be whatever you want to be. You don’t have to obey orders all the time.”
Furthermore, Irene argues that there is more than one reason why people take to the streets. In her opinion, not only anger about losing basic human rights but also being frustrated about the economic inequality in Hong Kong plays a role.
That’s interesting. Do you mean even without the growing Chinese influence and without the NSL young people would take to the streets and protest?
“You’d think it’s just about politics, but it’s also things like the massive economic inequality. Young people feel so hopeless about that. So this is an opportunity for everyone to voice their discontent. Buying property is close to impossible. If you didn’t have a good start in life, it feels like opportunities just don’t happen; even if you work really hard, you might end up barely scraping by. I’m sure that this happens in other places in the world, but when you have the kind of political environment that we have, it really pushes people to the edge.”
Given that Irene spent many years of her youth and childhood years abroad, we wondered how she feels about raising children in Hong Kong. She sends us this voice note.
“Would I like to raise my children in Hong Kong if there’s no democracy? No, absolutely not. That would be probably out of the question. I would not want my children to grow up brainwashed, learning from books that teach you your motherland is great and don’t allow any other thinking. I think Hong Kong education is horrible: it doesn’t encourage any independent thinking. It just tells you to get the grades so you can be a doctor or a lawyer. Having said that, though, it’s really encouraging to see that the younger generation is standing up for their rights and coming out to the frontline. It makes me happy that we’re no longer people who just get told to stay in school and take piano lessons against our will and just be on a straight and narrow path that we didn’t choose for ourselves, that we only do to appease our parents.” **
What is your biggest wish for Hong Kong?
The most important thing really is to understand that Hongkong isn’t just a place that’s really far away, a little dot on the map somewhere in Asia, we’re all real people with thoughts and dreams and hopes and it feels like that’s being taken away from us almost overnight. ***
* This material was originally sent to us on the 4th of October. It has been transcribed and edited for clarity where necessary.
** This material was originally sent to us on the 8th of October. It has been transcribed and edited for clarity where necessary.
*** This material was originally sent to us as a video. It has been transcribed and edited for clarity where necessary.