For weeks, my six-year-old son, Ayden, had been eagerly counting down to our Hong Kong holiday on 2 Oct 2014. Disneyland, woohoo! But just days before our departure, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers including university and secondary students, launched an Occupy Central ‘civil disobedience’ movement, calling for democracy. Their motive: to protest against the Chinese Central government’s ruling to pre-select who could stand for elections for Hong Kong’s leader, come 2017. The protestors also wanted to force the current Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying to resign.
Our mild worry shot up several notches when we saw those horrible images on TV on 28 Oct 2014, as the police used pepper spray and threw 87 canisters of tear gas bombs to smoke the protestors out. It didn’t work; instead, it drove MORE protestors to join them. Except they’d now spread out from the government buildings in Central and Admiralty, to the tourist and retail areas in Kowloon and (gulp!) Causeway Bay — just down the road from our hotel, J Plus Hotel. Omg… do we have to pack gas masks on top of extra shopping bags?!
Full confession: As much as we admired the Hong Kongers for their guts and perseverance to fight for democracy, we couldn’t help but wish they wouldn’t do it the week we were visiting, especially when we have a child in tow.
Still, we were very impressed by their ‘protest etiquette’. From the press reports we saw, their Umbrella Revolution (very practical to provide shade during the hot summer days, and also as a shield against the police’ pepper spray) was orderly as students sat peacefully in discussion groups, cleaned up their own trash and even did their homework!
Positively angelic compared to Singapore’s recent ‘Return Our CPF’ protests at Hong Lim Park, organised by those jokers Roy Ngerng and Han Hui Hui. I’m still peeved that they felt their theatrics, which scared a group of performers with special needs at an adjacent YMCA charity event, were necessary.
We considered cancelling our trip but finally decided to brave it out. We arrived in the late afternoon and took the Airport Express train to Hong Kong station. Due to the protests, many roads were blocked and bus services were diverted or cancelled, including our complimentary hotel shuttle ride. So we squeezed into the MTR during peak hour with the after-work crowd, took the train to Causeway Bay and exited the station to see this:
Thus began our oddest holiday yet. Half the photos we shot were of the Occupy Central protest, which is still ongoing at press time. During our five days in Hong Kong, we inevitably ‘visited’ two protest sites: Causeway Bay and Mongkok.
Causeway Bay was mostly occupied by students and youngsters, which lent it a sort of ‘School Open House’ vibe. I half expected to see cheerleaders with pom poms
There was ‘umbrella art’:
It was really quite something to witness first-hand how dedicated these youngsters were to the cause, and how well-behaved they were. People trickled in, alone, in small groups, to quietly sit there under the sun in 32 degrees celsius weather.
So strange to see the usually bustling streets with empty roads and barricades.
They put up signs urging fellow protestors not to damage plants and to stay calm. The white poster below even suggested some guidelines like ‘no karaoke singing’, ‘no group selfies — remember, we’re protesting for democracy’ etc.
Some signs quoted from Tupac, John Lennon and even um, Adidas’ tagline.
This gorgeous hand-drawn banner posed this burning question: “Who is trying to make us fight amongst ourselves?”
Grassroots efforts to set up First Aid tents, manned by youngsters sitting on the cutest mats:
Tips on how to wash out your eyes in case you were hit by pepper spray and tear gas.
A handy contact list for legal aid in case you get nabbed by the police, helpfully categorised according to area — Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Kowloon:
Speaking of which, here’re pics of the police. The mood at Causeway Bay was pretty respectful on both sides. We rather pitied the guys in blue on the streets. Can’t be easy trying to uphold peace during a long drawn-out protest while getting drenched in the frequent thunderstorms, AND facing public anger when they obeyed orders to use tear gas and pepper spray. It’s a thankless job.
I don’t know how protests are done in other parts of the world, but these Hong Kongers have some of the most eye-catching ‘protest art’, especially the ones done by students. Maybe it’s because I’m a poly lecturer. These kids are about the same age as my kids (that’s what I call my students) and the idea of these young people slaving over their signs, colouring them in, and protesting earnestly just touched me to the core.
At night, democracy lectures at ‘Mobile Classrooms’ were held just outside Sogo at Causeway Bay. Everyone sat around listening attentively and put up their hand to ask questions.
Here’s a short video I posted on my Instagram account:
It's surreal to see a huge crowd of young people listening quietly to a 'mobile lecture' on democracy, on the streets of #causewaybay. The students raise their hands to ask questions and even passers-by hang around to listen. At #Mongkok yesterday, the mood was a lot more volatile, as if people were spoiling for a fight. #occupycentral #occupyhongkong
At Mongkok, the mood was decidedly more… sinister. We originally planned to avoid the area and had taken a train to Yau Ma Tei MTR station to visit In’s Point, a shopping mall packed with toy shops. (We’re big toy fans around here.) Unfortunately, the shops only opened from 3pm onwards so we walked towards Mongkok in hunt for lunch.
There were definitely more spectators than protestors here. Spectators were climbing on anything and EVERYTHING they could find to get a good view.
There were anti-Occupy Central protestors who wanted the ‘trouble makers’ to end it all and for life to go back to normal. Parents whose kids couldn’t go back to school (schools in Wan Chai and Admiralty area were closed for at least a week), taxi drivers who lost business with the many road closures, shops that hardly made any money as tourists avoided the hot spots… As much as the pursuit of democracy is important, these bread-and-butter issues are very real too.
We saw a minor scuffle at Mongkok when a shouting match grew nasty. The air was filled with excitement as spectators tried to get a good shot, their cameras and handphone cams high in the air, squealing: “Who’s fighting? Is there a fight?”
Anti-protestors had been dismantling and throwing out barricades. Some pro-protestors decided to park their cars in the middle of the road to ‘protect’ the barricades, along with whatever else they could find — plants, mattresses, planks….
On-off rain added to the mess as protestors tried to protect their resources.
Protestors, anti-protestors and the police at a silent face-off. Nothing was happening yet but there was an unspoken ‘see who blinks first’ kinda vibe.
Rumours were rife that the police were in cahoots with paid triad members to create chaos in Mongkok, so as to force protestors to end their virgil. This sign says a cheque was allegedly dropped by a thug in Mongkok.
Back at Causeway Bay, these youngsters were showing video clips on their laptop, bearing a sign touting “The Truth That TVB (a Hong Kong TV station) Won’t Tell You”. Women protestors were reportedly molested and others were beaten till they bled a river while the police just stood there watching.
Their compatriots passed out flyers, including this one about how the police allegedly pretended to be thugs. This ‘gangster’ was apparently photographed when he accidentally flashed his police pass. It all sounded like something from a TVB drama — we won’t be surprised if someone eventually makes a movie or drama about this some day.
One thing we’ve noticed at both Causeway Bay and Mongkok was this air of ‘protest tourism’. Locals and tourists alike were all taking selfies — including us, we admit. There was this sense of, “I can’t believe this is happening… But first, let me take a selfie!” Check out this picture of selfie shooters.
Yes, we’re guilty of it too.
We met a British tourist who sheepishly told us that he intended to “search for protest sites”, just so he can say he’d been there, done that, because he didn’t want to go home without anything to show for it. That made me feel kinda sad. I’d been documenting pics and videos throughout the trip. Not because I have a noble cause or anything, but I thought blogging about it could help give people a different perspective from what we had been watching on mainstream media.
Now I wonder… do the protestors feel torn between wanting to get the world to support them, and being annoyed at being photographed by random people?
The locals we spoke to, even those who didn’t take part in the protests, seemed fiercely proud of what their fellow Hong Kongers were doing. Salesgirls in near-empty shops always assured us that yes, sales were affected but it was not THAT bad. The staff at our hotel wanted us to witness for ourselves and spread the word that Hong Kongers are a peaceful bunch who just want to exercise their rights for democracy. “The media only pick out the worst things to show you,” said Wilson, our friendly hotel guy. “There’s inconvenience, sure, but people go on with their lives. It’s safe here.” Which was true. We didn’t feel like our safety was at risk at any point.
Like Wilson, the protestors hoped that the world will hear their pleas and support them.
There were plenty of encouraging messages from foreigners:
This one was from a Mainland Chinese tourist, who wanted to show his support for the protestors.
More signs from the protestors apologising to the people in the neighbourhood whose lives have been disrupted by the protests, which is now into its 16th day at press time.
Regardless of whose side you’re on, the students’ gentle, apologetic dismeanour certainly scored points and made the world more willing to listen to what they have to say. ‘A’ for Effective Communications — or at least for their effort.
“Who’re the good guys? Who’re the bad guys? What is democracy?”
Before we arrived at Hong Kong, we’d warned Ayden that people were protesting on the streets for democracy so he had to stick close to us. He asked: “What is protest? Why are they protesting? What is democracy?” We told him the basics. Protesting means speaking up against what you disagree with. Hong Kongers are protesting because they want democracy, or the freedom to choose their own leader. He left it at that. As long as his Disneyland plans were not affected, the idea of democracy was a big, vague concept best left to the adults.
But after a few days of protest watching and witnessing the commotion at Mongkok — we had to scoot into the safety of Langham Place when the crowd started getting rowdy — Ayden asked me this: “Who’re the good guys and who’re the bad guys?”
Now that’s a toughie. How do you explain that to a 6 year-old? Frankly, I couldn’t tell either. I tried to encourage critical thinking and asked him for his view. He felt that the police, being figures of authority, must be the good guys. So by default, the protestors must be bad. Without wanting to go into all that unproven allegations about the police collaborating with the triads, I explained to Ayden that it wasn’t so clear cut.
The protestors wanted their basic freedom to choose who they want as a leader — just like how you and your friends often voted to decide on what game to play or book to read at school. What if you were not allowed to choose — would you like that?
He thought it over. “No…”
What if you wanted to speak up and say ‘Hey! We’d like to pick what we like!’ but the police used pepper spray and tear gas to make you and your friends feel sick? Just to make you stop asking?
“So… the protestors are good?” He was confused. Everything he had watched in superhero movies was topsy turvy now. What happened to the good guys in uniform?
Well, the protestors’ intentions were good but what they were doing — sitting in the middle of the road and refusing to go home — has caused trouble to other people. Like, other children cannot go to school because their buses cannot run when the roads are closed. Some shops have no business. Some people who work for the government cannot get to work. That was why the police used tear gas — to make them get off the road and go home. Some people were also not happy with the protestors and that was why they scolded and even hit the protestors.
Meanwhile, a lady at the next table, a Hong Konger with two teenage kids, was openly eavesdropping. I had no idea which side of the camp she supported but I couldn’t help wondering… was she having the same trouble explaining this to her kids?
Eventually, I asked Ayden: What do YOU think? Who do you support?
Ayden’s conclusion, with the wisdom of a 6 year-old born and bred in straight-as-a-ruler Singapore, is this: Protests are no good. Why? Mostly because “the people are rude and they caused trouble for other people”. (I think he gathered this from watching the scuffles at Mongkok, and because we had to walk around a lot and couldn’t take taxis due to the road closures, ha.)
Whaat? Is this my child?! Don’t you think the students were brave to stand up for what they believe in? “But they’re causing trouble for other people!” retorted my pragmatic 6 year-old.
I’ve got to say, I was a little disappointed that he wasn’t more gungho about supporting democracy. Yes, we suffered minor inconvenience for a few days but I was touched and impressed by the determined protestors, especially the students, who are still braving the elements and camping on the streets now. I doubt many of us, myself included, can make that sacrifice.
Given a choice, protestors probably don’t want their lives disrupted too but still, they decided that it is a difficult but necessary choice to make at this point.
But I bit my tongue and stopped trying to influence Ayden. After all, we don’t always have to agree. He is entitled to his view, just as I am. That’s true democracy, isn’t it?