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Erik Wennermark: In Hong Kong, the Last Days of Occupy

As the powers that be dismantle what remains of Hong Kong's mass protest movement, thoughts on winners, losers, and the city's future.

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Image courtesy of the author.

By Erik Wennermark

The eight-lane highway of Admiralty and its sibling tributaries were like a massive urban campground; hundreds of igloo-style tents in a variety of hues—blue, orange, brown, yellow—lined walkways through the protest site. In the ten weeks of Occupy Central starting September 28th, a village had grown within a city. Many tents had numbers and addresses written on cardboard placards: #2 Mount Connaught Rd. (the rechristened hill-shaped overpass), #14 Harcourt Lane. The desks of the study area came with lamps and outlets for computers, powered by solar panels or hooked up to pedal-run generators. There were several recycling stations, composting bins, and an organic garden. Flowers were planted in potholes in the street. A sign read: “Welcome to the Hong Kong Commune.”

A young girl was arrested and spent Christmas in juvenile detention for drawing chalk flowers and umbrellas on the ghosts of democracy.

The Lennon Wall, so named after the memorial in Prague to the slain Beatle, was transformed into a colorful rainbow snake of post-it notes with pro-democracy messages winding around the government building. Nearby the Umbrella Man, a twelve-foot tall statue holding the ubiquitous symbol of Occupy—defense against not only the sun and rain but police batons and pepper spray—cast a long shadow. On that frantic last night of December 10th, my last of many walks through the site, the thousands of post-its were taken down, and safely stored away. A new sign took their place on the barren wall. Like the Terminator’s slogan, it read: “We’ll be back.” Weeks later, on December 23rd, after the site’s clearance left the wall with just scars of adhesive residue, a young girl was arrested and spent Christmas in juvenile detention for drawing chalk flowers and umbrellas on the ghosts of democracy.

On December 11th bus and taxi company employees were sworn into their duty as bailiffs and empowered to fulfill the court injunctions filed by their employers. They cleared the site with relish, guarded over by hundreds of police tasked with ensuring their disassembling was not hindered. (It has been widely reported that 7,000 cops were on alert for the clearance. Two hundred and fifty or so arrests were made for illegal assembly at Admiralty, over 900 during all the clearances.) In preparation for the enforcement, protesters had refurbished and strengthened some barricades, just to make it a little more of a pain in the ass for the red-hatted men huffing and puffing with large bolt cutters and hammers. Another sign, above a bamboo-crafted raised middle finger told its destroyer: “Just the beginning…”

Where teargas and pepper spray failed, lost profits and barristers succeeded.

The same tactics used to kill Mong Kok a couple of weeks prior worked here as well: transportation companies filed lawsuits against the protesters for blocking the roads, injunctions and court orders followed, and, finally, monitored clearance of the site. The governments of Hong Kong and Beijing, unable or merely unwilling to come to any compromise with the protesters, turned the citizens on each other, exacerbating the already glaring divide between young and old, student and cop, shop-owner and teacher. The free market imprisoned, the roads paralyzed, Hong Kong’s much-lauded independent judiciary was used to questionable effect. Where teargas and pepper spray failed, lost profits and barristers succeeded. The idea of dialogue was dead on arrival.

On the morning of December 15th in Causeway Bay, the last protest site standing was for the first time fortunate in its afterthought status to rough and tumble Mong Kok or Admiralty, yet finally fell after holding out for so long. That afternoon, police removed stragglers camped in the Legislative Council courtyard at Admiralty. It is safe to say Occupy Central, then Hong Kong, then Kowloon, is finished. But one hopes that the Umbrella Movements will live on. The most common tactic for the Holiday season was the “Shopping Revolution” or 9wu (a play on the Mandarin word for shopping and Cantonese slang for penis). 9wu involves assembling large groups of “shoppers,” or even umbrella-carrying Christmas carolers singing Occupy-themed parodies of popular tunes, skirting a variety of laws for illegal assembly and jay-walking. They would disappear and reappear in Mong Kok, Causeway Bay, Tsim Tsa Tsui, or nearby Jordan, generally making cops’ lives difficult and engendering fear that, like Houdini’s submerged cabinet, the streets would fill again.

*                      *                     *

Writing regularly about the protests that first month, I was on the street almost every day. The last month, less so: work and life calling, my enthusiasm waning and emotional and physical exhaustion increasing. I began to feel like an intruder. Without my notebook, without my purpose, why was I there? It felt voyeuristic. Wandering, watching frantic first-aid workers shuttle water and saline solution to the wounded and dehydrated, snapping photos of hardcore kids wearing yellow hard hats and homemade shields strapped to their arms to deflect police strikes. Standing among onlookers on the overpass as police plunged into a crowd on Lung Wo Road to whip teenagers with their batons; the boys and girls’ skin was raw and inflamed from the new, super-strength pepper spray.

I still supported the Occupiers—defending them with my dirtied yellow ribbon still tied to the strap of my bag—but I followed at more of a distance. Nothing had changed: the government had abdicated its duty to the many thousands who had made their voices heard and put the onus on police to solve a political problem. After two months of being hung out to dry by their superiors, the cops had lost their patience and were much less hesitant about using violence and intimidation to manage the crowds. As a consequence of that cowardice, this younger generation of Hong Kong people will now completely distrust and disrespect not only the government, but the police as well; maybe it’s not a bad thing, but it was a depressing and totally unnecessary outcome.

In the short-term aftermath, the majority of wrap-up articles I read seemed to take a positive spin on the events of the past months: the students are now more civically minded, less beholden to old ideas; Beijing will use caution going forward to prevent this sort of thing from happening again. And I agree the seeds have been planted for a more activist and engaged future, though am less certain Beijing is bothered either way. The students will think more critically about the version of the world the government and their parents present to them and make their own decisions.

There is a real debate about income inequality in the city, and a renewed awareness of the valuable role of a strong and independent press.

Joshua Wong, founder of Scholarism and Time magazine person of the year nominee; Lester Shum, Alex Chow, and Yvonne Leung of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, along with dozens of other young students leaders and activists—those who spoke on the main stage of Admiralty almost every night for ten weeks, stood toe-to-toe in televised debates with government representatives—will likely be important and influential people in the political and commercial life of Hong Kong in ten or twenty years. Indeed, in many ways they already are. The lessons they have learned, the skills they have acquired, will not be shoveled so easily into Dumpsters as were the protesters’ tents and supplies. After the loveliness of walking in areas of the city unmarred by exhaust and overcrowded sidewalks, there is talk of making Hong Kong more pedestrian friendly. Recent elections in Taiwan—with the pro-Chinese ruling party suffering record losses—indicate that the Taiwanese have been watching the protests, and Beijing’s callous response. There is a real debate about income inequality in the city, and a renewed awareness of the valuable role of a strong and independent press. Yet many students involved with the protests have already been refused entry into China and Macau because of their actions; thousands of names and ID numbers of protesters have been taken to uncertain effect; Chief Executive CY Leung is tone deaf as ever; police and pro-China politicians and citizens have declared victory over the protesters with high-fives and exuberant selfies in front of wrecked barricades, on pristine then once-again-choked-with-traffic streets. The city is split.

Now it’s 2015. The #9wu hashtag shows up in my Twitter feed from time to time: pictures of protesters filling the sidewalk in Kowloon’s shopping areas, taunting the cops with a toe dipped in the street, reports of the occasional scuffles with the still active pro-police Blue-Ribbons. I’m just not sure I see the point of the same old tricks and misdirection. And no one, outside of those doing the protesting, seems to care much.

*                      *                     *

A student and I were talking about the protests a few weeks ago and he referenced an atrociously presumptuous and utterly embarrassing Forbes article about why Joshua Wong would make “a great hire.” My student didn’t quite understand the reasoning. He felt that Wong’s vehement disregard of the status quo was something that a prospective employer would avoid, rather than celebrate. I replied that Wong had shown great leadership and ability and would likely be a very important figure going forward regardless of where he decided to work or go to school—as an eighteen-year-old he’s surely accomplished more than I have in twice as long on earth. It occurs to me now, thinking about my student’s reaction, that Joshua Wong represents a very different type of role-model for Asian youth than the stereotypically hard-working, family-centered, bespectacled high-achiever. Though he is all those things, the added streak of rebellion and his courage to stand up in the face of an implacable foe, create an even more formidable and inspirational example.

But watching my own country, watching the world fall to pieces in a swirl of rapes and chokeholds and burning cities and beheadings and rectal feedings, I could take a stroll through Admiralty and have faith in a better future.

What enamored me of these students, what has given me genuine feeling for a city I could have taken or left before the night of September 28th, when I and thousands of others were tear-gassed and otherwise assaulted, is the hope and passion and sincerity of their movement, the purity and absolute righteousness of their cause, the art, the signage, the kindness. Sure there were problems: unclear directions, confused missions, pissing contests between various Occupy groups; the last Scholarism/HKFS-encouraged “escalation” carried out at Admiralty resulted in many needless injuries and likely signaled the death knell for the site; after ten weeks of being stonewalled, they ran out of ideas. But watching my own country, watching the world fall to pieces in a swirl of rapes and chokeholds and burning cities and beheadings and rectal feedings, I could take a stroll through Admiralty and have faith in a better future when these young people, hewn by their experience of Occupy, were running the show. Maybe Joshua or Alex or Yvonne will grow old and jaded and become just another corporate shill, another politician with promise and droning disappointment in equal measure. Another empty performer. I hope not.

*                      *                     *

There is a gang of street magicians at the quasi-upscale British chain coffee and sandwich bar, Pret, in Causeway Bay. Mozzarella, tomato, and pesto on ciabatta disappear and reappear. The foam on a cappuccino levitates like a cumulus cloud before settling. The street magicians wear black or shades of grey and their clothes have a multitude of extraneous zippers. The men are well built, biceps tight in t-shirts, slim waists in beltless trousers; the two women may be street magicians or merely street-magic groupies or relatives; they perform no tricks, just nod with a tired appreciation while looking at their phones. The men smile at each other’s antics.

Then poof. They’re gone.

Erik Wennermark is a contributor who lives in Hong Kong. Follow him on Twitter.

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