Occupy Hong Kong Day 2: In which I am accused of being a Communist spy

plaza packedOn my way to lunch at HKU, I passed through the Sun Yat-sen Plaza, where the biggest crowd of students I’d seen to date was packing every inch of floor, bench, and stair. I didn’t stop to hear what was being said – I assumed it was the general update on the situation and urging students to join in.

After lunch at HKU, I headed out to meet Henry at Mong Kok to see what the occupation there was like. Kowloon and Hong Kong Island are very different historically and culturally – a very rough description would be to say that Kowloon is more “Chinese” while the Island is more “Western” – and so I wanted to see what the atmosphere was like elsewhere. Henry had just gotten back that morning from Beijing, and he showed me the only article he’d found about the events in Hong Kong, which you can read here (simplified Chinese).

canopyIndeed, it was very different in Mong Kok than in Admiralty. Granted, this might have been because Admiralty is closer to the government offices and yesterday faced down tons of police in riot gear, while Mong Kok is not near government offices and the closest police station was practically empty, with zero police presence on the ground. But Mong Kok felt kind of festive. Maybe it was just the nature of tightly-packed Mong Kok, but it seemed far more crowded than Admiralty had been the day before (though I think the numbers were about the same, just spread out over a different size).

People had blocked off the roads with cars and buses, and though the ground was packed tight with people sitting down, all the crosswalks had been roped off with string and rope to keep them clear for pedestrians to move about. A series of tarps had been tied to lightposts, signs, and hanging structures to create a canopy over the intersect of Nathan Road and Argyle Street, where the center of the crowd was gathered, giving the sitters some shade. Several people with cameras had stationed themselves on top of MTR entrances to get a better view of the crowd. We sat on a shop ledge, and Henry stood up to get a few shots of the astonishingly packed intersection.

Though it was a huge crowd, it had a sense of calm and order to the chaos. There were separate trash bags hung on road/sidewalk barriers to allow for recycling. People sat in large groups with various focal centers, listening to various speakers in distinct yet co-mingled gatherings. Far less people here had mouth covers or goggles, though stacks of umbrellas, water, and food had been gathered at various points. Others walked up and down, checking out the incredible display of humanity and – in an amazing, Mong Kok way – art.

There was one bus – you can see it in the photo above – that had stopped just at the intersection, and as we watched, a few men strung a huge white banner across its front. On the windshield, someone had left a quintessentially polite Hong Kong protester notice, along with some yellow flowers for democracy:

Hi there,  As you may aware, there is an EMERGENCY situation in HK. We are now protesting we believe and what we have been promised to have. That's why we have this protest. We hope you understand our perseverance, and we are sorry for any inconvenience.

Hi there,
As you may [sic] aware, there is an EMERGENCY situation in HK. We are now protesting we believe and what we have been promised to have. That’s why we have this protest. We hope you understand our perseverance, and we are sorry for any inconvenience.

In a few directions, the buses and cars that were stopping traffic were not only keeping the road clear for pedestrians, but also showing off a distinct Hong Kong – and Mong Kok – style. On one end of the road, a double-decker bus had become a sort of memorial wall where people were taping messages, drawings, and greetings of support. I snapped a few of my favorites and a few of the most interesting – many of them called for Hong Kong independence, or even return to British colonial rule.

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On the ground, we noticed that someone had carved words of support into the painted designation of a bus lane. Farther beyond the protesters, we saw someone had brought out a DJ set and was playing some kind of electronic music. I was a little disappointed because I thought if you were going to bring a DJ out to a public gathering, you might as well play something fun and engaging rather than eclectic, non-danceable, non-singable music… But that’s just my take. A few people had set up blankets there and were hanging out on the ground.

Even farther beyond the DJ, people had brought out their cars to block the road in style. A number of young men were backing their cars – racing cars, from the sound of them – into position as we walked up, and as soon as a car was parked, someone would come up with a sheet of paper with slogans written on it to cover up the car’s license plate. I didn’t know Mong Kok had a racing culture, or that you could afford a car and a place to park it, even when most young people can’t afford an apartment, or that you could even find a time where the streets of Mong Kok were empty enough to actually be able to race your car.

At this point Henry and I separated. I planned on going back home until I saw on Twitter that people had posted photos of a group of minority youth carrying a banner and walking to great cheers in Admiralty.

Because I’ve been trying to find people not of Chinese ethnicity who are engaged in the protests ever since I arrived, pretty much, I was stoked. Maybe it’s a bit stalker-y of me, but as a researcher, I thought this might be my only chance. So I headed down to Admiralty, where the crowd was just as big – if not bigger – than on Sunday.

I walked around a bit just checking out the crowd, the overwhelming majority of whom were young students. I chatted with a few people as I walked, asking about the situation and seeing what was going on. There was very little police presence, but people seemed to be preparing for a massive onslaught at any time. An almost continuous stream of students carrying boxes of water bottles and other supplies ran from Central to Admiralty.

I noticed one group of people sitting on the ground speaking in English, so I asked if I could chat with them for a bit. “Yes! Here, sit down,” said the youngish looking guy directly to my left, and I joined them cross-legged on the ground. I explained that I was a researcher at HKU, and explained my research interest in the intersections of Hong Kong’s ethnic diversity and its social movements. When I finished, the guy on my left asked if I could explain in Chinese, because their English wasn’t that great, so I did my best. Then the guy on my right – the only white man in the group, clearly much older than the rest – asked me, “Are you from Hong Kong or China?”

I was a bit taken aback at the directness and sharpness of this question, but I figured I’ve had enough experiences in the United States with being asked where I’m from. (It’s something you get used to as a person of color – especially as an Asian American.) So I said, “I’m from the United States.”

“No, where are you from?”

“From California.”

“Where are your parents from?”

“They were born in Hong Kong.”

The white guy let it go, and I started to chat with the group. They were all Hong Kong kids, except for the white guy, who said he’d been in Hong Kong for three years. The group joked that he was still a Hong Konger, and when I asked if he was learning Cantonese, he said he was learning a bit. I asked the group their opinion on my research interest, and the two guys directly to my left explained instead why they were supporting the protests. Then they asked me what I thought about the situation.

So I thought, and I began to explain my – rather hesitant – views. (Spoiler – you might not like what I’m going to say.) I think the fights for democracy and for people’s rights are important, I explained, but I had complicated feelings about democracy. I grew up in a democracy, in America, right? And America still has problems, so I don’t think democracy is the answer to everything. And, I added, it’s funny, because I know people who are very much against the capitalist system in America, to the point that they even support socialism.

And when I said the word socialism, the group was pretty surprised. The girl sitting closest to the white guy (there were three girls) said, shocked, “I’ve never heard of that!” I nodded in understanding; why would they have heard of it?

And the white guy said, I don’t know who you are, but I think you’re a spy from the mainland. You just mentioned socialism!

I’m not a spy! I protested, incredulous. I’m from America! What, do you want to test my Putonghua? I asked, almost jokingly, since (as anyone who’s heard me speak Mandarin can attest) it’s not spectacular.

You show up, start asking questions, saying you’re doing research –

Do you want my business card? Here, I’ll –

“No, I don’t need that.” And he turned his back on me. Just like that.

Luckily the other two guys to my left were totally cool about it, and they kept chatting with me, asking where I lived, where I was doing my research, and telling me a bit about their own school and work. The guy directly to my left said he was applying to work for Cathay Pacific so he could travel more; he spoke some Italian, so we exchanged a few Italian-Spanish words. Eventually the girls and the white guy decided to grab a bite to eat, and the two guys who’d been chatting with me got up to go with them. They told me their names and shook my hand –  the one who lives in the same neighborhood as me said maybe he’d see me around – and I told them to take care.

I continued walking and keeping an eye for other groups who might be interesting to talk to, though I was pretty upset. Luckily I did run into some South Asian folks talking in English, so I stopped and said hello, handed out my business cards with the Fulbright logo on them – as a precaution, having just dealt with an asshole (pardon me) – and they were very happy to chat with me. We exchanged contact info, and I went on my way.

Farther down the road, I saw a group of white folks hanging out together and talking in English, so I introduced myself, offered my cards again, and asked if I could chat a bit. Three of the men were from Denmark, two were students, and one described himself as not quite a visitor and not quite a resident; the two women with them were tourists on holiday from Australia. They were all geared up with goggles and face masks, ready to fight for democracy, and very excited. The women were really interesting – one said that the Australian government was quite conservative, rather boring, and that there was nothing like what was going on in Hong Kong in Australia. The not-visitor-not-resident talked a little bit about not being sure where the tipping point was – if Hong Kong was going to be another Tiananmen – and after talking a bit more, I wished them luck and to stay safe, and kept walking on home.

Thinking about my role in all of this – as a researcher, as an observer, as an American citizen, as a person whose parents were born in Hong Kong, and therefore as a person who is ethnically Chinese but linguistically – and in certain cultural respects – Cantonese… Of all the small things I can do for this online discussion, beyond just writing about my experiences in here and offering my limited perspective, I don’t know what else I can offer to thank those two guys for talking to me – for being civil, open, and welcoming to someone who wanted to chat and share questions and thoughts, even after one of their group tried to shut me down.

I half wished, after that incident, that I’d asked that white guy if he would’ve accused me of being a Communist spy if I wasn’t ethnically Chinese. If I wasn’t Chinese, would he have even bothered to ask me if I was from Hong Kong or China in the first place? There is an element of racism at play here that is subtle and insidious, but neither is it surprising.

There have been rumors going around that there are people infiltrating the protests (most rumors on Twitter are saying that it’s Triads members), and people have been cautioned to keep an eye out for anyone stirring up unrest – but surely, sharing an opinion is not stirring up unrest; nor is one’s ethnicity a reason to cause suspicion.

So in the case that I get to see those two guys again – and even if I don’t – this late, late night post, and this heartfelt thank you for showing me what the spirit of Hong Kong protesters really looks like in the face of unwarranted prejudice and hypocrisy – these words and images are for you.


2 thoughts on “Occupy Hong Kong Day 2: In which I am accused of being a Communist spy

  1. I’m also not surprised at the subtle hints of “racism” (I’d say it’s more strong prejudice than anything) from the man who accused you of being a communist spy. People from Hong Kong has always thought poorly of mainlanders, which is really upsetting because we’re the same people who live in different conditions. We’re always called communists just because we’re from mainland, but they never stop to consider that while they are fighting for democracy in fear of being under communist rule, we ARE under communist rule and it’s not easy for us. I’m sure not everybody is like that, but I’ve heard my share of insensitive comments where people attacked us before thinking about their privilege.

    I wish you luck with your research and please stay safe while the movement is still going on!

  2. Hi Flora –

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! I think in terms of what happened between me and that man, it was an issue of racism that goes back to the Cold War and beyond. By this I mean that in the bipolar world system of the Cold War, a lot of (majority white) Western countries grew to think of China as “Communist” and “bad,” as opposed to the West being “democratic” and “good”; thus many people (not just Westerners) are quick to associate race/ethnicity with politics.

    I think this pattern of thinking has definitely influenced Hong Kong society because it was a British colony for so long, and especially because many Hong Kong people and their descendants are immigrants/refugees from the mainland (which makes this especially personal!). It makes me really sad to hear how – as you mentioned – people are so quick to associate “mainlander” with “Communist.” When things calm down a bit, I’m hoping to write more about this subject, because I think it’s incredibly important. Thanks for reading!


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