Dispatch from Hong Kong's Occupy Central.
Photo courtesy of Erik Wennermark
By Erik Wennermark
The eight-lane stretch of Connaught Road Central running past the Admiralty Center is the area you’ve likely seen in pictures coming out of Hong Kong. It is a major throughway of the city that has turned into a public square. It is where we were all first tear-gassed on Day One and where the more festive (and much larger) Day Two and (larger still) Day Three celebrations took over and continue… for who knows how long. On the pedestrian walkway crossing over the highway, a banner now hangs, reading in Chinese characters, and in true Hong Kong fashion: “Sorry for inconveniencing you! Thank you for a better future!” Their demand for that better future: that Beijing allow democratically chosen candidates in the 2017 elections for the city’s leader, instead of choosing between candidates hand-picked by the government.
On Twitter Sunday morning I saw news about the student sit-in that had started Friday at Tamar Center, a government complex in the Admiralty area. There had been some violence over the weekend, but it was unclear what exactly had happened. The tweets left me figuring I would be disappointed—cops were reported to outnumber protestors, etc.—but, why not? I figured I would check it out. Hong Kong can be off-putting in a vapid, well-moneyed, consumer-paradise sort of way, and any actual popular engagement, even if sparsely attended, tends to alleviate that somewhat. But that’s not an entirely fair sentiment—I was incredibly moved by the July 1 pro-democracy march, which numbered in the many tens of thousands—but all too often the city seems most like an endless shopping mall peopled with splendid shoppers. In any event, as a teacher, motivated students make me happy and I would show my solidarity, no matter how small or insignificant it turned out to be.
I headed towards Central (downtown) on the tram and as Admiralty approached was peering about looking for some sign of discord. Nothing special. I got off the tram and started to wander around, trying to make my way to what I thought was the protest site. It was blocked off. Down one street: cops and a barricade. Doubling back down another it was the same story.
Slowly though, the energy was amping up. More and more people were arriving, and the faces of the police wavered between anger and dread.
About to give up, I finally made my way to Admiralty Centre where there indeed was a large gathering and it was the cops, not the protestors, who were outnumbered. Perhaps a few hundred people filled the sidewalk under a Student Strike banner and were pushed up against a police barricade, chanting and being otherwise exhorted by a young Cantonese-speaking man on a microphone. Another group of maybe a hundred or so sat on the stairs of the Centre. Apparently many of those attempting to get to the protest had converged here and were being detained en masse. The scene was tense, but not as bad as one might imagine pressed up against police. Slowly though, the energy was amping up. More and more people were arriving, and the faces of the police wavered between anger and dread. The students, at the same time, were wrapping their faces in plastic wrap, handing out face-masks, and passing umbrellas up to those in the front of the line as the speech grew fiercer. The students were communicating somehow with protestors across the roadway and I gather they were calling their colleagues forth.
The young people at the front of the line opened the umbrellas against the police shields, lowered their shoulders and pushed, with other hands pressing on their backs. Like samurais in a Kurosawa film, the police unveiled a fluttering red banner, “Stop Charging or We Use Force.” One, two, push. Umbrellas were snatched from hands by police and thrown back. Faces strained into plastic shields. One, two, push. Shrieks of pain and exertion. One, two, pussshhhhhhh and it happened. The stereotypically genteel, well-mannered, respectful-of-authority young Asian students forced themselves through a wall of riot police with nothing but umbrellas and plastic wrap.
My tweets and status updates unconsciously shift from first person to first person plural. This is history, and we are on the street!
Hands from everywhere madly gesturing: Go, go, go! Come, come, come! Protestors from all directions converged on Connaught Road and I, foolishly perhaps, ran along with them. We scaled the dividers, exhilarated by the mad dash. Traffic halted and drivers frantically tried to back up the overpass they just came off of, car doors were locked, windows rolled up, Buses floundered like dead whales (and one remains, initially used as a rest center on Day One, on Day Two it was converted into a mock mausoleum for Hong Kong Chief Executive Cy Leung), taxis bleated and luxury sedans were gravely inconvenienced.
My tweets and status updates unconsciously shift from first person to first person plural. This is history, and we are on the street!
I am not exactly sure what happened after that. I just know there was a wall of police that could not be crossed and that remained throughout the night, thrumming and straining like the first wall but less malleable and more vicious.
Getting gassed. Running. Coming back. Getting gassed again. Umbrellas held by protestors at the front of the lines being snatched and torn up by the cops trying to pepper spray around the flimsy barricade. (Then) Umbrellas hanging off the front of the mesh grill of a police transport. (Later) Umbrellas painted with peace signs and messages. (Always) Charming Buddhist monks in Laos and Cambodia carrying umbrellas to protect them from the sun. (Always) Umbrellas useless in the rainy season, better to just wait it out. (Annoying) Umbrellas on a sunny day bumping my face — I’m taller than most. (Now) The Umbrella Revolution.
Kids drawing red crosses on their arms and rushing around with water and bandages. Kids on megaphones exhorting the crowd to stay strong. Kids spoiling for a fight, arms and legs wrapped in plastic wrap, sporting ponchos and be-goggled.
Stomach growling and grumbling, I decided to go home to eat and shower and change clothes. I had been wearing my prescription sunglasses all day and it was dark out and I couldn’t see, particularly through the goggles and plastic wrap someone handed me as protection from the tear gas. I walked down a side street and saw a mass of storm troopers approaching, boots clomping and looking menacingly fierce. Were these the PLA soldiers we’d feared would eventually arrive? (Apparently not.) Another black sign up: We’re about to shoot gas at you. More gas. Running. Frantic. Tight spaces. Flushing my eyes and face with the bottle of water someone thrusts into my hand. A young man apologizing to me, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry they did this to you,” as if they had not done the same to him. But I was a visitor.
After a gas barrage an irate young man screaming and kicking an abandoned police van. Several others rushed to him, asking him to stop, calming him down. Frequent calls to pick up trash. Free water, fruit, everything. (Who is paying for all this stuff? The CIA?) One day I took a picture of some graffiti: “Dismiss the Government.” Juvenile, but fun in a punk rock way. The next day it had been painted over, I’m certain by other protestors. All other graffiti is done in tape or chalk. Kids drawing red crosses on their arms and rushing around with water and bandages. Kids on megaphones exhorting the crowd to stay strong. Kids spoiling for a fight, arms and legs wrapped in plastic wrap, sporting ponchos and be-goggled.
By 3:00 a.m. I am exhausted and decide to go home and get some sleep. As I approach Causeway Bay the pre-carnal calm recedes and a police van screeches to a halt on Hennesey Road. A phalanx of riot cops machine gun out of the van and onto the road standing in a threatening line facing down… no one. But their appearance draws onlookers and more onlookers and finally screams of, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” I am tired of getting gassed and continue home. I find the next day they had planned to clear Causeway Bay—the protest had spread to my neighborhood—but wisely abandoned the plan. I sleep.
I awake and Causeway Bay is full of protestors. The main street of this incredibly busy shopping district is totally shut down. The students are winning. I spend the early part of the day between Causeway Bay and Admiralty, the police presence is largely gone and the areas we spent yesterday battling for have been won. Many more people are on the street and the atmosphere is even festive. There is music and singing.
At work I get into a reply-all email tiff with a coworker when I ask if anyone would like to join me for a protest picnic on Hennessey Road, the main drag of Causeway Bay, after work. She doesn’t believe white faces belong in the crowd at the protests, or the pro-Chinese element will write it all off as a CIA plot. I think this is a defeatist attitude. I tape a silhouette of an umbrella to my office door. After we work on his TOEFL speaking test (he wants to go to UCLA where his father and brother went), I chide a student that he should go join the protestors on the street, “at least walk around a little.” He demurs; his mom says it is too dangerous. I cancel my upcoming trip to Malaysia (I had planned to go over the National Day holiday). The exasperated words of Richard Dreyfuss’s Hooper in Jaws come to mind, something like, “Professor, why do I have to go to Australia when I have a Great White right here?” I go sit on the ground and eat a burrito with the protestors.
Another student tells me her Mom says the protestors are violent and disturbing. “They are inconveniencing us,” she says. She lives in Mid-levels and her commute has been disrupted. “The MTR was closed!” In the trade this is called a teaching moment. I look thoughtful, nod, and say, “Yes, but don’t you think it is for a good reason?” She’s ambivalent. I say, “Do you think the protests would be more or less violent in the US and Europe?” She is German but has lived in Hong Kong for several years and sees my point.
My elderly neighbor (born and raised in Hong Kong) stops me by the elevator as I head back out to the protests and asks me, “You have seen all their supplies. Who is financing this?” I agree; I had wondered the same thing. “The students are puppets. I think the Americans are pulling the strings. It’s like 1967, but at least the Americans won’t give them guns.” I nod, smile, the elevator arrives. He reminds me of my father.
On Day Three, a shy young girl hands me a note and runs away: “To the one who loves Hong Kong, Thank you for supporting us! We do appreciate your support! So please keep supporting! Love and Peace! =)” I put the note above my desk.
On Day Two the organizers decide that black t-shirts will be worn. I believe there is a lack of black t-shirts among the student population—this is not New York—and many have had to dig deep into their elder brother’s band shirt collection: “Dark Side of the Moon,” “Never Mind the Bollocks,” Nirvana, Velvet Underground, Misfits, Guns N’ Roses; along with WrestleMania XXX, Frankenweenie, and Nightmare Before Christmas; I was previously unaware of the popularity of Tim Burton’s films here. My favorite however, which joins the ranks of my top non-sequitur Asian English t-shirt collection, reads San Francisco Cream Soda. It’s running neck and neck with Crackhead International Pervert.
Night falls on Day Two and it remains calm and often jubilant. There is a DJ and cello players. There are plenty of supplies and no police around. I walk further down into Central away from Occupy HQ. Here it is a little hairier, or there is the appearance of hairiness. Blockades are hastily built, moved, and rebuilt. There are constant reports of approaching police, sending everyone into a tizzy with ponchos and umbrellas handed out. A few clearly are waiting on the confrontation, wanting it, including many expats taking new Facebook profile pics in facemask and goggles (I’ll post mine later). Girls who could not be more than fourteen wearing platforms wrap their arms in plastic wrap. A girl from Australia tells me she is desperate to be tear-gassed. Another tells me she is sweating balls in her poncho. I see several bros chugging Tsing Tao beer while faux-manning the barricades. Is this serious? What happens if the cops come and someone is killed? The only way the police could end this tonight with so many people so unwilling to go would be with death. Is that beyond the HK Police? Probably. Is that beyond the PRC? History says no. Is this serious? Yes, of course it is. What I saw yesterday leaves me no doubt. The man standing against the police will not leave my mind. Umbrellas in clouds of gas. But there is some fun in playing dress up. No police come and the girl from Australia leaves disappointed.
A large Day Three banner in Admiralty reads: “NOT A PARTY IS A PROTEST.”
The day starts hot and finishes wet. Protestors seek shelter under their umbrellas, tents are erected.
Two little girls paint umbrellas in Causeway Bay, one’s t-shirt reads, “I ♥ HONG KONG.” She paints a peace sign, a stick figure of a man with his arms raised. Teenage girls tie yellow ribbons around each willing passersby’s wrist. A boy in a Wu-Tang t-shirt and skinny jeans halfway down his ass hands me a bottle of water.
I can scarcely believe how many people are down here. I am amazed, dumbfounded, gobsmacked. This is something I will never see again.
A young man on the street gives a moving speech (in English!) explaining to onlookers what is happening, why they are out here, suffering the heat and the promise of confrontation. Afterwards, I thank him for his words. He tells me it is my duty to spread the message of what is happening. I post twenty pictures to Facebook, tweet, I take some time out from wandering to start writing.
Later, before my afternoon lesson, I speak with another coworker about it; he believes he should not stand on the front lines, should not hold his umbrella. He is concerned about the resolution and is doubtful anything positive will come of this. I accuse him of being a pragmatist. I wonder about the many native Hong Kongers who are not of Chinese descent. There are whites, mixed-race, and South Asians aplenty who grew up in this city. I of course am an expat who has lived in three Asian capitals in the last three years—transient and unmoored.
At 10:00 p.m. Causeway Bay is jammed. All lanes of the road and sidewalks. Narrow paths for visitors to shuffle along, admiring the massed students who munch bananas or play on their phones. I am offered candy, water, facemasks, ribbons, fruit.
Over the next two-and-half hours, I walk from Causeway Bay to Central, never once leaving occupied territory. The only time I see police is outside the Wan Chai Police Headquarters; they look bored of standing around scowling and seem to prefer to join the picnics and celebrations all around. When I reach Admiralty I am blown away. I can scarcely believe how many people are down here. I am amazed, dumbfounded, gobsmacked. This is something I will never see again.
Thirty minutes till midnight and National Day, which celebrates the founding of the PRC. On Sunday afternoon, I gave them little chance of making it this far. Now I don’t see how they can be stopped. There is no way the cops could even touch this. It seems inconceivable to me. The students have achieved critical mass. Perhaps that is naïve, but what could they possibly do without killing thousands.(The answer: kill thousands.) I can only think that is unlikely. Three days ago, right over there, in front of Admiralty Centre the barrier came down behind the shoulders and umbrellas of hundreds of young students, I followed them in a shocked daze. And—excuse the hyperbole or stupid metaphors—freedom, or the great desire for it, gushed forth onto Connaught Road. Regardless of what happens in the days to come, nothing can change that. It cannot be rebottled by Xi Jinping or Cy Leung or a squadron of PLA shock troops or anyone.
Sometime on Day Two I was gawking at the wide array of free snacks lined up next to the bottles of water, facemasks, goggles, eyewash, and other sundry and the young guy handing out the goods said to me, “Shift.” I didn’t quite catch the context of what he was talking about and looked at him. Again he said, “Shift. This is shift. We are taking over now.”
The day clicks over and National Day falls. In Admiralty there’s a drum circle. It’s done.