Liberty Exchange


A dystopian vision of Hong Kong’s Discovery Bay

The ferry engine rumbled to life just as Lori Blanchard was about to start perusing a new client case file. She saw a middle-aged man walking from the bar up the aisle towards her. He had dark blonde hair, and looked like he might have been handsome when he was younger. The man had two bottles of Corona, one in each hand, and a smile that was ripe with suggestion. It was the kind of smile that many Discovery Bay residents had acquired since the alcohol ban was lifted.

Faced with a backlog of paperwork, Lori had stayed at the office later than usual. There was still work to be done, so she had taken some of it home with her. She had boarded the 9pm Central to Discovery Bay ferry, instead of her usual 7pm, and taken an aisle seat, somewhere in the middle of the upper deck. This ferry was for the exclusive use of residents living in the elite residential neighbourhood of Discovery Bay on Lantau Island. The vessels’ interiors were shiny and new, with mauve, velveteen cushions fitted into bucket seats upholstered in white leather, and a semi-circular marble bar – one of the few public bars left in Hong Kong – near the bow on the upper deck. Yet despite the lavishness of the ferry’s interior, there was something about the way everything came together that just didn’t look right. The overall effect was tacky, garish, Lori thoughtas if the person who orchestrated the décor was trying to imitate good taste by distractedly studying it from a second-hand source.

A descendent of Dutch aristocracy, Lori was blessed with exquisite bone structure, and perfectly arched eyebrows that were a lighter shade of brown than her hair. Her regular runs in the morning kept her body sculpted and trim, though at forty-six, she was sometimes unsure as to whether or not she was still attractive in the way that counted. The man with the Coronas, who had stopped at her seat and was leaning his elbow on the top of her backrest, offered some assurance that she still was.

“No thank you,” she told him, as he waved one of the Coronas in front of her. Lori was careful not to be too easily flattered. In her late teens and twenties, she had permitted herself one too many casual liaisons, which she later realised were detrimental to her wellbeing. Her expression was icy enough to let the man know he shouldn’t bother her again. He continued on, and Lori soon heard him stopping to try his luck on someone else a few rows behind her. ‘Fancy seeing you here, darling. Left work late too, did you? Mind if I join you?” she heard him say to his second attempt.

Lori looked out of the window at Hong Kong Island. The International Finance Centre, better known as the IFC, where she had often met her friends, was no longer there. It had come down in 2026, the year after the Roots Party won the majority vote. As soon as they took control of the Territory, The Party decided they didn’t like the IFC tower because its top resembled a crown. They wanted Hong Kong to have nothing more to do with crowns. All buildings built after 2027, including the luxury condominium in Discovery Bay that Lori and her family lived in, had to be no taller or shorter than 122 metres – a height mandate for architectural uniformity. Lori remembered a time when there had been rumours about The Party demolishing all the old buildings and replacing them with 122-metre tall structures, but this proved too costly and impractical to carry out. “The international media’s representation of Hong Kong’s Roots Party is decidedly skewed and discoloured,” a local newscaster at a Roots-owned news station had reported. “The Party is not some grim communist government. Its goals are to combine the proficiency of autocracy with the best of capitalism, and socialism.” Lori did not count on the pro-Roots media for veracity, but she was nonetheless glad that though the lives of most Hong Kongers had been flattened, there was still variation in the skyline.

Lori used to love the city, with its old low-rise tong lau shophouses, its chaotic street markets lorded over by vendors with boom-box voices, its dazzling steel and glass skyscrapers, its vibrant art galleries where sexy-looking people milled around with champagne and canapés, and its musty vintage stores selling old typewriters, thigh-high leather boots and aviator sunglasses. None of that existed any longer. These days, after putting in twelve hours at work – the statutory duration of a day’s labour as specified by The Party – Lori couldn’t wait to flee and catch the ferry home.

The Party had told the people that they would continue to encourage private enterprise, but it soon became clear that this only applied to enterprises with an “impactful profit value”. In 2027, less than eight months after Lori opened a jewellery boutique on Staunton Street – a dream she had spent years saving up for – The Party passed the Exponential Growth Act, which stipulated that businesses had to maintain a certain level of profit in order to justify existing. According to the Act, if businesses wanted to stay in operation, they would need to do whatever it took to make more and more money every month. Any business that did not meet a minimum 0.28 percent rise in profits at the end of each month was shut down. For small to medium sized enterprises – the street market vendors, vintage stores, and boutiques like Lori’s where she had sold her own designs ­­– a 0.28 percent monthly growth was impossible. These businesses had their operating licenses annulled soon after the Act came into effect. Journalists, hairdressers, counsellors, and even architects, could only find employment under various nationalised Traders Guilds controlled by The Party. Music making, painting, fashion design, and any other profession that was, in the words of a Party spokesperson, “too frivolous, unnecessary, too much involved with aesthetics and imagination”, were soon excised. Lori had a friend, a renowned poet, who had plunged into depression after the publication of poetry became prohibited.

Banking, telecommunications, manufacturing and insurance were some of the industries that survived the Act. All existing businesses, including the insurance company that Lori had begrudgingly begun working for, were rigorously examined on a regular basis. Every month, a Party official would show up at Lori’s workplace, then disappear into the CFO’s office for half a day to inspect the books, ensuring that directors and employees were adhering to Party edicts.

Like many of her fellow expatriates, Lori had thought about leaving Hong Kong. But there were certain perks to staying here. She and her husband Peter had been provided with a comfortable, commodious home in Discovery Bay. The Party had seen to it that all citizens and permanent residents of the Territory were given full possession of a residential property. The Blanchards would never need to pay rent, or a mortgage for the rest of their lives. The Party funded the education of all the children in the Territory, through to their university years. Lori would never need to worry about college tuition fees for her pre-teen son and daughter. Eager to prove that Hong Kong was not insular as the international press so often suggested, The Party also paid for everyone to go on vacation twice a year. Depending on income level, citizens and permanent residents could choose a travel package that included a number of pre-selected destinations – often countries that had healthy economic relations with Hong Kong. The Party paid for the entire cost of the trip, including accommodation, meals, transport and airfare. Lori and her husband had reached an income level that gave them access to 21 travel days, twice a year – an annual total of 42 days of all-expenses-paid travel. By next year, possible destinations would include the Cook Islands and Belize, both destinations on Lori’s bucket list.

Rousing herself from her reveries of old Hong Kong, Lori noticed a woman she recognised standing by the bar next to a tall, broad-shouldered man who reminded her of her favourite actor, Michael Fassbender, in his younger years. The woman lived in the same building as Lori, though they had never spoken to each other. Lori had seen her in the elevators, or near the mailboxes a few times. Sometimes with her toddler son, and often with a man who was not the one pressed up against her at the bar. The Fassbender lookalike was holding onto the woman’s waist with one hand, and whispering into her ear. The woman threw her head back, laughed, then leaned into the man’s chest. Lori smiled as she remembered all the tall, handsome, broad-shouldered men she had leaned on in her twenties. She had met many such alluring strangers during boozy nights out with her girlfriends at The Liberty Exchange at the IFC, where they served the best Bellinis in town. Things had changed so much since then. The once dazzling cosmopolis of opportunity and adventure that Lori had arrived to in 2019 was now an efficient, automated, unromantic place, where all things fun or flirtatious had been erased. Looking at the woman by the bar, all loose-limbed and twinkly-eyed with her glass of wine in hand, Lori felt a twinge of longing for the good old days. But rather than sink into nostalgia, she reminded herself that there was always a price to be paid for having too much fun. Lori recalled the blood in her urine, and the excruciating pain in her urethra from almost twenty years ago, when she discovered she had contracted chlamydia. She remembered the anguish she felt when at twenty-eight, she had the foetus growing inside her removed because she hadn’t known who the father was, and wasn’t earning enough to raise a child on her own. Though Bellinis played no small part in engendering those awful events from her past, Lori never thought she would so easily relinquish her right to a good booze buzz.

She recalled how, during the infamous 2028 Rugby Sevens, a group of drunk Australians had roughed up a Party official because – according to newspaper reports at the time – “the official had confronted the Australians for staring at his female companion’s legs in a lewd way”. After that incident, The Party decided that alcohol bred licentiousness and hooliganism, so they banned its public sale at restaurants, bars, supermarkets and convenience stores. If one had a valid enough reason for imbibing – entertaining millionaire moguls from another country for business procurement purposes for instance – and went through the proper channels to obtain a permit, one might be allowed to purchase alcohol from licensed wholesalers. But this was all extremely inconvenient. By the beginning of 2030, the nightlife district of Lan Kwai Fong had been razed, and in its place, a mall was built in the Roots-style with pitched roofs and cylindrical walls. In it were shops selling locally made watches, espresso machines, stationery and wedding bands. The atmosphere of glamour, excitement, and conviviality that once accompanied dining out, bar hopping, and nightclubbing in the city had been extinguished.

The year Lan Kwai Fong disappeared was also the year that Lori turned thirty. With no place to celebrate, and no one in the mood for throwing parties, she took herself to a themed restaurant where she dined in the dark across a table from a man whom she could not see. That was how she met her husband Peter Blanchard, a budget analyst at the Roots Industrial and Commercial Bank who was well proportioned, pleasant looking, gentle, knowledgeable, and incredibly successful at what he did. Lori felt a certain amount of relief that she had found Peter when she did, and that they had started dating before the other laws came into place. It would be difficult finding a husband under present circumstances, and Lori feels sorry for so many of the young, single ladies in the city who are mateless and unable to engage in the courtship rituals of the past.

In 2035, after she had been married for four years, and was a mother of two, The Party launched a campaign called Exemplary Morality. It began as a clarion call for a return to traditional family values, but gradually became a vicious crusade against hedonism, before blooming into a full-scale subjugation of freedom of thought and action. Like a tapeworm surreptitiously feeding off its hosts, the campaign leached the city of all its former colour and creativity, and the people became increasingly afraid of expressing themselves. Soon, everyone living in Hong Kong had to be careful about gesticulating too much, being overly animated in conversations, or cracking jokes, especially bawdy ones. Men were to avoid smiling at women who were not their wives. Women were advised not to hold a man’s gaze for longer than necessary. Everyone had to be cautious about how they interacted with members of the opposite sex. In public, fawning over babies or dogs, holding hands, kissing, hugging or laughing too loudly was prohibited. The threat of ostracism, incarceration, or worse, loomed over anyone whose actions or words were deemed “too spirited” or “too hot”.

Once, a new hire at Lori’s company was seen near the door of the elevator giving the receptionist – a plump elderly lady – a friendly peck on both cheeks as he said goodbye and thanked her for helping him settle in. The next day he had not shown up at his desk, and the office supervisor told everyone to “ask no questions”. There was another incident that took place at Lori’s daughter’s school. A female teacher was seen giving a young male student a pat on the back in the canteen, and the other teachers and students had started whispering. A week later she was on the front page of the newspaper, accused of inappropriate conduct with a minor and sent to prison for seven years. Things were much worse for a senior executive at the Roots Industrial and Commercial Bank when he was caught exiting a hotel room with a lady who was not his wife. Three days after he was seen walking out of The Excelsior with his lover, his face appeared in the obituary section of the morning newspaper. Conservatism had spread across the Territory, and everyone, fearful about being watched or blacklisted, buried all personal convictions, all desires and all joy, and practised prudence that bordered on paranoia.

For Lori, there were boons to the new order of things in Hong Kong. The new laws helped her avoid the type of indiscretions that she had felt powerless against in the past. At least she no longer had to inure temptations in the city or at work like she used to. She thought about the things that she had gotten away with before the laws came into effect. She remembered her fear and shame when Peter and her first born, who was almost two at the time, had come home earlier than expected and found her cavorting half naked on the living room floor with a strange man. She felt overwhelmingly grateful that Peter had forgiven her. Now, all Lori wanted was to be a faithful and loyal spouse, a good mother and an honourable woman.

The residential enclave of Discovery Bay, Lori’s home, was the only place left in the Territory where people could still enjoy a cocktail anytime they wanted, and more recently, behave the way they used to when they were free. In 2036, The Party’s population census department created a list of Hong Kong inhabitants with the highest earning power and the most economic clout. There were just under 7,000 names on this list, which included C-suite executives, property developers, surgeons, bankers, inventors from the IT industry, and financial analysts with exceptional skills, such as Lori’s husband Peter. In 2037, individuals on this list, along with their family members, were relocated to Discovery Bay on Lantau Island, where The Party had built five residential estates equipped with state of the art infrastructure, teleconference terminals, and workstations in every room of each apartment, to enable and encourage residents to work around the clock.

After living in the revamped, hyper-technologised Discovery Bay for a few months, many of these high-net-worth residents started sending petitions to The Party’s headquarters in Kowloon requesting the reintroduction of alcohol for leisure purposes. The Party knew that these well connected, high-performers and industry leaders living in Discovery Bay played a key role in helping them fill their coffers and look good on the international stage. They decided it would behove them to appease this segment of Hong Kong society, so they made an exception and lifted the alcohol ban in this area of the Territory, allowing alcohol to be sold anywhere in Discovery Bay, as well as on the Discovery Bay ferry. A year later, the country’s GDP skyrocketed by 2.2 percent, and The Party observed that it was mostly citizens living in Discovery Bay who contributed to this growth spurt. It occurred to them that relaxing the codes of Exemplary Morality might have a positive effect on productivity for this particular segment of Hong Kong society, so they further loosened regulations for the Discovery Bay populace. The Party became less involved in the governance of Discovery Bay, and for the last two years, small liberties that were punishable in other parts of the Territory had become permissible here.

This evening, there were only two dozen or so passengers on the ferry with Lori. Most Discovery Bay residents, eager to escape from the city, preferred to head straight to the ferry terminal from work to catch the 7pm. There was no point lingering on Hong Kong Island, when there was so little to keep one entertained there.

Lori heard a deep voice coming from a few seats behind her. The man with the Coronas, she surmised. “Come on, Angie. We’ll be arriving in twenty minutes, let’s go. Carpe diem, my dear. You know your husband won’t mind. He’s too busy with my wife, and your babysitter.” Lori heard the woman giggle, as if she were being tickled. “Alright then, let’s go. We should use the one on the left, it’s bigger, and cleaner”. Lori heard them both getting out of their seats and walking in the direction of the bathrooms at the stern.

Over the last year and a half, this type of thing had been happening a lot on the Discovery Bay ferry. Once, three rows down from where she had been seated, Lori saw her neighbour’s Filipino domestic helper, Tina, kissing another female domestic helper on the mouth. Lori’s eyes had met Tina’s while she was in the middle of a long, wet smooch. Lori had smiled awkwardly, worried that she might have embarrassed the woman. Tina had stopped mid-kiss, raised her eyebrows, smiled and waved at Lori, before getting back to her friend. In Discovery Bay, everyone was fair game, and nobody seemed to mind. Lori however, did not feel the need to participate in the carousing. She believed that she had experienced more than her fair share of carnal pleasure. She would like to think that her husband Peter wasn’t joining in either, though of course she would forgive him if he did. She did not think less of her neighbours. God only knew they needed their little joys.

Lori understood that it was not simply the availability of alcohol that caused the strange shift in behaviour, which seemed to have affected a large number of Discovery Bay inhabitants. Even without a trip to the bar or liquor store, something happened to people once they were in Discovery Bay, and it began on the ferry as it glided over the waterway. People started to relax. Neckties were loosened, luscious locks were released from their restrictive barrettes, shoes were kicked off, the top buttons of shirts came undone, laptops and smartphones were put away, and the passengers would start looking around, eyes like stray cats searching for treats.

She remembered attending a lecture on entropy and anomie once, part of a sociology course she had taken as a college student. The class had read Durkheim, who declared that mankind, insatiable by nature, needed societal regulations in order to keep itself in check. Expounding on these theories, the lecturer had said that when the instincts of a society were severely suppressed, individuals would attempt to achieve some sort of internal homeostasis. This, the lecturer had proposed, could result in a change of social mores, as instinctual drives to avoid discomfort and secure pleasure resurfaced elsewhere, manifesting themselves in strange behaviours.

Free from the presence of The Party lurking at every corner in the city, the passengers became hungry. En route to Discovery Bay, no longer were they compelled to avert their gazes to avoid conveying some emotion deemed too warm, too friendly, too dangerous, too human. Their sombre, frigid masks fell, and they breathed easily again. They lifted up their eyes, and they saw each other. They licked their lips in appraisal. Here, they felt they did not exist just to earn, accrue and obey. Nobody knew how long the reprieve would last, so for now, like wayward children wary of the curfew bell, they would play while they still could.

The ferry pulled up towards the Discovery Bay pier. Lori descended the stairs connecting the upper deck to the lower. As she made her way down, a wave rocked the boat, and Lori lost her balance, almost slipping. A pair of arms caught her from behind. She turned around. It was the man who looked like the actor, and he looked even better than Fassbender up close. His companion, Lori’s neighbour, was nowhere in sight. Lori steadied herself. The man rested his palms lightly on her hips to make sure she regained her balance. When he was certain she was on a firm footing, he sauntered down the stairs. Then he turned back and winked at her. The hairs on Lori’s neck and arms rose, and she felt a thousand feathers brushing against every inch of her body.

She stepped off the ferry, down the gangplank, which lead to a concrete pier. She needed to have her Discovery Bay Resident Card ready for the security check, so she stood by the rails along one side of the pier. She opened her bag and dug out her purse. When she looked up, she saw the lookalike standing at the far end of the pier, near the entrance to the arrivals hall. He was alone, looking right at her, waiting.

Lori took out her mobile phone and dialled home. “Hi Peter, I’m still at the office. I should be home in about an hour, more likely two. Can you make sure there’s dinner for the kids? Thanks darling. Love you. See you in a while. Bye.” She put the phone back in her bag, took out her lipstick, applied the red to her lips, and walked towards the man.

Copyright® Michele Koh 2016


2 thoughts on “Liberty Exchange

  1. Pingback: Hong Kong Future Perfect – One City, Twenty Visions of What Is to Come | Confounding Conditions

  2. Pingback: The Demons of Success | Confounding Conditions

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