By Sarah Kwong
Cherry made the sign from white card she found in her little brother’s room.
1. Five demands. 2. Step down, it reads.
She proudly holds it in front of her chest for the whole bus ride. We aren’t the only passengers dressed in black on the number 25. There are at least seven of us. As we pull up outside Sogo department store, I realise we are seven of hundreds of thousands. A mass of people moving towards the park, a colony of black ants doing the work. We alight the bus and fall in line, carried by the momentum.
We didn’t need to make a sign, I whisper to Cherry, pointing to a man handing out black posters printed with white, sans serif statements.
They need to know it’s coming from us personally, not generic posters, she replies, certainty stretched between her hairline and her chin.
I believe in the cause, but I believe in Cherry more. Ever since we were kids, she has been my protector, salvation, personal hero. She is beautiful and bold — things we were told could never exist in the same entity. She always goes home from school toting something new — a curse phrase, a nose piercing, a dying bird, a leaflet about Falun Gong. Her mother sighs, shakes her head, and mutters ngo fong hei. I give up. She is not the good Chinese girl she was meant to be. That’s me.
My father is always saying, either to me or to the room, watch what you say. My grandfather lost his life because he didn’t do that, he didn’t watch his words and someone else caught hold of them and that was that. I used to think it was literal, and I’d glance down my nose trying to watch my words form in front of me as the breath left my body, but I never could catch them in time, never could stop my eyes from crossing. I said less, then, knowing I could never watch any of it. But now I’m saying something — for demands to be met, for the leader to resign — and it’s hard to stop with Cherry by my side. But then again, this time watching the words is easy thanks to the thousands of voices sustaining them, over and over.
On the news later that week, I see what happens to people who don’t watch what they say. Handcuffs and an excess of blue shirts on a quiet residential street. My dad shoots me a look. See?
A few years ago, my parents and I took the ferry to an outlying island with Cherry and her family. My parents weren’t fussed about going, but we were invited and so we said yes. In the afternoon, leaning on the railings of the pier, the breeze capturing strands of our hair and flinging them sideways, Cherry removed her cardigan, tilted her head back and exhaled as the sun coated the skin on her face and arms in shine. She looked free, even as her parents tutted and my parents pretended not to see.
That evening, Mum emerged from the kitchen waving a bunch of choi sum in her right hand and said, that Cherry always wants to do things the western way.
She meant Cherry enjoying the sun and a semblance of personal freedom. But she was wrong. Cherry didn’t want to do things the western way. Cherry wanted to do things the Cherry way. She didn’t emulate, she created; opportunities in which she could live as the truest version of herself in that moment.
A ripple of marchers backs up and we’re forced to stop and move back, too. A girl collapsed, we hear a man say. A voice calls out for a medic. Someone helps the girl slump onto the kerb of the tram stop. A siren emerges from a side-street and voices overlap, look out. The crowd seamlessly parts, as if rehearsed, to let the ambulance through. I look over at Cherry and she’s smiling, tears perched on the precipice of her lashes.
Let’s drink more water, she says, the droplets sloping down into the little pouches under her eyes as she pulls a bottle from her bag.
Instinctively, I reach forward and wipe the tears with my thumb. I couldn’t imagine letting my tears sit unattended. I can’t imagine not touching her face in this moment. She smiles small and brings the bottle to her lips.
I didn’t tell my parents I had been to the march. I knew that they would extrapolate the facts and translate them into scaremongering buzzwords they’d heard on the news — protest, police, independence. Cherry told her parents before and after. When she got home, her younger brother pointed at the TV screen, a moving picture of what turned out to be over two million marchers, and asked, you were there?, simultaneous terror and awe on his face, Cherry said.
I change depending on the light; where it hits me, where it comes from, how strong it is. I am this to you and that to someone else, all negotiated by endless variables. I’m less reliable than a prism but just as transparent. Cherry does not change in the light but in tandem with it, as if they are one, all luminescence and colour.
It’s 6pm and we find ourselves in Wan Chai. Not geographically far from where we started but emotionally very far, Cherry says. I see a taxi crawling behind us, so I grab her hand, pull us to the side. Glancing down, I see that I’ve separated my fingers and interlaced them with hers instead of keeping them together, within their boundaries. Nervously, I don’t unfurl them. She picks up her thought, as if the taxi didn’t come and my fingers aren’t slotted between hers, our lives have changed, I know it. I turn in time to see a shard of sun beaming right into her glassy brown eyes.
Sarah Kwong is a British-Chinese writer currently living in Edinburgh. She was previously based in Hong Kong and, before that, London. Sarah writes essays about identity, culture, wellness (human and environmental), and travel. She is also the founder of being, a zine encouraging slow living which is distributed in local independent businesses and published online. She can be found at www.sarahkwong.net.