The loss of innocence in Hong Kong
On my way to work each morning, I eagerly await on the bus the little passengers who make our mornings ever so bright.
Little more than toddlers, some barely out of infancy, resplendent in the uniforms of whichever kindergartens they are attending, clutching the hands of parents, grandparents or caregivers, they board my bus from stop after stop. And, with each new arrival, something softens in the faces of most of the passengers. Hardnosed office-goers standing pressed against anxious students, elderly matrons jostling for space with smartly dressed young ladies, all momentarily forget their preoccupations. For, each new arrival is heralded by a squeal of delight or non-stop chatter, pitter-patter of little feet and rarely, a cry of separation from a young mother bidding goodbye at the bus stop. The sight of the shining faces, the neatly parted hair or little pigtails, the colorful accessories, and the oh-so spontaneous laughter, is like sunlight itself invading the recesses of the packed bus.
This is the power of innocence — it is transformative and inclusive. Even the most reserved of parents will offer a smile if their child spreads joy.
So, what changes between the ages of 3 and 7? Or 8, 11 and well into the teenage years? Ho w d o e s t h e s p o n t a n e i ty evaporate and what causes a shutter to come down on emotions, making Hong Kong’s children little more than automations? And what causes the malaise to spread so deeply that in a city branded sad by survey after survey, the sorrow should be underlined by a rising incidence of student suicides?
Early in November, the government-appointed Committee on Prevention of Student Suicides tabled its report on the recent spate of student suicides in Hong Kong. By all accounts, 71 students committed suicide over the past three years — of them, shockingly, two Primary 6 students during the 2013-14 to 2015-16 school years.
What drives 10- to 11-yearolds to kill themselves? The c o m m i tt e e i d e n t i f i e d f o u r major areas of concern, namely mental health, psychological concerns (wherein the child expressed suicidal ideas and negative thinking), relationship problems that spanned problems with both peers and family, and adjustment difficulties which could be academicsor family-related.
B u n d l e d t o g e t h e r, t h e s e causes, however researched and rational, comprise a litany of clinical detachment. They do nothing to reassure the little boy or girl who might be, at this moment, considering a plunge from a high-rise window.
I am reminded of a little girl, who as a tiny tot on the bus, would keep her face glued to the window, her absorption punctuated by squeals of delight at whatever caught her fancy in the world outside as the bus kept moving. As a primary school student, it would not perhaps be unusual to find her totally absorbed in a smartphone, the real world shut out in favor of the virtual. How desirable is that? When we shun the real world, we close our inner eye, we turn off the sensibilities that fuel our empathy, that fire our imagination.
This is also a city that has forgotten how to read — that art of great escape that puts us in touch with a larger world but never lets us lose our grip on reality. Sociologists call it developing a perspective. But, bookshop after bookshop is closing and public libraries keep crying out for young patrons.
It must be admitted that Hong Kong’s society is essentially utilitarian. Its education system is perceived as elitist and its culture of extra-curricular activities competitive — defeating their very premise. Even the games that children — and adults — compulsively play on their phones are always about winning and losing.
Sadly, no amount of success can recoup the loss of innoc e n c e . A n d , i f Ho n g Ko n g doesn’ t stop to think about how to put smiles back on the faces of its children, it will be staring at an incalculable loss.