The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!

A thousand activists yelled, “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” A young man—probably my age—played guitar in front of the crowd, leading us in song. In English, the guitarist admitted that he just learned to play the song an hour ago. The crowd didn’t care. Holding candles, the protesters belted out in stilted Spanish in support of the Burmese people who were taking to the streets. Every so often, we’d shout an English chorus: “The people united will never be defeated!” We were singing in Spanish and English with Cantonese speakers about a Burmese uprising. There were the activists in Che t-shirts who gesticulated enthusiastically, and there was bad protest poetry. It could have been Portland.

But there was something a little sad about the vigil. People cared deeply about what they said, but they’d been saying it for years. No one risked anything, and no one had any new strategies. With one exception, every speech contained the same predictable rhetoric. It’s not that these categories of thought are wrong, but after traveling the world many times over, they seemed tired. It’s one thing to deploy the rhetoric of the universal, but it needs to be shaped to a time and a place, given purchase in a particular location. The activists seemed to accept wholesale a certain outlook on what a protest should be and what one should say. Surrounded by four banking towers and a Ritz-Carlton, the built environment constantly reminded me of Hong Kong’s position as a rich global center of exchange. Money and ideas from across the world meet here. I imagined that they’d occasionally bump into each other, maybe creating something new or perhaps knocking something off the old idea. Hong Kong is the only place in China—one of the countries propping up the military regime in Burma—where one can safely protest. It could be an activist incubator, where new strategies are tried out, tweaked, and sent around the world for others. Instead, the protest was not just average, but an average of all the protests across the world.

On Trams and “Total Eclipse of the Heart”

A friend from work asked me and the two other American teachers if we wanted to go to a tram party. We’d be gliding through the streets of Hong Kong at night in a convertible trolley. Oh and there was going to be home-cooked food, he told me. Combining my favorite things in the world—light-rail, food, and adventure—I was going to be living a mass-transit fantasy I never knew I had.

Without air-conditioning or window panes, even the new trams belong to a different era, and priced at only two Hong Kong dollars, the fare also seems old-fashioned. Unlike the other trams, this old one, painted deep green with gold trim, had an open air top.

We were among the first people to arrive and the only people to have brought any alcohol. Linda, the hostess, greeted us warmly in perfect English, and we sat at the back at the back of tram, struggling in a futile effort to open a bottle of Australian shiraz with a faulty screw top. We could twist it in a full circle, but the seal would not break. It was the only thing that went wrong.

Linda announced something to the party to great applause. Of course, we couldn’t understand a word. A moment later, Eric, our colleague, introduced us to the crowd in Cantonese, again to cheers. People seemed genuinely interested in us. This takes some getting used to.

We left our nook at the back and mingled with the crowd. Linda handed us a sheet of paper and a colored pencil. She explained to us that we had to introduce ourselves to everyone on the tram, and after a conversation, we had to write a first impression about the person on their piece of paper. On my sheet, someone compared me to Jude Law. No, seriously.

As long as we were moving, a light wind kept us cool on the hot, muggy night. We moved smoothly underneath neon signs: some in English, some in characters, and some with cartoons of chickens. We slid by jealous businessmen in Central and gawking tourists in Causeway Bay. As we passed a tram going in the opposite direction, we were inches from workers taking public transportation home. We’d look at them, smile, and wave. Someone would always wave back.

After our two hour tram trip finished, we headed to a karaoke bar. I was a little apprehensive about singing. I mean if the Chinese government heard my crooning, it’d be banned as offensive. Hell, I’m probably already banned from karaoke in Singapore. But all it took was a cantopop cover of “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” and I was hooked. In that great ballad, the imitable Bonnie Tyler sang, “Together we can take it to the end of the line.” On that night, we already had, and it turns out “the universe” could really be as “magical and wondrous” as she had hoped.

The Sun Never Sets on Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, the sun doesn’t set. It just slowly vanishes. There’s never that golden light that makes buildings and sidewalks glow. At dusk, the city remains in muted colors. On some days, you can actually see the sun as it sets, but it barely penetrates the clouds. The sun’s clearly defined perimeter manages to punch a perfect circle through the fog, but it doesn’t radiate. The sun just sinks into the haze, a fading coral saucer.

Supposedly, many wealthy expats have moved to Singapore to escape to colored sunsets, where clouds go from persimmons to oranges to dragonfruit. It’s not Hong Kong’s fault really. Much of the pollution comes from coal-powered factories north of the region. But walking around the city, it’s easy to imagine the flecks of carbonaceous gunk that one constantly inhales. I can’t help but think back to when an elementary school teacher showed us actual lungs from a smoker. Cigarettes had mangled them and deposited black, glutinous tar throughout the once white organ. I am only being a little neurotic. One oft-cited study blames air pollution for killing 1,600 people each year in Hong Kong. It is no wonder the deterioration of the air quality has become the major issue here. Perhaps with increasing environmental controls in China, the residents of Hong Kong will soon see the sun set on this part of the old British Empire, but with the explosion of growth in Shenzhen, I don’t think it’s likely.

Distinctly Indistinct

You can always spot the tourists, because their eyes constantly glance upwards. I guess that makes me a tourist. I still unabashedly stare at Hong Kong’s charismatic skyscrapers and massive residential slabs. On the one hand, this means I’m actually seeing buildings—unlike local residents who whisk past them with an efficiency of movement that prohibits even a momentary look upwards. The tourist’s gaze, however, rips buildings from their context, fetishizing structures instead of understanding the building within the fabric of the city. Certainly, my photography does not help, but only further pulls them out of their place. In photography, one takes images, even the verb implies a plucking out of context. Perhaps stemming from its origins as a gateway city, Hong Kong’s built environment encourages a global—even placeless—outlook on the world that, paradoxically, is distinctly Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s architecture aids in this destruction of context. Much of the city is in an international architectural style that ignores the local geography. The ten story mall near me has no windows; with its inward looking atrium and high-end chain stores, it could be anywhere in the world. This refusal to recognize a place is not uncommon in Hong Kong. Even the few efforts to create a Hong Kong identity through architecture only furthered the erasing of context. Many Hong Kong residents were furious with the construction of the Bank of China Building, because it did not adhere to the rules of feng shui. One well-known politician even refused to live in the central city to avoid the bad feng shui that reflected off the building. Despite the attempt to create a unique Hong Kong architectural style, the Bank of China Building did not adhere to local standards. However in eyes of the Bank of China, the building succeeded in its goal of becoming an international icon, strengthening the image of the bank around the world.

In stark contrast to the iconic buildings of Central, my favorite areas to explore are residential neighborhoods that consist of rows upon rows of high-rises. These buildings were not built for the sake of any architectural statement but rather to maximize profit through cost-efficient construction. Even more so than New York, the architecture of Hong Kong unapologetically inscribes capitalism into space. These nondescript residential slabs look as if they could belong anywhere, but at the same time, they are the direct result of government land use policies that I’m only beginning to learn something about. This combination makes these buildings simultaneously “placeless” and particularly HK. You can feel it when you walk around these areas. These neighborhoods blur the boundaries between the eerily familiar and the new and strange.

This month, HK was again ranked the “most free” place on Earth in terms of trade. Blessed with few natural resources, Hong Kong grew as a wildly successful site of exchange. Both the residential slabs and the iconic buildings are indicative of a so-called import-export mentality that’s devoted to profit and global trade. The tourists snapping photos of famous buildings may not understand the particular set of policies or cultural milieu that gave rise to them, but by circulating photos of the buildings, they enhance the buildings’ global appeal through exchange. And nothing could be more Hong Kong than that.

Walk On

In college, my friends and I walked. We walked the entire length of Manhattan. We walked a portion of the 6 train, eating and smelling the neighborhoods along the way. We walked from the East Village to Morningside, finishing with the sunrise.

At times, these walks were a way to have a Star Trek adventure, beaming ourselves down to worlds different from the familiar one at Morningside Heights. In other cases, these walks were a way of creating a particular sense of being-in-the-world, a sense that connected us to the larger, networked geography of the city. For us, walking was skimming over pages in a book. We’d catch certain details while blowing past others, expanding and recreating our narratives of New York City.

Here in Hong Kong, there have already been a number of ‘walkabouts,’ the name a friend has given our aleatoric wanderings. Our walks have become adventures through the varied ambiences of the city. Though our walks are not completely random—we’ll chase smells, search for an overlook, or navigate our way to the waterfront—we always entrust chance as our primary guide. Hong Kong is a delightfully messy city that lends itself well to meandering twenty-somethings. Great cities allow for what the American suburbs permit only reluctantly to the dregs of society: drifting, loitering, strolling. With our characteristic blend of tarrying and pressing forward, we want to the impossible: to grasp the whole of Hong Kong, to sample all the flavors of this Baskin Robbins of a city.

At least for a moment, we’ll be able to satisfy our curiosity of what’s around the next corner.

The Durian Column

In the last few days, I’ve had pig’s neck, ox’s tail, steamed frog legs, and of course chicken feet. But far and away, my most courageous gustatory adventure was eating durian.

On the outside, a durian is a green, spikey rugby ball of a fruit. If it fell from a tree onto you, you’d probably die. I guess the Autumn chestnuts of 32nd Place no longer seem so intimidating.

Once open, the smell is overwhelming. Supposedly, Hong Kong has banned people from taking the fruit onto mass transit for fear that it would crack open, exposing riders to an aroma somewhere between a rotten papaya and a gym sock.

Even more than its appearance or odor, the most other worldly aspect of the durian is the taste. The adjective normally attached to its flavor is the unhelpful “indescribable” Of course, this was why I had to try it in the first place. I’d venture to compare durian to pungent, gooey cheese soaked in sherry. But, I enjoyed it. I’ve also heard the taste—equally accurately—described as custard that has passed through a sewer

Also, not unlike Pepsi and Pop Rocks, I’ve been told that if you eat durian within hours of drinking beer, your bowels will explode. Thankfully, it appears that this is an unfounded culinary legend.

Though to end on a note of caution, if any food secretly contained Martian seeds that resulted in an alien exploding from one’s stomach, it would certainly be the durian.

Maybe I just got lucky.

“You’re our teacher?!?”

In an Orientation meeting for new Shue Yan instructors, we were told—based on personality tests performed on the entire incoming student population—that two thirds of the student population were “analysts” and not “intuitivists.” Analysts are compliant and desire structure, while intuitivists are nonconformists with a broad perspective on topics. Because today’s global economy requires more intuitive thinking than at any previous time, we were informed that it was our job to transform our analysts into intuitivists.

Though obviously flawed as a method of depicting a mass of students, the description led me to imagine a class of students used to—even desiring—being filled with knowledge from an all-knowing and unquestionable lecturer. I feared they would react to my interactive—you could even call it “intuitive”— approach with an awkward silence.

Instead, my first classes were chocked full of enthusiastic volunteers. The variety of ways of asking about my love life left me both impressed with their English and their “intuitivist” approach to problem solving. They just kept trying new approaches to extract information, despite my repeated refusals to dispense with information.

Being a 22 year old instructor at a university means that I’m in this strange liminal state between being a teacher and a fellow student, a mentor and a peer. According to the university, part of the reason why I’m here is to “bridge the gap between students and instructors.” But it still makes navigating the teacher-student relationship difficult. The students certainly do not treat me like a normal lecturer. I can’t imagine they’d ask an older teacher whether or not he was single. It’s true; they were testing me, seeing what they could get away with. But for a first day, where a teacher tries to create a trusting environment where people are willing to take language risks, I’d say it was smashing success. Now, we’ll what happens when I force them to do some real work.

Tomorrow is only a day away

Okay, I’m a bit nervous. Tomorrow is the first day of school. I’ve spent the last few hours pacing my apartment, unable to focus on even the simplest tasks. This is worse than any first date I’ve been on. I sort of anticipated being a little anxious, but these kids really give me the jitters. I just don’t know what this whole teaching thing will be like. I don’t know much about the students’ English level. I have no idea how much time my planned activities will take up. I’m totally clueless about their educational backgrounds and preferred styles of learnings. Over five classes, I’ll be teaching about 175 students, who aren’t too much younger than I am. Somehow I never realized it as a student, but a class of thirty-five students is intimidating. How will I remember all their names? How will I grade all those papers? How will I avoid losing their grammar assignments?

But what’s most nerve-wracking is that I REALLY want to be excellent. I want to be liked by the students—preferably all 175—and respected by my colleagues. While I’m at it, I want to enjoy it too. It is the first time that I’ve been so emotionally invested in something that I am so completely clueless at.

There was a brief teaching orientation earlier in the year, and there was one lesson that I remember well. The gist of the class was, “you will suck at teaching.” Of course, the instructor continued to by saying that that was okay, and that you will only suck sometimes. For any teacher, not every class or every lesson plan will work. This is probably an important lesson to internalize.

I hope I learn it next month.

Late for a very important date

I was late. Real late. Due to a miscommunication, I didn’t know the exact time or location of the student Orientation meeting. Everybody was already there—my bosses, colleagues, students. I’d been wandering around the campus frantically searching for someone I recognized. On account of unexpected butterflies in my stomach, I’d not slept much the night before. I guess this was the first time I’d meet many of the people whose opinions mattered to me, and I really wanted to make a good impression. Finally, I called and found out the room number of the Orientation, but I continued to look in the wrong building for that room number. Sprinting up and down stairs two at a time, desperately trying to minimize my tardiness, I started to sweat… profusely.

I discovered my error with the building and quickly found and entered the room where the Orientation was taking place. I tried to sneak in unnoticed.

“Oh, it looks like one of the English instructors from America joined us after all. I haven’t even met him myself,” the head of the English Department said. “Go on, introduce yourself,” he told me.


Needless to say, I was a little flustered. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I think it came out as, “Uhhhh, my name is… uhhh… Christopher Shay… and I’m… uhhh… Portland, Oregon… errrr… I mean I am FROM Portland, Oregon. I just graduated from New York… errrrr… I mean from SCHOOL in New York.”

And then there was the looooong, awkward pause. Apparently, everybody had given much more verbose speeches, or at the very least, had indicated when they were finished talking. The crowd expected me to continue speaking, but I had nothing more to say. I just wanted the spotlight back on someone else. The merciful (but awkward) clapping started, and I was off the hook. The first impression to my bosses, colleagues, and students was over, and the rest of the Orientation continued without my input.

Boy, I hope my first day of classes goes more smoothly.