Not long after she joined the Paris Opera as a fledgling ballerina, Sylvie Guillem was sitting in her dressing room one night waiting for her cue to go on stage when the legendary Rudolf Nureyev, nearing fifty and long past his prime, walked by and asked "Are you nervous?" Guillem nodded. "Your fears will only get worse as you get on in years," he reflected.
It's this Guillem-Nureyev story that has been occupying my thoughts lately, as Hong Kong's days of being a semi-autonomous state approached its end, thanks to a freedom-curbing law Beijing has forced upon the territory in the name of national security. From now on, we have to contend with horrors like having mainland security personnel installed in our midst and seeing those Beijing considers most recalcitrant sent to mainland for trial. On the eve of the launch of the law, prominent young activists like Joshua Wong disbanded their political associations, out of fear for their personal safety. Even ordinary Hong Kong people have been scrambling to install VPN on their devices and erase their chat history on politics.
I am an independent political writer in Hong Kong, and the sight of so many others cowering under the new law's looming presence is really shaking my composure. My apprehension has taken a form quite different from frantic chat history deletion, though: I happened to be writing on my computer when news that the Chinese legislature had passed the law flashed on my screen; I tried to pretend everything was normal, tried to return back to writing. I didn't realize the depth of my anguish until I typed a colon, and all of a sudden, my mind went blank, and for the life of me I couldn't remember whether I should capitalize the word right after the punctuation. The last time I was hit by so startling a mental block was a couple of years ago, when I had to put my pet to sleep. On our way to the clinic, I had to draw money to pay the vet, but all I could do was to stand in front of the ATM dumbfounded - I couldn't recall my bank card's PIN.
"No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear," C. S. Lewis wrote after his wife died. He provides me with an insight into the mental footing Beijing's new law has put me in: fear may be what I'm feeling, but at bottom I'm really mourning for the liberties I so casually took for granted in the old Hong Kong.
It is some consolation that the people of Hong Kong aren't the only ones weighed down by fear. When Beijing's top representative in Hong Kong Luo Huining gave his first press conference in the city earlier this year, a side camera caught sight of his legs - they were trembling.
Surely, this can be read as a symbol of Beijing's worry that their measures to subdue us will fail. And Beijing-friendly legislator Felix Chung recently admitted that big businesses in Hong Kong are living in fear of being caught in the crossfire between the US and China: "many of us own sizable assets in the US, so we worry that the US will sanction us on account of our ties with Beijing. But there's little we can do, other than waiting and seeing and treading carefully.
If you look at videos of Nureyev leaping across the stage when he was at the peak of his powers, so struck will you be by his imperious presence that it would never have occurred to you that fear was eating him just earlier on, when he was waiting in the wings. Perhaps Hong Kong protesters can take Nureyev's lesson to heart: you don't do something until your fears have subsided; do it in spite of your fears, and you'll be stirred by an odd sense of exhilaration. If a sufficient number of us follow Nureyev's example for a sufficient amount of time, then chances are that Luo Huining's shaking legs will become a commonplace spectacle.
Michelle Ng is a bilingual writer based in Hong Kong. She is also an English writing coach.