FROM IDENTITY TO MOBILITY
YOUR “ADDRESS PROOF”, PLEASE!
The theme for the WMA 2015/16 was “Identity”. In 2016/17 it was “Mobility”. The following essay attempts to look at the two themes using a conversational approach, presenting questions raised in 2015 and answering them with perspectives from 2016. I shall start with the “stress” of a young friend.
This young man told me of an intrinsic link between “identity” and “mobility”, also known in Hong Kong as an “address proof”.
Are “address proofs” difficult to provide? And are the consequences of failing to provide such proof serious? After leaving secondary school, my friend stayed temporarily with friends and relatives over a considerably lengthy period. Those living quarters were neither his permanent home nor were they easily accessible. They could not be used as address proof. Resorting to his parents’ residence was not feasible either: after the redevelopment of the Shek Kip Mei public housing home where my friend spent his childhood, his parents—prior to returning to Dongguan—transferred the tenants’ rights to his elder brother. The brother, who considered the escalating rent for “high-income households” prohibitive, convinced my gainfully employed friend to deregister from the residency—but allotted space for his belongings. Although he felt aggrieved, he was not prepared to contest his elder brother, and so accepted the arrangement. Eventually, he managed to afford to rent “subdivided housing”, which are flexible and nomadic. Within the course of a certain week, he moved thrice.
Often, an address is required to help identify who you are: opening a bank account, applying for a credit card (with or without pre-approved credit), registering for vocational training, applying for public housing, giving blood, registering for mobile phone service, filing a complaint with the Consumer Council, applying for admission to Open University courses… Whenever an address is required, my friend had to deliberate on his strategy, depending on the rigidity of the requirement.
Why strategically? Filling out a factual record would require no strategy if an address of a permanent home actually existed. The reality is, my friend has no permanent home. Unfortunately, this is not acceptable to many social institutions. To them, all citizens need a traceable location, or they would be considered “hyperactive”.
Once my friend got used to dealing with issues concerning his address strategically, it became a life strategy of his.
The story does not end here. My friend learnt to enjoy his “hyperactivism” and the hidden privileges associated with it. In his own words, “I’m no member of the underworld, but I do enjoy
the thrills of being one—anonymous and invisible”. He still aspires to become a home owner or acquire a piece of real estate, but more for investment than to acquire a permanent home address.
I have no means to check if my friend’s circumstances and attitude are unique, but I suspect he is not alone.
A TUG OF WAR BETWEEN PUBLIC
GOOD AND PRIVACY
The implications of an “address” goes beyond communication and liaison. Unlike some other places, Hong Kong does not enforce a household registration system that restricts the freedom of employment and residence. However, in reporting an address, we see the tension between public authority and right to privacy. Given such circumstances, one may prefer to draw a line of defence over address matters.
Some schools are said to adopt preferences when recruiting students from certain housing types, as deduced from their addresses, particularly when little can be learnt of the applicant. Some parents aspiring to have their children attend “dream” schools would even prepare multiple addresses for multiple options. Personnel managers in the corporate world look at applicants’ addresses to find clues leading to finer selection. When it comes to elections and voter registration, fraudulent addresses have been registered in large volumes as part of an act to consolidate support for candidates. These are clear illustrations of how an address registry can be deceiving both on the giving and receiving end.
Government and statutory agencies built legitimate grounds long ago to demand an “address proof” from citizens. The burden of proof is now generalised in most commercial contracts, and has become a prerequisite to the provision of services. Apart from plane tickets, identity proof must also be submitted to initiate the transaction of train tickets, mobile phone registration, hotel accommodation, health clinics, trading stocks, foreign exchange and so on. Until the system is satisfied with the provision of all required information, you would not be able to question your rights. In our homeland, where “開放” has been the guiding doctrine for almost half a century, applications are still required for couples from different urban or rural domains to be officially married and their household records unified. Application is also required for young workers who are moving to jobs away from their hometown. No approval, no mobility.
Without a doubt, address and household registration—dressed up as prerequisites for services—go hand in hand with public surveillance. The public is thus legally monitored.
A fundamental question then arises: since when, and for what reasons, have we started to surrender an address as a piece of information to the parties who request for it? Why have these parties acquired such an authority as their prerogative? Is this a feature of modern society? Why are individuals who decline to provide address proofs in forging relationships with agencies considered “defiant” or “post-modern”? Is it not the right of an individual to remain silent when one feels safer that way?
Some refuse to surrender their privacy to modern conveniences such as mobile phones, Octopus cards, online stores and cloud storage; some employees even harbour suspicions towards the anti-theft surveillance systems put in place by their employers—such conveniences archive your activity, which may end up being mined by the wrong hands.
These worries are not unfounded. Our city has a dense network of cameras watching and recording all of its moving features. They include the cameras operated by our traffic control authority; public or private surveillance systems; and growing number of vehicles mounted with high-definition multi-angle capturing solutions. This is supplemented by the millions of smartphones in the hands of amateur photographers. What could possibly escape from this ubiquitous dragnet? Detectives, those searching for missing persons and lost pets, and justice seekers in traffic accidents, routinely voice their appeal to cameras for valuable footage, in search for the truth.
Though rare, pleasant surprises exist. Occasionally, high-angle cameras help you spot and track elderly with Alzheimer’s, identify lunatics throwing objects from height, clear the names of framed individuals, and determine whether or not to award that one point to the ball that hit the wrong side of the court. Worryingly, the emperor and his watchdogs are near: the darkest corners are flooded by infra-red rays; the most improbable angles hide tiny needle reflectors linked to a radio. You are being watched.
When a city is under constant surveillance, and an inquisitive public is armed with internet search engines, is “urban anonymity” still viable?
ONE WAY OR ANOTHER,
WE’RE ALL MOBILE
Photographs can be invasions of privacy as much as they are manifestos, or pieces of history—accidental, or otherwise.
Often, an individual calls the shots in capturing photographs as memories. But, aided by technology, memories are now automatically archived within photographs. Advanced applications on devices or Facebook suggest, produce and store themed photo albums from the selfies and group photos shared between you and your friends in your galleries, memory devices or cloud storage. Year by year, every episode of your life—from your promotion to your weight loss, celebrations to vigils, snorkeling to surfing, drunken moments to dreams, belting to crooning—everything is illuminated.
Let us not forget the more turbulent episodes: the camera witnesses every moment when you are there, in fire or in ice.
In 2015, images and footage of musicians sounding out in protest in the form of a flash orchestra in the MTR Tai Wai Station surfaced. Their message was loud and clear: the railway giant had restricted commuters from bringing on board large music instruments when in reality, musicians transporting large instruments need the MTR more, not less. The MTR should render mobility for musicians and their instruments, as long as they can shoulder them individually. Music can, and should move!
Another friend of mine, who is in the business of piano storage and transportation, has handled the transportation and resettlement of some 1,000 pianos over the past two decades. He saw extreme sentiments from families at the last moment when a piano was about to leave a home: tearful requests to reverse the decision, enquiries on buy-back options or interim visiting arrangements during a cooling-off period, and wishes for a “humane” disposal. The intensity of these sentiments, as observed by my friend, is correlated with neither the value of the piano nor the wealth of the family. My friend has now retired. He hates himself for not filming a series of videos of these piano owners bidding farewell to their instruments with a final performance.
He observed that even the tiniest home in Hong Kong can accommodate a piano, as long as parents continue to take pleasure in drilling their children to achieve artistic excellence. When children grow, space once occupied by a piano can serve other purposes. The wish for the piano to stay as a status quo has become more improbable, and plans will be made for the piano to go before the children go. Of course, some pianos are abandoned not to make room, but in response to the truly ordinary Hong Kong way of life: immigration, studying abroad, moving in to a smaller home, or moving to a bigger house.
Mobility, or the lack of it, is to be seen from different perspectives. Space is cold, warmed by the human touch: the MTR should not rule in terms of measurements. Space is valued where there is demand. Memory is priceless because it cannot be sold. Thus, in this restless and changing community, many functioning pianos and memory vessels are on an accelerated decline to final abandonment.
In the past, book lovers marked their collections with personal seals that carried a strong sense of identity associated with geographical, ethnic, or spatial lineage. Those that have impressed me include “番禺鄭氏”, “勉讀堂”, “求其居士”, “淨飲齋”. These seals often reveal a preference for a private corner of peace and pleasure, a return to calm after the storm and over the hill, or when one has settled into his comfort zone. Though shrouded in serenity, the seals declare who exactly their owners are.
But dwindling resources and space mean books and study rooms will diminish. Printing will be a luxury, and to read classics in print form will be a super luxury. By 2050, global warming will probably go out of control. Most books will be centralised and kept as collections in museums. The printing industry and the production of books will be banned. All who enjoyed reading “books” and survived will be seated in self-driving GPS-guided wheel chairs, tuning in to TED “Ideas Worth Forgetting” forums through intelligent ear-phones with translations of up to 50 different languages. Their health conditions will be monitored by robot caregivers, who ensure that these older adults are mobile, and therefore, living.
Yet, as still as mountains, these elderly folk know that when even mountains move, it will be the end.
But Ho Ming