By Elizabeth Jen
It was important to live on higher ground in Hong Kong. I learned that lesson pretty early on. I was fortunate enough to live in a sturdy new high-rise designed for typhoons, but many were less lucky. When my friend was trapped inside of his home, surrounded by thick, swirling water, without any electricity and means of escape, I thanked the heavens and my father for thick windows.
The people of Hong Kong were terrified of wind and rain, afraid that the breeze that ruffles our hair in the morning might turn into howling spirits of wrath before the day is over. Citizens were devastated by annual storms ever since Hong Kong was a British colony. My mother would not let me go outside without her watchful eye, even to my balcony, fearing that any sudden new gust of hurricane would sweep me away like many other children have been. Some were rescued, soaking wet and trembling into the arms of the heavily clad firefighters. Others were not that lucky, and all that is left of them are memories.
Outside, the storm prepares itself, strapping on armored vests of clouds and thunder. It grins- a menacing expression- and the city is methodically mutilated like game on a butcher's table. It’s eyes were the evil yellow of the air. It sits on a throne of souls- the ones that he so hungrily dragged away from the rest of the world. Its skin the cold blue of those tragically drowned and of the hulking clouds that trap us.
The sea spits and forths like a rabid and starved animal, stretching towards the coastline and creeping to flimsy shore-side homes that would be obliterated before the day even ends. Black clouds knit themselves into formation like line-dancers. Zeus blows a puff of raging wind and snuffs out the electricity like birthday candles. Power lines topple and crash onto the ground like dominos, crushing expensive cars into scrunched up sheets of scrap metal. The old trees knew this phenomenon. They have stood, roots planted firmly in the soil, mocking the storm for decades. Despite this, many collapsed -spine snapped in half- to join their dead brothers on the ground. The impact leaves the sidewalk shaking, buckling under its weight. Families- including mine- tape large X’s over our windows, hoping it wouldn't shatter right into our chests. We cower far, far away from the window and implore our guardian angels that the nymphs of the hurricane would see the wide X’s and leave us alone as if this was the 10th plague. I suppose the reaper was also keeping a close eye on the population of Hong Kong.
Outside by the shore, daredevils dance in the wind and rain, like faeries in their twirling dresses. Young men and women dare each other to stay in danger for as long as possible, only to be swept off their feet, slipping and sliding for several yards before they manage to scramble to safety. I used to admire them. I admired the way they laugh in pure defiance at the raging gods of the wild; I admired the way they are able to become one with crashing waves and their brash foolishness.
Just mere kilometers away from the tiny Hong Kong peninsula, our islands were not doing any better. Their sea-level homes were flooded by murky brown water. Palm trees trip over and cave into their roofs. Their garages swing open and their cars are swept out into the greedy sea. Stray animals struggle to fight the wild, exposed to the worst of nature until they finally succumb to the reaper’s cold embrace.
Back on the peninsula, the typhoon is tearing infrastructure down piece by piece like plastic building blocks. Despite popular belief that “in the eye of a hurricane there is quiet, '' Hong Kongers knew better. There is always a deafening ring, a shrill buzz in the air as we all brace ourselves for the next crash of the symphony of the typhoon. There is the dull metallic scratching as metal work shifts ever so slightly. There is the hysterical but soft cries of sidewalk store owners as they watch their only source of income get swept away. There is a lolling humming noise in all of our ears as we try to process in disbelief everything that has happened and will happen. You would have thought we would have gotten used to typhoons. The world slows and blurs, noise muffles. Denial becomes our human instinct.
No matter how mighty we think we are, our mortal technologies are no match for the power of the gods of lore that have chosen to damn us. Scaffolding collapses under the weight of the cyclone. Skyscrapers sway under the intoxicating melody of destruction. There are crashes and booms as things falling out of nowhere hit the cracked roads. Yellow grey dust and pollution rise slowly from the scraps of what used to be homes to join the monster that is leering at us.
But the heavens are merciful and the typhoon giant gets bored. It yawns, sending one last threatening wave of rain, and retreats into the horizon to find new land to terrorize. We sigh in relief.
In the days after the storm people slowly trickle back onto the streets, dark circles under their eyes and emotionally exhausted. There is crying and the wailing of police and ambulance sirens and I know in the following months many families will be wearing black in mourning as florists struggle to keep up with the demand of funeral flowers. The streets are bleak and cracked, years of struggling construction work ripped into shreds like silk. There is a strained hush in the atmosphere as family and friends reunite, grasping, clinging onto each other’s arms, uncertain if the other was a mirage or a broken reality.
When businesses finally hang up their Welcome! signs, old and young alike flock to dim sum restaurants, frantically exchanging experiences over many empty cans of beer and laughing like there’s no tomorrow. For what can we truly do but laugh? We are merely mortals, unable to change the grand scheme of things. What better can we do than push our battered bodies slowly off the ground and beg whatever deity that turned her back on us for mercy? I wished I knew.
Behind the strange calm there is always a lurking danger, a promise and a threat. We know the strong winds will return again. But we can only laugh and pray that it is next year and not tomorrow.
Slowly but surely, the world spins again in some resemblance of normalcy. The peninsula area of Hong Kong checks in on our island brothers. Small armies of volunteers quietly clean the streets of debris, pieces of glass cutting into their hands. Families nervously bring their children to school and usher them to church, casting lingering looks over their shoulders, as if the typhoon would take human manifestation and walk among us. In class, many seats would be empty and would stay empty for a very long time. The teacher speaks without a nervous glance outside the window and the children smile, dead-eyed, at the whiteboard.
No one speaks. No one dares to speak of the billions of dollars of damage. No one dares to speak about the lives lost. For what could we say? What could we say but curse at the skies, but at the same time kneel before altars and beg that we would have peace.
The hurricane is over and the city that never sleeps lies down to rest for just a moment. We all collectively close our eyes. We stay very still, very quiet and very aware that the typhoon is still out there, smirking in the distance and that one day his yellow eyes would return to haunt us yet again.
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Elizabeth Jen is a 15 year old student living in Vancouver. In her free time she likes to watch four hour long film analyses and complain about the third season of Sherlock Holmes. Before moving to Canada, Elizabeth lived in Hong Kong, a small city across the world that she fondly calls her “favourite politically unstable place.”