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Somewhere in our outdoor dunny, which embarrassingly doubles as my library, is a tattered copy of the final issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review. For fifteen years I have packed and unpacked that magazine as we moved from house to house. I treasure it not just for its hallowed status but also as a reminder of the come-and-go ephemerality of what I do for a living. One day Mekong Review, the literary quarterly I started four years ago, would end up in the dunny.
It was in this zen state that I found myself in Hong Kong in early August. I had decided that it was time to let go. I had burned up all my savings and was close to burning myself out.
Since November 2015, when I launched the magazine at a riverside literary festival in Cambodia, I have done nothing else but work on it. I have gone through three laptops and just as many pairs of reading glasses, seven notebooks and maybe a hundred kilos of coffee. I have lost friends and foes along the way, through absence and neglect. I have picked up a bit of debt and many grey hairs. The prospect of another four years was starting to weigh on me.
Then someone came and offered me a way out: a paid job at a well-known publishing house.
Minh Bui Jones almost shut @mekongreview this month. And then he found inspiration on the streets of Hong Kong.
So when I found myself standing outside my hotel on Portland Street in Mong Kok that evening in August, with a cup of ramen noodles in one hand and a four-pack of Heineken beer in another, the die was cast. I had made up my mind.
The only question was when to make the announcement, which terrified me. As I was mulling on this, chaos was about to break loose. Hong Kong was, by then, two months into a protest against an unpopular government bill that had turned into an open rebellion against its chief executive and her puppet master, the Chinese Communist Party.
Hardly a day went by when there wasn’t a gathering somewhere on either side of the harbour; days before there were separate rallies by people working in the financial, medical and public service sectors. By sundown most of the shops in the area were shuttered. By 10 pm there were only two groups of people out on the streets: those heading to the frontline and those scrambling home.
Staff at my hotel were plastering plywood to the glass door at the entrance. Every now and then tear-gas shots would echo in the thick air and people would pick up their pace. Nathan Road, Kowloon’s commercial and tourism artery, which runs parallel to Portland Street, was being re-landscaped into a war zone, with barricades — made of street fences and bamboo poles looted from construction sites — going up everywhere. Young protesters were in charge. I saw a teenager younger than my son resting in the middle of a street. Someone shouted that the police were coming. He leapt up and ran towards one of the barricades.
Back at the entrance to my hotel I stood with a crowd and watched as the riot police gathered on the corner of Portland Street and Waterloo Road. Then something snuck into my line of vision—prostitutes strolling up and down the near-empty street, soliciting business. A smile broke on my face; the world’s oldest profession was carrying on amid the chaos and the madness, not to mention the sadness.
But they weren’t the only ones working that evening. I started to see others with parts to play: the police as servants of the state; protesters as agents of change; and, squeezed in the middle, journalists, risking life and limb to report on this unfolding drama.
I suddenly became aware of my predicament, standing there with my noodles and beers: how could I quit while Hong Kong was burning?
By next morning I had buried the idea of quitting. I would continue, come what may. So Mekong Review lives on. The forthcoming November issue will mark our fifth year. It almost didn’t happen. We almost joined the Far Eastern Economic Review in the dunny.
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