Friends of mine should already know that I have finished a seven-month jail term over the siege of the police headquarters and was discharged from the Hei Ling Chau Correctional Institution on the morning of April 12. In other words, I have been released from one form of unfreedom to another form of unfreedom.
Before my release, I wrote to friends describing my imprisonment as akin to riding the red minibus in the movie “The Midnight After,” where, following a drive through a tunnel, I could not find the people I knew. Within and outside the metal fences, more people are getting arrested, and beyond the news coverage, more have chosen to leave Hong Kong. My secondary schoolteacher wrote me a letter saying that during my time in incarceration, at least 10 teachers had picked the immigration route. For many of them, I once sat in their classrooms a decade ago. So, I think this is not only happening on the political front line; it is a story taking place around many ordinary Hong Kong people.
I then spent two days trying to “alight” from the red minibus and to truly feel and accept the dramatic changes in the atmosphere. When I checked the social media apps on my phone, those chat groups that were still holding heated discussions a few months ago were all gone, and some of the accounts could no longer be identifiable with a person in real life.
In fact, I had no confidence to write about my thoughts on getting out of jail. Friends all tell me many people outside the prison are under great fear, and that on the contrary, I have just been released and am positive in a way that is out of place. So, I really had no idea what to write, as I was afraid that my words might be inconsiderate of those who had been suffering in the past few months. But I finally started putting pen to paper, believing that under this new era, an outstretched arm of support would always find someone in need of the support, and it would certainly be better than folding my arms and doing nothing.
Every person in prison, no matter the length of sentence, is going through a temporary period. People who have served time before should understand the time enjoyed by a free man is of a different dimension, and it seems that even their seconds, minutes and hours are differently calculated. The free man is able to fritter away his time, or plan his future in detail without feeling emotional. For a jailed man, the day before and the day after makes no difference to him. A man in jail can only focus on the present. The work he has done today will not accumulate anything for him, and the time he is spending will not enrich his life.
That should be the most painful part of imprisonment, a non-violent way of slowly eroding your life. You are not busy, but your mind is busy battling against this kind of attrition. Luckily, I was sentenced three years ago over northeast New Territories development protests, so I could quickly adjust myself this time. I packaged the imprisonment as a “cultural, recreational, sports and arts training camp” with accommodation provided. Most of my leisure time was spent reading books and newspapers, drawing pencil sketches, jogging and playing basketball (to whom it may concern: I have lost 12kg). In the first month, my legs were unable to move at all after five minutes of running, and at that time, I asked why I should force myself to do something which frustrated me. The good thing was that I survived, and started to understand that the efforts I had put in would unconsciously add up.
Even if I cannot take anything away from jail, and even if the time and plans that belonged to me were being eroded second by second, there is one thing they are unable to take away, and that is perseverance, through which one can influence the outcome.
I know we cannot use the same way to change this city. After my release, I patted my shoulders and touched my limbs, and found every part intact, and then it seemed I should be able to persist a bit longer. When on the brink of collapsing, I bit the bullet and realized that I was already running another lap. I dare not say that I will share my fate with the city. In the post-apocalyptic 2021, who dares to promise he would be brave for the rest of the days? But, as the sun rises, it would be enough to work hard for one more day (yes, I often longed to hear Cath Wong’s song “Before Sunrise” on radio while writing letters in prison at night).
In short, there is no need to awake before sunrise but please awake when the sun is up. Make good use of each day and cherish your time. An hour or two before you get out of bed, your comrades in prison would already have squeezed into the time that is frozen, to face their own fates.
(Ivan Lam is a former member of Demosisto who was sentenced to seven months’ imprisonment for besieging the Hong Kong police headquarters in June 2019. He completed the jail term and was released on April 12.)
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