Graphic: spf.pdf for Lausan

I went to eat at three ‘Hongkongers Only’ restaurants

Place your orders in Cantonese or English only.

Original: 【我去了三家「只歡迎香港人」的餐廳吃飯】, published in Matters

Translators: LWH, yehua, MH, spf.pdf

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A diner in Tsim Sha Tsui wrote this post on their Facebook page: “From today onwards, we will only be taking orders in Cantonese or English. Mandarin will not be entertained at this point in time. Update: we welcome our friends from Taiwan.” 

I was meeting with another friend from the Mainland at the diner. After we saw the sign, we looked at each other and smiled anxiously. We both felt a little uncomfortable and embarrassed.

“We should use Cantonese when we order in a bit. Afterwards, let’s just chat in Mandarin,” I suggested.

My friend replied, “Okay.”  

My friend’s Cantonese is really good, while mine is good enough that I could muffle my accent. Which was easy as I only uttered five words: “Set A, iced lemon tea.” 

We were seated at a table with some other people, so my friend and I didn’t talk too much during the meal. I don’t know if it was because I was nervous or something, but I totally forgot my original intention to speak in Mandarin.

We finished our meal and walked out the door … well, I guess that’s that. 

The food had just been normal fast food, and the topics people had discussed in the restaurant didn’t seem any more different than usual. Busy waiters brought food to every table. Like other “Yellow Shops,”[1] this diner was plastered with post-it notes of every color. Many of them featured handwritten supportive messages toward the movement, and many were related to the coronavirus. There was a 5HKD discount for customers who had masks with them.

1. ‘We do not welcome Mainland Chinese people.’

This ramen restaurant is located in Whampoa. At the door, an A4-sized poster displayed the following message: “We do not welcome Mainland Chinese people. We just want to live a little longer and we must protect local customers.”

I was made so uneasy by the unfriendly tone of the poster that I started feeling anxious several hours before I actually went to the ramen place. What should I do? They wouldn’t ask for my ID or ask me to write my order in traditional characters, would they? If I got kicked out of the restaurant, they wouldn’t take a video and upload it onto Facebook, would they? That would be too humiliating. I called a friend and they suggested that I put some makeup on before going… 

After carefully considering it for several hours, I wore my staff ID and thought of what to say in case something happened; I would tell them I am a reporter who’s here for an interview. On my way there, I even checked out Openrice for the restaurant’s service rating. 

I was halfway there when I suddenly realized I had forgotten to bring my ID card. 

I texted a friend, “What should I do if something came up now that I don’t even have a superficial way of identification?” 

I headed toward the entrance of the restaurant with some trepidation and waited a while for a table. The interiors were furnished in typical Japanese ramen shop fashion: you sit down, watch the chef cook your noodles in front of you, and receive a bowl when it is ready. The food was delicious and the waitstaff were kind. In fact, the only aggressive part of this shop was the notice at the door. 

I was surprised to discover that they actually had a WeChat public account, and the last time they had updated it was last year, on June 9.[2] 

2. ‘Please present a Hong Kong ID card.’

This newly opened restaurant declared on their Facebook page: “Carrie Lam’s ignorant, incompetent, and shameless government is still refusing to close the border. To preserve a hygienic restaurant environment, we are regrettably doing our own border closure.

“Starting from our test-run from the day after tomorrow, we will only be serving local Hongkongers. In addition to checking your temperature with an infrared thermometer, we ask that you present a Hong Kong ID card before entering the restaurant.” 

I felt less anxious with the experience of the two previous restaurant visits. Still, I looked up the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance before heading over. Hmm, it seemed they were overstepping on this one, regulation-wise. So I guess I was fine. I didn’t have to feel so scared. 

I had my body temperature measured upon entering the restaurant. They did not check for an ID.

On the first day of business, the place was pretty crowded, and the service was a little chaotic. Some customers waited an hour before having their orders taken, while some were served the wrong dishes. I myself had waited half an hour for my food and it still did not arrived. The strangers I was sharing a table with remarked, “It’s normal, it’s just a little messy. It’s okay, I understand (the chaos).” Perhaps it is easier to empathize with people who stand on the same side and share the same politics: in this case, fellow participants in the yellow economic circuit.

Lots of District Councilors went to the restaurant to show their support, and customers queued up for hours for a seat. While I was waiting for my food and spacing out, I found myself trying to make sense of the logic behind supporting this type of “yellow business,” to convince myself of its appropriateness. In the wake of the epidemic, the ubiquitous act of wearing masks—and taking them off momentarily for a meal—may actually rehearse the promised moment of victory after months, perhaps years, of struggle (煲底相見).[3] One can definitely experience some inkling of this romantic ideal in the fleeting moment of a meal. 

But who is really behind the mask? If these “yellow businesses” define “Hongkongers” as those who speak Cantonese and hold a permanent residence status, how do we reckon with the fact that this definition also gives legibility to irresponsible officials like Carrie Lam who neglect their duties at the expense of the public, police officers who abuse their power like the by-now infamous “bald Officer Lau,” and sensationalist politicians like Junius Ho? In other words, does identity really matter that much? 

Before going there I had read someone’s comment: “My husband is black and he hasn’t gotten his ID card yet. He cannot leave Hong Kong and only has a temporary residence permit. Can he come in?”

Have we gotten to a point where businesses hand-pick their customers and proudly declare that they “have absolute power to refuse to welcome anyone”? Even if we set aside the legal issues, what criteria should one follow when one selects which customers to serve? If I have contracted the coronavirus but am born and raised in Hong Kong, can I eat at the restaurant? What about Hongkongers who have just visited Wuhan? What if family members that I live with have recently been in the affected area? What about foreign tourists, do they have to fill out a health declaration form before they can enter the premises?

Does it really make sense to tie the likelihood of infection to one’s identity?

Assuming “only serving Hongkongers” and “orders would only be taken in Cantonese and English” are the rules for such establishments, does that mean all customers who speak languages other than these two would not be served? If it was simply to protect the health of customers, could shops that had explicitly declared “we do not serve Mainlanders” not install thermometers instead, as an alternative protocol to the self-imposed ban? It is a bit hard to believe that shops claiming to serve only Hong Kong ID holders are doing it entirely for reasons to “ensure the store’s hygiene standard.” The numbers don’t add up and the means don’t seem to justify the ends; according to a Stand News report, 550 of the 680 alleged coronavirus cases patients are Hongkongers and only 130 are Mainlanders. Does it really make sense to tie the likelihood of infection to one’s identity?

What happens when customers who seek out restaurants that follow the “Hongkongers only” mandate then discover Mainlanders like me amongst their fellow diners? Is it fraud if restaurant owners did not strictly enforce their policy?

It is hilarious to think that Alan Tam was the person who rose to my mind when I was going through all this emotional turmoil. Once upon a time, he too was kicked out of a restaurant for his political stance, to which he said: “I’ll just give their food a taste another day.” Back then, I took this as a joke. (What an unexpected connection. HA.)

Upon encountering my wonky Cantonese accent, someone once asked: “Are you Taiwanese?” “Did you go to school outside of Hong Kong as a kid?”

Indeed, we can always find ways to conceal our identities if that’s what we want. But why can’t we be honest and admit that we are not sufficiently empathetic and receptive toward mutual understanding? “We should have closed the border long ago,” people thought, and the coronavirus is just the perfect excuse.

There are simply too many misunderstandings. Sometimes, my Hongkonger coworkers would offhandedly pose questions, such as: “Do you (Mainlanders) only use and eat counterfeit things?” Other times, my family in Mainland China would forward conspiracy theories on Hong Kong to me as well, as if Hong Kong is a living hell that I should not have to spend an extra moment in. At a meeting not too long ago, I brought up the potential political power in organizing new Mainland immigrants in Hong Kong. A lot of people came up to me after the discussion to express their gratitude: “Thank you for sharing this with us. It is my first time hearing of Mainlanders who are standing with us Hongkongers,” they said.

… However, this is a frustrating realization for us outcasts; the two worlds we inhabit are both kind of hellish. Why do we have to live in disconnected parallel universes when we do not wish one another harm? 

Lau Siu-kai[4] once casually said if you identify as a “Hongkonger,” then you are a “Hongkonger”; if you identify as “Chinese,” then you are “Chinese.” Unfortunately, identity does not just depend on who we want to be. Recognition from others is also very important. 

‘New Hongkongers,’ ‘Real Hongkongers,’ ‘local Hongkongers,’ ‘new immigrants,’ ‘Chinese,’ ‘Mainland Chinese people’ … can anyone say for certain what their identities are?

How do “they” define “us”? What do “they” feel when they look at “us”? Is it a sense of fellowship of the pre-1949 era when people could freely travel to the Mainland from Hong Kong and vice versa? Is it the feeling of loss and alienation of not being able to return to one’s home despite one’s roots that characterized the 50s? Is it the readiness to extend help and understanding toward new immigrants that typified the 60s? Or is it the desire to reject that which grew to become contradiction and conflict accumulated between Mainlanders and Hongkongers in the 70s? Or better still, perhaps there are tens of thousands of colliding emotions that have yet to fully surface?

What are we talking about when we are discussing “Hongkongers”? What about “Mainlanders”? Not long ago, I was planning to shoot a film about identity with a friend, and the people that we interviewed in preparation for it actually gave us unexpectedly complex answers.

A Hong Kong boy who studied in Taiwan said he could not discuss politics with his Mainland Chinese girlfriend, and that he feels proud of Hong Kong but plans to emigrate. An overseas Chinese who returned to Hong Kong from Indonesia still does not have a Hong Kong ID card, yet they were staunch about their local identity. A Mainland man who came to Hong Kong through marriage often feels lonely and unable to fit into Hong Kong society despite his efforts. “New Hongkongers,” “Real Hongkongers,” “local Hongkongers,” “new immigrants,” “Chinese,” “Mainland Chinese people” … can anyone say for certain what their identities are?

Connected by a thousand complex and entangled threads—this is exactly what makes Hong Kong both an enigmatic and endearing place.

I was chatting with a friend recently who had said that she’s been disappointed in Hong Kong lately. Numerous major media outlets have reported at length about the hard work and dedication of Mainland Chinese and new immigrants; why and how have they continued to be unacknowledged and misunderstood? The comments that people leave on recent articles on the coronavirus seem to take delight in others’ misfortune; even articles with headlines such as “Unable to Afford Doctor, Pregnant Wuhan Woman and Unborn Child Dead” cannot escape ridicule—“O Mighty Homeland, Bless the Party, Born as Chinese, Such Great Fortune,” “It’s an isolated incident, nothing special,” “No one from ‘Shina’ is innocent,” “Any place without Mainland Chinese is a good place”; I was stunned and horrified to read these comments.

When paranoia, conservatism, and myopia gradually become accepted, even lauded, by the mainstream, aren’t we missing something important in this city’s collective struggle?

Lately, it feels as if the conflict between Hongkongers and Mainland Chinese is more intense than it has been during the anti-extradition movement. This antagonism does not manifest in physical violence, but rather through words on the Internet and in reality. It’s as if everyone has been blinded by their hatred; even posts like “Let’s give people in China Durex Lubricant and pretend that it’s hand sanitizer” can garner hundreds of likes. When paranoia, conservatism, and myopia gradually become accepted, even lauded, by the mainstream, aren’t we missing something important in this city’s collective struggle?

Yes, perhaps an outsider’s disappointment may simply be met with disdain from Hongkongers, and perhaps this society really seeks a three-star ID card[5] as the most crucial marker of identity. I’ve read op-eds that said we cannot adopt a common-sense social framework to assess Hong Kong’s current political reality. However, I cannot help but think from time to time of what Leung Man-tao wrote: “If I had any stance, it is to always remain attuned to reality when thinking of politics, and to maintain common sense in public reason, even in extreme times when politics crush reality and disintegrate common sense.”

Hong Kong people deserve better governance. If it were me, I wouldn’t want to wait in line overnight just to buy a few masks in this city that has never been short of material goods. Or to be concerned about the construction quality of the MTR stations before they even open. Or to watch the culture and institutions I take so much pride in slowly erode, while I stand powerless. Or to count on my fingers how much more time we have until doomsday, while I ponder the ways in which I can expend my limited freedom. 

But isn’t it the same in the Mainland? Don’t ordinary, kind folk deserve better lives everywhere? Both sides could use a little more empathy; at least, in the face of life and death, they could have more compassion and understanding. People spurn Carrie Lam for saying that “Closing Borders Might Foster Discrimination”; but what about “Closing Shops”?

I’m not writing this article to put the blame on anyone. I’m slightly disappointed, but not furious. All I can think about now is this lyric:

“If you have time to care,
Truly, to only care,
Then how did we come to this?”

How did we come to this?

Footnotes

[1] The colors yellow and blue have been associated with the pro-democracy and the pro-Beijing/pro-police camps of the Hong Kong movement respectively. “Yellow Shops” here refer to protester-friendly businesses that support the pro-democracy cause in the Hong Kong movement. Identifying and patronizing businesses according to their political alignment have become a part of an “economic circuit” in the ongoing movement.

[2] More than a million people or nearly one in seven Hong Kong residents took to the streets on June 9, 2019 to protest the now-withdrawn anti-extradition bill. The scale of attendance was unprecedented at the time.

[3] 煲底相見 has become an enduring idea in the canon of protest parlance. It refers to the moment when protesters can finally cast their protective gear aside and recognize one another for the first time in celebration of hard won victory—the fulfilment of the five core demands. 「煲底」(literally meaning under the rice cooker due to the building’s likeness) refers to a popular zone of demonstration on the ground level of the Legislative Council complex in Admiralty, the imagined site of reunion and vindication. Here, the author is making an analogy between the moment of unmasking at a meal and in the grander scheme of struggle.

[4] Lau Siu-kai is a prominent pro-Beijing academic. He is currently vice-president of a think tank called the Chinese Association of Hong Kong Macau Studies.

[5] Three stars on the Hong Kong ID card indicate eligibility for an HKSAR re-entry permit, which is typically issued to Chinese citizens who have either acquired the right of abode or been granted unconditional stay in Hong Kong.