Teaching online on borrowed time: Hong Kong protests, pandemics, and MOOCs

by Gina Marchetti

Pandemics create their own time warps, and science as well as science fiction tell us that our subjective perception of time and our biological rhythms miss their usual beats during outbreaks. Lockdowns disrupt routines, eliminate schedules, and limit interactions with people outside the household. COVID-19 creates its own sense of time at the intersection of pandemic chronology and the digital time that now occupies so much of our lives on screen. Some measure time as the progression of COVID-19 across borders, in their own country, community, family, or their own bodies on Google maps and through social media. Waiting for a future vaccine, others tick off the days it takes to get tested, find out results, remain in quarantine, repeating the process periodically. Screen-time sets the agenda for the socially distant. Plugging into the digital world creates another sense of time in which we become more attuned to the global clock that takes us out of our own time zones more frequently. For teachers and students in many parts of the world, this means online education and a dramatically different pedagogy associated with these pandemic times.

Gina Marchetti in her “Zoom room” with a virtual background of the Main Building at the University of Hong Kong.  The clock tower in the photograph reminds students that teaching time goes on even if the clock has stopped.

In Wired, Arielle Pardes writes this about the elasticity of “coronatime”:

“The virus has created its own clock, and in coronatime, there is less demarcation between a day and a week, a weekday and a weekend, the morning and night, the present and the recent past. The days blend together, the months lurch ahead. And while so much of the pandemic’s impact has landed unequally across geography, race, and class, these distortions of time feel strangely universal.”[1] [open endnotes in new window]

However, that “strangely universal” feeling is a delusion. Coronatime varies across the demographic spectrum. Sara Lindberg summarizes a survey on perceptions of time during COVID-19 as follows:

“…higher stress levels, increasing age, reduced task load, and decreasing satisfaction with less socialization is linked to feeling a slower passage of time during the day. While younger, more socially satisfied participants seem more likely to experience time passing more quickly.”[2]

Race and class create their own COVID-19 time. In his History of Bourgeois Perception, Donald M. Lowe devotes an entire chapter to temporality (35–58), and anyone who has been on the clock for an hourly wage knows that capitalism insists that time is money. Learning that George Floyd had been infected by the coronavirus when Derek Chauvin used a chokehold for eight minutes and forty-six seconds to asphyxiate him brought home the fact that COVID-19 time overlapped with African American lifespans in particularly tragic ways.

Julia Kristeva certainly was not the first to point out the temporal gender divide in her essay, “Women’s Time.” Emily Apter provides her own feminist take on Kristeva’s chronology:

“… it is precisely the ‘dated’ character of Kristeva’s temps des femmes that matters, for it describes the anachronistic resurgence of ‘seventies theory’ in the guise of feminist theory now, itself focused on time and the politics of periodicity. Women’s time in this iteration is no longer confined to essentialist, universalist formulas of embodied cycle, reproductive measure, maternal history, ‘timeless’ ideals of femininity and feminine beauty, domestic labor, or the evental rupture with patriarchal social and political orders. It is identified instead with rethinking (among other topics) causality and teleology; the geopolitics of periodization; ‘deep’ (transcivilizational) time; epochal historicity versus situational, contingent, or provisional eventuality; prophetic time signatures (familiar in contemporary invocations of a “communism to come”); epistemological break; psychic duration and endurance; pastness and futurity (fossil time to transfinitude); and temporal remainders. A recent collaborative project initiated by Judith Butler and provisionally titled ‘Remainders: Feminist Translations in Geopolitical Time’ indicates how time has become indispensable to feminist theory: a component that helps move fields not marked as ‘feminist’ per se (global geopolitics; translation studies) into position such that they become feminist concerns. There is then a “becoming-feminist” of time theory itself” (17).

Although written a decade ago, Apter’s observations remain timely. Confining her remarks to Kristeva’s essay, Apter, however, does not take note of the role time plays in Kristeva’s About Chinese Women. Mythic, dynastic, feudal, republican, socialist, matriarchal and patriarchal times struggle in her portrait of women written after a visit to Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76).

When the novel coronavirus emerged in Wuhan at the end of 2019, some Chinese women marked time by chronicling the lockdown of their city. Notably, Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary originally appeared online as a Sina Weibo blog. However, the impact on women’s time extended far beyond Wuhan, and the United Nations notes that women suffer globally:

“ ‘The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic,’ stated a UN policy brief published in April 2020.”[3]

Cycles of domestic violence, overtime as essential workers in hospitals or grocery stores, home office time on Zoom or other platforms, study time with children online for school, kitchen duty with limited supplies for the newly unemployed, and the endless “second shift” shouldered by women became part of the gendered dimension of coronatime.[4] Women regress on professional ladders as journal submissions from female researchers drop and women put their careers on hold.[5]

Even though Hong Kong has escaped much of the cruelty of the pandemic, it takes its toll on women’s time. Quoted in the South China Morning Post, Fiona Nott of Hong Kong’s The Women’s Foundation (TWF) says:

“Covid-19 has exacerbated existing inequalities and disproportionately impacted women and girls in disturbing new ways—from extra care work and household duties, to financial instability and a heightened risk of domestic violence…”[6]

Nott could add to this the fact that Hong Kong measures its time differently from other places, and what Richard Hughes called Hong Kong’s “borrowed time” in 1968 still makes its own mark on women’s lives. The colonial status of much of its territory had 1997 as an end date, and its current existence as a “Special Administrative Region” (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China stops in 2047. Always looking to the future as a terminal point, Ackbar Abbas characterizes Hong Kong as “déjà disparu,” saying: “It is as if the speed of current events is producing a radical desynchronization (25–26).” In 2020, the Journal of Future Studies devoted an entire issue to Hong Kong’s prospects.

Before the novel coronavirus appeared in 2019, Hong Kong experienced considerable disruption that year, including university closures, transportation interruptions, and teargas fallout, from the Anti-ELAB (Extradition Law Amendment Bill) protests that roiled the city for months. As activists, politicians, teachers, journalists, and medical workers, women played a key role in the demonstrations. From the initial case of the murder of a Hong Kong woman in Taiwan that inspired Chief Executive Carrie Lam to call for a sweeping extradition bill, gender played a central role in Hong Kong’s 2019 protest movement.[7] Instances of police involvement in sexual harassment and excessive force against women protesters partially fueled one of the key demands for an independent investigation of the police, and women’s time on the streets played a vital role in the strength of the movement.[8]

Protests, pandemics, and Hong Kong time on screen

Throughout its history, Hong Kong’s geopolitical time has been disrupted, too, by pandemic time. As a port city connecting the empires of China and Great Britain, at the crossroads of the world, and as Asia’s global city, Hong Kong acts as a conduit of goods, services, capital, ideas and disease.[9] The 1894 bubonic third plague, the 1918-20 flu, the 1938 smallpox pandemic, the 1961 cholera outbreak, and the 1968 Hong Kong flu pandemic, to name just a few diseases that also included other avian and swine influenza strains, malaria, and HIV/AIDS, among other infections, all left their mark on the territory.[10] After the end of the colonial period in 1997, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) became synonymous with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, and, now, COVID-19, which makes Hong Kong a sore point as it intersects with a wave of protests that started in 2019 and the intensification of international tensions because of the Sino-US trade war.

Priscilla Wald notes that pandemics give rise to “outbreak” narratives with their own temporality:

“The outbreak narrative—in its scientific, journalistic, and fictional incarnations—follows a formulaic plot that begins with the identification of an emerging infection, includes discussion of the global networks throughout which it travels, and chronicles the epidemiological work that ends with its containment” (2).

These tales have their morals as well as their allegorical significations, and Hong Kong stories follow a similar pattern with geopolitical overtones. Three pandemic moments associated with political protests left their indelible mark on Hong Kong screens. The aftermath of the 1967 anti-colonial riots overlaps with the 1968 Hong Kong flu; the 2002-3 SARS pandemic ended as the 2003 anti-Article 23 protests flared; and, the repercussions from the 2019 anti-ELAB movement linger during the COVID-19 crisis. The traumatic moments sent ripples through the cinematic imagination of Hong Kong’s filmmakers and left their own marks on the ways in which motion picture time constructs historical time in political terms.

The 1968 Hong Kong flu pandemic followed closely on the 1967 anti-colonial protests and coincided with global rebellions against imperialism with the movement against the Vietnam War among them.

André Bazin noted cinema’s ability to capture duration as “change mummified” (15). Drawing on Henri Bergson’s musings on time and memory, Gilles Deleuze observes film’s ability to capture “crystals of time” as time-images on screen. Ackbar Abbas notes that Hong Kong New Wave cinema constructs its own sense of time because of its unique geopolitical status:

“There is an important relation, then, between the new Hong Kong cinema and the déjà disparu: its main task is to find means of outflanking, or simply keeping pace with, a subject always on the point of disappearing…” (26).

He points to Wong Kar-wai’s oeuvre, which includes Ashes of Time (1994), as exemplifying this, but he is not the only one. Tony Rayns crowns Wong a “poet of time,” Stephen Teo calls him an “auteur of time,” and Dennis Lim elevates him to “master of time.” Ewa Mazierska and Laura Rascaroli see his characters as “trapped in the present.” Tiffany Ng considers his style as “a meditation on time.”

However, before the advent of Hong Kong’s New Wave, Patrick Lung Kong wrote and directed Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (1970), loosely based on Albert Camus’ 1947 novel, The Plague. The motion picture borrows the section headings from Richard Hughes’ book, written in the wake of the 1967 unrest and published during the 1968 flu pandemic, for the title of the film that highlights the centrality of time during a plague as before (yesterday), during (today), and after (tomorrow) the outbreak. The film’s plot links the anti-colonial riots of 1967 directly to a fictitious pandemic in much the same way Albert Camus used his plague as an allegory of Nazism. As Tom Cunliffe notes, the film suffered enormously from British colonial censorship because of its direct references to the 1967 unrest; however, even in truncated form, it still stands as an incisive commentary on Hong Kong at the intersection of anti-imperial protests and global opprobrium because of the so-called “Hong Kong flu” pandemic.

As an outbreak narrative that implicitly links protests to a pandemic, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow resonates with Hong Kong’s 2019-20 timeline in several striking ways. Although leftwing critics soundly criticized the film for its ostensible lack of sympathy for protesters, the film does capture in arresting detail the outbreak timeline associated with pandemics. From beginning to end, it hits on all industries, government agencies, and social issues that characterize Hong Kong’s “borrowed” time in a pandemic. Images of airplanes and ships, as well as panoramic shots of Victoria harbor, confirm the significance, too, of transportation to the territory’s economy. City bus tours bookend the film, showcasing the veneer of urban modernity on display for outsiders shattered by the ensuing epidemic.

Global brands such as Max Factor on display and defining the “look” not only of Hong Kong’s women but of middle-class aspirations in 1960s Hong Kong. The Plover Clove reservoir was completed in 1967. After the end of the Japanese Occupation in 1945 and with the success of China’s Revolution in 1949, water became a contested issue since the territory relies heavily on mainland sources. The 1963–64 water crisis, for example, was particularly severe.
A shot of public housing speaks to the shortages that continue to plague the city. Not on the tour—Hong Kong’s squatter villages.

The tour spotlights consumer displays of global brands such as Max Factor cosmetics. A shot of a reservoir serves as a reminder of the water shortages and measures taken to ensure local supplies at the height of the Cold War. The introduction to the city includes shots of public housing built to accommodate Hong Kong’s expanding population of refugees as well as a generation that would mark the first time since the end of World War II that native-born Hong Kong people would outnumber immigrants from the mainland. Not on the tour, squatter housing points to the deep divide between the rich and the poor that plagues the city in more ways than one.

Drawing on Camus’ The Plague, also set in a colony, Lung Kong includes the Christian church in the narrative. Hong Kong operates on the calendar set by the British government, and the epidemic begins during the Christmas season. However, the Chinese Lunar New Year marks the end of the plague and the conclusion of the film, which perhaps points to a postcolonial tomorrow.

The Christian church looms large in Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. Christmas in Hong Kong.  The plague takes hold.
The Lunar New Year festival marks the end of the epidemic with a traditional lion dance. Rats invade the sweatshop floors.

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow shows the epidemic moving through all levels of society. Rats intrude on the factory floor of sweatshops and disease breaks out in the warehouses overflowing with holiday ornaments. Members of the informal economy populated by unlicensed taxi drivers and street vendors play a role in spreading the disease.

The sausage vendor unwittingly spreads germs because of unhygienic conditions. Government authorities are slow to take action.
Television commercializes the rat infestation. Television screens determine the pandemic timeline. Although subscription service dates back to the 1950s, TVB (Television Broadcasts Limited) brought free-to-air television to Hong Kong in 1967, expanding the reach and popularity of the medium.
Television turns its attention to scientists as authorities on disease. Female scientists also play a role.  Women working as tour guides, textile laborers, nurses, doctors, civil servants, police officers, and television producers also appear in the film, and the gendered impact of the epidemic goes far beyond the domestic sphere to the frontlines of combatting the disease in all sectors.

The government is slow to respond, and the media commercialize the rat infestation. Screens dominate the event, and televisual time determines the pandemic timeline. As conditions worsen, scientists take center stage as authorities. The film highlights contributions by female scientists and other professional women on the frontlines of fighting the disease, and this contributes to an impression of Hong Kong’s modernity marked by more progressive roles for women. Men, however, still dominate the process and set the agenda. The colonial police guard the quarantine facility and keep the restless detainees from infecting others. However, the climactic stabbing death of one of the police guards points to the chaotic conditions of the outbreak as well as alluding to the violence associated with 1967.

Men remain at the head of the table and set the agenda. Colonial guards at the quarantine facility (Chatham Road Detention Centre).