A Hongkonger Unmasked

A funny thing happened to me as I was on my way to get tested (coronavirus, not AIDS, although the drugs they use to treat it are basically the same). I was dashing through Central at my usual speed (as if fleeing the scene of a crime – just about slow enough to be considered a rushed walk, not a flat-out panic) when a flock of 4 popo in surgical masks, and full riot gear, stopped me and demanded I remove my mask so they could ID me. As I peered up and down Wyndham Street, I was immediately struck by the fact absolutely everybody was wearing a mask. Why was I being singled out?

I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the window of the FCC and had to admit I did look slightly shady. Black leggings, black hoodie pulled up, black sunglasses and an oversized surgical facemask that covered my head, neck and shoulders. This bold fashion statement was completed with a pair of biodegradable, fully sustainable brown doggie poo bags flapping over each hand. Sh*t! Wasn’t black clobber still technically banned in Hong Kong since the protests? What about facemasks? Weren’t they banned too? Or were they compulsory now? Banned AND compulsory? The only item of clothing I had on me that I was certain was legal was the poo bags.

To draw the popo’s attention away from my criminal attire, I threw my hands up in an inappropriate (for the circumstances) gesture of mock arrest, then twiddled them about a bit – look, jazz hands! We all watched as a light breeze lifted the poo bags off my hands and sent them billowing down Wyndham Street.

I tried to remember what Carrie Lam had said about masks in her last press conference, but conjured up a false positive memory. Or it could have been a false negative. Or a negative positive. Or a positive negative. Science seems confused. Nobody’s seen Lam since the pandemic started. Even Boris Johnson’s kept up a higher profile and he’s spent most of it unconscious. Rumor has it Lam never returned from her jaunt to Beijing on National Day and now governs Hong Kong as a hologram projected onto podiums.

For a moment, I trance out and imagine Lam’s likeness being projected as a hologram by my outside bin – “Help me, Miss Adventure! You’re my only hope!” Moved by this rare display of emotion from our poker faced Chief Exec, I pick up the bin, apologize – “Sorry about this, R2” – and lob it into the back of a refuse truck. I watch, satisfied, as its CCP approved virtual reality technology gets chewed up and spat out into the harbor. At least as Lamfill, Carrie serves a purpose.

Ahh, the Protests! When I think of 2019 now I hear angel choirs. (That‘s how much fun 2020 has been.) All the arson, vandalism, tear gas, batons and bullets have been infused with a hazy nostalgic glow. It’s much the same way that I now look back on childhood camping trips with my family in Wales. In my mind, the sun was always shining and it was baking hot. We dined al fresco on the freshest catch every balmy night, before retiring to our luxurious glamping oasis.

Whereas my parents insist it p*ssed down the entire time. I never stopped complaining that my feet had turned blue and that it was 10 degrees colder than the North Pole. Our tent was as roomy and luxurious as a body bag, only much less waterproof. The only edible I ever caught in a rock pool with my orange plastic fishing net was a strawberry-flavored condom. And we ate baked beans and mushy fish fingers heated up by my mother squatting over a mini gas canister, as if she was taking a culinary dump. She looks back on our summer camping trips in Wales and blames them for her arthritis.

But back to Wyndham Street and my brief encounter with the popo. “But officers!” I defended myself. “As if fleeing the scene of a crime is just how I walk! Besides, how are you meant to know if you’re experiencing shortness of breath if you’re dawdling along at a snail’s pace?” I suddenly remembered that I’d left my ID card at home. It was a deliberate criminal act, not an accident. I had made a conscious, conscientious decision to reduce the amount of plastic I carried. It was less about saving the environment and more about having less to disinfect the second I walked in through the door. My rap sheet was growing by the millisecond. I peered up at a traffic light, hoping its advanced facial recognition camera had not been irreparably damaged by protesters and tried to replicate my expression on my ID card so there could be no mistaking it was me.

“Think the Mona Lisa”, the Immigration Official in the photo booth had urged me. Noting my mental struggle, she elaborated, “You can smile, as long as you don’t show any teeth.” Just t*ts then. It had been years since my school trip to the Louvre and I drew a blank trying to recall the expression on Mona Lisa’s face. “Enigmatic”, the Immigration Official prompted me with an encouraging smile that I wondered might be a clue as to how the Mona Lisa had posed for her HKID card. As my picture came juddering through the printing machine, the Immigration Official frowned, smiled pityingly at me and brightly announced, “Let’s try that again!” FFS! I’d only come to have my ID card updated to the CCP’s latest standard of criminal profiling technology, not to be turned into some kind of constipated still life art exhibition. This is what happens when your ID card is smarter than you are.

After 5 more attempts, the Immigration Official appeared to have lost faith in her ambition to be the next Mario Testino and showed me her artwork. I nodded sagely. I recognized the expression on my face immediately, though I doubted it was because it bore any resemblance to the Mona Lisa. It was the exact same facial expression my dad had when he’d peed in the sea on our summer camping trips in Wales. Braving the icebergs, he’d swim purposefully out to sea before turning around to face the shore, tread water for approximately 3 minutes, all the while pretending to smile fondly back at his family so that the other dads treading water around him wouldn’t become suspicious. Then he’d power back to shore. As I left Immigration Tower with a photocopy of my new ID card, I tried to take comfort in the fact I’d only have to look like a guilty man peeing until I was 65.

I tranced back into the present where the popo had clearly had enough of my criminal ambivalence and pathetic attempts to distract them with jazz hands. My wrists aching, I pulled down my hood and nervously removed my facemask. I don’t know who – or what – they were expecting to see but it certainly wasn’t me. One started laughing and the others joined in. Did this mean I was free and had narrowly avoided a penalty and up to two years imprisonment for not having my HKID on me? Relieved, I laughed too, hi-fived a couple of them and shook hands with another. As a radio call came in, alerting the popo to an illegal gathering of more than 2 people in West Kowloon, they wafted me off in the same direction as my poo bags.

Half an hour and a nasal excavation later, I discovered that I had tested weak positive for COVID 19. Further tests proved inconclusive. I could have been asymptomatic and nearly over it. Or it could have been a false positive, a false negative, a negative positive, or a positive negative, said Science. A few days later, I read this report in the South China Morning Post: ‘130 Hong Kong Riot Police Ordered Into Quarantine’.

I smiled enigmatically. A perfect Mona Lisa.

Catch the first episode of my humorous new audio column, Sharp Pains, on RTHK Radio 3‘s 123 Show Sept 29, 2020! (Needless to say, in the current environment, this won’t be one of them.) I actually wrote this a couple of months back, then procrastinated over whether a mildly entertaining anecdote was worth serving life imprisonment for, then forgot about it for a while, before rediscovering it and deciding 2020 had been so boring that even prison might bring about a welcome change of scene…

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