Sunday, September 28th, 2014
I am spending a quiet Sunday at home recovering from a junk trip I’d been on the day before in the clear blue waters of Sai Kung. It was a day that involved a combination of lots of direct sun, flotation devices, and mixed drinks. I am luxuriating in memories of steaming through aquamarine waters, diving off the side of the junk into seawater as fine as a bath warmed to just the right temperature for a good long soak, remembering the silliness of swimming over to an island of pure white sand, only to turn right around and swim back, but not without pausing along the way to climb onto another junk, asking permission from the Chinese family aboard to go down that boat’s water slide, dunking into warm tropical waters, and then swimming back to our junk, where a comfortable recliner and mixed drink awaited me. My iPhone dings. It’s my sister in New Jersey. “Wow. Protests in Hong Kong. Stay safe. Also, I know you’re smart enough to not get involved. No need for a Darwin award.”
That was exactly the encouragement I needed.
I turn on the television. Images flash across the screen of skinny Chinese kids defending themselves with umbrellas against police clad in riot gear, dousing student protestors with tear gas, blasting pepper spray directly into their eyes.
What? In Hong Kong? One of the world’s safest cities? One of the world’s most peaceful cities? One of the world’s most polite cities? Hong Kong is known as Asia’s world city because it is an international city where East and West meet and work and live together. Hong Kong is a city where business rules and politics hardly matter. Hong Kong is a city where tens of thousands pack narrow streets in the tropical heat to watch the annual fire dragon dance during the Harvest Moon festival and not a single person is shoved, not a single toe is stepped on, and lost children are promptly returned to their parents. Hong Kong is a city where bright pink t-shirts and floral prints are the fashion norm for both women and men. In a word, this is a gentle city. Peaceful protests had been going on since last spring, but the numbers of protestors were not massive, and their message did not always reach the international media. The demand of the protestors was straight-forward: The people of Hong Kong want universal suffrage, namely the right to vote for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong in the elections of 2017. This desire was based on Hong Kong Basic Law Article 45 of the constitution. Basically, the article states that the Chief Executive, a position similar to that of the president of the United States, should be chosen by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly based nominating committee. The communist government in Beijing has interpreted Basic Law Article 45 to mean that Beijing exclusively hand picks all candidates for the elections to the office of Chief Executive. The people of Hong Kong interpret the law to mean that they have the right to nominate candidates for the office.
Protest groups claim that the present Chief Executive, C. Y. Leung, answers to Beijing and does not have Hong Kong’s best interest in mind. As a British colony, Hong Kong citizens had little political freedom, and yet liberal western influences, freedom of speech, western education, and an open flow of information has formed a new generation unwilling to allow Hong Kong to be swallowed up by mainland China with its stringent controls and censorship.
My eyes remain glued to the television screen as I watch in shock as young people clutch at their eyes and howl in pain after having pepper spray directed at them. No one fights back. The crowd remains peaceful. The police come across as the aggressors.
The police attacks, I quickly learn by reading real time news on The South China Morning Post Occupy Central page, are directed against a civil disobedience movement called Occupy Central with Love and Peace. Central is a wealthy business district in the center of Hong Kong Island. It is the place where the headquarters of major corporations, as well as the City Hall, Central Post Office, the glamorous IFC mall, and important cultural venues, are located. Rents and real estate prices in this area are astronomical. The dress code is a dark colored business suit for men and tailored business suits for women.
I read that the civil disobedience campaign was initiated by an Associate Professor of Law from the University of Hong Kong named Benny Tai Yiu-Ting. When a civic referendum to reform the voting system was rejected, the Occupy Central movement planned to fight for universal suffrage through a non-violent occupation of Central. The non-violent occupation was planned to have the effect of crippling this dynamic business center and forcing talks with the government. The idea was modeled after the Occupy Wall Street Movement, Central being Hong Kong’s Wall Street.
Originally the occupation was planned to take place on October 1, 2014, the National Day of the People’s Republic of China, and a public holiday in China, Hong Kong, and Macau. National Day commemorates the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. The Chinese government sponsors fireworks, concerts, and other entertainment on National Day. Government buildings and squares are lavishly decorated in communist themes and symbols. However, a week-long class boycott organized by the Hong Kong Federation of Students, and Scholarism, a protest group led by seventeen-year old high school student Joshua Wong, prompted the Occupy Central group to push back the start of the protests to September 28.
As I watch the kids on television shelter their heads with their arms, holding their open umbrellas out in front of them as their only line of defense against tear gas pumped at them by the police, I think—these kids are willing to fight for their Facebook.
I’m being facetious. What I really mean is that they are willing to fight for their freedoms. Facebook, Google, and other social media is banned in China. China has state-sponsored Chinese equivalents, but they are heavily censored and controlled by the Chinese government. The reporting of news events is strictly controlled in China. Censorship is imposed on journalists, writers, and poets. I am not completely surprised by what I am seeing on television. I am only surprised by the scale. As the police continue to attack the protestors, more show up to join them. The police seem to have accomplished the opposite of what they had intended. Rather than scaring the young protestors off, they have inspired more to join them.
I’d been following the developments leading up to today’s violence for several months. My friend and colleague, Florence, had been keeping me informed about the political developments in Hong Kong since last spring. Florence has been my conduit of information because she watches the local news in Cantonese very closely. Florence is an elementary school teacher, a Hong Kong Chinese who emigrated to the United States when she was 18. She earned her bachelor and master degrees and Ed.D in the United States. There she met and married her husband, a Caucasian American, and they had two children together. Florence worked in several California universities as an adjunct faculty, eventually becoming a full-time professor. However, her professor’s salary was not enough to support her family. She returned to teaching elementary school full time in the California public schools because it paid more money. About a year ago, Florence and her husband decided to return to Hong Kong, so that their children would be exposed to Chinese culture, learn Cantonese, and become comfortable with their Asian heritage. Recent politics between Hong Kong and mainland China were making Florence nervous about her decision to come home. This was an anxiety she often expressed to me when we caught a moment to chat after school while walking to the MTR. Florence worried that the situation between the protestors and the Chinese authorities would come to a head last summer and had predicted riots during some of the Chinese national holidays. She had told me that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army had been steadily bringing tanks across the border into the New Territories in the middle of the night for months. No one knew for certain the number of tanks and soldiers that had crossed the border into Hong Kong, but we all knew they were there. One of our teachers lives in Hung Hom and photographed a parking lot where the PLA tanks are stationed. They simply showed up one morning, as though emerging out of the ground overnight, he said. But universal suffrage was not the only bone the protestors have to pick I learn as I read more about the protests online. The professional and working classes of Hong Kong are fed up with government corruption and the hording of the city’s wealth by a small percentage of the society. This post on the South China Morning Post’s Facebook page pretty much sums up the feelings of most middle and lower class Hong Kongers:
We want a piece of the economic pie, not crumbs dropped by the ruling rich families. We want the administration to explain why the median income (50+1) is only 8,000 HK ($1,031), NOT 34,000 HK ($3,482) a month. We want rent control, low interest loan, 1% down for first time real estate buyers (the Treasury will buy apartments with its trillions $ surplus), rate of returns from enterprises to be in line with world's rates (and taxed accordingly), disband the Legislature, cancel the functional and geographical constituencies, all 70 legislators and new candidates to stand for re-election/election by our current 3.5 million registered voters (5 million+ qualified) in CITYWIDE election. ALL THESE (the CE and his administration) CAN DO. This is what I think the Movement can do. We need to take Hong Kong as a city and as such, it can make the above changes. We build a lasting, evolving and fair democracy from the bottom up, NOT from the top down. We need to move our society forward as a whole. NO one should be left behind. The current CE is powerless with our current Legislature. He is hated by our unbridled, crony capitalists for doing TOO MUCH and equally hated, if not more, by us for NOT doing enough. We miss the point by forcing the issue on participatory democracy as it won't solve our ills. Hong Kong's #1 problem is a non-responsive Legislature. His manifesto at the beginning covered more or less the above but he failed to link it to the quest of true participatory democracy and why it is so needed and so important.
As I read, I consider that was is happening in Hong Kong is one of the manifestations of what happens when a colonizer withdraws: What is left behind is a vacuum of power and a populace that does not have traditions of self-governance. After all, in the most basic terms, Hong Kong is a colony that was handed over from one power to another. I do not believe that China expected this level of organization and civil disobedience from a colonized people. In my conversations with educated mainland Chinese who speak English, I get the sense that they regard Hong Kong Chinese as a conquered people, first by England, now by China, and not as a people who have the political maturity to make their own decisions.
It was specifically a conversation with a woman I met in the hot tub of my apartment complex that gave me some insights into the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese. A few days previous, for the first time in over a year of living in Hong Kong, I had one of those warm, self-revealing, conversations with a total stranger, which are so commonplace in the United States, but so rare here. A woman climbed into the hot tub with me and we struck up a conversation. As we talked, I wondered if I’d recognize her if I saw her again because she was wearing a bathing cap and a black speedo one piece bathing suit. Her English name was Yvonne. She was a mainland Chinese woman who had earned her Master degree in Policy from Columbia University, had worked in New York for 15 years, and now had been transferred to Hong Kong. We were talking about what a lonely city Hong Kong could be and how difficult it was to build friendships with Hong Kong Chinese. She told me that mainland Chinese are more like Americans, chatty and open, while colonization has done damage to the psyches of the Hong Kong Chinese, causing them to be more closed, careful, insecure, unsure of their identity and traditions, unlike the mainland Chinese, who are proud of their Chinese heritage.
My Hong Kong Chinese and Taiwanese colleagues tell me the opposite. They tell me that mainlanders went through the Cultural Revolution, and as a result they lost touch with their Chinese heritage, while Hong Kong and Taiwan have preserved Chinese culture outside of the mainland. In any event, what is clear is that both sides have preconceived notions about the other side, and firm ideas on what constitutes “being Chinese.” I asked Yvonne what she thought about the protests, which at that time were still in their embryonic phase. What Yvonne said then opened up my mind to a new level of understanding: “Hong Kong Chinese are a colonized people. They do not know how to self-govern. The fact that they are organizing themselves and finding their political voice is a very good thing. They are practicing democracy.”
They are practicing democracy. But what do they really know about democracy? And isn't it a little late to practice democracy now that they are being absorbed into the political and cultural fabric of communist China? Yvonne's phrase, “they are practicing democracy” stays with me as I watch the Hong Kong police brutally smashing batons down on the heads, necks, and shoulders of the students. They are practicing democracy, but in the democratic world the police does not respond to the practice of democracy with batons and tear gas.
Monday, September 29, 2014 Overnight the situation intensifies. Estimates are that around seventy people suffered burns or wounds from tear gas. Public transportation in parts of Hong Kong Island have been shut down. The morning commute is majorly disrupted. Roughly 100,000 protestors have taken up residence on the streets. Thousands spent the night stretched out on Hong Kong’s highways. Schools in Central and neighboring Wan Chai are shut down. The Hong Kong Teachers Union released a statement that teachers should boycott school and join the protests. However, our school remains open. I walk in that morning to my first period class to a stunned group of students. Everyone has a story to share. Akashdeep opens up his iPhone and shows me photos of a column of People’s Liberation Army tanks driving through Central, the business neighborhood of Hong Kong, the Wall Street of Hong Kong.
“Democracy is dead in Hong Kong,” Akashdeep says.
Akashdeep tells me about how he had been at the protests, and had seen with his own eyes how two policemen held down a young man while a third came in close with a can of pepper spray and released it directly into the man’s eyes.
“The police were not simply dispersing a crowd,” Akashdeep says, “they were getting violent.”
Natalia, an intelligent young woman who plans to study Architecture at University of Hong Kong, positions her fingers as though holding up a spray can and says, “Miss, they were spraying our people as though they were cockroaches.”
Coral, a student who usually hides in the back of the classroom and does not have much to offer class discussions, now stands bolt upright and in a stern tone says, “These protestors are bad. China brings lots of good business to Hong Kong. The protests are getting in the way of business.”
Jacky, a young man with a face full of acne, leaps out of his seat, “My father says that Hong Kong makes money from mainland China. Our family is rich because of business with China. We would not have had our wealth if it weren’t for the handover to China. I have a responsibility to provide a good lifestyle for my parents. How can I do that if these protestors ruin Hong Kong’s business ties with China?”
Natalia argues back, “Miss, what Jacky is saying only reflects the one percent of Hong Kong society who benefit from business ties with China. What about the rest of us? What about working class people? The people of Hong Kong are losing their rights, losing democracy, losing freedom of speech.”
At this point, Jacky and Coral, and a few other mainland China supporters, throw a few mean words at each other and I have to reign in their words and behavior, but not before Jalif jumps out of his seat and shouts: “China is the most powerful nation on earth and China will never back down! Never! We are proud to be Chinese!” A group of students, led by Jacky, cheer him on. Natalia and her group scowl and whisper among themselves.
Coral says, “The United States is behind this. They are controlling Hong Kong business and China needs to get rid of them.” She closes her statement with a veiled threat, “There will be a backlash against westerners, Miss, you will see.”
I talk about the rule of law. I talk about democracy, and how it was supposed to work. Akashdeep and Natalia and a few other students who support the demonstrations nod in agreement. Meanwhile, students from the other camp make statements like: “We benefit from China and we do not want to let those benefits go. These protestors must realize that we are part of China and China will never let Hong Kong go. They are going to lose their freedoms sooner or later, so they might as well accept it now.”
It is a moment in which I must take off my rose-colored glasses and set them aside if I want to understand Hong Kong and China and their complex relationship of interdependence, and at the same time mutual dislike. Although our school follows an American curriculum, which necessitates teaching students about democracy and freedom of speech, there are students in our school who are outspoken advocates of mainland China’s communist policies. They are the students who have self-proclaimed themselves to be pro-greed, pro-unchecked capitalism, and could care less about trivial matters like democracy, freedom of speech, or the rule of law. These students are the ones who like to repeat a common dictate they learned in school on the mainland: A country as large and populous and as diverse as China cannot function as a democracy and needs a strong leader.
As the students file out of the classroom at the end of class, Natalia reminds me that tomorrow is a “dress as you wish” day. This is a day when students donate 20 Hong Kong dollars ($2.50) to a charity in exchange for the privilege of wearing fashionable clothes to school rather than their school uniform. Natalia tells me that the protestors have put it out on social media that if you support the protests, you should wear black and white and pin a yellow ribbon to your shirt.
“We will be at the school gates tomorrow handing out yellow ribbons. Would you like one?” Natalia asks.
“Yes, I would,” I answer.
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Before school Natalia and her friends are at the school gate, handing out yellow ribbons as promised. I take one and pin it to my black blouse. The students’ clothing reveals exactly how divided our school population is. Immediately it becomes apparent who supports the protests and who does not. At a glance, it would seem that our school population is divided fifty/fifty. Our faculty is divided as well. Not everyone chooses to wear a yellow ribbon in support of the student protestors. The color coding creates factions between students where before there were none. While groups walk around dressed in black wearing yellow ribbons on their shirts or in their hair, other groups are dressed in bright pinks, glaring orange, or any other color that is the polar opposite of black in order to prove a point. These students spend their day glaring and muttering at the students dressed in black. At an assembly later that day Natalia and her friends are invited by the principal to the microphone to explain the significance of the yellow ribbons. The brightly-clad pro-business, pro-China groups squirm in their folding chairs as Natalia speaks, whispering comments to each other from behind their hands. Tomorrow is National Day, an important Chinese communist holiday commemorating war heroes. The Chinese government sees the continuing protests as an insult to China’s history. After the assembly a student comes and shows me an article in a Chinese online newspaper with photographs of the Occupy Central protests. He explains that the caption reads: “Hong Kong people gather together to celebrate National Day.”
By noon the Hong Kong Observatory reports that the heat is 34 Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit) and the humidity is 64%. I envision the protestors camped out on the hot black asphalt, which absorbs the heat, making the temperature even less bearable. The same umbrellas that the protestors used to block the spray of tear gas are also used to block the sun, and the rain, once the thunderstorms move in, as they always do this time of year in Hong Kong.
As the school day winds to a close, I ask a few of my American colleagues if they are going to the protests after school.
“No,” they answer unanimously.
A history teacher from Texas says, “I teach about civil disobedience, and this is history happening right in front of us. However, I won’t go because I’m here on a work visa, and as a foreigner if I get arrested at the protest, I’ll be immediately deported.”
Others tell me they plan to hide out indoors until it is all over.
That did it. I decide I must go. But who would go with me? The moment I think it, I know who: Florence. I find Florence in her classroom packing up for the day.
“Yes, I will go,” Florence says as soon as I ask, “and I want to bring my children. I want them to experience history. I want them to see brave people who are willing to sacrifice for what's right.”
We set out to the protest with Florence’s two children, ages 9 and 13, in tow. We descend into the MTR and stand in line for the train headed in the direction of Central and Admiralty, the areas where the most demonstrators are congregated. Someone has pinned a yellow ribbon over the Admiralty stop on the station map: a subtle gesture of dissent.
The train arrives and is packed with students in local government school uniforms, wearing yellow ribbons pinned to their lapels, heading for the demonstration. We exit at Central and begin heading in the direction of the protests. Here and there we see yellow ribbons pinned to road signs or fences, like markers on a forest path. Florence asks people in Cantonese where the protestors are congregated. We follow their directions, passing monuments elaborately decorated for National Day in grandiose red communist splendor. We pause in front of a massive office building that has a sort of gate erected in front of it that spans several floors of the building. On this structure there is a message written in giant red Chinese characters, and in English underneath: Celebrating the National Day 1949 – 2014. I ask Florence and her children to pose for a photograph under the gate, for the record. I feel the need to document this contrast between communist grandiosity and the real people power that is taking place just a few streets away.
We walk down those few streets and find a gathering of young people inside a section of the highway that has been enclosed with barricades. This highway runs through Central, Admiralty, and Wan Chai, and is the main artery of Hong Kong Island. Occupying the highway has caused bus routes to be rerouted and the flow of traffic to be redirected. Three pieces of cardboard are attached to the barricade with electrical tape. Written out in black marker are the words: Power from People. Two young Chinese men dressed in black lounge against the barricade, watching us. A few footsteps away a large blue highway sign in the shape of an arrow indicates highway exits that are now defunct: Cotton Tree Drive, Mid-levels. Someone has taped a large square of cardboard with Chinese characters painted out in white onto the sign. These are the new directionals. We find a smaller gathering about a block away from the main protest site. This group has taken up residence under a highway overpass. Students sit in clusters, talking or studying their textbooks. The atmosphere is decidedly casual. Some students doze, stretched out full length on the asphalt. As I watch these kids, the image of the lid blowing off a pressure cooker comes to mind. Children start school in Hong Kong as early as two or three. At the age of four they must pass a rigorous exam in the Chinese language and in math to be promoted to the next level or receive a slot in one of the better schools. From early childhood onwards, Hong Kong kids are drilled to study, memorize, and succeed. The pressure is enormous. The students I teach do not allow themselves to have a social life. They do not gather on weekends, go to movies, hang-out. They study, and when they do go out, it is to the SAT training center or to work with a tutor. And this is how their lives go through adulthood, when they take responsible jobs and work long hours with hardly any time for rest or family. I cannot help but think that part of the allure of the protests for these kids is the pleasure of rebellion from their routines. This is their Woodstock—only without the drugs or alcohol.
We first speak to a young man, who chooses not to give us his name. Florence translates for me from Cantonese. This young man is a student at Hong Kong University and is studying property management. He is 18.
“Why are you here?” I ask.
“I am here because I am against police violence and misuse of power against the people,” he says.
“Did you see police use tear gas against the protestors?” I ask.
“Yes, I was there. I saw it.”
“Are you worried about risking your future by being here?”
“No, but that is because I am more in the role of a supporter. We all take shifts to be here and I will be leaving before dark. No one can be here the entire twenty-four hours.”
“What are your goals?”
“We want real universal suffrage. We want Chief Executive Leung to come and talk with us.”
We turn to one of the young girls flanking him, and Florence asks in Cantonese why she is here at the protests.
“I am not political at all,” the young woman, who identifies herself as Wing Lam, says. “But when I saw the police using pepper spray on peaceful people on television on Sunday, I felt I had to come and join the protest. I was motivated to do something about it. The more I see and understand the issues, the more I want to participate and get involved.”
“What are you studying?”
“Business Administration and Commerce.”
“Do your parents know you are here?” I ask.
Wing Lam shrugs sheepishly.
“No,” she admits. “I lied to them.”
Her friend, Chan Wing Sam, who is also 18 and a student at Hong Kong University in the same department, tells me her story in excellent English.
“I was watching television when I saw the protests on the news. They were showing a row of elderly people standing there at the barricade peacefully. Suddenly, the police attacked them with pepper spray, pouring it directly in their faces. I was horrified to see that. I could not believe that the police would attack the elderly. I felt overwhelmed and disappointed with this government. So, I got off my couch and I came out here and joined the protestors.”
“What are you fighting for?”
“We are here today to fight for universal suffrage.”
“How do you envision the future of Hong Kong? Do you think Hong Kong should be an independent country?”
“No,” she answers without hesitation. “It is okay for us to be a part of China, but we need to have more rights. We need China’s economic support and we rely on China’s resources.”
“What do you think will happen?” I ask.
“Hong Kong will change in a good way. People around the world are standing up for us. There is a foreign presence. We will succeed. People are very calm. Yesterday I was at the protest in Causeway Bay. Someone brought out a guitar and someone brought a violin. They began to play music for the people and it was very beautiful.”
“Are you afraid?”
“Yes. I am afraid, but I am still here.”
She laughs, then pauses a moment, then says, “We are warriors.”
These two young woman are petite, not very tall or imposing, and yet their strength comes through in the determination I read in their faces. They speak their minds without blinking. They speak calmly and with respect for themselves and for me. Behind them three teenage girls in light blue school uniforms and white ankle socks move around the barricade picking up trash and stuffing it inside a large garbage bag. Teenage boys lie on the asphalt using their backpacks as pillows. They snooze or check their phones. They remind me of jungle cats, of lions, dozing, but with every muscle tense, ready to leap into action if needed. This is the calm before the storm, I think. Who knew what would happen next. Although every single one of the protestors is peaceful, polite, courteous, a heavy tension hangs in the air, like the electricity you feel before a thunderstorm begins, before so much as one raindrop has fallen.
“What will you do if there is an attack tonight?” I ask.
“If they attack I will stay calm. If the situation gets bad, we may have to retreat, but we will be back. We are standing here not only for ourselves, but for our entire society.”
My iPhone beeps. The Hong Kong Observatory has issued a thunderstorm warning.
“And what will you do if it rains?” I ask, half joking, looking over at the many open umbrellas woven between the bars of a make-shift barricade a few meters behind the protestors.
Chan Wing Sam smiles and says simply, “I will open up an umbrella and stand here under it.”
“I am proud of these students,” Florence says as we walk away. She is beaming, holding her daughter and her son each by the hand as we walk deeper into the protest zone, so they would not get lost in the crowd. “These students are Hong Kong’s elite and they have lived up to that status. They are not rich. I can clearly see that. But they have the intelligence to be selected into Hong Kong’s best universities, which are very difficult to get into.”
I know from my work with the seniors at our school that the competition to enter Hong Kong University, City University, and Chinese University is much more intense than at many of the American universities, where sometimes even our weak students are accepted and attend without scholarships or financial aid. Hong Kong University takes only the top students.
We walk a few steps and come upon a group of four young men who have set up a water and snack station. A cardboard sign taped over a highway road sign indicates that this is a supply center. We ask them who was donating the water and snacks.
“Hong Kong people,” one of the young men answers.
“You mean people just walk up and bring you supplies and water?” I ask.
“That’s right. They come here and hand us crates of water and snacks and we distribute it to the people. We even give water to the police. We want to make it very clear that the police are not our enemy. We do not see them as our enemy. The message we want to spread here is a message of peace and harmony.” We chat a few minutes longer. As we move to continue on our way the young men at the supply center enthusiastically offer us snacks and water to take with us.
“No, please, save your supplies for those who will be here all night,” I say.
Yellow ribbons are tied along a railing that curves along the edge of what is usually a highway. Florence and her children and I stop to read the messages affixed to the ribbons. I read the messages in English: “They can’t kill us all.” “You guys so brave.” “Proud of you.” Florence translates the messages written in traditional Chinese characters for me: “If we win, we win together. If we lose, we lose together.” “We vow not to bow our heads.” “No words can describe how grateful I am.” “I love my family and my home, and so I defend my city.”
We turn the corner and walk towards Admiralty. Here the crowds thicken. For as far as the eye can see, stretching up and down the highway in each direction, people are congregating. A group of students have set up a public awareness project. Posters written in Chinese characters are pasted onto the concrete wall of an overpass. Boys in school uniforms write on another sheet of paper.
A young man who introduces himself as Chan Hei Lok approaches me and offers an explanation: “This is a social awareness project. I am a social worker and student at HKU. We have written what the protests are about on these sheets of paper you see hanging here. Students come and read our thoughts. We ask that they express what they think by writing their comments. This is social participation. Young people can read what others have written. The project raises their awareness. It is educational. They learn from each others’ comments. Everyone can realize why they are here protesting.”
“So, you want to educate the public?” I ask.
“We want young people to reflect on what this protest means. We don’t want them to come here just for the fun of being here.”
As we talk, Florence’s son writes comments on one of the sheets of paper. Florence beams at him, proud to have given her son this learning opportunity.
As we walk closer to the center of the crowds, we see that the protest is well-organized. There are emergency tents equipped with everything needed to take care of basic injuries. There are stations with supplies, water, food, information. The protestors themselves are peaceful, open, friendly. They are ready to share their ideas and information with anyone who approaches and asks. The spirit of the protests is a radical departure from the everyday Hong Kong I have experienced thus far. In Hong Kong people are often rushed, often self-absorbed and preoccupied with their iPhone screens. I think of that robotic voice in the MTR that plays in a loop all day long: Do not keep your eyes only on your mobile phones...
A series of banners hang on a highway overpass above us. Florence translates the white characters on the black banner for me: “Do not forget Tiananmen Square.”
I think about Michael. Michael is a student I know from a literature course I am auditing at Hong Kong University. Michael is from mainland China. He told me that when he came to study in Hong Kong, students told him about Tiananmen Square. He did not believe them. He had never heard of what happened in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 despite having lived in China his entire life. He went home and googled it and was horrified to learn that his friends had been telling him the truth: twenty-five years ago the Chinese government sent tanks to run over peaceful protestors in Beijing’s most famous public square. These days Tiananmen Square is on everyone’s mind. People wonder out loud if Occupy Central will become the second Tiananmen Square.
We walk past a sign that reads in English: No photos. Join us. That sign captures the spirit of the umbrella revolution. It is time to stop taking selfies and to start participating. We pass a station where boxes of plastic cling wrap and facial tissues are stacked in a teetering tower. A man and a woman sit among the boxes, ready to hand them out if necessary. I ask them why they have collected so many boxes of plastic wrap.
“We use it to wrap on our skin when they spray us with tear gas,” the man explains. “Tear gas on the bare skin hurts a lot.”
As we talk, this man tells me that in Mong Kok, a neighborhood in Kowloon, the Hong Kong government has sent thugs dressed as protestors in black pants and shirts to attack the police and to discredit the protests. He warns me to be careful.
A girl who looks like she is no more than fifteen approaches me. She is dressed in her government school uniform: an aquamarine knee-length pleated skirt with white ankle socks, a white blouse with a wide collar and a matching aquamarine tie. On the right side of her uniform blouse she wears a small triangular badge bearing her school’s name and emblem. On the left side of her blouse she has pinned a yellow ribbon. Her black hair is pulled back neatly into a ponytail. She is smiling with that joyfulness that comes from within, from having a purpose, and which renders her young face radiant. I recognize this joy. It is the joy of revolution. I experienced it myself in Lithuania in the days of the singing revolution when I was just twenty-one. I recognize in her that feeling when you are ready to die under the treads of a tank if you need to, if that’s what it takes to stand up for the ideals of the revolution. I know that feeling of suddenly being of one mind with a massive crowd, with people who a day ago were strangers, but who today are striving for the same thing as you, people who dream of utopia, of freedom from tyranny and corruption, of a world that is more fair. Everyone in the revolution is your friend. All that is petty inside of you dies away and you are completely open to sacrificing yourself.
“Thank you for coming to the protest,” the girl says in careful measured English.
“I am happy to be here,” I say.
“Will you tell the world about us…” her voice trails off, “if something happens...”
“I will,” I say.
I ask her if her parents know that she is at the protests.
“Yes, they know and they support me in my decision,” she replies.
“Why are you here?” I ask.
“Because everyone has a responsibility to help society in Hong Kong. We want universal suffrage.”
I ask if many of her classmates are here protesting with her.
A shadow passes over her otherwise bright face. “No,” she says, “not all my classmates support the protests.”
“I understand that too,” I say.
I am also sorry. This is their generation’s defining moment. The students who are not here are like the young people of the hippie generation who missed out on Woodstock. The days to come will bear out where the truth of these protests lie, but the original idea, the catalyst, I believe, is a pure one. The people of Hong Kong no longer accept being a colonized people. They want to be able to vote for their leaders. They want a voice in their own governance. They want to build a system that is fair, not only to the rich, but to everyone.
This same division exists among the young people at our school, and I imagine in every school in Hong Kong. But, I remind myself, that is the nature of real democracy. There must always be dialogue in order for true democracy to exist. The massive numbers of young people surrounding us speak to a future for Hong Kong in which the traditions of democracy, of civilized life, have not died, and may not be allowed to die.
A few footsteps away I watch as a young man holds out his hand to help protestors climb over a plastic barrier into the main gathering area. People kept coming and coming, but he patiently extends his hand for each and every one, helping them over the make-shift barricade. This young man symbolizes for me the quiet patience of this peaceful protest, the endurance, the will to outlast.
As we walk away Florence says, “I am proud of the protestors, but I am scared for them.”
So am I.
“All these students we talked to,” Florence continues thoughtfully, “are responsible citizens. They are standing up for the people of Hong Kong. As a Hong Kong person, I am so proud of them. I feel proud to be a Hong Kong Chinese. I love Hong Kong. But, I also agree with what the protestors say about the Hong Kong economy,” Florence says, frowning. “With the cost of living and housing in Hong Kong, most regular people cannot afford to buy or rent a place to live. Many live crowded in one room in subdivisions, or they rent one of those cages, the kind that just have a bed to sleep in. You see them all over the poor neighborhoods. Look at my family’s situation. Both my husband and I work as teachers and earn good salaries. Our combined income should be more than enough to buy an apartment for our family, and yet, it’s not nearly enough. We live with my mother, and after helping with our share of expenses, paying student loans, paying tuitions, and everyday living, we scarcely save any money. So what future do these young people have? These aren’t the children of the privileged you see out there. These are the regular hard working people of Hong Kong.”
We walk beyond the sea of people and head towards the Central Piers where I will take the ferry back to Ma Wan. Florence's children are tired. It is time to go home. We pass a group of police officers. In the spirit of the protests, in the spirit of peace and harmony, I take a chance and I ask them if they would agree to talk to me. One officer gruffly answers for them all: “No.”
As we continue walking past rows and rows of police vans we see columns of blue-clad police officers standing tensely in the shadow of the protest, just a block or two away from the main protest sight. We walk past military barracks with soldiers standing at attention.
Florence shudders in fear. “The writing is not in traditional Chinese,” she says. “It’s not the characters we use in Hong Kong. The writing is written in Pinyin, in simplified Chinese, the way they write on the mainland. These soldiers are from the mainland. That’s not good. I’m scared for the protestors. They’re such good people.”
We continue walking in silence towards the Central Piers through the IFC mall. Crowds are out shopping, as though there were no massive protests taking place just a few blocks away. We sit down to eat and discuss what we have seen, trying to understand it, to take it in. It seems to me that Hong Kong right now is like a glittering silver ball balanced on a plank of wood, which is balanced on another silver ball, which is rolling precariously back and forth. The wood is teetering. The silver ball on top is teetering. If it dips in one direction, Hong Kong will win universal suffrage. Hong Kong will become a bastion of democracy within a sea of capitalist communism. If the ball rolls in the other direction, Hong Kong will fall. The tanks will roll in and Hong Kong will be completely under the control of mainland China, and democracy, freedom of speech, the protests of these days will live on only as a distant memory of old sentiments lost in a new world order.
I say good-bye to Florence and her kids and board my ferry to Ma Wan. As the ferry pulls out of Central Piers, the thunderstorm I’d been warned about finally breaks, releasing pent-up torrents of rain. I think of the protestors out there weathering the storm. I wonder if their umbrellas will be strong enough to keep out the rain. I remember the young woman who had said simply and resolutely, “If it rains, I will stand here, under my umbrella.”
This essay is a chapter from my book: DIGGING A HOLE TO CHINA. The book can be ordered on Amazon.