Never another White Terror: Thoughts of a Hong Kong son

In this personal and reflective piece by political commentator Simon Shen, he articulates his relationship with his mother, the current situation in Hong Kong, and his family. What is his biggest wish for his daughters?
I understand my mother far more than she understands me, despite the fact that we were never able to communicate properly, but what has scarred me for life is her conditioned reflex to the White Terror. (REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
I understand my mother far more than she understands me, despite the fact that we were never able to communicate properly, but what has scarred me for life is her conditioned reflex to the White Terror. (REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

My mother has always been an extremely anxious person, but she’s not just any regular anxious Hong Kong mother. Her anxiety comes from her upbringing. She is an intellectual. 

My mother grew up in a leftist family, interviewed international VIPs in her role as a journalist, saw the world at its darkest, and made me learn when I was in primary school that the first president of Zambia was Kaunda. Yet, she’s never experienced freedom from fear.  

When sarcastic remarks were made about George W. Bush in international commentaries while I was studying in the US, she was completely overcome with worry. What if I disappeared off the face of this earth?

When my first article was published in the school newspaper in Secondary 2, I compared Zhou En-lai (the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China) and Feng Dao (a prominent Chinese governmental official during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, praised by some historians for his virtues while also vilified for a lack of loyalty to a single dynasty and a willingness to serve each successive dynasty). From then on, she was very worried. “You can’t say this. This shouldn’t be written. You’ll offend people. This is politically incorrect…” I understood her concerns, but honestly, she was not only worried about the Communist Party. She worried about everything.

In my admission essay for an American university, I wrote about the film JFK. She again became deeply worried. What if the examiners were fans of LBJ instead? When sarcastic remarks were made about George W. Bush in international commentaries while I was studying in the US, she was completely overcome with worry. What if I disappeared off the face of this earth?   

Even today, my mother’s language abilities are better than mine (in both English and Mandarin). She often screenshots my articles and edits a certain word I used or a bit of punctuation I missed. And of course, she doesn’t ignore the content. 

Did I mention that I’m a Sagittarius?

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The environment I grew up in endowed me with a high EQ, a real poker face, essential social skills, and great empathy. I understand my mother far more than she understands me, despite the fact that we were never able to communicate properly, but what has scarred me for life is her conditioned reflex to the White Terror. 

In recent months, whenever I share my thoughts about Hong Kong, she never forgets to send me a gentle reminder on WhatsApp, “It’s okay if you don’t care about your own safety, but spare a thought for your loved ones.”

As early as ten years ago, she asked that I not use Facebook. As a result, I could only toggle between the privacy settings to customise my news feed for her. When I went on Commercial Radio Hong Kong to record a session for the Share My Song (有谁共鸣) segment, the beneficiary was Hong Kong Unison (hoeng gong jung lok wui 香港融乐会), but she always misheard the name of the organisation as “Hong Kong Independence Society” (hoeng gong duk lap wui 香港独立会). She almost had a heart attack and hung herself. 

In recent months, whenever I share my thoughts about Hong Kong, she never forgets to send me a gentle reminder on WhatsApp, “It’s okay if you don’t care about your own safety, but spare a thought for your loved ones.” She then attaches an article such as “The Americans are Behind Hong Kong’s Unrest”, along with provocative Beijing Columnist Chris Wat’s articles.  

It doesn’t matter that I am a father of two children, considered successful among my peers, and financially self-sufficient. I owe all these things to her. If not for her insecurities, I wouldn’t have diversified my income sources, nor would I have learnt not to rely on political powers. 

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I’m an only child, and I love my mother dearly. I’ve been abroad for many years (of course, part of the reason was to escape from my family), and I still get away on a monthly basis. But I’m back now, and this is mainly because of her.

Even now, my mother is never relaxed, though she lives a comfortable life. Taking care of her grandchildren is her greatest sanctuary. She can nag for three hours at one go, just because she’s dissatisfied with her granddaughter’s penmanship when the words are slanted by 0.5 degrees. But if her granddaughter really grows up conforming to these strict rules, what kind of adult will she become? 

Her generation will never understand what this “stability” would cost the next generation, or even this generation.

This is a blind spot my mother has never wanted to acknowledge. But I know the answer.

She said she desperately hopes that Hong Kong can return to peace as soon as possible. I remained silent, thinking to myself, “Pyongyang is more stable.” 

Her generation will never understand what this “stability” would cost the next generation, or even this generation. Besides, if the situation had “stabilised” earlier, it would have only marked the beginning of a new White Terror.

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I do not spend a lot of time taking care of my daughters, but we share the burden at home. I don’t bother with the small decisions. I’m in charge of the big ones. 

My only wish is that my daughters will never have to live through anything like the White Terror. I know how it feels to do so.

My wife says that’s the only big thing I’m in charge of. “You don’t change diapers, and you don’t come home at night. You don’t even want to do that much,” she says.

My younger daughter’s name is Ivanka. I leave you to decipher that for yourself. She’s two this year, and today is her first day of school. This is her newborn photo.

And these are the words I wanted to say to her at her birth, from the bottom of my heart.

Simon Shen and newborn daughter, Ivanka. (Photo: Simon Shen's Facebook page)
Simon Shen and newborn daughter, Ivanka. (Photo: Simon Shen)