Hong Kong was born at the crossroads of empires, a hybrid of British and Chinese descent. It can also fade there.
This "barren rock," as Queen Victoria's envoy once called it, became one of the world's first truly global cities, a place where International finance has flourished as its people created their own cultural identity. Even the territory's current political system is subject to a negotiated agreement, called "one country, two systems," which, despite all the difficulties and an inelegant nickname, seemed to work.
But this week, Hong Kong discovered the limits of the middle ground that has been forged to feed one of the most prosperous and dynamic cities on earth: between East and West, between rice and bread, between a liberal and an authoritarian order.
The territory's fate is once again decided in distant halls of power, as Beijing moves forward with plans to strip away some of the autonomy the territory was supposed to enjoy for 50 years after Britain returned it to China in 1997.
The death sentence for Hong Kong has sounded many times since that installment. But the proposed national security legislation could have devastating implications for a place so dedicated to the international language of commerce that the local form of English is unadorned. Can you not?
Too often these days, the answer is can't.
The new national security laws, outlined at the annual session of China's legislature on Friday, will likely reduce some of the civil liberties that set Hong Kong apart from the rest of the country. And they point to The mass protest movement that showed the world last year to what extent people were willing to go to protect their hybrid home.
"At the end of the day, we have to accept that we respond to a country," said Nicholas Ho, the 33-year-old offspring of a Hong Kong family of tycoons. "And that country is becoming more powerful."
With mounting tensions between the United States and China, some have characterized Hong Kong's fight for the future as a skirmish in a more fundamental clash of civilizations. Beijing considers its intervention in Hong Kong a necessary movement to maintain the country's sovereignty, while Washington considers it a frontal attack on the autonomy of the city.
In both worldviews, Hong Kong is once again caught in the middle.
Either the territory is ready for a return to protest politics, the kind of street battles that shattered the city's reputation as an orderly center of international finance, or Beijing's latest national security diktats will only serve to drive away trade and the capital Hong Kong needs to flourish.
And both results are possible.
"This is a peaceful rehearsal for the collapse of the entire system," said Chan Kwong-yan, a Hong Kong street artist and rapper known as M.C. Yan. "The world has to see what happens here."
For a place that excelled at merger before it became fashionable, the possibility that its people may not be able to compromise strikes at the very notion of what it means to be from Hong Kong.
Douglas Young started a home decor and fashion brand called G.O.D. playing with western notions of orientalism and celebrating the totems of Hong Kong life: puns that mix Cantonese and English, macaroni soup breakfasts, kung fu movies that kick Hollywood.
He is, he admits, a typical Hong Kong hodgepodge. Even with her elegant English accent, impeccable manners, and boarding school pedigree, she is 54 years old and old enough to remember what life was like for the British, when the Hong Kong Chinese couldn't easily enter certain clubs.
But Young also recites the democratic touchstones that he says make Hong Kong special: the rule of law, freedom of expression and an independent judiciary. These are civil liberties that some fear are at risk under Beijing's proposed national security legislation.
"I am concerned that the people of Hong Kong will become second-class citizens in our own city again," Young said. "Is it our destiny to always feel colonized?"
Since British gunboats secured their rocky outcrops almost 180 years ago in the Opium Wars, Hong Kong has become something unique: an enclave tied to Western ideals but populated by Chinese who speak a language, Cantonese, believed to be which is older than the one used in mainland China.
Last year, more than 90 percent of young people here said they considered themselves from Hong Kong, not China, according to a University of Hong Kong survey, the highest number since the survey began more than a decade ago.
"I am 100 percent Hong Kong, 0 percent China," said Mickey Leung, an 18-year-old member of a youth democracy movement who grew up in a sandy suburb 15 minutes from the border. Her grandmother lives on the mainland.
Ms. Leung said she was politicized by the civic education lessons that Beijing wants to remove from the curriculum for fear that they have poisoned the city's youth.
"I am young," said Leung. "I will fight to the end to keep Hong Kong special."
As proud as they are of their Hong Kong identity, people here don't always know how to call themselves. In English, some say Hong Kongers, others Hong Kongese. Still others use Hong Kong's unwieldy, if factual, term.
Whatever they call themselves, many share a rejection of China that embodies Beijing's soft power failure, an inability to capture the hearts of a population that should have naturally sympathized with it. The British had spared political reforms in Hong Kong until the twilight of their rule. Meanwhile, the Communist Party transformed China's backward agrarian society into the second largest economy in the world. Hong Kong benefited.
In 2008, when Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics, Hong Kong introduced its own team, as befits a city governed under the "one country, two systems,quot; model. But the five stars of the Chinese flag waved proudly in the city. Hong Kong residents who had fled to a safe harbor in countries like Canada or Australia returned.
More than a decade later, disappointments have accumulated.
As under colonial rule, the people of Hong Kong cannot choose their own leader or completely shape how their government is run. The promised political reforms never materialized. Critical booksellers of the Chinese leadership were snatched from the streets of Hong Kong and ended up in China.
The catalyst for last year's massive protests, an extradition bill now repealed, underscored Beijing's ability to, at any time, threaten Hong Kong's freedoms.
Starting last June, a sharp sense of anxiety about the future brought millions of peaceful protesters to the streets. The rage against the police, for deploying rubber bullets and tear gas against vacation shoppers and students alike, fueled each subsequent demonstration, even as unrest grew over front-line agitators who unleashed Molotov cocktails.
"This movement is not about young or old," said Kelvin Lam, a former banker-turned-pro-democracy politician. "It is about ensuring that Hong Kong retains what makes it Hong Kong." Otherwise, we're done. "
Disillusionment with Beijing has spread to some unlikely detractors.
Cathy Yau was raised by a single mother in one of those small apartments that, like Tetris, make up the narrow architecture of Hong Kong. He attended a school with a pro-China curriculum and worked for 11 years as a police officer. Last summer, when the protests began, he gave up force.
"I couldn't face a job that ordered us to use tear gas on normal people, like criminals," he said. "That goes against Hong Kong's core values."
In November, Ms. Yau, 36, ran for the district council and beat the pro-establishment incumbent. While the office has little power, the overwhelming support of the electorate for pro-democracy candidates reflected the bad mood in Hong Kong.
The pressure has continued to intensify. In January, China he replaced his top representative in the city with a senior official known for his tough stance on security. Some of Hong Kong's most august pro-democracy figures were arrested last month. The last salvo, national security legislation, does not surprise Ms. Yau.
"This is the Communist Party," he said. “This is what will happen eventually. The only question is when. "
"I grew up raising the Chinese flag at school every day, but I don't feel anything." "I don't know what I am. I don't know where I'm going. I'm just Hong Kong."
Voting with their feet
The generation that built Hong Kong since the middle of the last century, powering its workshops and elevating its skyscrapers, never had its roots in the territory.
Many residents came here fleeing unrest in China, especially after the 1949 communist revolution. The influx continued even after 1997, when the Union Jack was last lowered. Since the move to Chinese rule, more than a million Chinese from the mainland have moved to Hong Kong to enjoy their commitment to trade, the rule of law and education.
Even if fortunes were made in the city, a refugee mindset still defined the city's elite. Almost anyone who is someone in Hong Kong has a foreign passport, just in case.
But many of her children, especially those who have come of age since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule, feel differently. This is my home, not Canada, nor Australia, and certainly not China.
Furthermore, for one in five people in Hong Kong living below the poverty line, there is no escape to another country. They cannot buy foreign citizenship.
For them, protecting Hong Kong is a matter of defending the only future they have, an increasingly bleak future.
Even before the coronavirus closed the borders, Hong Kong's economy had entered a recession, as mainland tourists stayed away due to the protests.
Hong Kong now needs China much more than the other way around. At the time of delivery, the enclave's economy was nearly 20 percent the size of that of China. Today, it's less than 3 percent, even if much of China's foreign direct investment still flows through Hong Kong.
And, increasingly, it seems that Hong Kong will give its greatest treasures not to the people who sweat in its factories, but to a new ruling class.
Just as the British once held the top positions in the city, the Mainland Chinese are now slipping into privileged positions, making some natives feel marginalized in their own home.
Law Ka-chung, born and raised in Hong Kong as the son of a janitor, took over as chief economist at Bank of Communications, a Chinese state bank.
But as civil unrest rocked Hong Kong's financial district last year, Law said they let him go after distributing an article he believed supported the protest movement. The Communications Bank did not respond to a request for comment.
For the first time in nearly two decades, Hong Kong's population declined at the end of last year, with both locals and expats fleeing the city. As the pandemic and political fears heat up, the city is unlikely to receive a new influx this year.
Mr. Law said that he also wants to leave.
"I am a small potato in a small bank, but what happened to me represents the conflict between two ideologies: communism and capitalism," said Law. "We used to say that Hong Kong was lucky to be between East and West. Now some people say, "Maybe I'm cursed."
Elaine Yu contributed reporting.