“When you find this letter, I might have already been arrested or killed.”
This is how a 22-year-old protester in Hong Kong began what he worries could be the last letter to his family. He used the pseudonym “Nobody”; like most of the young people who have been confronting the police on the front lines, he fears arrest or death.
I met “Nobody” and his cohort during a recent Sunday demonstration. After 19 weeks of street battles with the police, the protesters’ roles are well rehearsed: They move swiftly, each to his or her appointed task, using codes and sign language. They assemble barricades in minutes, only to disperse in seconds.
But I came to observe handiwork of a different kind. As the violence intensified over the summer, I learned that young protesters were writing farewell notes to family and friends in the event that they were arrested or killed. They call them “Wai Shu,” or “last letters.” Some carry handwritten copies to the streets in their backpacks or wallets. Others hide them at home, in drawers and under mattresses. Several people read them to me off their phones.
“Nobody” told me he wrote his letter when he was at a protest last month in Causeway Bay, after witnessing an undercover officer fire into a crowd. “Right in front of me, live bullets,” he said. “At that moment, I learned that my life was at stake.”
The protests have become increasingly violent as they drag on. Protesters are now more aggressive, and the police regularly raid their homes. Arrests have surged.
On the street, “Nobody” and his teammates blend into the crowds of protesters clad in black, faces covered and armed with petrol bombs. But their individual missives set them apart, chronicling their lives and loves and what might be lost.
“Dad, I’m unfilial for leaving you so early, before I could fulfill my obligations as a son, to be there for you,” “Nobody’s” teammate Ming wrote. “When I’m gone, please take good care of yourself.”
Another named Tank wrote: “I would be lying if I told you that I’m not afraid. But of course, we cannot give up.”
“Nobody” is a fashion designer. He is lanky, with thick hair that falls over his eyes. He owns a small business that tailors custom clothing and costumes for stage performers.
He lives with his parents, but he was raised by his grandmother in mainland China. Since he joined the protests, he said, he has been doxxed and has had to change phone numbers several times. He won’t risk crossing through immigration, for fear of being arrested. The reality that he may never see his grandmother again fills him with regret.
“I actually worry that I will die and won’t see you anymore,” he wrote to her in his letter. “I worry that you will cry and feel devastated. But there is no way that I don’t take to the streets.”