On the third day of the Lunar New Year, it is traditionally inadvisable to head out of the house, brave traffic (foot or otherwise), and mingle. It’s the day of the “red mouth”, and belief has it that people are more likely to get into arguments, invite misfortune and ruin the rest of the year.
And so in this city, where physical assault is becoming the new normal, it’s probably best for everyone to stay indoors today. Danger lurks without, and we should be vigilant. Of course, there is another reason to be cautious. The emergence of the coronavirus from Wuhan couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Just a few weeks ago, it was possible to revel in the idea that the taboo against going out on the third day of the new year would provide a reprieve from the weekly violence on the streets of Hong Kong. Surely, the need to assert one’s right to offend would come a poor second to everyone’s obsession with good luck.
Now, the danger of contagion from the new coronavirus – which is known as 2019-nCoV and has been linked to snakes – has severely dampened the festive mood.
Face masks have come back, not to conceal identities but to protect against an enemy that doesn’t care if people are yellow or blue. Communicable diseases do not discriminate. Viruses do not discriminate.
This is a reminder that isolationism, ostracism and exclusiveness do not offer any sort of protection. Drawing arbitrary lines separating “us” from “them”, drawing a circle around ourselves and feeling secure in our bubble is pure fantasy. This virus is here to burst that bubble.
For months, Hongkongers have taken great pains to draw lines of division: highlighting differences, accentuating them into open hostility and unbridled antagonism, and feeding hate that, like a virus, has taken hold and poisoned society.
Lately, yellow or blue economic circles have been all the rage, reinforcing the notion that someone can sever their connections with people, opinions and things they don’t like. But this is a fallacy. Even if we are able to sever connections, we will never be able to rid ourselves of “them”.
The simple fact is that there is no “us” without “them”. No one is an island. You can’t live in a society and be free from society.
And it remains true that when the economy tanks, it hits everyone. Some of us might feel the impact of the recession sooner, but the damage spreads to everyone else eventually, like it or not.
The International Monetary Fund has forecast that in Hong Kong, “a deterioration of the sociopolitical situation and delays in addressing structural challenges of insufficient housing supply and high income inequality could further weaken economic activity and negatively affect the city’s competitiveness in the long term” – a warning that applies to everyone, not just some of us.
Colour-coded businesses bent on hurting those on the other side of the political divide will hurt themselves and everyone else. Recessions, like communicable diseases, are colour-blind. They don’t care if you’re yellow or blue, black or white.
And so we must beware of the danger that has been lurking within. We cannot afford to allow hate, mistrust and divisions to fester in the Year of the Rat.
It’s not about how we can rid ourselves of “them”, it’s about how we can live with each other, choosing the cacophony of diversity over the mind-numbing echo chamber. Shutting out those we don’t agree with doesn’t get us on a path to democracy and equality. We must begin to infect those around us with goodwill, and an inclusive sense of community. Hong Kong must find itself again by rejecting the inflammatory, wrong-headed discourse on the colour divide.
For the time being, let’s turn our attention to another colour: the red lai see packets we fill with blessings to be shared with our friends and families. In the Year of the Rat, I wish all of you good health and peace of mind.
It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.