An invisible extraterrestrial being visited Hong Kong in 2018, before the historic Typhoon Mangkhut affected the city. Before a gust of wind carried the extraterrestrial away from the city, it had witnessed the Earthlings’ perseverance and solidarity in the face of natural disasters.
My form, to the eyes of living organisms on Earth, is, I have repeatedly been told, translucent. I am only partially visible to the planet’s inhabitants under a certain light cast by the setting sun that foreshadows an abnormality in the weather. I learnt at an early age from the elders that for centuries my planet has been sending young delegates of low rank such as myself to what is sometimes referred to affectionately as ‘the tiny blue dot’, charting its social and technological development, which resembles that of our own planet, albeit lagging far, far behind, to the order of centuries.
I work for the Ministry of Goodwill Enhancement, and our task is mainly concerned with maintaining non-hostile external relations with planets comparable to ours in size, mass and luminosity. But in the case of Earth, we only observe it, and do not initiate any direct interaction, for this is deemed disastrous to its inhabitants who are not yet endowed with the ability to comprehend the 99th dimension. Of all the projects to which I am assigned, monitoring Earth is one of my favourites. I visit it from time to time. Each visit is for just one of the Earth’s days, and to a new location every time. I have experienced seasons, seen mountains, deserts, oceans, and tasted air.
My most recent visit was to the cramped and crowded city of Hong Kong, ensconced at the southern extremity of China. The year was 2018. It was a very warm morning in September and the streets were already crowded with Earthlings—as the natives of this planet appear to call themselves—walking in groups, presumably with friends or family. Above their heads were opened colourful umbrellas to block out the sun—a practice that was so common that even the young ones had mastered it. People spoke loudly, hurriedly, and excitedly. Most of them communicated in either Cantonese or Mandarin, languages that had similar syntactical structures but diverged in their phonology. The concrete buildings all around were of various heights and in different degrees of dilapidation, and some—but not many—bore protruding rods for drying clothes: incongruent garments that resembled flags of imaginary nations as they hung lifelessly. In less densely populated areas I saw plenty of trees and nature but I was drawn to the clustered spaces shared, seemingly peacefully, by a large number of people who desired company, and who believed in, I learned, the power of what they called the ‘Lion Rock Spirit’—perseverance and solidarity.
The case file from the Ministry of Goodwill Enhancement informed me that Hong Kong was posited in a peculiar historical and political timespace. After surviving one ‘deadline’ in 1997 (the end of colonial rule by the distant power of Great Britain), the city was faced with another, more absolute one, in 2047 (the end of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy, which underpins its relationship with the motherland, China). The people in the city did not seem too preoccupied by this historical situation, however. On the day of my visit, many of them were focusing on the imminent typhoon—the fiercest and severest in many years—which was going to hit the city the following day, a Sunday. In boisterous restaurants and street markets and on public transport, the name of the typhoon was on everyone’s lips. Some boasted about stocking canned food, bread, instant noodles and Coca-Cola; some had calligraphed their windows with adhesive tape in the hope of lessening the impact of shattered glass; some were planning to place themselves in the city’s open spaces and document the intensity of the wind with their bodies, while others insisted the typhoon wouldn’t come.
The sun continued in the afternoon, people were out and about as usual, as if defiant of what was to come. In fact, the expectation of the typhoon might have even added an aura of cautious festivity to the city that retained memories of past high winds and waves. Old women on park benches told stories of friends who had gone missing during previous typhoons, only to return weeks later with new skin and white teeth. Perhaps these grandmothers were just expressing a wishful fantasy—they wanted to be abducted by the typhoon and come back youthful and energetic. Middle-aged chess-playing friends speculated about the muffled sounds miscellaneous parts loosened from abandoned buildings or bamboo scaffolding might make when struggling in the wind-choked sky. Some parents taught their children the composition of typhoons, how each was given a name, and how they all died out in the end, even those that were prophesised to upturn lives and eras.
It was once said that a city only became a city when it had its own signs, statues and monuments that were content to be redundant and taken for granted. Memorials in Hong Kong such as the Big Buddha, the Pillar of Shame, the statue of Queen Victoria, the Golden Bauhinia and the likeness of Bruce Lee would doubtless withstand strong gales. But what of those makeshift monuments—the tall bundles of used cardboard collected by the city’s elderly or the red-white-blue checked bags carried by the homeless? When the sky began to darken, people lingered a bit longer on the streets, scanning the familiar lampposts, which, remembering their duties, glowed amber. One of the suppliers of electricity in the city had issued a warning about the possibility of power cuts, prompting people to buy torches or rush home to recharge their mobile phones or whatever other devices would connect them to the outside, stormless, world. The earlier atmosphere of celebration had now turned grave and sombre. There were more worried faces to be seen, and people’s apprehension at the impending storm seemed now to be paired with an anguish for Hong Kong’s future. They wondered why they had persistently held onto the city at all, which offered no point of escape. All along, they had been living in a state of perpetual anticipation of an overwhelming storm.
My visit was about to end but, as on all previous forays, I was obliged to present myself at a designated place. I went to Fuk Tak Temple, a small temple, with three of its sides open to the elements, in the district of Hung Hom. The temple housed a stone representing the Taoist Earth God. The temple was incongruous amidst its surroundings—street food stalls, cheap clothes shops, convenience stores, a showroom for a luxury car brand. So many people passed the temple and yet most did not stop to pray and worship. I wondered if the wispish incense coils would withstand the typhoon. I wondered if any desperate souls would take shelter in it. And then, upon feeling an intense gust of wind, I found myself departing Hong Kong. The last thing I saw was the windows of so many homes, cross-hatched by adhesive tape. Together they formed a new sign—a sign of perseverance and solidarity.
When I returned home, the elders said that a long time ago, parts of my planet were themselves vulnerable to typhoon attacks. We no longer have them now. If Earth stays on its course of progress, it too will one day be rid of typhoons and other unwelcoming natural phenomena. But then, Earthlings would be left with one less thing to talk about.
Tammy Lai-Ming Ho is a Hong Kong-born academic, editor, poet, and translator. She is the founding co-editor of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, the English Editor of Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine, and an editor of the academic journal Hong Kong Studies. She has edited or co-edited a number of literary anthologies and features centering on Hong Kong, the most recent one is Hong Kong Now (2020), an e-chapbook published by Cordite Publishing. Tammy is also the President of PEN Hong Kong, a Junior Fellow of the Hong Kong Academy of Humanities, an Associate Director of One City One Book Hong Kong, and an Advisor to the Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing. An Associate Professor at the Department of English at Hong Kong Baptist University, Tammy teaches poetics, fiction, and modern drama. Her first poetry collection is Hula Hooping (2015), for which she won the Young Artist Award in Literary Arts from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. Her other books are Too Too Too Too (2018), Her Name Upon the Strand (2018), An Extraterrestrial in Hong Kong (2018), and the scholarly book Neo-Victorian Cannibalism (2019). She is currently editing several academic volumes and a bilingual anthology of Hong Kong poetry.