Liberty Exchange

Riding on a ferry in Hong Kong of the future, a once promiscuous expatriate has to decide between the old way of freedom with consequences, or the new way of obedience, peace and prosperity.

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 thought, as 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.

To read more, buy my book Without: Stories of lack and longing

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