Gwyneth Ho Kwai-lam is one of 47 Hong Kong pro-democracy activists charged with subversion under the National Security Law for running in a political primary last year. A former journalist for the BBC and local media outlet Stand News, Ho gained recognition in 2019 after she livestreamed the July 21 triad subway attack in Yuen Long, a watershed moment in the 2019 protests. As a mob of white-shirted men attacked subway commuters, police were accused of refusing to intervene and even abetting the violent mob. Ho was violently beaten by an assailant and knocked to the ground, but continued to film for Stand News even after her assault. Her footage that night was used as evidence in the trial of several assailants this year, and her frontline reporting in 2019 earned her the affectionate nickname “Stand News Sister” (立場姐姐).
In 2020, Ho quit journalism to run for the Legislative Council, and entered into the pro-democracy camp’s unofficial primary election that July. For her participation in the primary, she was arrested along with every other primary candidate for “conspiring to subvert state power,” and was charged with 46 others on February 28, 2021. If convicted, she faces a maximum sentence of life in prison. At the subsequent marathon bail hearing, defendants were forbidden to change clothes, served limited food, and deprived of sleep, leading to four hospitalizations for exhaustion. Ho stood out for her defiance in court, refusing to curtail her right to free speech in exchange for bail, hugging her co-defendants, and humming a song from her favorite Hong Kong boy band, MIRROR, into the defendant’s dock microphone.
In her first handwritten letter from prison, dated March 19, Ho reflected on what it means to be “serious” in court, authoritarian politics and self-actualization, her decision to quit journalism, and her struggle to live up to her “Stand News Sister” nickname. Her writing weaves together moving reflection with self-deprecating humor and literary and Canto-pop references. This letter, written in Cantonese, is the first of two uploaded to her Patreon. CDT has translated it in full below. (Note: We have italicized words and phrases which Ho originally wrote in English.)
Notes from Prison – How Do I View My Own Stand?
By Gwyneth Ho
(After devouring a Haruki Murakami book, now even my thoughts are in the voice of [his translator] Lai Ming-zhu…)
When I was called out by [Magistrate] Victor So Wai-tak by name … sorry, by number (defendants and inmates have no names – Hi I am D33~) … I was reading a copy of Ming Pao that another defendant had left on the ground. It so happened that the report on the 7.21 white shirt mob trial caught my eye, and I was engrossed. According to the report, Stand News’ livestream from that night was repeatedly broadcast in the courtroom … (I feel so embarrassed even thinking about it).
Although I’ve always been very resistant to the effects the incident left on me, I also haven’t failed to notice the connection I have to it. So I can’t help but notice that, just as the 7.21 case is finally being brought to trial, on my end, (after experiencing many, many things) I’m sitting in the dock as a political prisoner to the National Security Law. This isn’t a coincidence or a black comedy, but the result of my own choices. I have to say, I’ve already come very far.
Exactly how does one understand their own stand? “Stand” here not only refers to a political stand, but is also similar to “plight” or “physical situation.” In the translated words of a Japanese novel: “You should also consider your own stand.” Its meaning can’t be translated literally, but I was thinking about it constantly during the course of the four-day bail hearing.
Going from being a reporter to an activist means going from witnessing someone take the stand to becoming the defendant taking the stand (though other reporters are probably joining me soon). The contrast between these two identities is probably where my “story” lies. (Here, “story” adopts the definition in the postscript of Murakami’s “Underground.”) During the hearing, I gained a new understanding of this “contrast.”
From lawyers’ meetings to prison visits, we gain only a fragmented understanding of the outside world: for example, we don’t know how the outside world views the dispute over our bail applications, but we do know when Apple Daily sends out a push notification like “Lester Shum: I want to eat.” Simply put, we only find out about things others view as “silly.”
As far as I know, the content of the bail hearings cannot be reported, so the reports about me are basically “mic check,” “reads the newspaper,” “hugs Eddie Chu,” and “vaults the bar.” [Editor’s note: Ho climbed over rows of seats in the courtroom, as she describes later in this letter.] Family members that visit me have brought up these things and said: “What you’re facing is very serious, can you take it more seriously?”
Huh? I am being very serious!
This also poses another question: in Hong Kong’s contemporary courts, exactly what kind of behavior or attitude constitutes being “serious”? Precisely because I face a very serious charge—with lifelong implications, and that isn’t an exaggeration—how exactly am I supposed to understand what I’m facing?
On its own, the court is just an arena; what is happening in the arena is that I (we) are facing direct political persecution.
This is related to my understanding of what it means to “participate in politics.” People tend to think that politics are a mixture of calculated interests, compromise and bargaining, party formation, party divisions, overt hunger for power, lies, etc. etc. etc. etc. This is obviously not all of what politics is, merely a common form of democratic politics, electoral politics, and party-state crony capitalism. In Hong Kong, I believe what everyone is more familiar with is the politics of resistance under totalitarianism. What are politics like in this form? It’s what you witnessed on the streets in 2019, in “Occupy LegCo” and the “PolyU Siege.”
It’s about shedding all of the external things accumulated over your life, and in your most original state, with nothing to your name, facing immense oppression head-on. Only with this realization will you know the limits of your “self”: What are the things you could never have imagined that you could actually achieve? What are the things that, even as you work up the courage for them, you can never pull off? Is there anything you would never abandon, no matter the threats you face? Put another way, what kind of threat could force you to abandon what you cherish the most?
Only the political arena has such life-and-death influence over human freedom, and even life itself. So in my understanding, only through political action can questions about one’s “self” be answered.
This is why I felt suffocated by my identity as a “reporter.” As a reporter, “professionalism” always hangs in the balance between “nothing to my name, just me and my self” and “oppression.” Professionalism dominates and must be obeyed. Professionalism overrides everything else. It isn’t a “personality,” yet it perfectly resembles a “personality.” And between one’s own personality and “professionalism,” the former always has to give way.
It’s no exaggeration that when others would tell me, “Before you are a reporter, you are a person first,” I would disagree and say, “But when I put on my press card, I should be a reporter first.” Case in point: after I was beaten, my reaction was to keep filming – as I’ve explained on many occasions, my thinking at that moment was only “how is the focus of the livestream”; basically, I was a mobile tripod that could also speak.
With myself as the vehicle, “journalistic professionalism” and “oppression” completed a duel. That was it.
Therefore I’ve always thought that regarding 7.21, in my personal capacity, I have nothing I can say. Even if I was invited to the stand, I could probably only say, “Please refer to my livestream from that time (aka the reporter’s product),” and wouldn’t be able to make any additional contribution. I just can’t accept the various imagined versions of me as “Stand News Sister.”
What I experienced in 2019 was due to my own choice. Now, sitting in another seat in a different courtroom, I realized that, well, this is the moment when I, as my “self,” face immense oppression, with nothing to my name.
(Even though the oppression takes the form of such un-intimidating figures as the “Smiling Buddha” Victor So (Allan Au’s words), and the error-prone Department of Justice (to the point of giving people false hope).)
Based on what I’ve said above, coupled with the seriousness of the charges, is it really more “serious” to sit in court all stiff and upright, helping to maintain its decorum, than to take the last opportunity, before the hearing even begins, to hug someone who is about to go away for a long time?
With Joshua Wong and Owen Chow, I could only kiss them on the finger through the small hole in the damned glass.
On the one hand, the severe sleep deprivation made me hysterical with excitement (can you blame me?). On the other hand, given my position, I had no energy, operating on instinct alone, even though I knew I was in a courtroom.
What do I mean by operating on “instinct”?
I read an article about myself in Apple Daily: “After giving her defense, she put one hand on the bar and vaulted over it” …how did this rumor even come about? I was sitting in the back row (D33, you see), and, to get to the defendant’s stand, I had to climb over a row of occupied seats (with backrests) in front of me. I’ve already forgotten how I climbed over, but I probably did it pretty normally.
Having said that, I understand the problem. Nobody ever climbs over obstacles “normally,” but anyone who was on the streets in 2019 will have the experience of frequently climbing over streetside railings and highway medians. This is an action completely internalized by reporters who conducted interviews on the streets in 2019 (probably while using one hand to hold their livestreaming camera, hence the one-handed vault), practically becoming a reflex.
So it’s not that I didn’t realize I was in a courtroom, but that I didn’t realize that what the world (?) considers “normal” is so different from my “normal.”
Wearing the same clothes for five days and four nights (btw, inside and outside were all Uniqlo), standing in the middle of the courtroom, I didn’t feel embarrassed. Among the well-dressed legal elites, I felt that it just so happened that I was dressed this way. But then an image of Lau Tit-man flashed through my mind.
When observing other political trials in the past (including Lau’s (see Note 1)), I got the impression that the language used by the court had its own unique structure and norms – similar to the professionalism of “reporters” mentioned above. It adopts an all-encompassing posture, but in fact, it sets limits everywhere; in a legal setting, it is a language that can suspend reality, enter infinite technical discussions, and invalidate all meaning.
This is just my personal observation, and I don’t know if I’m just misunderstanding, but in countless political cases, we’ve all witnessed one defendant after another get sucked into some strange space spun out of thin air by legal jargon, entirely unrelated to the reality that we perceive. It is obedience to a set of logic that is totally inapplicable to reality, and every attempt to bring it back to reality is “immaterial to the case.” Life in reality is judged in this virtual (as in Law Wing Sang…?) legal world.
The illusion that this is an open language must be consciously or unconsciously sustained, while “dreaming” is the only reality that people really recognize.
On the issue of bail, I’ll stop for now. At any rate, the above situation is so serious that the prosecution objects to the professional legal opinion of many barristers as “political opinions that have nothing to do with the case and which cause unwanted emotional reactions.”
I felt utterly lost amid this language, and I don’t understand why my fate is to be decided by it. Even with a very enthusiastic team of lawyers and many comrades-in-arms for support, facing the many decisions and responses at trial, I still have to go it alone.
This is entering the so-called “nothing to my name” stage.
When facing oppression, I have to interrogate exactly what is in my “self.” Can that “self” contend with the overwhelming scale of oppression?
Standing in the middle of the courtroom, looking around, I realized that the courtroom is actually very small.
Searching inside, what exactly constitutes “me”? Mm, in the face of oppression, there are still some things that I’m unwilling to give up. Where does this unwillingness come from? What is its basis? Does it have any effect? What’s the point? The content of the bail hearing will not be reported.
Whether something is useful or useless is a topic that is endlessly debated in the movement. As a reporter, I’ve been trying to solve it since 2014, but I have never been able to do so.
Who’d have thought that this problem is solved as soon as it enters the political arena.
In my mind, I remember many, many things, lots of things that nobody else knows or can remember, things that others can’t sympathize with, the teachings of elders, the radiance and fragility of comrades-in-arms, the power of stories, the impact of instant pictures ….
The person whose name I never got around to asking for, who, before leaving me in a cloud of smoke, looked at me through his gas mask for the last time.
People, events, images, experiences have shocked me, as if cracking open a stone.
These things that touched only me, that do not exist in public memory (or in the particular way that I remember them), are they useful or useless?
I’ve realized that this all depends on me. If I, as the person affected, at some point make a decision that has limited impact, the meaning of the incident to me is nonetheless established.
Standing at the center of the courtroom before the defendant’s stand, I felt so clearly the people, things and moments that have touched me, shocked me, inspired me, live on in me.
This is the only fact that I must realize. Everything else, whether “relevant” or not, whatever the result, is less important than this.
The matter is not over, and if I face greater oppression in the future, I don’t know whether I will be able to make that step (I have never vowed to stick it out to the very end. Don’t mention the future : ( ). But at this juncture, based on the thinking I have described, I have made this choice.
Regarding the content of my court statement, there are two people who are particularly relevant, so I asked them to be my guarantors (uh, at least how I understand the role of guarantors). I will not mention one of them for now (smile). Regarding the other, I am quite sure that had I not been taught by him and grown up in his pioneering shadow (not without hardship), I would not have such persistence.
In court, where oppression is being actualized, it’s not “I as a journalist,” but “I,” who believes that freedom of speech is of the utmost importance, and who insists on it.
This persistence requires that I let go of my identity as a “journalist.” Only by taking this stand can I make it happen.
Finishing the last sentence of my statement, I felt that I could finally reconcile myself with the name “Stand News Sister.”
In September 2018 I wrote a post about Lau Tit-man, which is the source of my understanding of “legal language.”
In fact I know that many people have read the contents of my statement … I just hope that it’s the full text. All of the things that didn’t make sense in this essay should become clearer after reading the statement, including the question of why I bring up the “reporter” issue again.
Before my books were delivered, I found a copy of Murakami’s “Underground” on a bookshelf filled with romance novels. To put it simply, Murakami takes the identity of a “novelist” and does the work of a “journalist.” He then takes the standpoint of a “Japanese person” to create something that is neither “history” nor “research.” His work is a “vehicle of reality,” but the work itself is not as valuable as Murakami’s act of writing, as a “political action” that competes for (or enriches?) our interpretation of the Sarin incident.
Seeing these keywords, you may think, mm, isn’t obsessing over this book a little fatalistic? (Just like how before I was arrested under the National Security Law, I was indifferently watching the opening of the Ultimate Song Chart Awards Presentation.)
Brother Ming came to the bail hearing. It doesn’t matter exactly why he came (smile), but let’s use him as an example. He would always talk about David Bowie, until one time, Ellen Joyce Loo looked him in the eyes and said, “All day long you talk about how David Bowie inspired you, but I want to tell you that you are my David Bowie.”
If you’ve watched “King Maker III,” you’ve sighed at Eman Lam’s touch and his attitude towards life, without needing to know that they’re actually (partially) Brother Ming’s aesthetic. As a Hong Kong girl that doesn’t know anything about David Bowie, I think I’ve seen him through his spirit as it lives on in Brother Ming. This is probably a similar logic.
(And I’ll always remember that, during the June 9 protest, with its white dress code, in the middle of the night, among the people occupying Gloucester Road outside the police headquarters, I saw an Ellen V Live memorial tee.)
I think personally, I will always feel a kind of vigilance. I feel like the focus of recent political crackdowns on families is a warning sign that civil society will be targeted (based on my understanding of what happened to civil society on the mainland from 2015-2018, listen to the second episode of my podcast). So to the extent that it is possible, I’ll continue to keep it real with my rambling … and I know I’ve already said this many times, but I hope you won’t chase up my family for interviews, thank you for your understanding.
Then again, wearing unwashed Uniqlo to court to deliver my defense just feels right. While I don’t tend to define myself by standards generally considered to be important, I’m also constantly emphasizing I’m a Nintendo and MIRROR fan, which seems to achieve the same thing.
I saw that in Apple Daily, my friend said, “I thought Gwyneth Ho bought a radio because as a reporter, she wanted to keep up with the latest news.” I want to clarify that I’m anxious to order a radio not to keep up with the news (I’m satisfied with the newspaper, I don’t need to get the most updated news), but to hear Jer Lau‘s voice. (Even here, I find a way to flatter Lau, aren’t I clever?)
Every time I catch myself humming “How to Stop Time,” which is so clear in my mind, Jer Lau’s voice, so infinitely rich, seems to fade a little, and I’m afraid to sing it again, fearing that it’ll disappear completely and I won’t remember it any longer.
I don’t want to forget Jer Lau’s voice. How long is the journey back to life? I do not know, but I am unintimidated by the distance. [Chinese]
Translation by John Chan.