Different Skies
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Sigh CityAlistair Cartwright

How many faces does one person have? More than one certainly. Two, three, four, five? To hone a person down to a few characteristic expressions seems unfair. Surely the number is as large as the soul is deep? If we observe the face of a stranger from a safe distance in an airport canteen, for example – close enough to see the corner of a lip rise, an eyelid part, a brow furrow, in other words close enough to see muscles moving under the skin, yet far enough away for our gaze to disappear into the canopy of this oversized waiting room (as a parrot disappears into the rainforest) – we see a multitude of tiny expressions: a kind of clasping, offhand intention, as the person paces back and forth speaking into a phone, the lower jaw tugging at the words as the free hand slowly opens and closes, and opens again into a loose fan, held still, awaiting instruction. A face like this oscillates at a rate of 100 expressions every 15 minutes. We fail to understand the meaning of most of these expressions but we recognise the median line above and below which they leap and dive. Call it boredom, but it’s nothing more and nothing less than the face of a person just existing – existing and confirming their existence to themselves. 

My friend Yasahiro Kato has been trying to draw this face for about a year now. Wherever he goes, he carries a tote bag filled with pens, pencils, charcoal sticks, watercolours and several sketchbooks of different paper weights. Any spare moment – waiting for a bus or a ferry, queuing at the visa office, or wandering around a temple while I read the plaques for tourists – he takes out his instruments and starts drawing. Using a grey brush-pen he lays down thin blocks of shadow. The form is indistinguishable at first. A grey forest sprouts on the page. Strokes become blocks, become shapes, become edges, become outlines. A few areas where the light breaks through remain untouched. It is the negative space he is drawing – whatever that means – and the form emerges at the edges of these blocks of absence. At a certain point we see the side of a face, the stoop of a back, the scissored cross of a pair of legs caught mid-stride. Reflections in the marble floor, a great, curving wall, palm trees, a bench, double doors, glass, more reflections. Wherever we go there is material enough and wherever we pause there is time enough to make a visual note: this thin, quick, shadowy material; this thin, quick time. All cities are perfect in this sense but Hong Kong is more perfect than others. 

* * *

I was in the habit of waking up early and when Yas came into my room – his room, the room I was sleeping in – rubbing his eyes and rolling his shoulders, his hair wilder than usual, I had already eaten breakfast and was getting down to an application form. 

“Man, I had the craziest dream last night…”

He sat on the edge of the bed and I turned around in the chair so that our knees were almost touching. His elbows were on his thighs and his chin was in his palms. His two big toes dumbly wrestled with each other on the laminate flooring, causing his feet to slip sideways. He looked up at the corners of the ceiling – the left, the right, then quickly over his shoulder at the two behind him – as if he had seen something fly past above us; or was suddenly unsure of the dimensions of the room.

Spaces from childhood often seem smaller than you remember them. Their smallness presses itself upon you, following a logic as intuitive and nonsensical as the one that rules in all good fairy tales (Alice in Wonderland being the best example and the genre-transcending exception). As if the room’s size were in proportion to the body it once housed. 

But this ‘smaller’ is odd. Sitting in a room that comes back to you from the past, you feel the space shrink around you. Yet unlike Alice, you don’t become, or feel yourself becoming, bigger, relative to this shrinking space (as if your body were to fast-forward through all the growth it had attained over the years). 

You don’t feel smaller either. You are not flashed back to the body that once dwelled in this space, occupying it like a shell. What you feel, rather than anything to do with size as such, is a sense of distance. You feel your body draw back into itself. It’s not the same as Alice having to reach down from a great height to pick up a tiny vial of liquid. Instead it’s like one of those shots in a film where the camera tracks backwards, all the time facing its object, while the zoom adjusts to keep the object tight in the frame. Vertigo; sudden insight accompanied by a noiseless ripple of trepidation. 

The room is smaller than you remember it. How you take the measure of the room now is different from how you did then (with limbs that were shorter and weaker, like measuring sticks both smaller and differently scaled – inches rather than centimetres). But the measurements the body takes of itself have necessarily kept pace with… itself. You never feel bigger than yourself. While the room that houses you may grow relatively smaller as you grow bigger, the body you are housed in doesn’t grow, never grows, in relation to yourself. Taking as given that body and spirit aren’t separate. 

What’s it like to sit in a room from somebody else’s childhood? 

* * *

The kid was sitting on a foot-high plastic stool, bent over the tarmac like a shoeshine boy but sliding himself backwards, scraping the plastic legs along the ground like a mechanic’s dolly minus the wheels. His path traced the dashed yellow line that went right down the middle of the highway, from Exchange Square to Bank of America. Except from our point of view – a low-angle close-up – it was not so much a line but a scroll, a long band of bright yellow parchment. 

“Why are you here?”

He looked up. “Because C.Y. Leung is an asshole!” 

Yas translated and the kid kept sliding, travelling backwards up the length of Connaught Road, inscribing with a fat stick of charcoal the names – so I learnt – of various Chinese dissidents. 

The crash barrier dividing the eight-lane juggernaut into two halves now served as the central pillar of a long, continuous row of trestle tables. On either side, young activist-students sat with their legs tucked under the makeshift tables, heads down, sucking highlighters, or half turned away, chatting to cross-legged neighbours behind them. 

Jigsaw puzzle foam mats – nursery surplus, or pilfered from younger siblings’ toy cupboards – marked out in primary colours zones for power naps and R&R. At regular intervals plywood ramps breached the central reservation. The tents on either side also seemed to be colour-coded: this section all blue, two-man affairs with proper tethers; over there, pod-like yellow pop-ups; and here, low, sleek, red and black units, the crack troops perhaps of this almost Roman encampment, so thoroughly organised and yet so carnivalesque. Decorous maybe?

Deeper into the camp there was a food collection desk where I handed over my unopened noodles from the previous night’s train journey. They were promptly added to one of the overflowing shopping trolleys behind the counter. A workshop next door with tools and bins of scrap wood was also well stocked. And at the centre of it all, beneath the flyover, the organisers had marked out a loose pen with reclaimed crowd control fences. A couple of mics stood inside the ring, while the bulky professional cameras of TV crews gone to lunch idled on the ropes. 

Back among the tents we asked an old man the same question. 

“To support the students, for the future of Hong Kong citizens. They need people to make sure they’re safe. We want to have a better society. It’s huge. It’s more than the democracy system. We want to stand for the correct things.” 

Memories of Tiananmen Square couldn’t have been far away for older protesters, who made up a sizeable minority in the camp. 

Squatting down, I tried to get the attention of a group who looked to be in their early twenties, huddled in a luxuriant pile of polyester and the blue shade of their tent. The one woman in the group stuck her head out and brushed away the fringe of her auburn bob. 

“We’re here to fight for democracy. As we’ve seen, China is overtaking Hong Kong in a very rapid way. We hope to voice it.”

“What do you mean by democracy?”

“For me, democracy is human rights, freedom, choice, respect – human respect.”

Reaching the western end of the camp, we climbed the steps of the ‘Lennon wall’ – a sheer, curving sweep of concrete leading up to one of the walkways, now completely plastered in Day-Glo Post-it notes. “From student to student, Mexico supports you,” one of them read. And next to it, “You can stand under my umbrella.” A few people were lined up in front of the wall, taking slam-dunk leaps to add further messages to the upper fringe of the dense foliage of little coloured squares. From the top, looking down over the scene we had just crossed, it was as if a thousand manhole covers had been levered up in the tarmac and from each one there emerged the proud, travel-weary ambassador of a distant world, blinking into the light. 

* * *

UK media outlets tended to paint the umbrella occupation as a movement against Chinese dictatorship, in other words as a bid to rejoin the fold of the West. Their account went something like this: the movement wants democracy, wants an end to Chinese dictatorship, an end to communist dictatorship; therefore the movement wants what we want, wants liberal, bourgeois, democratic capitalism. 

One thing this narrative obscures, though, is that Hong Kong’s truncated democracy is precisely a holdover from colonial Britain. As with any other colony in the Empire, racism pervaded all aspects of Hong Kong’s administrative and political life. Exceptionally, though, direct colonial government persisted right up until the transfer of sovereignty to China in 1997. To really understand the present crisis, we have to go back to the formation of Hong Kong’s modern administration in the 19th century.

A single, unelected official responsible for the Chinese population (the ‘Registrar General’) was only incorporated into the Executive Council in 1883. And that post was only filled by a Chinese person in 1926. Westminster was even reluctant to introduce the franchise for white people only, which the tiny enclave of British subjects was calling for towards the end of the 19th century. Political calculations about not stirring discontent played a role – no votes at all raised fewer questions than votes reserved for a minority – but more fundamental was the unique position of Hong Kong in the imperial array. For the British, Hong Kong started as a militarised trading hub and smuggling cove hooked on the corner of the Chinese landmass, with a useful pivot to South East Asia. Wanting to avoid the costs of full-scale colonisation as in India, the British strategy in East Asia was to keep the large Chinese Empire intact and open it up to free trade via its port cities and waterways. Hong Kong was never the first choice for an island staging post, but it became instrumental after the British seized it during the First Opium War. As trade grew during the 1840s and ’50s – above all the opium trade, and the neutrality of the term ‘trade’ should never obscure the biopolitical siege that was underway, a slow parasitism of addiction and depletion – the British government came to realise the value of Hong Kong. The territory’s strategic importance should always take priority over local concerns: this was the British doctrine. Democracy was anathema to Hong Kong not just because of racial demarcations within the territory, but because of a wider policy of domination. 

The present blockages in Hong Kong’s quasi-democracy are not a product of Oriental despotism. Nor have they accumulated accidentally. The system’s constraints were designed, from the beginning, to facilitate control of a key node in the imperial network of trade, narcotics and naval power. Hence Hong Kong has the British to thank for its skewed unicameral system – a Legislative Council which held its first ever elections as late as 1985 and originally had a purely advisory role to the appointed members of the Executive. Even since becoming a fully elected body, the Legislative Council has always been weighted in favour of big business via the so-called ‘functional constituencies’, electable not by citizens but via the block votes of major corporations. And the position of Chief Executive, the focus of recent protests, is a postcolonial substitute for that of Governor (neither of which have ever been elected). 

It was only close to the end of its tenure, after a century and a half of colonial rule, that Britain signed the Basic Law with the People’s Republic of China in 1990, agreeing to democratic reforms set to be implemented in 2007. Some commentators saw this as a sly preemptive move to undermine PRC authority; a democratic time bomb set to go off once the British were long gone. But both powers had a vested interest in controlled and limited reforms. China’s ‘opening up’ was well underway by the early 1980s, following the first wave of free market measures and US diplomatic recognition in 1979 – the same year that Coca-Cola started exporting from its plant in Hong Kong to mainland cities. The 1990 Basic Law was meant to forestall any chance of a movement for self-representation emerging in the midst of so much public questioning about the future of the territory. Whatever the flag flying over it, Hong Kong should continue its trajectory as an enclave of ultra-capitalist experiment, a dynamo hitched to the front wheel of global capital, whether Anglo-Saxon or Chinese-led.

That China has been as reluctant to implement reforms as Britain was to promise them is not surprising. Hong Kong’s umbrella movement was in this sense thrashing against the walls of a ship which changed captain, which tacked left and right, but remained basically on course for the golden horizon it took its first bearings from. 

* * *

“Except they were large, like, really large, like parachutes. And the – what do you call this bit?” He held his index finger and thumb not quite pinched together, as if measuring a certain thickness of air, and ran his hand up and down the invisible fuse. It was a gesture so haphazardly accurate – gentle, but careless almost – that I could have identified Yas by it at a distance of fifty feet, as one does a friend by their walk a few unconscious seconds before they raise their hand in greeting. 


“Hm. Yeah the stems were even longer, like in proportion to the actual – you know, fabric bit – the actual umbrella. They were maybe twenty, forty feet, stretching up in the air.” 

He was sitting on the edge of the bed with one hand raised above his head and the other down at knee level like a cello player. 

“So the stem got pulled out of the canopy thinner and longer, reaching up – like, really high, like a kite. They were all different colours, maybe a hundred of them, as big as parachutes, some even bigger like Zeppelins. And the stem was being pulled out the fabric. But it didn’t – the fabric, the umbrella part – didn’t get smaller. It got bigger. It was like it was swelling and kind of mushrooming and turning in on itself, like it was a part of the clouds.

“About a hundred of these little guys were coming across this field. They were facing into the wind, fighting with it, and pulling their umbrellas. Like have you ever seen inflatables on a parade, you know those guys strapped into harnesses? Well they didn’t have harnesses they just had the umbrella handles. Like the pyramid slaves dragging blocks of stone across the desert. But it was bright green like astroturf…”

“The green desert.”

“As if they were dragging the sky along with them.”

“That is a beautiful dream. You should draw it! Yasahiro Kato, dream drawer. I can picture the business cards. You’d need a couch for your patients as well as a drawing board.”

 “I wonder if I would face them like a portrait painter, or sit behind them like an analyst.”

“I’m not sure that’s actually how they do it these days but yeah, old Sigmund style, that would work.”

* * *

Every morning when I woke up, Yas and his mum Mathilde, or Li Kwai going by her Chinese name, would be asleep still, while his dad, Michio, and his brother Tad, Tadashi, were usually awake. Often Tad was on his way out to the hackspace in Central. He downed a carrot juice, mixed a protein shake for the gym later, put on his running shoes and said a quick goodbye while I was still muddling around in the kitchen. Michio would be doing his morning exercise. Every morning he walked over 5,000 metres without leaving the flat, pacing up and down the central corridor which extended into the living room via a channel left clear between the dinner table on one side, and the sofa and TV on the other. He set his pedometer to 5,364 metres, the height of Mount Everest’s southern Base Camp. This daily, horizontal ascent began as an act of solidarity with Tad when he was doing the same height for real in Nepal. 

Or perhaps it was more like a prayer. Just as worshippers at the Wailing Wall will rock back and forth reciting lines from their siddurim, so Michio’s feet beat out a prayer whose lines were the intonation of an altitude: one metre, two metres, three metres, four metres, five metres, six metres, seven metres, eight metres…

Taking a shower in the bathroom directly opposite Yas’s bedroom, I had to step quickly across Michio’s path. He would nod and say good morning with a wide, almost dopey type of smile. His smiling eyes flashed a touch of mischief and a kind of restrained, deliberate lunacy. I wondered how many people he had disarmed with that smile.

The last time Yas left London, Michio and Mathilde were in the city visiting, so they invited his friends to a restaurant for a goodbye dinner. In the restaurant you could choose your wine from a giant rack that covered an entire wall and take it to a de-corking machine set into the surface like a water fountain. When I entered, Michio and Mathilde were standing at the head of the table. Mathilde was gesturing and talking to several people sat around her who had already arrived. Michio was standing next to her, thin and straight-backed and still. 

* * *

Hong Kong is one of the densest cities in the world. In Yas’s living room it was as if his family, and more recently he himself, had found a way of multiplying rather than diminishing space by occupying it. Not enlarging but multiplying, creating new dimensions in the spaces between things. His drawing board and computer stood by the window, in a corner made by a low bookshelf which ran along one side of the desk, projecting into the room like a dry stone wall. And when he sat at the board or the computer, or stood at his easel, behind him was a tall, glass cabinet with trinkets and papers. Everywhere there were piles of books, utensils and ornaments. Everything was arranged neatly but without respect for boundaries. 

Memory and dreams work their way into awkward spaces before and after the fact. Our ingrown poetics of space acts through our bodies to determine the arrangement of objects in a room. And this arrangement, forming itself like the encrustation of coral into a reef, lays down new pathways and trenches where the imagination gets stuck and leaves traces of itself. 

What is your favourite room, or house, or building, as it lives in your memory from childhood? For me, it’s my aunt’s house in Marigny, a small village in central France. It isn’t my family home, and I’d wager the same is true for many others. 

Walter Benjamin talked about how the bourgeois home becomes a setting for nightmares. 19th century crime writing raised these nightmares from unconscious (repressed) to conscious (returned, desublimated), at the same time that it fictionalised them (distanced them). “The interior was not only the private citizen’s universe, it was also his casing. Living means leaving traces […] Coverings and antimacassars, boxes and casings, were devised in abundance, in which the traces of everyday objects were moulded. The resident’s own traces were also moulded in the interior. The detective story appeared, which investigated these traces […] The criminals of the first detective novels were neither gentlemen nor apaches, but middle-class private citizens.”1 There was none of that nightmarish heaviness at Lily’s house, probably in part because it didn’t hold any immediate attachment for me (it wasn’t nightmarish for me). 

Lily and Brian built that house out of the wreck of a farmhouse. They built – rebuilt – from the ground upwards. And during the time they worked on it, they lived beneath the ground, sleeping and cooking in the cellar. They kept on rebuilding all the way up until there was a roof without holes and they could sleep beneath the canopy they had created above themselves. The walls were flint and the beams were black. 

“Count the beams and your wish will come true. But it doesn’t work if you don’t believe in it…” So says the charming naval officer to the ambitious young Joan in Powell and Pressburger’s film I Know Where I’m Going. Exhausted and blurry eyed, she counts the beams above her head and the next day the fog clears. But the wind doesn’t stop. It blows harder and harder until it is too dangerous to sail to the island where her fiancé, a wealthy industrialist, is waiting for her – not for lack of visibility, but because of the furious waves. 

I cannot count the beams. Numbers are a strong element of working memory but a weak element of older memories. 

* * *

Undoubtedly there’s a certain comfort, a certain reassurance, in spending a night in somebody else’s home. Is it just nostalgia attaching to the traces of bourgeois homemaking that Walter Benjamin described? When the home in question is somebody else’s, you are free to enjoy those traces aesthetically. Lightness dispels heaviness and fantasy drives out nightmares. Travelling lightly, unburdened by attachments, you give yourself permission to project a fantasy of home in absentia; as in the image of two coffee cups on a chipped wooden table that Airbnb used for a time to advertise its network of unofficial holiday homes. At the same time, these images become portable keepsakes reassuring you that you haven’t strayed too far.

It’s hard to be a detective in your own home. The worn surfaces of familiar objects repel close inspection more effectively than the smooth, reflective ones of showrooms. When I look around my kitchen or living room back home, the books on the bookshelf, the utensils on the sideboard, answer my gaze immediately. Yes, everything in its place  move on. The response collapses into the call. Together they form a thick hum of feedback, an envelope of communication which is at the same time a buffer of low-level noise (non-communication). One checks one’s surroundings as one checks one’s pockets for keys. Both are near-automatic gestures, sustaining the sense of a self that can then go out into the world and act, participate etc. The muted space of the home prepares you for the loud clash of signs in the street. Small rituals work daily to mend the fantasmal ideals of public and private space – constantly undermined as these are by the penetration of mass and social media into the home, and by the transformation of the house itself into a commodity. 

In somebody else’s home, the reassuring distinction between public and private is put out of joint. The two elements, gaze and object, call and response (the movement of the hand and the jangle of the keys), become distinct again. The objects in the room no longer answer you, at least not straight away. In fact, the order of the relay appears reversed. Rather than the eye seeking out signs of familiarity within a defined territory, in this new space it is the objects which call for your attention and so call attention to you, which put you on the spot with an inquisitive look, asking who you are and where you have come from. 

All houses in this sense are haunted – the question is who they haunt. In Jean Cocteau’s film of Beauty and The Beast eyes look out of every wall as Belle moves through the castle and the hands that grip the candelabras turn in advance of her paces. Of course the Beast is not disturbed by any of this. He is part of the furniture, the furniture is part of him. The curse that makes him a monster also casts a spell on his domestic surroundings. 

In Yas’ house I went from room to room and saw, or felt: the buckled springs of an upholstered chair; the picture in the hallway which didn’t fit its frame; the collection of pebbles on top of the toilet tank; and the unshelled runner beans on the draining board. 

It is not simply a case of inverting the experience of your own home – the home stares back at you. To live in somebody else’s home, and clearly the duration matters – we mean living rather than visiting – is to create, by your own presence, a temporary zone that is neither public nor private. It is not exactly a threshold experience; the occupation of a boundary between two spaces. Instead it involves a mutual displacement of both terms. 

* * *

Hong Kong’s curiously instrumental, nodal position has shaped its identity in various ways. The emergence of an identity unique to Hong Kong, as distinct from mainland China, and increasingly assertive in the face of British colonialism (whether politically radical or economically competitive) is usually dated to the late 1960s and early ’70s, the 1967 riots being the watershed moment. The same energy that swept Paris, Mexico, Prague and Bangkok a year later touched off premonitory ripples in Hong Kong. Like the movements of ’68, the Hong Kong riots were a youth revolt against outmoded conservative authorities, which at the same time embodied a more general discontent. The young people who took to the streets had been to school, some even to university, but were working in low-paid jobs with little chance of getting on in life.2 The administration was seen as arrogant and distant, a product of elitism but also of Hong Kong’s old practice of operating a thin bureaucracy with little penetration into the social body. Under pressure from a restive population and flushed with new revenue from the post-war expansion of industry, the government responded to the unrest with a programme of expanded education and welfare provision. Inequality took a brief but significant dip in the late 1960s, but was on the rise again by the early ’70s. The income gap kept growing, outstripping the ability of the welfare system to offset it.3

It’s easy to spot the radicalising dynamic that coaxed a more vociferous identity during these years, as concessions were won but economic circumstances conspired to cancel the benefits. Yet barely a decade after people in Hong Kong had carved out a unique sense of belonging, a sense of being ‘Hong Kongers’, what they belonged to was thrown into question. Hong Kong’s Governor made informal approaches to Beijing about the territory’s future in 1979 and official handover negotiations between Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping started in 1982. The early 1980s were seminal not just for Hong Kong; China’s and Britain’s futures were also up for negotiation. This was the moment of China’s ‘opening up’; the moment too of Britain’s shift to a post-industrial economy.

Ackbar Abbas has described how Hong Kong identity in the 1980s and ’90s centred on a “culture of disappearance”. The city – “built on contingency” and “achronicity” – was forced to reckon with its identity at the last possible moment.4 Its sense of history was unusually twisted by several factors: first, as a surviving example of direct colonial rule by a European power, Hong Kong was something of an anachronism; second, in the 1980s it was perhaps the only colony to surpass its coloniser economically; third, when the British left in 1997, rather than achieving independence, Hong Kong became a subregion of a new superpower; fourth and finally, Hong Kong can no longer play the role of gateway between China and the world, because China is the world. 

* * *

Every Sunday, groups of Filipino women gather on the walkways and footbridges of Hong Kong. The corners of some parks are also popular, as are certain underpasses and stretches of pavement sheltered by overhanging buildings. But the main sites the women choose to occupy are those very symbolic and very practical emblems of Hong Kong’s super-dense, high-rise architecture: the covered walkways connecting shopping malls, office blocks, flats and municipal buildings. They sit in circles of five to ten, talking, sharing food, playing cards, reading magazines and newspapers, listening to music on the radio or an iPhone plugged into a pair of mini speakers – often late into the night. They come together to socialise, to arrange the practicalities of their families’ lives back home (money transfers, work visas, plane tickets etc.), and because here, in this city where they are employed as domestic workers, they have no private space of their own. 

Deconstructed cardboard boxes laid flat on the ground, folded into right angles and anchored with tape, act as walls, floors and tables. They create a temporary architecture whose purpose has little to do with the primitive function of sheltering from the elements and relates more to the imaginative one of creating a semi-permeable boundary, a line of demarcation that divides and at the same time stitches together inner and outer space. 

The aim is to clarify the movement between different spaces. To chain together and concatenate space by repurposing a technology whose modest materials belie its ingenuity. More than that, the domestic scale of a cardboard box, added to symbolic associations exactly opposite to this supposed homeliness, the unhomeliness of abjection, diverts us from the fact that the machine-cut, machine-folded, corrugated cardboard box is the most enduring form of containerisation in modern industry. It has been around more or less unchanged for well over a hundred years, ever since displacing wooden crates and woven sacks. As a technology and a form it plays a special role in enchaining certain key systems and ideologies of late capitalism. Scale up and you arrive at the standardised metal shipping container – long the universal basis for distributing the world’s goods. More recently, with the rise of ‘just-in-time’ production and portal style patterns of consumption (online shopping and the cultivation of niche markets on a mass scale), the humble cardboard box has enjoyed a second lease of life in this latest stage of a capitalism we already thought was tardy. The cardboard box returns to the home; Amazon envisions drones dropping orders on personalised helipads; and HSBC, post-crash, advertises mortgages with the reassuring image of a family opening boxes in their new home, like so many Christmas presents addressed to/from themselves. 

To lay a cardboard box out flat on the ground is to unfold the net of capitalism’s universal support structure. 

* * *

What does an occupation occupy? It could be a factory, a university, the site of a military base, or, as in the occupy movements of the last few years, a public space. In each case the occupation makes something public. 

Take the factory occupation. While a strike opens up a breach between labour and machines – with the picket line acting as a barrier between one set of workers and another – the occupation aims to take over this same productive apparatus, to impose not a barrier or a delay, but a more immediate form of collective control. During the 2009 occupation of Waterford Crystal for example – part of a brief wave of industrial struggle across the UK and Ireland in the wake of the financial crash – workers organised shifts to keep the furnace burning and the precious glass molten. The collective newly empowered in this way raises fundamental questions about the social priorities involved in production. 

Meanwhile when students take over the administrative offices of their university, they block the institution’s normal functioning; and in this sense a student occupation seems closer to a strike than a factory occupation. But the programmes of alternative education which spring up in these student-controlled spaces already move the occupation into a different relationship to its object; one where the aim is not mainly, or not only, to shut down the university, but to repurpose it. And, sure enough, the wave of student occupations that swept the UK in 2010 tended to overlook the administrative block as a target of militant action. Instead they took over prominent lecture halls; spaces which leave the university’s essential ‘machinery’ to one side but are public-facing and highly visible on campus. 

Military bases, by contrast, keep a low public profile. Governments do their best to keep them out of sight and out of reach. Occasions when protesters manage to sabotage the weapons inside are rare. But to the extent that the space is hidden, secret, guarded, making it visible takes on a new charge. The protesters encircle the military site, writing signs on the landscape with their bodies; they set up camp opposite, or create a carnival in a nearby field. In this way the peace camp not only throws a spotlight on its object but makes a point of embodying an alternative set of values. Setting itself up as an open space, where the collective, and beyond that, humanity at large, is held in the highest regard, the camp leverages its reality against the monstrosity, the absurdity, precisely the unreality of the base. The women of Greenham Common are the most famous example, but recent years have seen similar actions (smaller and so far less successful) at RAF Waddington and other installations connected with Britain’s drone programme. 

Compare these forms of action – factory occupation, student occupation and peace camp – to the street occupations of recent years: from New York’s Wall Street and London’s St Paul’s, to Madrid’s Indignados and Istanbul’s Gezi Park. An occupation makes something public, and this means more than simply raising awareness. It takes the productive apparatus under collective control; expands the frame of rational calculation; creates an alternative programme of knowledge-building; and practices a life that self-consciously connects to a universal cosmology. What happens, then, when the thing reclaimed for public benefit in this way is supposedly already public? 

* * *

In this city of seven and a half million people, only 0.03% of the total urban area is designated ‘public open space’.5 This works out as roughly 20 square kilometres, or 3,000 football pitches, spread throughout Hong Kong – which sounds like a lot until you imagine 2,300 people crammed into each of those pitches. This generous definition includes indoor swimming pools, squash courts and even aviaries. Compare that to Greater London, a city with a somewhat larger population, spread over a significantly larger area. Public parks alone account for almost 6% of London’s size, with public squares and pedestrianised seating areas making up 0.05%, while allotments, city farms, community gardens, cemeteries and church yards add another 1.49%. Depending on how you calculate it, Greater London’s total public space comes in at anything upwards of 15%.6

Hong Kong authorities prefer to talk about how 40% of the territory is green space.7 But this 40% consists of large, semi-wild ‘country parks’, beaches and conservation areas – good for a day trip or a morning hike, not so good for lunch breaks, or meeting over coffee; or, for that matter, distributing leaflets or holding a rally.

What emerges just as clearly as Hong Kong’s absolute lack of public space is how the notion of public space shifts and slides under the activities taking place on it. Public space can’t be defined simply as space that isn’t privately owned. Hence the inclusion of church estates and land owned by the Royal Family (Royal Parks) when it comes to London. The rambling lists compiled by public authorities in an effort to classify urban space reveal a slippage between public and private which is especially relevant in Hong Kong, where getting from A to B so often involves crossing the marble floor of a shopping centre, or the courtyard of an office. Different categories of space mesh together in the vertical as well as the horizontal plane. Shopping malls, offices, hotels, government buildings, metro stations, public libraries etc. form a densely woven, three-dimensional topography. The basic unit here is not the street – a public corridor with numbered premises leading off it – but some combination of the covered plaza, the footbridge, the elevator, and the flyover. 

Lack of public space partly comes down to a scarcity of land suitable for building on, but this scarcity in itself helps blur the line between public and private. In one of the great ironies of its history, Hong Kong’s deep bays – the steep incline at which its rocky land plunges into the sea – have been both a blessing and a curse. The city’s topography makes it perfect for shipping (as well as tying up an imperial fleet). But it also makes land extremely precious. Everywhere in Hong Kong you see evidence of the city fighting tooth and nail with the two elements – friable earth and tempestuous water. Go down to the shore and the artificial promenades stretch out dead flat on plaques of tarmac that jut out into the sea. Reclaiming land from the sea is matched by efforts to reinforce the crumbling peaks above. Following a steep road or footpath, you look up and see the face of a hill has been covered in concrete, the whole thing secured with metal pins. It’s easy to see how breezy piazzas and parks would seem like a luxury, given these troublesome raw materials. 

But the complex nature of space in Hong Kong owes as much to history as geography. When the British annexed Hong Kong they encountered little in the way of formal property ownership. Colonial officials started auctioning off land before the 1842 Treaty of Nanking was even signed. Eighteen years later, following the Second Opium War, the British dispatched land valuing agents to the area still today called ‘the New Territories’ in advance of the official takeover date. 

This lust for land became a permanent feature of Hong Kong’s political landscape, and continued throughout the twentieth century. The Hong Kong government’s unusually consolidated ownership position, together with the pressure on land values and the laissez faire, or plain negligent, attitude of the government towards its citizens, led to a situation in which viable urban space was de jure, rather than de facto, a commercial asset. In Hong Kong urban space has been understood in mercantile terms from the beginning. As the Hong Kong government slowly weaned itself off the opium trade at the turn of the century, it was getting hooked on fresh income from property speculation.8 Seventy years later, another property boom, converging with the city’s financial take-off, helped usher in the transition to a post-industrial economy.9

All this has led to a situation where so called ‘privately owned public space’ is the norm. A shifting patchwork of public realms is established on a basically private foundation. The shopping mall is the classic model but examples include places like Hong Kong’s Times Square, the subject of some scandal when it was discovered the company managing the space was letting it out illegally to companies including Starbucks. Handing over responsibility to private developers in this way has not only led to big business squeezing out civic activities; it has moulded the physical shape of the city. Times Square is one of several locations that has benefitted from a policy of granting developers an extra allocation of floor space, effectively encouraging them to build higher than restrictions would normally dictate, so long as they include a certain provision of public space in their plans, e.g. open squares and plazas. In Times Square, this vertical bonus amounted to five extra storeys; in exchange for which the developer had to set aside about 1% of the equivalent area as public space at ground level.10 Hong Kong’s high rise architecture stands in direct relation to its lack of public space. The buildings get higher, the profits get bigger, and the people below get squeezed tighter and tighter. 

* * *

If bourgeois nightmares begin with furniture then the moment of moving into a new house is both the start of the nightmare – the foreclosure of possibilities – and the discovery of a blank slate, a zone where the heaviness of memory and manners has been wiped clean. 

When a house is empty, the symmetry between the floor and the ceiling holds all the fascination of a mirror – the two identical faces so clear and blankly smooth. 

In Roald Dahl’s The Twits, the animals get their revenge by glueing the old couple’s furniture to the ceiling. In Mary Poppins, a fit of laughter causes the children to float up to the ceiling like helium balloons. Children often fantasise about turning domestic life on its head. When they make a game of navigating a room without touching the floor – imagining in place of parquet or carpet, a river of lava or a chasm – these are the stakes they play for. 

My childhood house had symmetry in abundance. A brick fireplace descended like a column in the middle of the room connecting ceiling and floor. We never lit a fire as it was far too cluttered with useless ornaments. And in place of logs, the grill was filled with fir cones. 

When we first moved in, when the room was furnished with only a few unopened boxes and a sofa which hadn’t found solid ground yet (it was still a raft at sea), I remember my sister and I practicing headstands with our feet thrown up against the brick column for balance. From this new point of view we could pretend that the ceiling’s Artex swirls were eddies in a river taking the sharp bend at the column’s base, while the carpeted floor, with its bizarre colouring somewhere between salmon pink and burnt sienna, was the haze of a metropolitan sunset. A column of particles instead of brick might have connected these two planes – like the first and only tornado I’d seen off the coast of my mother’s native island; that time we shut all the windows and watched the sky drinking the sea through a thin grey straw, twisting like a worm on a hook.

On reflection my mum’s placement of the fir cones was as sure as Magritte’s when he painted a bunch of sleigh bells nestled in a bouquet of dark leaves. The most ingenious and, excepting Dali, the most aesthetically reactionary of the Surrealists (not politically – he was well known for his communist sympathies), Magritte had a keen insight when it came to the uncanny qualities of houses. His knack for the single gesture, the detournement executed in a deadpan, faux-naif, commercial illustrator’s style of trompe l’oeil, was never better than in his tiny sketches of houses with crank handles inserted into their facades. These houses, no bigger on the page than a matchbox, have the proportions of a mountain fort and the archetypal symmetry of a doll’s house; the gaping windows could be transfigured into cartoon eyes at a stroke of a draughtsman’s pen. But the windows don’t see, they listen. And we listen to them. When the handle turns, what do you hear coming from the windows? The tinkling notes of a music box or the rumbling of a silver mine? 

A psychoanalytic perspective might interpret these images as variations on the Oedipal scene (the phallic crank). But domestic spaces have their own poetics which is more complex than Oedipal fatalism and just as vertiginous. This poetics is ‘unplaced’, haptic, knotted. It’s also anatomical. In his phenomenology of the spatial imagination, Gaston Bachelard talked about the verticality of the house: you rise from the bowels (the basement), to the house’s stomach (the kitchen), which sits next to the house’s heart (the living room), and then finally to the bedroom, which is not only the site of the primal scene but also where dreams happen, a space where all the activities below are reflected and abstracted. If the bedroom has a window that sticks out like a crow’s nest, or if one wall pitches with the slope of the roof and opens hatch-like to the sky, especially if a little desk is pushed up against it, then all the better. If a parapet hosts a separate study, better still – for this fantasy of the enlightened house. The living room is traditionally where families hook themselves up to aerials, satellites and digital receivers, but the bedroom, with its laptop or tablet, is now becoming the main site of communication with the outside world; soon to complete this hierarchical organisation of the house-body. 

In retrospect I locate many of the anxieties of childhood in the bedroom I occupied at the front of the house. The house was a quasi-bungalow with just two rooms upstairs, my parents’ bedroom and the adjoining bathroom. So already the archetype was askew. But what struck me as utterly wrong was how the front of the house was so dark. It was covered in ivy. We cut it back several times but it only grew thicker, eventually curtaining off half the windows. 

At the front of the house was the ivy. At the back was a plum tree. Every other year the plum tree would grow so heavy with fruit that its branches snapped. The next year the crop would be meagre, but the year after that, again, the tree would break under its own weight. There were squashed bags of plums stockpiled in the garage freezer to last a decade. Later, when I was helping my mum move out, I sorted through the garage and discovered my grandfather’s tool chest among pots of paint that had dried to form a one-inch-thick skin. I levered off some of the lids with the Yankee screwdriver I found in the chest, poking at the skins with my thumb, and remember how the paint was still liquid underneath. Those few months of unemployment were less like a summer than a block of time lifted clean out of the continuity of seasons; lifted into a sphere where, simply speaking, the sun shone – shone without heralding any festival, almost out of indifference towards hot and cold. I sent off CVs and took two buses to get to the job centre. But my main task was to fix up the house. I cut tiles to fill the blanks where old ones had broken off in the kitchen, stripped and sugar-soaped the bedroom walls, and rooted through the heaps of miscellany in the garage. Upstairs in my parents’ bedroom there was a small door giving access to the eaves of the house. The state of affairs behind the door was similar to the garage but denser in the narrower space, stuffed with old clothes my mum couldn’t bear to get rid of and new ones she couldn’t bear to wear. A few years previously the house had suffered an infestation of wasps. The wasps succumbed to the exterminator’s gas, or fled – when the source was located at the back of the eaves – but the nest remained. Now I had to remove the old nest. I had to crawl on all fours. Tiny papery bodies littered the chipboard floor. It was hot and dark and dry. And the knife that passed between the nest’s husk and the roof’s timber met no resistance.

Try to imagine the texture: a cross between tracing paper and meringue. 

What film am I thinking of? Some classic of Southern Gothic? Or British Kitchen Sink? Hitchcock? The Overlook Hotel perhaps? Wrong title, right director. The film is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the scene is the moment when the astronaut David crawls into the narrow compartment housing the ship’s central computer, and removes one by one, almost as a surgeon removes a cyst, the glowing cassettes of HAL’s memory unit. Few moments in cinema are more terrifying than the claustrophobia of this scene measured against the infinity of the surrounding void, into which David will shortly plunge. 

The moving out day was finely orchestrated chaos. I managed to lose a jacket in the process, which only turned up years later in a box of VHS tapes. Nothing was quite ready but it all had to go in the van one way or another. At 10pm we ordered fish and chips and ate it on the floor with plastic cutlery, watching (instead of TV) the pattern of sun-bleached wallpaper and darker squares where pictures used to hang. 

* * *

Why did Benjamin liken the space of the home to a crime scene? At one level, the image of the crime scene was a convenient metaphor for the oppressive atmosphere of the bourgeois home: its routine, its manners, its unspoken rules. But if the home’s artefacts resemble so many clues – fingerprints on a window, scuff marks on a door, a stray shirt button on the floor, or a photograph turned face down on a desk – then what exactly was the crime and who committed it? 

Benjamin’s image reveals a hidden violence underlying bourgeois domestic tranquillity. It shows that the real thief is not a housebreaker – an intruder on the domestic scene – but the master of the house himself. Just as Benjamin understood that museums, galleries and other repositories of culture are also monuments to barbarism, so the bourgeois home testifies to the dispossession and displacement just beyond its walls. 

But left like this, the picture is incomplete. Another possible reading, elaborating on Benjamin, overlays this first one. Either the home’s traces are accidents of the crime, failures to cover it up, or the traces themselves are part of the crime. The traces are part of the crime because they are constructed; every trace left visible shadows a trace erased. The crime is the scene, an elaborate web that can be read in various ways for personal histories and multidimensional ‘characters’. It is not so much that living means “leaving traces” but that leaving traces means living. The domestic scene stitches the home’s inhabitants into place and fabricates their identity. But this scene or space is never given. There is always someone who comes before the trace, who shapes and tends to it. This person has a double identity. They are both detective and criminal; they must work to erase some traces and cultivate others. In the role of ‘criminal’, this subject-before-the-trace is responsible, quite literally, for cleaning up the marks left by others. As detective they must pay equally close attention to the marks of personality littered throughout the home, preserving the physical integrity of these marks and developing their symbolism. This person is none other than the (almost inevitably) female domestic worker, whether mother, housewife, hired cleaner, or nanny. 

Often she is mistaken for a criminal, but like the master of the house she is no intruder. In a sense, she stands at the very centre of the home. And yet to varying degrees this centre is invisible. The criminal of course wants to go unidentified. Meanwhile the detective’s job is to tend to traces without leaving them, to constitute evidence without the investigator’s presence compromising the facts. 

* * *

Under a large, shaded portico a woman sits stitching. A dog is chained to one of the columns in the foreground, and in the middle distance, still within the portico’s lofty space, a little boy tugs at the wares of a merchant who has his back turned. The action is vaguely drawn, the figures tiny against the architecture, while the perfunctory title gives the lie to the fanciful scenery: Perspective View with Portico

The one feature that saves the painting from being merely picturesque is also architectural. Above the figures, up in the vaults of the portico, we see a mezzanine. A red tapestry hangs over the balustrade. One man on the mezzanine grapples with the tapestry, while another looks over the edge. Counterintuitively the portico, completely open to the outside world, is dark, whereas the sheltered mezzanine – crowned by an arch which reveals a slice of the room above – is light. 

In the corridor of Yas’ flat where I first saw a reproduction of this picture by Canaletto, it was hung on the wall in such a way that a string of fairy lights draped across the image. The little points of light cut across the darkened upper area of the picture, descending in an arc across the light-filled mezzanine. In the dimness of Yas’ corridor, it didn’t take much to convince yourself that the blue sky in the background was the strange, underwater turquoise of twilight, that people were sheltering in the portico – perhaps a storm was brewing – while up above, lamps had been lit and a party was being prepared.  

* * *

There is in the street occupation an implicit understanding of the dialectic of public and private space so essential to capitalism. Under normal conditions public space is an infrastructure for private accumulation and the free circulation of individuals. This is the liberal-bourgeois conception: public space as neutral ground for private activity; the market place, or the forum. Yet individual corporations have little incentive to maintain this public infrastructure, and every motivation to push more and more of their costs onto it. The flip side to the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’ is that if firms attach a value to public space, this value must itself enter into the calculus of profit; public space is then conceived as a commodity, something to be accumulated, speculated on and traded away. 

The street occupation reactivates public space and dramatises the problems surrounding it, asking: What makes a space public? Who inhabits it? What activities are allowed in it? As a space which offers a public platform for diverse political acts, the street occupation recalls the image of the forum. Democratic mechanisms, more or less effective, as well as ad hoc negotiations with fellow protestors considered as neighbours, regulate the space and coordinate actions. At the same time the occupation creates opportunities for improvisation. The tension between the disparate acts of individuals and small groups on the one hand, and the space as a self-regulating whole on the other, sustains the occupation.

The same could be said about other forms of protest, a demonstration for example, up to a point. But the key difference here is one of sequences in time and visibilities in space. The weeks of preparation that go into a demonstration – meetings, publicity drives, fundraising, transportation – come before the event. In the street occupation, this preparatory work is folded into the event itself. The street occupation displays its preparation on its surface. It elevates the bedrock of routine political organisation – so essential to any enduring mass movement – to a level where it counts as the substance of the protest itself. This is not a case of simple displacement (from before to after), but of redoubling, iteration. Undoubtedly the street occupation has a prehistory in the movements that come before it. Apparently ‘spontaneous’ actions depend on prior networks of experience. A group of people meet, discuss, plan – make the spontaneous happen. But the key to the occupation’s success is how it builds, as it were, after the event

From demonstration to occupation, the time signature of the protest changes. Certain things that were invisible become visible. Not only are certain activities that took a backstage role now dramatised, but the very nature of the political is revealed in a new light. Activities once outside the scope of the political gain a new charge: cooking, sheltering, keeping warm, bathing and even sleeping. Activities more easily recognised as political – film screenings, reading groups, workshops etc. – shade off into what under normal conditions we would call daily life, the everyday, or simply living. 

In the street occupation two spheres of political consciousness intersect – the civic and the domestic: the space of open dialogue, the forum of ideas; and the space of personal incubation, social reproduction etc. The public-private dialectic is thrown into motion again, reproduced and overtaken.

We come back to the question, what does an occupation occupy? In the factory occupation, the factory; in the student occupation, the university; in the peace camp, the military base (or the area surrounding it). And in the street occupation? The city, the whole city and nothing but the city. The city as civic and domestic taken together. 

* * *

Yas had been up late working on an animation. He was studying an online course run from America, so the time zones were out by twelve hours. The routine of group tutorials twice a week had fused with his nocturnal habits. That night he had a deadline and the task was driving him to obsessive lengths: how to draw a sidestep. Seen front-on, it was the simplest possible translation of the body’s coordinates, from point A to point B. 

If you stop to think about the movement of the arms and legs in walking, the brain’s parallel processing unit quickly runs out of slots. No wonder it took Muybridge’s camera to discover how a four-legged animal runs. It’s not speed but complexity that baffles us. And this isn’t even counting the movement of the diaphragm, which runners know is crucial. In walking, the lungs inflate and deflate in time with the limbs unconsciously. Speed up the motion and that automatic coordination of internal and locomotor muscles is no longer guaranteed. Breathing takes a conscious effort, and to breathe well is half the trick, as any talented runner will tell you. 

A sidestep is nowhere near as complex. But take any movement and break it down into its elements, and it becomes (potentially) infinitely complex – as complex as the analytic eye wishes it to be. We know from photography how unnatural-seeming, inanimate, precisely automatic a movement or gesture – especially a gesture of the face, an expression – can be when stopped, frozen, cut and extracted from the flux of living and breathing. Press photographers know how to seize on these uncanny micro-expressions to demonstrate the caricature recommended by their editors. Except this is not caricature, which conjures an exaggerated, extra-clear version of a characteristic look – an exemplary gleam of wickedness or foolishness. Photography can never be caricature. For example: here’s C.Y. Leung a couple of months before protesters took over the streets of Hong Kong in 2014. Hand on his forehead, mouth half open, a dull flicker crossing his eyes – as if scanning a list of figures projected on the inside of his skull – he looks like a man who has been up late working on something he knows nobody will look at, but where the slightest error will cost him dearly. And here’s Ed Miliband on the eve of the 2015 leaders’ debate, looking as if he’s trying to deliver his speech without his bottom lip touching his top one. (Miliband is ridiculed for his lack of a stiff upper lip.). The point is clearly made but this still isn’t caricature. It isn’t caricature because the point of these photographs is to cancel character, of any sort; to demonstrate a form of automatism, a blankness, an alien-ness. Personality reduced to a fleshy mechanics. 

Animation poses the opposite problem. The point of animation is to create out of still images an organic flux of shaped energy. 

One of the first lessons that Yas learnt in his early training as an animator – a lesson so simple and profound that the uninitiated hear it like a secret passcode – is that any movement depends on a kind of pre-movement. 

A hand lies flat on a table, fingers loosely spread, the palm down but not quite pressed against the surface. A fixed shot. Next, a quick pan: the hand lifts up from the table and comes to rest on another hand. And this is the secret – before the hand begins its ascent, before it swings ninety degrees through the air, pivoting at the elbow and supported by the forearm, there is a slight movement in the opposite direction; a counter-movement but in advance of the principal movement it would be a response to. This counter or preliminary movement gives the main movement something to kick against. It prepares the main movement by creating tension; just as a spring is compressed before it recoils, just as an animal crouches before it leaps. 

Yas’ take on the sidestep exercise was a long-legged sea captain, androgynously slender with glam-rock lapels, carefully negotiating a bear trap. The captain stands to attention. Then she raises her left leg in a wide arc like a compass, pointing her foot, coming down on the other side toe-first, before hoisting in the rest of her body like a flag. As a joke at the end, with the captain home and dry, the trap snaps shut and she does a little frightened, yelping jump. But before the raised leg there is something else: almost imperceptibly the right knee bends and the upper body leans down onto the hips – a counterbalance to the leg that is about to shoot up into the air. 

“It has to look real not realistic,” said a note on his sketchpad. 

* * *

Yas scratched his head. His shoulders lifted, then dropped – the gesture aborted. I cannot say that I saw or heard him sigh, but I felt – I think – the room sigh. I swivelled round in my seat and a sigh travelled through the room. 

Sitting in a room from someone else’s childhood you don’t experience the vertigo that you do in your own room, but you see clearly its effects on the other person – more clearly than they themselves can ever observe. You see them standing up, looking around, not knowing what to do with themselves. 

That not-knowing-what-to-do-with-yourself comes from a sense of redundancy. A space you once breathed life into, that once breathed with you – the two of you respiring together – this space whose organic life you once formed a part of, now stands apart. The independence of the space baffles you. It shouldn’t but it does. Being in the space brings the old world vividly back to memory, but it doesn’t make it live. The gap between the vividness of the recall and the inertness of the space is the potential which discharges the electrical shock of memory. 

* * *

A subtropical breeze carried a faint smell of chlorine. Midnight. In different parts of the world the sky is different. 

“Thank you, have an enjoyable stay, thank you, have an enjoyable stay…” Banana plants flap like sails behind the runway. At the edge of the leaf-green sea, an anonymous structure of corrugated metal bobs up and down and turns ever so slightly on its axis. Inside, a security guard with green fatigues and rainbow flags on her epaulets checks people’s passports. 

If you are close to the equator the sky appears higher than if you are close to the poles. This is due to a number of factors including the earth’s shape, which is not strictly spherical but squashed, like a pill. Sea level at the equator is roughly thirteen miles higher than at the poles. The earth, and the layers of atmospheric gas coupled to it by gravity, assume the shape of a ball of clay spun very quickly on a central axis. And since the equator is more exposed to the sun, the atmosphere rises upwards and away from the earth’s warmed surface, higher than it does at the poles. 

At the equator the sky is like a giant dome. Closer to the poles it is flatter, like the sea. In a city you sometimes forget the sky. “Oh my feet, my aching feet… nothing but feet and tarmac for twelve years.” Look up, someone is trying to speak to you! 

“Thank you, have an enjoyable stay, thank you, have an enjoyable stay…” On Christmas Eve the beach was empty. A swarm of tiny fish – each no bigger than a single word drifting in a column of newsprint – darted back and forth in the tidewater. Aged twelve, on the island where my mother grew up, my feet half-sunk in the lip of sand that joins the sea to the land, I felt as if the sky could swallow me whole. 

“Thank you, have an enjoyable stay…” In tropical and subtropical climates the warmth of the air can make the blackness of the night seem thicker. In the gardens at the foot of the apartment complex where Yas’ parents lived, I lay on my back looking up into the night sky, listening to the hum of a generator, smelling the chlorine and the sweetness of the vegetation. 

“I love him who is of a free spirit and a free heart: thus is his head only the bowels of his heart; his heart, however, causes his down-going.” It’s high time we got up off this hill and went down

1. Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Age of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Verso, 1983), p. 84.

2. There were about 100 thousand children in schools before the outbreak of the Second World War. The number plummeted to a few thousand during the occupation but climbed to almost a million in the mid 1960s. Steve Tsang, A Modern History of Hong Kong (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), p. 189. 

3. See Jinjun Xue, ‘Growth and Inequality in China’ in Jinjun Xue ed., Growth with Inequality: An International Comparison on Income Distribution (Singapore: World Scientific, 2012), p. 23. For a detailed breakdown of more recent trends see Chui Lap et al., Income Inequality in Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Statistical Society, 2012) <http://www.hkss.org.hk/ images/SPC/2011_12/PDF/S11-12-DP4.pdf> [accessed 25 September 2015], pp. 5-8.

4. Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 73. 

5. This percentage is based on the 2014 figures provided by the Hong Kong Information Services Department. See ‘Per Capita Area of Public Open Space’, Social Indicators of Hong Kong <http://www.socialindicators.org.hk/en/indicators/environmental_quality/23.13> [accessed 23 May 2016]. A per capita figure of 2.84 square metres of public open space gives a total area of 19.97 square kilometres, based on a 2014 population of 7.03 million. The urban area assumed here is taken as the total area of Hong Kong minus 40% designated “country parks and special areas” which provide “statutory protection for the habitats of our diverse flora and fauna” (see footnote 7 below). This gives a figure of about 665 square kilometres for the urban area of Hong Kong. 

6. See ‘Key London Figures’, Greenspace Information for Greater London (GIGL), 2015 <http://www.gigl.org.uk/our-data-holdings/keyfigures/> [accessed 23 May 2016]. 18% is the figure given for the specific sites that London boroughs choose to officially designate as public open space. GIGL also provides its own data for green and public spaces. According to these figures 39% of Greater London can be classified as ‘open space’, however not all of this is strictly public. 

7. See ‘Hong Kong: The Facts’, Hong Kong Government, February 2016 <http://www. gov.hk/en/about/abouthk/factsheets/docs/country_parks.pdf> [accessed 23 May 2016]. By way of comparison, 33% of Greater London is green space, which includes parks, heathland, marshes and canals. See GIGL as above. 

8. By 1855 income from land leases was one of the main two sources of government revenue, the other being taxes on the Chinese population (tax income from the minority British population was small by comparison). See Tsang, A Modern History of Hong Kong, p. 59.

9. See Wing Shing Tang interviewed by Ashley Wong and Yuk Hui in Deepa Naik and Trenton Oldfield eds., Critical Cities, vol. 3 (London: Myrdle Court Press, 2012), pp. 55-6.

10. See Alfred Ho, ‘The Contradiction and Conflicts of the Production and Use of the Public Spaces in Hong Kong’, Building Hong Kong, November 2011 <http://alfredhsh. blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/contradiction-and-conflicts-of.html> [accessed 23 May 2016].