Umbrella Movement Days 14-16: Learning about diversity, religion, politics, and how the streets feel at night

The afternoon after Fan left, I found out that Fermi Wong, the founder of Unison, would be giving a talk in the Mobile Democracy Classroom on democracy and ethnic minority rights in Causeway Bay. Unison is a non-profit founded to advocate for ethnic minority rights, they do some great stuff. I understood about half of what she said, but I felt pretty good about understanding even that much. Here’s my (poor) translation of a few of her comments on the racial discrimination law (the one under review by the EOC):

Democracy won’t fix their situation right away, but having a fair system will help improve things. Democracy does have a relationship to minorities, they are Hong Kongers, just like you and me.

2014-10-11 16.17.35She mentioned how she herself hadn’t been in Hong Kong as long as a lot of ethnic minorities, and that she was actually from Fujian (福建) Province in China. That really emphasized how so many Hong Kong people are first and second generation immigrants, even though often they talk about themselves as real Hong Kong people (as opposed to non-ethnic-Chinese or mainland Chinese). She highlighted how the education and language system in Hong Kong put EMs at a disadvantage because they weren’t able to learn Cantonese as well as most ethnic Chinese. A lot of people, she said, would ask why a child couldn’t learn Cantonese when they’re young, and she said – several times – that they don’t have the same education opportunities and resources as most, their parents speak home languages that aren’t Cantonese (indeed, the only reason I speak any Cantonese is because my parents do), and not everyone has the chance or the ability to pick it up from the streets.

She concluded by pleading with the crowd: If you see an ethnic minority, please give them a smile. Don’t hold your nose or wave your hands in front of your nose. Don’t avoid the seat next to them on the bus or MTR. Such simple things, she said, would really help overcome racial prejudice in Hong Kong.

2014-10-11 17.10.52Henry and I walked around the area a bit afterward. Someone had put together a huge umbrella display that, viewed from above, formed a rainbow umbrella fending off pepper spray. My photo from the ground really misses the beauty of the set-up. I love the touch of the yellow umbrella at the very front. Ever since the umbrella movement has taken on this name, we’ve been seeing yellow umbrellas everywhere as a subtle sign of protest against the government, such as at the National Day reception and at graduation ceremonies.

I also saw this lovely sign on the street, sponsored by the Labour Party. These have been around the city since I arrived at the end of August. It reads, “想變? wanna change? 2017一人一票北韓式普選 You can only have North Korean style universal suffrage in 2017. 咁嘅票你要唔要? You really want this?” There’s also a video somewhere in the online world that draws a link between Beijing’s proposed electoral reform and not just North Korean elections, but also Iranian elections.

2014-10-11 17.17.32After the talk, I went to the Central Library near Victoria Park to get a little work done. Instead, I fell asleep on a couch. Oh well.

The next day an article came out in SCMP about Jeff, Ansah, and the other EM folks, and that evening I went out to the Unison office in 大角咀 (Tai Kok Tsui) to join a meeting that they were holding on democracy and ethnic minorities. They’d organized the meeting to help inform the EM youth, since many of them knew what the situation generally was, but not all were extremely well-versed in the intricate details of the Basic Law, the struggle over electoral reform, and the structure and functions of the governing system. About 25 people attended in all, most of them people I’d seen before marching with the EM group. The session was incredibly informative and helpful, and I asked quite a few questions myself. Luckily, because of Hong Kong’s education and language problems, English was the common tongue for the meeting, and that benefited me!

A breakdown of political parties and the 1,200-member voting committee that elected CY Leung in 2012

A breakdown of political parties and the 1,200-member voting committee that elected CY Leung in 2012

After an overview of events since 2012, the meeting moderators opened the floor to discussion. They asked what we thought democracy was; if Hong Kong should accept, amend, or completely reject the Beijing proposal for reform; what we hoped to achieve from the Umbrella Movement; and how to proceed with the next steps of the movement.

One thing that stood out for me, in the discussion, was the concern over legal consequences for participating in civil disobedience. As a rule, civil disobedience is illegal. Many people were afraid of continuing to join and becoming easily recognizable, as I’ve mentioned before. The moderators put them at ease, reassuring them that the government isn’t interested at all in EMs (“Don’t be upset!”) but rather preoccupied with the election process. Their only concern was to think deeply about whether they were willing to be arrested for the cause. Interestingly, the only aspect they could see becoming a concern for Beijing was if Muslims in Hong Kong became connected with Muslims in Xinjiang.

What was really fascinating and troubling was the explanation of mainlander-Hong Kong tensions. They explained that the British government had “betrayed” them. Deng Xiaoping had allowed Hong Kong to maintain the status quo for 50 years so that the old generation – the generation that would remember things like the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square massacre, and so on – would die out, and new immigrants from the mainland could enter Hong Kong and change its population. The (failed) push for National Education in 2012, they argued, was a way to speed up the process of change.

This was the fullest explanation of the anti-mainlander argument that I’ve heard yet. And posed this way, it makes sense as to why people are antagonistic toward mainlanders – it’s extremely disturbing to hear virulent anti-immigrant sentiments, but a lot of people in Hong Kong feel like their communities and culture are being intentionally exterminated. It reminds me of how some really sexist factions of the Asian American Movement back in the late 1960s and early 1970s criticized Asian American women for dating and marrying white men, for selling out the race and leading to the extinction of the “Chinaman” generation, as it were.

The moderators also explained how critical the Umbrella Movement was. Because the youth had “woken up,” China had lost a whole generation before it had the chance to alter their sympathies. No wonder there is such a feeling of love and thanks toward the students and the youth! Ultimately, they emphasized that it wasn’t just democracy that they needed, but democracy alongside the protection of human rights and the rule of law.

The takeaway was that the EMs needed to bring information into their own communities. Because so much of the news media is done in either Chinese or English, and other information is passed through social media, a lot of the older generations don’t have access to accurate information and instead draw general conclusions from images and hearsay. I was really interested by how this was the main role that EMs saw themselves having in the movement. The moderators were all ethnic Chinese, and the perspective they offered was also an ethnic Chinese perspective. They recognized this and tried to ask the EMs what their interpretation of events was, but the EMs seemed to adopt their explanation. It really was like they were expressing themselves entirely as Hong Kong people – no matter what the skin color or the personal background, they agreed on the narrative and the need.

That night Henry asked if I wanted to camp out at Admiralty, so right after the meeting at Unison ended, I went back to my apartment to gather up blankets and pillows for the night. We walked around a bit, and I took a few photos.

2014-10-13 00.43.45We went up the highway a bit to take advantage of the slanted ground for sleeping, and at first we settled by a stretch where someone had written in chalk, “Postcard for free.” On the raised walkway behind us were several umbrellas and banners, one with the Batman symbol and the words, “Everyone could be Batman.” A few people walked by and tried to ask us what the chalk words beside us meant, but we didn’t know either. Another man walked by and asked if we had enough blankets and things, and we said we did. I asked if he was going to stay the night as well, but I guess I didn’t speak clearly enough or maybe I used some weird accent/words, and the man asked me, “You speak kinda funny, where are you from?” And I admit, I was a little panicked, because I didn’t know what would come of asking a question like that. Was I about to be accused of being a mainland spy again? I said, honestly, in Cantonese, “America.” And the guy said, “Oh,” and then left us alone.

2014-10-13 02.53.38Henry spotted a cockroach coming out of a drain near us, so we decided to move farther up the highway. When we found a spot, I settled down to sleep, and Henry stayed up a bit more. This is what my nighttime view looked like, with the moon, sky, streetlights, and skyscrapers.

I woke up to a loud commotion, and Henry telling me to get up. I could hear a girl run past, yelling, “起身!” I didn’t know what was happening, but as I sat up and looked around, things seemed fairly calm. I folded and put all my makeshift bedding away, and Henry and I set off east toward the main occupation center to try to find out what was going on. A train of people was coming back west, and one of them stopped us to explain that we didn’t need to keep going; it was just a false alarm. Someone thought the police had arrived and that they were going to take down the barricades and clear out the camp, but they were wrong.

Since we were already up, we walked around a bit and I took more photos. The one with Jackie Chan refers to a comment made by police that umbrellas and cling wrap are close to weapons (I can’t seem to find an article with those words, but this tweet has a photo of a newspaper, probably SCMP). In the one with Jesus and Guan Gong in conversation, Jesus uses a term, “吹大雞” (literally call for all chickens), which means “call for backup” in a colloquial gangster-style Cantonese.

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2014-10-13 06.44.38We wandered down to Tamar Park at the edge of the water, found a grassy spot, and lazed around to watch the sun rise.

At around 7, we walked back to the main camp and saw a commotion happening on the east side, where that morning’s alarm had come from. We got up onto the raised walkway right above the spot where tear gas had been let off two weeks earlier. The police were standing on one side of a barricade, and demonstrators on the other. People below us were running back and forth between the main camp and the barricade, and several people ran new grates over to create second and third barricades in case the police got past the first line. People also brought umbrellas, of course.

2014-10-13 07.56.30Someone on a loudspeaker in the main camp called for people to contact their friends and urge them to come to Admiralty for backup. We watched the scene from the bridge, alongside several other reporters and one photographer with a large format camera. The protesters at the front line sat down facing the police and they seemed to be in a standoff. Barricades were built on the other side of the highway as well, narrowing the gap that had been left for people in suits and office wear to walk to work in Admiralty and Central. We stayed for a while, but decided to leave while things were still calm.

So of course we went to Mong Kok, the very spot that’s become notorious for not being calm. I really wanted to check out the street shrines. I’ve never really understood much about Chinese/southern Chinese/Hong Kong religion, and so this example of faith on the streets was something I had to see. The first thing I noticed when I got out of the MTR was this:

2014-10-13 09.33.21

There was so much happening in this camp that I could hardly tell what was what. You can see a yellow umbrella in the upper left corner – these have been used as flags ever since the end of September. There’s also a few mattresses and a bed frame in the center of the striped tarp laid out on the ground; at least three people are sleeping. Strung over the bedframe is a series of white papers; the one furthest left reads, “HONG KONG CITIZEN RESPECT TO ANONYMOUS #OpHongKong” and has a black-and-white image of the Anonymous figure wearing a yellow ribbon. Anonymous, the hacker collective that I think grew out of the United States, has pledged to support the Hong Kong protesters ever since tear gas was let off. At first they were targeting anything with a .hk address, including some non-profits working for children with autism, but I think their aim has gotten a little more relevant since then.

2014-10-13 09.34.38On the right is this. Underneath it reads: “香港城邦護法 大鵬金翅鳥” (Hong Kong city-state keeps the law – Garuda). The words for “keep the law” can also mean to protect’s Buddha’s teachings. The Garuda, which is the image depicted, is a large bird from Hindu and Buddhist religion. (All the following info comes from Wikipedia.) The earliest mention of the Garuda comes from the Vedas. In Buddhism (I assume the reference here in HK was based in Buddhism), Wikipedia says that they’re enemies of serpent- or dragon-like creatures called the nāga – a possible reference to attacking the Chinese dragon? In the Qing Dynasty fiction The Story of Yue Fei (1684), the legendary general Yue Fei was actually the reincarnation of the Garuda, and again the battle between the Garuda and the nāga reappears.

守衛香港 Protect HK (尉遲恭) - 護我城池 Protect my city (秦叔寶)

守衛香港 Protect Hong Kong (尉遲恭) – 護我城池 Protect my city (秦叔寶)

We kept walking to find the main 關羽 Guan Yu (aka 關公 Guan Gong (meaning Lord Guan) and many other names) shrine that I’d been seeing on Twitter. It turns out the shrine had been built at the site at the intersection of Nathan Road and Mong Kok Road, where the bus had stood before being moved away on October 4. These two traditional door guards, 尉遲恭 Yuchi Gong and 秦叔寶 Qin Shubao, were posted to the right of the main shrine.

The shrine itself was amazing. I don’t know that much about Chinese temples anyway, though I’ve visited a few. There were three sets of incense, one on the floor at the very bottom, one before the image in the center, flanked by two red character banners, and one on the altar shaded by the cardboard overhead. There were fruit and bao and some other food offerings laid out before the images. To the left of the shrine, pinned to an off-white umbrella, was the Taiwanese flag. Underneath the flag, printed over two sheets of paper, was an image of the bus that had stood there before.

2014-10-13 09.45.10

2014-10-13 09.46.01The four characters above the inset altar read, “義薄雲天,” and on the red sheets were the words “忠義神武靈佑仁 勇威顯護國保民.” They have something to do with what 關羽 Guan Yu did, to the effect of calling on him to protect the city. (More translation help is definitely needed! Also need a refresher on Chinese legends and literature.) In the image to the left, you can see a close-up of the bus. It was sort of like the shrine became a way to memorialize the bus and all the messages it held, in addition to calling on these Chinese folk heroes. The sheet on the left side, with Guan Yu holding a yellow umbrella, explains the shrine and its importance in both traditional Chinese characters and in English. I’ll type the English here:

Guan Yu, courtesy name Yunchang, was a general serving under the warlord Liu Bei in the late Eastern Han dynasty in the Three Kingdoms period. […]

Guan Gong (Lord Guan) represent [sic] the God of wealth, and per his high loyalty and the sense of honor and justice, he would be worshipped by both Triads and Police in Hong Kong, and therefore this shrine played [sic] an important role to protect the protests from the both parties [sic] in the Umbrella Campaign.

I was really confused when I first read this because I saw images of people bowing and putting incense before the shrine. My thought was, why are these people worshipping the god that the police and triads worship, if they’re not associated with either and instead trying to find a way to defend themselves against them? It turns out the idea is that because both the police and the triads revere Guan Gong, they wouldn’t dare to take down his shrine or the barricades that it rests on. Clever!

2014-10-13 09.51.02To the left of the shrine, past the Taiwanese flag, was this image of Mao Zedong. The long white banner behind his portrait reads, “中華人民共和國萬歲 世界民主大進步萬歲” (Long live the People’s Republic of China – Long live the world’s great progress towards democracy). Scrawled in black marker on Mao’s portrait were the words, “惡貫(共匪)滿盈 史上第一漢奸奶蘇賣中” (Strung through and (Communist bandit) filled with extreme evil, history’s first traitor to China, selling us to the Soviet Union). Someone else had used blue pen to scrawl all over Mao’s face. The white paper with blue text below read, “國家重物 擅拆立斬” (not sure if this is reading accurately). It was a good thing that I arrived when I did – just minutes after snapping this photo, a burly kind of young man wearing a face mask and gloves came up and ripped down Mao’s image. He crossed his arms over his chest and read the other posters, tearing down a few more. This display of anger would never happen in Admiralty – only in Mong Kok.

The opposite end of Nathan Road, by Shantung Street, was home to the Christian shrine, which people were calling St. Francis’ Chapel on the Street. On the way there, we passed by a few interesting things, of which I’m sharing just a few (saving the others for the photo blog):

Shantung was a bit of a walk, but you absolutely couldn’t miss the street chapel. I think the image of Jesus on the bottom left is the same one that I saw the group walking down the Lennon Wall with a few weeks ago, now with a new home. You can see that behind the painting with the blue background, there’s a cardboard cross. On it is written, “神拯罪人” (God save the sinners) and “耶穌基督 In Love” (Jesus Christ). There are no offerings on this altar, except for a small wooden cross, two little flower jars, and few candles, and a copy of the Bible in Chinese. On either side of the blue painting are the words, “上主彰正義民主 基督賜平安自由” (God above, make known justice and democracy; Christ grant us peace and liberty).

2014-10-13 10.07.57

2014-10-13 10.08.59To the right of the shrine, along the short cement barrier that would usually separate the two directions of traffic, people had begun putting post-its and other posters with messages. At the far right, you can see a small figurine of Jesus Christ, kneeling in prayer with a yellow ribbon tied around his little hands. Beside him was a portrait of the Virgin Mary, drawn Chinese style. Underneath her image, a small sheet of paper read, “中華聖母為我等祈” (Our Lady of China, pray for us). The story of Our Lady of China reminds me a little bit of the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe, if you know the story about Mexico’s version of the Virgin. According to Wikipedia, it’s said that in 1900, during the Boxer Uprising, soldiers attacked the village of 東閭 Donglu in 河北 Hebei Province, where a small community of Christians lived. The Virgin appeared, and a fiery horseman, said to be Saint Michael, chased away the soldiers.

2014-10-13 10.20.11At a barricade nearby was a stand-alone image with “關聖帝君” (Sacred Guan Yu) printed in gold. On either side of his image there’s an image of a man doing some kind of martial art, but I don’t recognize who it is.

Walking back to the MTR, I came across more posters and things. I thought “The Scream” remake, with a minion from Despicable Me in a banana suit, was pretty silly. Then the other, saying that the HK Federation of Students does not represent them, was also – I think – very unique to Mong Kok. The HKFS has been one of the leading student organizations in the protests, representing the student unions of a number of different universities in Hong Kong. The poster plays on a slogan that students have been using – “人大不代表我” (the National People’s Congress does not represent me) – and turns it on its head. It’s one of those symbols of Mong Kok’s independence, its unique culture and working-class roots.

I went back home, and only followed what happened later through the internet. Later in the afternoon things got crazy, with trucks and cranes being used to forcibly remove barricades. More thugs also arrived to tear things down, and one of the photos showed an ethnic minority wearing a face mask. (The EMs condemned this guy as “obviously paid.”) People responded that night by reinforcing barricades, using cement in Causeway Bay, and building barricades elsewhere with bamboo. The police had removed the metal barricades by claiming they were government property (mostly true, since they’d left the barricades on the streets and protesters had re-arranged them), and so by using the bamboo sticks typically meant for building scaffolding for construction, the protesters could object to the police removal of private property.

Reading about the use of bamboo, and how rare it was and how very Hong Kong it was, was absolutely fascinating. Some articles described protesters using bamboo as grabbing anything they could find to reinforce the barricades – but I have to disagree. To me, it was intentional and it made a statement about Hong Kong. Bamboo has apparently been used for scaffolding for hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s now been banned in mainland China (either completely or partially, for buildings over a certain height; I can’t recall), but it’s remained popular in Hong Kong due to its cheap price, its strength, and its maneuverability in tight spaces. In a way, Hong Kong’s held on to a Chinese tradition longer than mainland China has. This photo of a protester helping to reinforce the barricades (from the New York Times) just mesmerized me – it reminds me of the Monkey King, 孫悟空 Sun Wukong [Wikipedia].

The Monkey King is a hero with supernatural powers who carries a staff that can expand or shrink. His story comes from the epic 西遊記 Journey to the West, where he and several other heroes escort 玄奘 Xuanzang on a trip to India to gather Buddhist scriptures to bring back to China. He’s since become a beloved folk hero with tons of movies, films, and TV shows. I remember watching a cartoon of him when I was a little girl. Since my Chinese zodiac sign is the monkey (as well as my dad’s), I’ve always kind of liked him. He’s a clever fellow, tricky and sometimes mean but essentially (as far as I know) good. This photo is just spectacular. The protester, defiant, in the air, in the middle of action, reaching out to another staff with a back pocket full of cords to bind them together; the lights of Hong Kong behind him. It’s perfect. Of all the photos I’ve seen of the demonstrations, this is my absolute favorite.

I also finally checked out the music from the poster that I spotted a few days ago. It turns out they’re recordings of music and sounds from the streets, songs sung by friends, speeches made by random people, interviews with passersby. My favorite song:


Things from the interwebs:

  • SCMP story on how expats see the protests [link]
  • SCMP video on religious shrines at the protest sites [link]
  • Foreign Policy article on expats and the protests [link]
  • BBC News article on Taiwan’s view of HK [link]
  • Think Progress article on “Why Christians Are Helping Lead Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Movement” [link]
  • TIME offers “A Tourist’s Guide to the Hong Kong Protests” [link] – Actually this is a pretty horrible guide. It’s absolutely touristy and deals mostly with the surrounding buildings and landmarks, with just a tiny bit on the protests themselves – and nothing about why the protests are happening. It’s like encouraging people to take photos without knowing what they’re taking photos of.

A side note: I’m kind of tired of hearing English-speaking journalists mess up the pronunciation of CY Leung’s last name. It’s not “Lee-yung,” or “Lung,” or any other sort of strange phonetic creation. It sounds more like “Lerng,” with the kind of “e” sound like in “fern.” I blame this problem partly on the fact that Cantonese has never actually had a standardized Western phonetic transcription. (Can you believe that? Over a hundred years the British controlled Hong Kong, and no one bothered to standardize the English transcription (known in Mandarin as pinyin 拼音). Just goes to show how much the British really cared about getting to know the locals.)

–end rant–

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