As he prepared for prison, Hing’s boyfriend Kwan was fearful of becoming isolated from the world while in custody awaiting trial for a protest-related offence.
The couple decided to set up an Instagram account in which Hing would share excerpts from Kwan’s letters with friends, so they could learn about his life behind bars through social media.
On top of that, they promised to write to each other every day.
Hing and Kwan (pseudonyms) have been keeping their promise since then.
Kwan would highlight those parts of his letters which he hoped Hing would share on Instagram. Over time, Hing saw a boost in followers and soon realised the account has been attracting like-minded protesters.
“We didn’t expect anyone to follow us on social media apart from his friends. Since he is comfortable with it, we see this as an opportunity to raise awareness about protesters who were jailed for taking part in the movement,” said Hing, 25.
“But at the end of the day, I hope this account remains a platform for him to freely express himself and keep in touch with his friends.”
Through social media, Hing can make friendships with partners of other remanded protesters. Her boyfriend befriended them and they exchanged contacts or social media handles so that their partners could look out for each other in challenging times.
“It’s like making friends online. And because we went through something very similar, we are able to confide in each other about our feelings and struggles,” said Hing.
Isolated from society
As of mid-October last year Hong Kong Police had arrested 10,144 protesters, of whom 2,285 were prosecuted. But only 664 of these had finished the judicial process as of late October. Many of those arrested are still undergoing investigation, and some remain in custody pending the end of judicial proceedings.
Inmates often suffer from a sense of isolation. A guide published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the Handbook on Dynamic Security and Prison Intelligence, states that within certain restrictions, prisoners are entitled to family contact and not to be “totally isolated from society.”
“The prison administration’s duty to encourage communication with the outside world must be balanced against the risks that may be associated with the ability of prisoners to communicate with those outside,” it states.
Richard Tsoi Yiu-Cheong, of the Society for Community Organisation, said prisoners’ basic rights should be protected and outside contacts were crucial to their mental well-being and helpful to rehabilitation.
“Many researchers concluded that allowing prisoners to have constant outside contacts would be beneficial both to the prison management and ex-prisoners to re-enter society,” Tsoi said.
Kwan was arrested in July 2019 and has been remanded in custody since May 2020. Under the rules of the Hong Kong Correctional Service, families and friends can visit remand prisoners once a day for up to 15 minutes at a time, with no more than two visitors each time.
But 15 minutes is not long enough for Kwan and Hing to catch up and mail has become their second best form of communication.
Prisoners may write and send as many letters as they wish to any person, according to Hong Kong Prison Rules. Paper and postage is free for one letter per week and prisoners may ask to send additional letters using their own earnings.
Hing said Kwan’s letters are similar to a diary in which he talks about his daily routine, from the books he read to his daily meals.
“Since we can’t meet every day, we use handwritten letters to keep each other company,” said Hing. “What he writes in his letters might seem boring or irrelevant to many, but they make me feel like we are together even though we’re apart.”
‘Stay angry and keep going’
“Sky” was arrested in November 2019.
Shortly after he was detained in the La Chi Kok Reception Centre, he saw a 17-year-old protester shot by a police officer in Sai Wan Ho on TV. A sense of helplessness continued to grow as he learned about the siege of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University while in isolation. He had an urge to break through the bars so he could give his fellow protesters a helping hand, but his hands were tied. So he picked up a pen and started writing down his thoughts.
As he neared the first anniversary of his remand in custody, he collected diary entries and sent them to his friends. He asked them to help set up an Instagram account using the pseudonym “Sky” to keep a record of his life behind bars.
Pearl is one of four friends who manage Sky’s social media account, typing out his diary entries, posting them online and interacting with followers.
“Usually he will let us know what he wants to include and what not,” said Pearl (a pseudonym). “Everything you see on Instagram is posted according to his request.”
“He was very outgoing and active on campus. Now that he is alone behind bars, we want to keep him entertained. Whenever we receive replies or comments, we will print them out and share them with him.”
In an entry dated October 28, 2020, Sky wrote that it had been almost a year since he was remanded in custody, but his spirit remained unchanged.
“Even though I couldn’t light the candles in Victoria Park, I could still light my passion in every aspect of my life,” he wrote. “We should constantly remind ourselves of what happened over the past year. As the government tightens control over our city, we shouldn’t get used to it: stay angry and keep going.”
Pearl said Sky’s diary was a reminder of how the world has changed since he was jailed.
“A lot of his diaries were written before the national security law was imposed,” said Pearl. “While we were reading them, we realised much of the content couldn’t be published now and how a lot has changed over the past year.”
In some diary entries Sky recalled the Lennon Walls which were once prominent in the city and wondered if they were still being actively used. “Back then, we struggled to tell him that all the Lennon Walls had been torn down,” she said. “So I think it would be great if people could write letters to jailed protesters to keep them updated.”
In a written response to HKFP, Sky stated that he will face another dreadful trial in May. There were times where he was overwhelmed by the situation – the financial burden of his legal fees and the emotional labour of comforting family members is mentally exhausting for a 22-year-old: “Sometimes I hope that all our problems would magically go away,” he wrote. “We hoped everything that happened in Hong Kong was a nightmare, that everything would go back to normal when we woke up. However, when we open our eyes, it’s another day of disappointment.”
“Even so, I have no regrets because I am true to my heart,” he continued. ” I can proudly say I fought for my people and my beloved home. If my tiny action could pave the way for those who come after me, then it’s worth it.”
Courage to carry on
Both Hing and Pearl said the best way to support protesters on remand was to send them letters.
“I heard that receiving letters will make them feel valued,” said Hing. “It doesn’t take a lot of time to write a letter to jailed protesters and the letter gives them the courage to carry on.”
Kwan told Hing that celebrity detainees received a big postbag while others who had also given a lot to the movement remained unrecognised.
However, the rise in the number of arrests has motivated many to write to those behind bars. A prisoner support group called Wall-fare founded by former lawmaker Shiu Ka-Chun has organised a campaign called Write With You, in which people can become pen pals with jailed protesters.
“When you are writing to someone, sharing an interesting anecdote in your life is often better than simply telling them to ‘hold on tight and carry on’,” Hing suggested.
But she said Kwan had stressed that pen pals on the outside should not reveal too much personal information unless they have been writing to each other for a long time.
In addition to Write with You, Shiu also organised an initiative called Send Flowers with You along with florist Elise Ip. This helps protesters send flowers to loved ones. Kwan, for example, sent a plant to Hing on their anniversary.
Before Kwan was arrested, Hing had texted friends and loved ones and barely picked up a pen. “In the past, I wouldn’t even touch the mailbox,” she said. “But now I asked my family for our mailbox key so I can check every day to see if I am getting any of his letters.”
With the government crackdown, mass arrests and the Covid-19 pandemic, Hong Kong’s drive for greater democracy has been brought to a halt and Hing said the situation seems hopeless to many. However, Kwan told her to look on the bright side — he now has much more time to read and reflect on life and prepare himself mentally and intellectually for the day he is released.
Sometimes, Kwan thinks that had he been alone, he would have protested more radically in 2019. But without Hing’s letters, he wouldn’t be able to endure endless lonely nights in prison.
“With you lighting up my world, everything has become more tolerable,” Kwan told Hing in one of his letters.