Umbrella Movement Days 17-19

I stayed up super late on the night of the 13th working on grad apps, so I had a very groggy, unproductive morning online meeting before I fell back asleep. I woke at around 2:30pm. The news on Twitter and Facebook were full of photos and reports of police using buzz saws, sledgehammers, bolt cutters, and other tools to remove barricades. I met up with Henry that evening so he could give me the Kraft mac ‘n’ cheese he’d gotten at an American store near his university, and so I could give him photos that I’d taken for his Kunidman blog piece.

That night, protesters occupied the tunnel on Lung Wo Road, which had previously been open to cross-Island traffic. My initial understanding of the occupation was that a protester had gone down there and the police made to arrest him, so tons of other protesters ran toward him to shield him with their umbrellas (see this SCMP live feed, 10:50pm). However, other newspapers have since reported that the occupation of the tunnel was done in response to the police removal of barricades (please note, if you click on the Epoch Times link, that this story is informed by the paper’s anti-CCP stance). The police formed their own barricades to hold off the protesters from entering the tunnel and used pepper spray again, but another group of protesters surrounded them at the tunnel’s other end. This meant that the police were surrounded on all sides, locked in with no escape. They had to retreat. The demonstrators opened a lane on one side, and the police used this to exit. (See videos on YouTube.)

Sometime shortly after midnight, someone in a building in Mong Kok dropped a bag of dead bugs (crickets, I think) and feces on the demonstrators from high above. (It’s pretty nasty.) I don’t think anyone was directly hit, luckily.

That night, TVB (known by many as pro-establishment, and by others as trying to be moderate) filmed a protester being taken away by plainclothes police to a dark corner of Tamar Park, where he was kicked and beaten for four minutes.

This person turned out to be Ken Tsang, a social worker and a member of the pro-democracy Civic Party. The next day, Occupy Central leaders released photos of his injuries, and some other videos surfaced later of him pouring water on the police. To me, that sort of stupidity – entirely stupid as it was – still doesn’t warrant such violent retaliation. The seven officers involved were suspended in the morning, but their names weren’t released until just a few days ago. Hundreds of social workers gathered that day, October 15, in front of the police headquarters in Wanchai in protest, waiting to get inside to file complaints (this article might seem like a biased source, but it’s basically factually accurate).

Though TVB had filmed the beating, its later showings of the same clip were progressively shortened and edited over the day, prompting a number of TVB staff to sign a letter in protest. Throughout that day, some 45 protesters were arrested in other clashes with police over barricades. Since Tsang’s beating, a slew of new art and posters have arisen criticizing the police, martyring Tsang, and mocking the police’s use of the phrase “光明磊落” (open and transparent) to describe their behavior in handling the protests, as explained more fully in this Quartz story.

2014-10-17 14.56.03

Taken on Oct 17

As the news spread and outraged residents blasted the Hong Kong police, whose reputation had already been seriously hit, I was busy meeting up with my mom’s old friend from LA, who was visiting Hong Kong and then Malaysia. She brought me a few things I’d left a home, and also gave me a few bags of raisins that my mom had dried herself. They were amazing – most perfect raisins I’ve ever had in my life!

That afternoon, I went out to Hong Kong Baptist University where a three-day symposium called “Feeling Ethnic” was starting. It was very much an anthropological and sociological conference. The first talk I heard was by Paul O’Connor, author of Islam in Hong Kong, on how one feels ethnic. He noted that the notion of “ethnicity” is typically thought of as something that “others” have, when in reality, all of us are ethnic, and he was interested in thinking about ethnicity as something embodied and felt. He argued that the emphasis on the visual understand of ethnicity was problematic and that he wanted to think about ethnicity in other senses like taste, touch, and so on.

I’m not so sure about this, since I think inherent in the term “ethnicity” is a question of power relations. Someone else in the Q&A following brought up an excellent point – if everyone starts thinking of themselves as having an ethnicity, then the discourse of ethnicity can become co-opted by people who benefit from racial hierarchies to claim that they are victims. The perfect example here is white American claims of “reverse racism” (ugh). Making everyone have an “ethnicity” or a “race” does not solve the problem of racism at its core – it just pretends that it doesn’t exist, or it makes everyone into a victim when that is absolutely not the case. There are still power imbalances in play. Rey Chow, who studied at HKU before getting her doctorate at Stanford, has some great work on “visualism” and the ethnic subject in Writing Diaspora (1993) that I’m hoping to read soon.

I think the other very interesting talk was by Julian Groves, who gave a brief talk on the position of “gweilo” (white Westerners in Hong Kong) who study ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. By looking at writings by white Westerners in Hong Kong over time, he argued that four general themes emerged: (1) the gweilo in charge, (2) the gweilo gone native, (3) the gweilo down and out, and (4) the gweilo as the meddler. I think his points were extremely important and fascinating, but I felt like a more appropriate title for his presentation should have talked about the relationship between white Westerners and Chinese locals.

That was its core focus; there wasn’t much sustained examination of the white-EM relationship, beyond the observation that gweilo like to exoticize and that they like to study exotic things. Not to discount the importance of Groves’ self-reflexivity, which I think is extremely important for all Western researchers in Hong Kong to have (including myself!!!), but somehow ethnic minorities themselves were still not entirely in the picture. It was more like the racial thinking in the US, where you have an opposition between “white” people and (ethnicized) “non-whites” as the two main groups of humanity, which then allows discourses like “minority-majority” to exist (see these articles on the subject).

I’m making my own stance on race issues pretty clear through this discussion, and it’s quite obvious that my understanding of race is based really heavily in an Ethnic Studies tradition. Discussions of race and ethnicity outside of the United States context are very different – sometimes hard for me to understand, especially because of my own subjectivity – but I am inclined to think that the hierarchy along the black-white spectrum of skin colors is still very powerful and relevant anywhere. I’m doing my best to read as much on understandings of race and ethnicity in Hong Kong and China, so my criticisms above – as I said, very grounded in my past studies – might change in the future.

Fortunately, the symposium had a wealth of resources, expertise, and information. I’m really looking forward to exploring this website, ethniCITYhk.com, more.

I meant to go back the next two days to attend more of the presentations and roundtable conversations, but was caught up in applications again. Instead, on October 16, I stayed at home and only met up with bilingual comedian Vivek Mahbubani at a charity show in Wanchai that evening. While on the bus, I happened to watch the latter half of an advertisement that turned out to be against discrimination (歧視), but it didn’t seem to have any non-Chinese people in it, which I thought was peculiar. Checking up on it, I found out that it’s about not discriminating against people based on sex or gender. So the lack of non-Chinese people kind of makes sense, but it also still kind of doesn’t.

IMG-20141016-WA0017A photo of EM men marching in Wanchai also began circulating around 3pm, showing them holding a banner reading, “美國人出金,李卓人出力,香港人出事” (Americans put out the money, Lee Cheuk-Yan applies the force, HK people bear the burden), with the sponsoring organization listed as 新界居民婦女聯合總會 (General Federation of New Territories Women Residents).

This has to do with a bit of back-and-forth among pro- and anti-Occupy groups. On October 8, CY Leung was accused of corruption involving an Australian firm. He was found to have pocketed some £4 million secretly in 2011, right before becoming Chief Executive, and those payments were received while he was in office! A lot of people were speculating that this leaked news was deliberately engineered by Beijing, so that there would be a good reason for CY to step down, but that hasn’t happened. (A proposal initiated by pan-democrat lawmakers to investigate claims of CY’s improper behavior was rejected in the Legislative Council on October 17, a day after this Wanchai EM march was photographed. Beijing’s continued to reaffirm their confidence in CY, despite, you know, Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign on the mainland.)

Shortly afterwards news about CY broke, Lee Cheuk-Yan, the chairman of the pro-democracy Labour Party and the secretary general of the HK Confederation of Trade Unions (not to be confused with the pro-Beijing HK Federation of Trade Unions), was put in the spotlight as well. Several documents were sent to media outlets showing that the CTU accepted donations from an American NGO. To be clear, those donations weren’t necessarily illegal, so long as they were declared and made public. The SCMP story I’ve linked to is pretty good on showing that there isn’t much evidence to back up claims of improper behavior, and I haven’t seen any stories since following up on whether they were or weren’t legal. Here’s another article discussing similar claims. Lee’s also been accused of failing to disclose donations from the super pro-democracy Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai.

Anyway – clearly, none of those men in that photo, marching with banners for the New Territories’ women’s group, are women. Their images just became another reason to laugh at how ridiculous anti-Occupy groups that promote peace, love, and support for the Hong Kong police really look to the pro-Occupy folks. The accusations of foreign involvement – America being the typical culprit (during the Cold War it was certainly involved in Latin America and other countries, but I see no profit for America to stir things up in Hong Kong) – made this image especially laughable. A lot of reposts of this and other photographs on Facebook have people commenting sarcastically on how many Africans are really in the New Territories, or that the organization should stop recruiting Lebanese, or that the regime (not the Occupy demonstrators) is the one colluding with foreign forces.

This Facebook post by inmediahk.net seems to refer to the same march. This story (“南亞漢促廉署查李卓人但不知李是誰”) by Ming Pao also talks about the march, noting that although the EM men were holding banners criticizing 李卓人, none of them actually knew who he was when questioned. Apparently they marched for two hours and then all left by pre-arranged buses. Indeed, several of the EMs I talked to said that many of those marching were asylum seekers and refugees, who – because they are not allowed to work in Hong Kong and must survive off paltry government stipends – are susceptible to bribery. (For those interested, see anthropologist Gordon Mathews’s research on asylum seekers – he’s a very accessible and vocal figure in Hong Kong.)

To get back to my trip on the bus to see Vivek – it was actually before all this social movement craziness happened, early when I first arrived in Hong Kong, that I’d contacted Vivek. He’s a very visible figure for his comedy shows in both English and Cantonese, and also a very, very busy person. He was actually the one who told me about the Baptist U symposium, where he would be speaking about “Practices” of ethnicity in Hong Kong. The comedy show he would be performing at was in a bar for an American women’s group, and I was a little overwhelmed by how American the environment was. It was a pretty enjoyable evening, and the comedians were all quite good.

A very popular, recurring topic (other than the protests) was the experience of being a foreigner/gweilo in Hong Kong (all the comedians were white, except for one who was an Australia-raised half-Chinese man and Vivek, but even they based their segments on issues of race and language). This Australian man talked a lot about his Chinese mother, making the same kinds of jokes that many Americans of Chinese descent have made about Chinese parents/aunts/uncles – accents, sense of direction, going to Chinese school (the subjects of so, so many Asian American YouTube channels). The comedian also expanded his segment on learning Chinese to joke that learning certain phrases in Mandarin seemed useless. When am I going to need to say thank you and sorry to a mainlander? he joked, getting roars of laughter. Shouldn’t we be learning practical things, like go back to the end of the line, or don’t poo on the MTR, or don’t eat my dog? Ah, comedy. How it bites.

I really liked Vivek’s set – he talked a lot about being of Indian descent and growing up in Chinese Hong Kong. He finished with a story about how he would sit on the MTR with two empty seats on either side of him, and a pair of friends would sit on either side of him and chat – perhaps commenting about him and other South Asians – and sit quietly, pretending not to understand, until his phone rang, at which point he’d pick it up with the trademark Cantonese, “喂?”

Vivek and I chatted after the show. He was going to LA the following week to participate in the Laugh Factory’s Funniest Person in the World competition, and thinking about LA and telling him to go eat KBBQ made me feel really nostalgic about home. His response to my question about EM participation in Hong Kong protests, especially with regard to the Umbrella Movement, was that people do participate and support the movement in many ways, even if they’re not out on the streets. He talked about his own experience learning Cantonese, and how hard he really had to work to become fluent when even his parents’ peers thought they were nuts for making him go to a local Chinese school. I also loved how he was so clearly Hong Kong, in all the ways people talk about Hong Kong as a big city, a fast place of quick speech and quick movement, where people are too busy doing their own thing to pay attention to you for longer than a moment. Hong Kong, he said, wasn’t a race or ethnicity, it was a spirit, just like one might describe New York City.


Sometimes, the Internet is a strange and wonderful place. Other times, it’s just strange.

  • There is now fanfiction (I wouldn’t call it fanfiction, technically, more like just a fan base) about two of the HK Federation of Students leaders, Alex Chow and Lester Shum (now known as Alexter).
  • Some clips in preview of an upcoming documentary on the protests, filmed by foreigners in Hong Kong [link]
  • The SCMP reports on some residents of Causeway Bay who like the changes the protests have brought [link]
  • Sing Tao Daily reports that the National People’s Congress wants to reintroduce National Education [link]
  • I find out about Al Jazeera two-part documentary on the Umbrella Movement – this is the absolute best set of videos I’ve seen that explain, very accurately, what has happened [link]
  • An art director begins putting up signs and contacting artists to save the works produced in the movement [link] [website] [Facebook]

Other things in the world (as they are relevant to Hong Kong, anyway):

  • The Hong Kong government decided to open talks with the protesters again – thank goodness. It was really a relief to see signs of the standoff thawing.
  • Reuters reported that British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed support for steps toward democracy in Hong Kong, which of course made China very upset. I was told about a Tweet reporting that Xi Jinping made a statement against the use of violence against protesters, but I haven’t been able to find anything. Instead, I found this article, which says quite the opposite – that the CCP won’t make any concessions to the students.
  • Pro-Beijing lawmaker Leung Che-cheung said umbrellas are dangerous weapons. His proof? Martial arts movies with Wong Fei-hung. Quite literally: “[…] tear gas and pepper spray are useless weapons … because they cannot make protesters fall [down], they just come back time after time.” Cue the silly posters and memes! I’m loving this article (from Business Insider, no less!) with clips from different movies in which heroes fight with umbrellas.
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2 thoughts on “Umbrella Movement Days 17-19

  1. Great thoughtful post…i think you are right that the “whites are ethnic idea” is a misfiring of provincializing Europe thinking, probably ending up masking white privilege unless that problem is constantly foregrounded.

    Keep wishing the occupy folks had thought a bit more about their relationship to mainland, not just gov.t but the urban nationalistic public (but maybe I’m misjudging them). Seems like taking money from Western NGOs is totally understandable–there’s no question there are links to make and lessons to learn from each other–but in the optics of dealing w/ the PRC it was really unthoughtful.

    Question for you V: seems to me the main constituency the movement should be aiming to reach out to and persuade are urban PRC folks (not me or you etc.)…in the long run their fates are braided. But do you agree with that idea? Do the Occupy folks agree? The HK kids here in the US who support the movement seem pretty oblivious of how PRC folks will view them. Are they more thoughtful in HK?

    • I very much agree with you on this problem of thinking broadly – I think people are just starting to think about reaching out to “blue ribbon people” and others who oppose the Movement. I heard a rumor a few weeks ago that Scholarism would be going door to door to speak to people in the New Territories, which is usually considered more conservative, but I haven’t heard anything else about it, even from a Scholarism adviser. Just last night (during the one month gathering) a few people called for reaching out to anti-Occupy individuals, so hopefully this problem will change.

      I’m also wondering if people in HK are hooking up with their friends and relatives in Guangdong, especially if they are all Cantonese speaking. It seems that the attitude is more concerned with Hong Kong internally, rather than thinking beyond Hong Kong and what its relationship to mainland China could be.

      I think another issue is that the movement has been branded as a fight for “democracy,” when many of the problems that motivate protesters are economic – and issues of economic justice and social welfare could be more widely shared and understood than sensitive, political issues.

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