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An ‘Umbrella Revolution’

Umbrella Revolution_1

Tonight in Hong Kong, there is a sense that history is being made.

Many of you have seen or read about what is happening right here in my hometown. Yesterday brought scenes that I could never have imagined in this safe and stable city. We watched in horror at the footage of riot police, armed with rifles and donning Stormtrooper helmets, lobbing volleys of tear gas into crowds of unarmed protestors. Some on the front line were particularly vicious: one video showed an elderly man being tapped on the shoulder before getting pepper sprayed at point blank range. Police even fired tear gas directly into a first aid station, incapacitating volunteer medics from a public hospital.

Hong Kong’s finest, who were tasked to serve and protect, had turned on its own people in the most violent crackdown since 1967. But the wanton brutality only served to embolden angry residents; many who did not plan on joining the protest streamed out onto the streets. Over the announcement system, subway train drivers pleaded with passengers to join the growing movement. When police pursued the demonstrators with more tear gas, new protest venues sprung up in the shopping areas of Mong Kok and Causeway Bay. And there the people stayed, waiting and watching until dawn.

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At the protest site in Causeway Bay

Umbrellas on the barricade

Umbrellas on the barricade

The same scene in Causeway Bay, earlier tonight

The same scene packed with protestors, earlier tonight

On my way to work this morning, I decided to stop by the protest in Causeway Bay. The mood there was strangely peaceful. Curious commuters, with smartphone cameras in hand, freely mingled with those who remained camped out from the night before. The police had simply vanished. Down the road, the barricades had inadvertently made the streets more human: no longer were we breathing in diesel fumes from a ceaseless stream of traffic, but for once, we could slow down and mill about on the concrete. I also noticed umbrellas of all colours – some placed haphazardly on the barricades, others sheltering tired students from the morning sun. Thanks to the events of the past few days, the humble and ubiquitous umbrella has now become Hong Kong’s symbol of peaceful resistance.

Unlike the police, student demonstrators have been lauded for their politeness and discipline. At least 50,000 protestors were out on the streets last night, but not a single car was burned and not a single shop window smashed. Protestors today remain just as considerate: one put up a cardboard sign with the words “sorry for the inconvenience”, while others actively collected trash and recycled plastic bottles. In Causeway Bay, the sit-ins took place on the roadway, freeing up the pavement for other denizens to go about their daily lives. I was moved by the generosity I saw: one protestor wheeled a shopping trolley filled with supplies, while another asked fellow students if they needed cakes to sate their hunger. This photo on Twitter showed sympathetic office workers donating food and water to the students.

We do not yet know what our toothless government will do. We do not know if they will heed the growing calls for our ineffectual leader to resign, or if they will implement the electoral reform that this mature society deserves. The wish is for someone who will not kowtow to some distant bureaucrats in Beijing, but instead, lead with Hong Kong’s best interests at heart.

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25 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is incredible. I wish the protesters success. I love Hong Kong and would hate to see it change.

    September 30, 2014
    • We have never seen anything like it – a spontaneous movement of this scale is unprecedented for Hong Kong. I am truly impressed by the political awareness and civility of our student protestors.

      September 30, 2014
  2. I am visiting HK and yesterday I went to Causeway Bay. Saw everyone sitting in the streets, being peaceful and even apologized to others if causing any problems – well done. I wish you all the luck and hope you’ll succeed.

    September 30, 2014
    • Thank you, Cynthia. Sadly there seems to be a real generation gap on this issue. I even had a heated argument with my father as he angrily dismissed the students as “naive” and “ignorant of China’s history”. He has business interests in Mainland China so I am not surprised (though extremely disappointed) that he said those things.

      September 30, 2014
  3. When the protest started last week, I never thought that it would grow this big. But it’s really encouraging to see HKers stand up and fight for their right, the very basic right for any civilized communities. Good luck HK! The world is watching closely.

    September 30, 2014
    • I too am amazed at how things have developed. Yes, there was the student boycott, although some of their extreme tactics (like breaking into the forecourt of the Government HQ) were not endorsed by many HKers. But it was the police brutality on Friday and Saturday that caused the crowds to swell – then on Sunday things reached a tipping point. The Chief Executive ought to resign, anything less will not persuade the demonstrators to go away.

      On a similar note, I do hope Indonesians can come out and fight against what Prabowo is doing in parliament…

      September 30, 2014
  4. Good luck HK! I’m somewhat encouraged by the news that the brutal police activity has appeared to have stopped. Thanks for the report James.

    September 30, 2014
    • Thank you, Alison! They finally took the riot police off the streets yesterday – since then the general atmosphere has been much more relaxed and peaceful. I even saw a video of students and police officers chatting amicably over a barricade.

      September 30, 2014
  5. As a Hong Konger, impressed by our people’s joint consolidation, I also took part in the assemblies yesterday, helped buying and distributing supplies with many others. The mass protests were peaceful, with people singing songs and banners hanged everywhere. Since the government is still turning its deaf ear, it is time for us to stand together, and raise our voices to vent our discontent and demand a true universal suffrage.

    September 30, 2014
    • I completely agree. Walking around Causeway Bay last night, I was really heartened by the calm and civil attitude of the demonstrators. I don’t know why it is so hard for the government to actually address their concerns – doing that would be beneficial for us all.

      September 30, 2014
  6. Yes, I saw the news on TV. At least they didn’t make an anarchy protest or demonstration. And you know what, James? I think Jakarta’s turn is about to come, regarding the president election, the DPR new policy of making governors and majors voted by DPRD, and Basuki ‘Ahok’ inauguration as Jakarta new governor.

    September 30, 2014
    • Actually, I’ve have been wondering why there has been no action and no demonstrations in Jakarta – it’s obvious that people are angry and frustrated on Twitter, but most seem to be adopting a “wait and see” attitude until activist groups file a judicial review to the MK on the DPR’s new bill.

      October 1, 2014
      • Maybe they’re afraid that their demonstration would lead to anarchy actions like what happened on May 1998. So, yes, maybe you’re right, they try to wait and see first before taking any longer actions.

        October 2, 2014
  7. It is bad enough to watch from my TV screen James…I can only imagine what it must be like as a resident there. On a side note, have you noticed Kowloon much busier than usual, now some people might be avoiding Central?

    October 1, 2014
    • Lee, what the riot police did on Sunday night was totally abhorrent. I’m glad the international media were there to broadcast it to the world! Thankfully it’s a lot more peaceful now and people have been stressing non-violence on all sides.

      Some of the more fearful residents are avoiding these areas, but since the protests began the disruption has been limited. Office-goers still show up for work, most restaurants and shops are still open, and the MTR system continues to run smoothly.

      Truth is, it’s business as usual for most of Hong Kong. And Mong Kok in Kowloon is a main protest venue so you can’t avoid it there either.

      October 1, 2014
  8. Thanks for sharing your thought 🙂

    I am not physically in hk at the moment but as a hker myself, it has been a very sentimental week for me and a lot of us.
    Many of my childhood friends braved the tear gas and pepper spray that night but it didn’t ward off their persistence – and this is also how all these protesters are so united.

    Who said hong kongers are cold, rude and hateful? From the umbrella revolution I see resilience, unity and benevolence – and this is to be called the true spirit of hong kong – we went through Asian financial crisis in the 90s, conquered SARS in 2003, thousands of us took to the street over the compulsory patriotic education two years ago – and many other incidents can prove that hong kong people are so lovely. I hope we can continue to voice out, and to defend our freedom from others out there.

    ga-yau heung-gong! (not sure if you understand what it means 🙂 )

    October 1, 2014
    • I couldn’t agree more, Cherie. I too had friends and classmates who were there at the scene on Sunday night. One of my coworkers was pepper sprayed by the police, though she was lucky as it was on the back of her neck and not directly in her face.

      And yes, everyone is calling our students the world’s politest protestors. Ga yau indeed! 🙂

      October 3, 2014
  9. May the protest yield long lasting improvements, James. Actually it’s hard to know what might happen.

    Just after the Olympics, there was the Stanley Cup hockey final riots in downtown Vancouver. We live 3 blocks away from that. I wasn’t in the city at the time and was horrified when I read the local paper. But just people being…stupid and violent herd mentality.

    My partner’s business colleague ( a bike store owner) was shot (by a cyclist) across from the store this past June. (It made national news.) It is an enormous shock when stuff happens to people that you know personally.

    October 2, 2014
    • Thank you, Jean. I can’t see China or the Hong Kong government backing down on the issue of our sham elections, but we can still hope for the best. At this stage a few meaningful concessions would be a great help.

      I too was shocked by the Stanley Cup riots – it seemed so out of character for Canada and I really didn’t see the point. Thankfully no one has died in these Hong Kong protests; hopefully it will remain that way until the end.

      October 3, 2014
  10. Love this beautifully written, first-hand account of what’s going on. After reading about it so much in the news, it’s wonderful to read an account from someone I know who’s actually there.

    October 6, 2014
    • Thanks very much, Erica. I really appreciate the coverage it has gotten in American news outlets – the NYT in particular does a fantastic job. Things are quieter now but I think many Hong Kong residents are tired of the disruptions. You can see the strain by what people say on social media and I hope the students have the foresight to reopen at least some of those roads.

      October 6, 2014
  11. What an inspiring coming together of common people James! The fact that young people across the world are speaking out is heartening. Wishing HK the change that it deserves. And hoping all myopic governments sit up and take notice.

    We missed most of the coverage, if there was any in Africa at all, cut off as we were in Northern Tanzania. So thank you for your insightful account.

    October 7, 2014
    • Absolutely, Madhu! And it was such a wonderful change from the chaos and clouds of tear gas on the 28th… my family were having dinner in a nearby neighbourhood as the police cracked down that night; never in my life have I felt such fear or foreboding in the streets of Hong Kong. I hope those scenes are not repeated in the foreseeable future.

      October 9, 2014

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