People visit a chain store of the Hong Kong-based snack retail chain Best Mart 360° at Tseung Kwan O in Hong Kong, south China, Dec. 28, 2020. (Xinhua/Wu Xiaochu)
HONG KONG, Dec. 29 (Xinhua) — Ah-fan swiftly tidied up the warehouse and took a breather in her chair. While relaxing, she leaned a little bit forward, as if being ready for a race.
“I watched the demonstrations closely and always ran first during last year’s social unrest,” recalled the 48-year-old manager of a retail chain. Her job was to predict rioters’ next move and protect her company’s stores, although she sometimes was tear-gassed, or was blocked by demonstrators.
At Best Mart 360˚, the Hong Kong-based snack chain where Ah-fan works, more than half of its stores were damaged during the disturbances, with more than 70 vandalized on one violent night. Tearing down shelves, destroying storefronts, spraying insulting words using black paint … Ah-fan, who has worked with the company for more than five years, had never seen vandalism so close and vivid.
During one demonstration, the window of a newly opened store was smashed, and the staff had to pull the rolling door down and hid inside the store until the police arrived.
As the company’s training and operation manager, Ah-fan is constantly shuttling between stores in Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories.
“From Yuen Long to Mong Kok, from Sheung Shui to Tung Chung, I am on the road every day.”
Before the national security law in Hong Kong took effect, however, her job was more like a “trouble shooter”.
“Staring at my phone 24 hours a day, sometimes rushing to the damaged store at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning,” Ah-fan said, adding that she was especially stressed and anxious during weekends and holidays when protests turned violent. But with the support from customers, she managed to survive.
“Every time we cleaned up a store and reopened, customers came in to show their support. A word of comfort was able to warm us and keep us going at such a difficult time,” she said.
After disturbances, peace is ever more cherished among Hong Kong residents. At the end of June, Ah-fan and her colleagues finally saw the promulgation of the highly-anticipated national security law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR).
“We were very worried at first, because we thought some people would demonstrate against the law. So we were on high alert during the early days after the promulgation.” Her worries were mollified as social disorders gradually disappeared with almost no more demonstrations.
In the meantime, Hong Kong’s social wounds have slowly healed, especially in the second half of the year. Some of the barriers in front of banks have been removed, and universities have once again become a place for study. Ah-fan’s company has also opened 13 new stores in six months by the end of September.
“Step by step, we are going in a good direction. Although the COVID-19 epidemic has an impact on business, at least everyone can work at ease,” she said.
To her surprise, some young people who had participated in demonstrations also joined her team. “They told me that they took to the street out of herd mentality, and realized the dangers of violence when the shops where they used to work were also vandalized, which changed their mind.”
Figures from the Hong Kong police showed that a total of 10,171 people were arrested between June 9, 2019 and Nov. 30, 2020 for their involvement in social unrest, among whom 2,389 were prosecuted. Besides, 40 people were arrested for acts and activities endangering national security. Unfortunately, there are a number of young faces among those arrested.
“It’s painful to think that they have already made mistakes before knowing what is right and what is wrong. Do things responsibly and don’t joke about one’s own future. This is my advice to young people.” Although having no children of her own, Ah-fan treats young people like her children.
In 2020, safety is no longer the deepest concern for her, but COVID-19.
“I’ve been wearing the face mask for so long that I could hardly remember what I look like,” she lamented, saying the epidemic is now the biggest challenge for Hong Kong.
And she was not exaggerating. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has surpassed 8,600 and is still mounting. Over 130 people have died.
The epidemic has also dealt a heavy blow to many middle class and grassroots residents. The latest unemployment rate from September to November reached 6.3 percent, with more than 240,000 unemployed and more than 130,000 underemployed in Hong Kong.
“In the face of difficulties, people are becoming more and more self-disciplined. I can see people working together to fight the epidemic,” she said. Despite the epidemic, her company did not lay off any staff. The retail industry has made strict epidemic prevention a top priority and for Ah-fan wearing mask, disinfection, and checking temperature before work are all procedures that must be carried out meticulously.
“Because I’m running between stores every day, in addition to protecting myself, I also avoid affecting others,” she said.
With the support from the central government, Hong Kong launched a community testing program that offered free and voluntary testing to the public. She registered immediately and got tested on the first day.
“The central government provided masks, assisted in building temporary hospitals, and sent testing teams here, for which I’m deeply grateful,” she said.
Ah-fan’s sense of security also comes from the support and promotion of Hong Kong’s development by the central government. With experience in manufacturing and foreign trade, and years of travel between the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong, she has a special passion for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area (GBA).
“Hong Kong can certainly benefit economically from the GBA development,” she said. “But to be honest, the GBA is still a relatively vague concept for many residents in Hong Kong, so more information is needed before people can get deeply involved.”
In the 2020 policy address, HKSAR Chief Executive Carrie Lam said her vision for education is to nurture young people into a new generation with a sense of social responsibility and national identity, an affection for Hong Kong as well as an international perspective.
“We hope that our young people can set their sights on our country, seizing the opportunities to study, work and live in the GBA, so as to broaden the scope for realizing their dreams,” Lam said.
For Ah-fan, life is a journey. She has made friends with many trainees over the years. “The year 2020 we experienced together has brought us both laughter and tears.”
In a newly opened store, Ah-fan was still busy, but beamed with expectations for the coming year. “I hope the whole society will be united as ever, and everyone healthy and happy.” Enditem