29 October 2014

Searching for Umbrella Man 尋找雨傘人

Edward arrived at the vehicle-free Connaught Road expressway and surveyed the Admiralty protest site, which, until then, he had only seen on CNN. It was 18 October, Day 20 of the largest political event in Hong Kong’s post-Handover history. The 40-year-old law firm partner had just returned from a business trip in London that had kept him out of town for the last two weeks. He climbed over the median barrier and studied the wall of pro-democracy signage written in a few dozen languages. From his elevated vantage point, he could see metal barricades blocking major arteries connecting the financial district to the rest of the city. Protestors had reinforced the roadblocks with garbage cans, wooden crates and water-filled barriers, tied together with household plastic fasteners. He took out his phone to snap a few shots, and heaved a sigh. 

Xiaobing would turn 15 in a few days and Nai-nai, his grandmother, had baked him his favorite sweet buns. The evening before, Xiaobing had biked the five-kilometer distance from his home near Chang’an Avenue (長安路) to Nai-nai’s place southwest of Tiananmen Square to pick up the buns. That his school had recently suspended classes had left the teenager with a lot of free time on his hands. The entire Beijing had been in lockdown since May, after students from Peking University began camping out on Tiananmen Square. Many streets along Xiaobing’s bike route had been blocked by makeshift barriers built by local residents using whatever materials they could find on the streets. According to Xiaobing’s father, a military officer, the roadblocks were there to stop soldiers from entering the city and harming the students.

Student protests, then and now

Inside the tent city at Admiralty, Edward slowed his pace to take in the new way of life that had coagulated in the past three weeks. The sprawling maze of camping tents were flanked by shower facilities and first aid stations. At an area labeled “Study Room,” student protestors hunkered down to do homework, while volunteers patrolled up and down the aisle to offer snacks. Edward walked up to one of the supplies tents to check out what they had: bottled water, crackers, umbrellas, blankets and foam mats. “Would you like a drink of water?” the station manager offered, handing him a bottle. “No, thank you,” Edward repied, “but may I ask where you got all this stuff?” “Everything was donated,” the manager said matter-of-factly. “Excuse me for a second,” she apologized, before turning to a delivery man who had just arrived with a load of supplies. A fruit vendor had sent four boxes of bananas and two crates of Chinese pears.

Peking University students had worked out a division of labor on and off Tiananmen Square: liberal arts students would give speeches and hand out flyers on major intersections, while engineering and science students would work behind the scenes to build tents and transport supplies. Some came up with the idea of releasing balloons to ward off reconnaissance helicopters dispatched by the military. Many students had gone on a hunger strike, some even stopped drinking water altogether. But that had not stopped concerned citizens from taking food to the square by tricycle. Many parents prepared homemade red bean soup and other desserts; others provided hand towels and clean clothes. Xiaobing too wanted to give away Nai-nai’s sweet buns, even though he did not really understand why students had occupied the square. They spoke of democracy and reform, and used big words like pluralism and constitutionalism. All Xiaobing knew was that the protestors meant well and that the entire city had rallied behind them. He had never seen Beijing so united for a cause.

Police-protestor standoff, then and now

Edward approached one of the students at the Study Room and asked, in accented Cantonese, how long she had been studying there. “Since the facility was built last week,” she answered. He then asked her which university she attended. “Chinese Univer… Excuse me, are you a Blue Ribbon?”  She meant whether he was a police sympathizer. Edward figured it must have been his Mainland accent that had roused her suspicion. “Haha, no,” he chuckled and said, “I’m just a concerned citizen.” He had read about the Blue Ribbons in the paper: anti-protestors who descended on protest sites to taunt students and forcibly remove barricades. There were verbal, sometimes physical and sexual, assaults. No one knew who they really were: angry citizens who had been inconvenienced by the protests, or rent-a-mobs hired to instill fear. The ones who wore face masks and black T-shirts were believed to be triad members. Even though the Blue Ribbons were most active in Mongkok and had by-and-large stayed clear of Admiralty, Edward understood why the young girl would be guarded when a stranger asked too many questions.

Despite everything that was going on in Beijing, Xiaobing continued to hang out on the streets. The knowledge that his father was a military officer had given him a sense of security. In the past several days, however, Xiaobing had seen mean-looking men smashing car windows and vandalising public property. The delinquents worked systematically, as if following orders. They would only wreak things and leave civilians alone. Their presence had fueled rumors that the government had released prisoners to the streets to make trouble, which would then give the army a convenient excuse to enter the city to reclaim Tiananmen Square. That’s what Xiaobing had heard from the neighbors when they discussed the situation with his parents. Until then, it had not crossed his mind that the government he was taught all his life to praise was capable of doing such evil things.

Symbol of democracy, then and now

Edward found what he had gone to Admiralty to see: Umbrella Man. Created by fine arts students out of scrap wood, the 12-foot-tall statue symbolized the protesters’ use of umbrellas to fend off tear gas 20 days ago. Since then, students continued to invent new defences, wrapping foam flooring on their arms and shins to protest against police batons and putting on lab goggles to keep off pepper spray. Other than isolated episodes of excessive force, however, law enforcement had exercised relative restraint toward the students. Predictions that the police might use rubber bullets or mobilize tour buses to round up protestors had so far been false alarms. Edward took a picture of the towering statue with his phone, lowered his head and said a prayer. 

In the small hours of 4 June, two days before his 15th birthday, Xiaobing – and everyone else in the neighborhood – was woken up by the trembling of the ground. His mother thought it was an earthquake but his father knew better: the tremors were vertical and not sideways. At around 5:00am, Xiaobing found himself standing on a street corner next to some of his neighbors, watching a caravan of tanks hurtle down Chang’an Avenue. By his count, there were at least a dozen of them. Xiaobing could not take his eyes off the caterpillar tracks – there were sparks where the metal plates hit the ground. The weight of the tanks cracked the tarmaced road, whipping up a small sandstorm in their path. They were travelling at full speed toward Tiananmen Square, where many of the students were still asleep in their tents. But not for long. From afar, Xiaobing could hear sporadic bursts of gunshots at the square, punctuated by the low boom of tear gas blasts. He ran back home to tell his parents what he had seen and heard.

The rest of the morning was a blur. Xiaobing vaguely remembered the dull sound of raindrops pattering at the living room windows. In the afternoon, he returned to the streets with his parents. On Chang’an Avenue, they saw a burned armoured vehicle, which, as they would later find out, was torched by an enraged man who had lost his only son during the military intervention. Outside Tiananmen Square, Xiaobing saw an orderly formation of tanks on one side of the now empty space. There was not a student or camping tent in sight; even the 33-foot-tall Goddess of Democracy statue had vanished into thin air. Nor was there any trace of blood. It was said that the heavy rain that morning was a gift from the gods to the government, to erase any evidence of their crimes. Xiaobing looked up to the sky and saw a cluster of helicopters. It was how the government managed to clean everything up so quickly, his father explained. The only hint of a massacre was the pockmarked walls and structures in the area. Many of the bullet holes were at eye level, that meant soldiers were shooting to kill. His father said the killers were no ordinary soldiers, because ordinary soldiers would not shoot civilians. He was convinced that they were active-duty troops sent back from the Chinese-Vietnamese border* to carry out a specific mission: clear Tiananmen Square by daybreak.

Hand-drawn map by Edward

After finishing secondary school in Beijing, Xiaobing moved to the UK to study law and took the Christian name Edward. He practiced at a London law firm for 12 years before moving to Hong Kong in 2010. These days, he flies to Beijing every summer to see his old parents and visit what he calls the ghosts of Tiananmen Square. Standing in front of the Umbrella Man statue at Admiralty, Edward felt a lump in this throat. He was overcome by the striking similarities between the two student-led movements: their organization, their struggles and, on some level, their naïveté. In his prayer, he asked the gods to spare the protestors from the fate met by their brothers and sisters 25 years ago. He prayed that Beijing had learned its lessons, and that the story would have a different ending this time around. He also prayed that the students in Hong Kong would have the patience for a drawn-out war, for whatever it is that they are asking for will not happen overnight. Edward then said goodbye to Umbrella Man, an old friend he had just met.

This article is based on the author's personal interview with Edward, who gave his firsthand account of what he witnessed on 4 June 1989. His last name is omitted to avoid personal repercussion for him in Mainland China.

*The Sino-Vietnamese skirmish of 1984 ended in early 1989.

05 October 2014

Darkest Before Dawn 黎明前的黑暗

Tear gas and pepper spray are so last week.

On Friday, Day 6 of the Umbrella Revolution, hired thugs fanned out at protest sites across the city, starting with Mongkok and quickly spreading to Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay. By nightfall, angry mobs disguised as “pro-Hong Kong citizens” had moved into Admiralty, the heart of the students-led pro-democracy movement.

Thug attack

I had arrived in Admiralty earlier the evening to offer protestors free help with their homework on the street. I was explaining the stories of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. to two university freshmen, when my phone started to buzz with text messages. “The Triads are heading your way. Stay Safe!” a reporter friend warned. “Leave Admiralty NOW, and remove any yellow ribbons on you,” said another. The yellow ribbon has been an insignia for the movement, as is the yellow umbrella that is now known around the world. Pro-Beijing groups have responded with a symbol of their own: a blue ribbon to call on law enforcement to end the political standoff. Many of the thugs in Mongkok were seen wearing the blue ribbon.

I didn’t pay much attention to my friends’ warnings. They weren’t anything new – rumors about Beijing mobilizing Triad members to harass protestors had been circulating on social media for days. With so many false alarms going off this week, we had learned to take things with a heap of salt. That said, fighting crowds with crowds is nothing new. Rent-a-mobs are routinely deployed in unrests in Thailand and the Philippines. They are a weapon of choice not only because links to the renter are hard to prove, but also because they give authorities a convenient excuse to use force. A clash between yellow and blue ribbons would certainly be the justification that Hong Kong police had been waiting for to end the week-long impasse. 

One of clashes in Mongkok

A few minutes later, my sidewalk classroom was interrupted yet again, this time by speeches broadcasted from a makeshift podium fifty meters away. The speaker was Joshua Wong (黃之鋒), founder of the activist group Scholarism (學民思潮) and one of the leaders of the Umbrella Revolution. He was confirming reports that throngs of angry blue ribbons had overrun Mongkok and Causeway Bay. Then came a series of emotional accounts from students who had been kicked and punched by mobsters earlier that evening. One girl, still sobbing, recounted her experience of being groped in the chest and up the legs. Horrified, I took out my phone and searched for corroborating news reports on the Internet. On the subject of sexual assault, one man was heard taunting a teenage girl: “You should expect molestation in a street protest!”

I told my “students” to go home and continued scrolling through the news feed on my phone. The situation had deteriorated rapidly in the last several hours. Amateur videos of physical and sexual assault abounded, many of them were too gruesome to watch. The attacks, a form of domestic terrorism, were systematic and indiscriminate: students, journalists and even passers-by. Much of the public outrage was also directed at the police’s flagrant inaction. Some uniformed officers were seen standing idly by with their arms folded, while others took advantage of the mayhem to remove barricades set up by students. Worse, there were video clips showing police officers arresting assailants on the spot, only to release them quietly on the other end of the street. 

I continued to sit on the sidewalk, overcome with disgust, frozen in disbelief. I had many unanswered questions. Were the blue ribbons gang members or disgruntled citizens? Were they hired by Beijing? Were they working in cahoots with police? Who were our real enemies? The only thing I knew was that whoever was behind the coordinated attacks had run out of options and was desperate enough to make a deal with the devil. Resorting to Hong Kong’s Underworld to handle tricky situations has long been an open secret and a time-honored tradition. In 1984, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping openly endorsed the Triads by declaring that “there are many good guys among them.” These days, local mafias like 14K and Wo Sing Wo are called upon by loan sharks to collect unpaid debt, and from property developers to intimidate stubborn residents who hold up lucrative real estate projects.

Student protestors formed a human chain to keep the peace

I decided to heed my friends’ advice to leave the protest site before the mob arrived. I spent the rest of the night at home watching clashes in Admiralty play out on live television. Images of peaceful protestors being beaten and not fighting back broke my heart and sickened my stomach. The next morning, I woke up to more news reports of fracas happening all over the city, as some of the protestors attempted to reclaim Mongkok and Causeway Bay. At a news conference, Security Secretary Lai Tung-kwok (黎棟國) vehemently denied claims of collusion between police and the Triads. On a radio show,  cabinet member Lam Woon-kwong (林焕光) dismissed the allegations as a “fairy tale.” I drifted in and out of sleep while footage of street violence interweaved with public statements by government officials. By 1:30pm, I was still in bed, staring unseeing at the television set. I was disgusted by the ochlocracy in our streets and the little that had been done to stop it. I was angry with some of my Facebook friends who applauded the blue ribbons for teaching student protestors a lesson. Above all, I was depressed by the hopelessness of the situation, for the mob attacks would only get worse in the days to come.  

I found myself right where our enemies wanted us to be: a state of dejection and defeat. “You are smarter than that,” I told myself. I then willed my body out of bed, took a cold shower and ate a hearty lunch, the first proper meal in the last 48 hours. As I emptied my bag, I found a piece of hard candy given to me by a student volunteer the night before. My eyes started to well up, for the gift reminded me of how much they had done for the city and the long way they had yet to go. It also gave me a much needed boost of energy. I started to focus on what lay ahead. At this critical juncture, we must regroup, reassess and re-strategize. If it meant retreating from other protest sites to fortify the stronghold in Admiralty, then that’s what we would do. Whatever our next move might be, we must stay a few steps ahead of our opponents. We must not lose faith in our cause and play into the hands of the mobs. We must remember, no matter how grim things may look at the moment, that the night is always darkest before dawn.

A gift that is worth its weight in gold

02 October 2014

Worst of Times, Best of Times 最壞的時代 最好的時光

It was Day 3 of Occupy Central, now known across the globe as the Umbrella Revolution. Umbrellas and raincoats, perhaps the humblest of all household objects, have been thrust onto the world stage, as have the tens of thousands of teenage students who had used them to fend off a police crackdown on Sunday. Tonight, their trusty rain gear would be needed once again – the Hong Kong Observatory had just issued the “amber” rain alert for the coming thunderstorm.

A transformational experience for Hong Kong

I changed out of my work clothes in the office and walked to Admiralty, the de facto nerve center of the student-led movement demanding the right to choose our own leader. I spotted my brother Kelvin and his wife deep in the crowd. They were listening quietly to a student speaker at the microphone. It was a small miracle that I found the two, as they were swarmed by people as far as the eyes could see, all dressed in black. No one knew how many more had come out tonight – nor did anyone really care. Public turnout normally matters a great deal to protest organizers because it is a measure of their success. But not this time. This time we didn’t need a number to tell us that.

A few minutes into our sit-in, volunteers carrying plastic bags stopped by and offered us crackers and tissue paper. There were dozens of them patrolling up and down the aisle, handing out anything from snacks and drinks to paper fans and face towels. Others were collecting garbage and cooling down the crowds with mist sprayers. I felt parched from the stifling heat and asked for water. Five people jumped at my request and came charging toward me with water bottles. I took one from the student nearest me, who then thanked me for accepting his water and reminded me to recycle the plastic bottle at the drop-off tent down the road.

Hong Kong has never been more beautiful

There is a renewed sense of neighborhood in Hong Kong, something we haven’t seen since the city transformed from a cottage industry economy to a gleaming financial center. All over the protest zones – in Admiralty, Central, Causeway Bay and Mongkok – micro-communities have emerged where the air is clean (traffic has all but vanished), people smile (replacing that permanent frown from big city stress) and everyone helps each other without wanting anything in return (we have a bad rap among fellow Asians for being calculating). This is the Hong Kong we love and miss. This is the Hong Kong I grew up in.

Suddenly, we heard loud claps of thunder and it started to pour. Umbrellas popped open like a time-lapse video of flowers in bloom. Everyone stayed where they were, as raincoats and more umbrellas began to circulate among the crowds. Someone joked that the gods were coming for CY Leung and we all laughed. Once the storm passed, volunteers spontaneously deployed brooms and squeegees to remove water puddles. There were no leaders to give orders, because none was needed. Since the Sunday crackdown, Occupy Central has evolved into a bottom-up campaign based on the self-discipline and volunteerism of individual citizens. No wonder the foreign press has dubbed this “the most civilized street protest in the world.” Our tourism board spends tens of millions every year promoting Hong Kong as “Asia’s World City.” Ironically, all it took to put us on the world map was a bunch of teenagers doing what was natural to them. This place is much more than just shopping malls and restaurants – we now have our young people to brag about.

The world's nicest protestors

At the urging of a student patrol, we left jam-packed Admiralty and moved west toward Central where there was more space. Along the Connaught Road expressway, cloud-hugging skyscrapers, those modern cathedrals of glass and steel, stood guard. But they looked strangely out of place tonight, as were the shiny sports cars trapped in the nearby City Hall parking garage. This latest turn of events has forced all of us to take a long, hard look at our way of life, one that is predicated on the assumption that social progress can only be achieved through greater affluence and more development. But affluence for whom and development for what? Has any of these 80-story buildings or double-digit retail spending growth made us better people, people who are half as generous and benevolent as the student protestors? Or half as happy?

At the Ice House Street intersection, a crowd gathered to listen to a crash course on what to do if they get pepper-sprayed by police. “Don’t douse water all over your face or else the water carrying the chemicals will drip down your body and irritate your skin,” the 19-year-old university student warned. “Do this instead.” She expertly demonstrated how to tilt the head to one side and rinse the eyes using a capful of water. “And one more thing,” she continued, “you are now at the westernmost frontier of the Central occupation. It is my duty to warn you about your liability should you get arrested for illegal assembly.” After she finished, the audience clapped and broke up into small groups. There were casual conversations about the Sunday crackdown and the government’s next move. What were once talk-of-the-town topics like the new iPhone 6 and tabloid rumors about actor Nicolas Tse are now completely irrelevant. Even Facebook walls received a facelift: food porn, selfies and narcissistic rants have all given way to protest updates and stories of random acts of kindness.

Three days in, the Umbrella Revolution has already elevated the intellect of an entire generation. In all, it took 87 canisters of tear gas to jolt our youths out of their political apathy. Many now realize that politics affects them personally and that the subject is not as untouchable as their parents and peers had made it out to be. They also realize that video games, karaoke and television shows may have been social anesthesia designed to divert their attention from what matters and turn them into a bunch of fai tsing (廢青; literally, useless youths) who follow rules that they had no part in setting up. Awoken and armed with a new sense of purpose, these students have risen to the occasion and reclaimed their future.

That's the stereotype before this week

These past few days have been my happiest in the nine years since I repatriated to Hong Kong. I have visited the protest zones every day, alternating between euphoria and tears of joy. Who would have imagined that one of the city’s darkest chapter has brought out the absolute best in us? Our students have occupied city streets, and by displaying exemplary discipline and world class charisma, they have also occupied the moral high ground. What they are doing is neither an act nor a ploy to manipulate public opinion – it is genuine goodness emanating from within. I feel sorry for friends and family who aren’t in Hong Kong this week, because much of what goes on here has to be seen to be believed. Whatever the outcome of the movement is, Hong Kong has already won.

Just a few days ago, the people under the umbrellas were attacking
the people holding the umbrellas with tear gas and pepper spray

29 September 2014

Six Hours in Admiralty 金鐘六小時

I gathered a few essentials – cell phone, notebook, pen, face towel and eye goggles – and left my apartment. I met up with my brother Kelvin at Lippo Centre and we walked to the section of the Connaught Road expressway that had been taken over by protestors and regular citizens who supported them. We were about 50 meters from the government offices, the epicenter of a massive student protest to demand universal suffrage in Hong Kong and the frontline of a police standoff.

It was 3:45pm. By then, there were throngs of people all around us, many wearing goggles and raincoats to guard against pepper spray. Some put saran wrap around their eye-gear for extra protection. Tanya Chan (陳淑莊), vice chairwoman of the Civic Party, was speaking into a bullhorn. A student wove through the crowd with a loudspeaker broadcasting her words. Chan asked citizens to hold the line outside the Bank of China tower to stop police from advancing. She also warned us about undercover cops collecting intelligence from the crowds. “Strike up a conversation with anyone who looks suspicious,” she said.

The tank-man of Hong Kong

From afar, someone yelled “Saline water! We need saline water!” Other supplies were needed too: face masks, umbrellas and drinking water. My brother and I went to see what we could do to help. We joined the human chain passing supplies from one side of Connaught Road to the other. They were for student protestors who had been pepper-sprayed by police. The girl next to me, who was about 15, shoved a carton of fresh milk into my hand. “Pass it on,” she said. Milk is supposed to sooth the eyes because it neutralizes the chemicals in the pepper spray. There was order in this chaos: everyone was a commander and everyone was a foot soldier.

We hit a lull in the calls for supplies. I told Kelvin I needed to use the bathroom and we walked to a nearby shopping mall. On our way back, I proposed to grab a few supplies for the frontline. My brother had overheard that saline water was most needed, and so we spent the next 45 minutes scouring Wanchai for pharmacies, because other volunteers had already emptied the shelves in the vicinity.

It started so peacefully

As we were paying for saline water at a local drugstore, we saw a text message on our phones. “Police has just fired tear gas into the crowds!” The text was from my sister-in-law who was monitoring the latest developments from her home. We sensed the gravity of the situation and began running with our purchases back to Admiralty. As we approached Connaught Road, we heard harrowing accounts from students who had retreated from the frontline. A young man said, “The police hoisted a black banner, and we had never seen a black banner before. Now we know: black means tear gas.” The girl next to him chimed in, “It stung like hell.” Many started cursing at the police officers standing guard by the sidewalk. “Have you all gone mad?” shut one person. “How could you do this to our defenseless students? Don’t you have children of your own?” asked another.

Over the next hour, we kept hearing shots being fired, boom boom boom, like fireworks in Chinese New Year. The use of tear gas had caught the city by surprise. If you follow local news, you would know about the famous episode at the 2012 chief executive election, when the then-candidate CY Leung was accused during a televised debate by his opponent Henry Tang of once proposing that riot police and tear gas be unleashed on protestors. Leung vehemently denied it at the time, but it looked like he had just fulfilled the prophecy.

"You lie! You said it!"

Tear gas might have been commonplace elsewhere in the world, but it isn’t in Hong Kong. The last time it was used was during the 2005 WTO Conference to disperse angry Korean farmers protesting outside the Wanchai convention center. Leung’s decision to deploy it against unarmed students this time, despite the political price he must pay, suggests that he has been given direct orders from Beijing to do whatever it takes to clear the streets before citizens return to work Monday morning. In so doing, however, he has irreversibly redrawn the relationship between people and government. There is no turning back now – neither for him nor for us.

As night fell, tension rose. My brother and I moved to a footbridge outside the Police Headquarters on the ominously named Arsenal Street. There, high above the ground, we saw a formation of armed riot police advancing steadily from Wanchai toward Admiralty. Lit only by the amber streetlights, the scene was eerily reminiscent of the streets of Beijing on that fateful June night 25 years ago. Many on the bridge spontaneously screamed at the people down below: “Run! Riot police is coming! Run!” That’s when I saw one of the police officers unfold the infamous black banner. Moments later, shots of tear gas began arcing through the dark sky, before clouds of white smoke billowed from the ground. It smelled like something between burned rubber and a very pungent mustard. Pandemonium ensued. A stranger came up to me and my brother and said, “You two need these,” and handed us two face masks. My eyes started to sting and I put on my eye goggles. We ran with the retreating crowd and took shelter from the nearby park.

This is not the Hong Kong I knew

It was 9:30pm and Kelvin and I agreed that we should heed the student organizers’ warning and leave for our own safety, as there were rumors that riot police would start dispersing the crowds with rubber bullets. Kelvin lives in Wanchai and I Pokfulam. We said goodbye to each other and parted ways. By then almost every road between Wanchai and Central had been blocked, either by police or by makeshift blockades set up by students. I walked three kilometers to Sai Ying Pun, before finding a taxi to take me home. During my 30-minute walk, a single thought kept running through my head: this is not the Hong Kong I knew. Perhaps years later we would all look back on this night and tell ourselves that this was good for us. Like bitter Chinese medicine, what went down today has made us stronger and better. But like bitter Chinese medicine, it was very difficult to swallow.

I got home, which had never felt safer or quieter. I said a prayer for those who had chosen to stay in Admiralty – students who had nothing to defend themselves with but umbrellas and face masks. I took a shower and sat idly in bed. Suddenly, all that had happened in the last six hours hit me, as images and sounds finally sank in. I started to sob, and my hands shook despite myself. I wiped my eyes, turned on my computer and wrote this.

15 September 2014

Kindness of Strangers 陌生人的仁慈

It was around 9pm Sunday night when I received a frantic text message on my iPhone.
“Jason, I got a problem! I missed my flight and need cash to buy a new ticket. My ATM card doesn’t work in HK. Can you give me your credit card number? I’ll pay you back when I’m back in the Philippines.”
The S.O.S. was from Carlos, a young journalist from Manila visiting Hong Kong for the weekend. We had met the first time at a media event just the day before. My instinct told me it was probably a scam – earlier this year my brother got a phone call from a mysterious man saying that a distant relative of ours had been hit by a motorcycle and needed money for surgery. My brother hung up before the man finished talking.

I was about to delete the text message when another one buzzed in.
“This is for real. I’m stuck at the airport. I’ll pay you back. Promise!”
I decided to put my foot down.
“We just met. I don’t feel comfortable giving out my credit card number over the phone. Sorry and good luck.”
Carlos made it back to Manila that same night. The next morning he sent me an e-mail to explain what had happened at the airport and how he had managed to get home eventually. After contacting four or five people in Hong Kong, only his cousin who works here had believed him and was willing to lend him money. Everybody else had declined to help – I was one of them. “We aren’t a very trusting people,” I apologized to Carlos in my reply. Living in a big city, it seems, has turned us into Bad Samaritans.

*                    *                  *

Bystander apathy in action

When it comes to dispensing kindness to strangers, Hong Kongers can be a bit schizophrenic. We rank 10th out of 135 countries on the World Giving Index, donating generously to anyone in need, from earthquake victims in Sichuan to starving children in far-flung corners of the world. Yet, for simple things like holding the door for a mother with a baby-stroller or pressing the “open door” button in a lift, we can be downright stone-hearted. Every now and then, I hear scathing accounts of urban apathy from friends and co-workers. A lawyer in my department recently complained to me that she had once slipped and fell in a crowded shopping mall but no one had gone to her aid. I have witnessed an elderly deliveryman tripping over an uneven sidewalk in front of a half-dozen men smoking outside an office building, none of whom had chosen to act.

But each time I am about to give up on humanity, a heart-warming Good Samaritan story will reel me back in. A few weeks ago, my hairdresser Herbert fell down a flight of stairs after a night of drinking at Knutsford Terrace. The fall left him with a blood clot in his brain and put him in the ICU for a week. “If it weren’t for this passer-by who stopped and called an ambulance,” said Herbert, “I wouldn’t be cutting your hair right now.” Anecdotal evidence like that tells me that bystander behavior is more complex than I think, and that there is much more at play than the easy conclusion that we have all become creatures of indifference.

Creatures of indifference?

In a chilly spring morning in 1964, 29-year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed and killed in front of her New York City home while 37 neighbors watched but did not intervene. The Genovese murder shocked America and inspired social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané to begin their seminal research on bystander apathy. The team designed a series of experiments to analyze helping behavior and postulated that a bystander goes through a five-step process before intervention: he first notices the event, identifies it as an emergency, takes responsibility for helping, formulates a response and finally takes action.

Darley and Latané found that the presence of other people can disrupt the bystander’s decision process at the third stage (taking responsibility) and turn a Good Samaritan into a passive onlooker. They argued that the psychological cost of doing nothing is significantly reduced by the assumption that somebody else will help and by the sharing of guilt among the group. It is this “diffusion of responsibility” – rather than a lack of compassion – that led to the neighbors’ inaction during Genovese’s attack. Diffusion of responsibility also explained why I declined Carlos’ call for help. I had assumed, consciously or subconsciously, that he must have friends and relatives who are in a better position to bail him out than someone he has just met.

Who really killed Genovese?

Half a century after the Genovese murder, the debate over bystander apathy has reignited once again, this time in the Wild Wild East of Modern China. On 13 October 2011, a two-year-old girl named Wang Yue (小悦悦) was playing on the street when she was run over by two separate delivery trucks. A surveillance camera showed that 18 passersby ignored the victim; some even skirted around the blood. Wang died at the hospital a week later. Within days, the video went viral on social media and sparked a nationwide discussion on the erosion of social conscience. Wang’s tragic death is a wake-up call for China not only because of the shocking callousness of the passers-by (a textbook case of diffusion of responsibility), but also because it reveals a far more troubling factor that affects bystander behavior: fraud.

I’m not talking about phone scams – like the one my brother encountered – or identity thefts – what I feared when I was asked to give out my credit card number. I'm talking about victim’s extortion, a burgeoning social phenomenon in China. It all started in the morning of 20 November 2006, when Peng Yu (彭宇), a college student in Nanjing, aided an elderly woman who had fallen off the bus. Instead of showing gratitude, the woman accused Peng of pushing her and filed a lawsuit demanding RMB45,000 (US$7,000) in medical expenses. Siding with the “victim,” the judge wrote: “According to common sense, the defendant wouldn't have helped the plaintiff if he weren’t in some way responsible.” Since then, several judges in other provinces followed the same line of reasoning in similar rescuer-turned-culprit lawsuits. In one case, a storekeeper accused of knocking down a customer whom he had helped was exonerated by a closed-circuit television. The footage showed that the storekeeper was nowhere near the victim when she fell.

Poor Wang Yue

China is no stranger (pun intended) to the persecution of do-gooders. Social advocates like Ai Weiwei (艾未未) and Zhao Lianhai (趙連海) are routinely harassed, beaten and jailed for speaking out against injustice and government corruption. That, combined with the presumption of guilt in Peng Yu-type lawsuits, has taught ordinary citizens to mind their own business – as did the 18 bystanders who left Wang Yue for dead on the street. An opinion poll in Beijing found that 87% of respondents said they would not aid old people who have fallen for fear of being sued. These days, bystanders have learned to self-protect by taking pictures on their smart phones before lifting someone up or performing CPR. Likewise, the only way for some senior citizens to get help is to declare aloud “I fell by myself. I won't sue you!” This is a country with some serious soul-searching to do.

Facing a mounting public outcry, Shenzhen passed China’s first Good Samaritan law in August 2013. The new law punishes false accusers and absolves from liability anyone who renders assistance to those in need. In November 2013, the Beijing government launched a pilot accident insurance programme for the city’s three million senior citizens in an attempt to discourage injured elders from turning Good Samaritans into ATM machines. The hope is that the combination of carrots and sticks will go some way to mend a social fabric ripped apart by corruption, income disparity and old age poverty. 

"Will anybody help?"

Despite legal measures in test cities like Shenzhen and Beijing, victim’s extortion has shown no signs of letting up. Just this past January, a garbage collector in Guangdong committed suicide after an elderly man he had rescued blamed him for the injury and demanded hundreds of thousands in compensation. It is a reminder that change doesn’t happen overnight, especially for a nation of 1.4 billion people. It will be some time before citizens will feel at ease again to be Good Samaritans, like the dozens of commuters in Perth, Australia who performed an urban miracle last week by tilting a subway train to save a man trapped in the platform gap. Until then, people may want to wear a GoPro camera whenever they go out. 

No diffusion of responsibility there

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This article previously appeared in the September 2014 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column "The Urban Confessional."

As printed in MANIFESTO

27 August 2014

Ice Bucket Challenged 挑戰冰桶

By now you are justifiably sick of watching videos of friends and celebrities dumping icy water on themselves. Search the word #icebucketchallenge on Instagram and you will get over a million hits. The latest social media phenomenon, intended to raise awareness for ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), began in June and had raged to an all-out Internet frenzy by mid-August. Gangnam Style is so two years ago.

Former President George W. Bush joined in the fun

The figures are staggering: in the U.S., the challenge has raised nearly US$80 million (HK$620 million) for the ALS Association in just a few short weeks. 2.4 million videos have been shared on Facebook and 5.5 million mentions have been logged on Twitter. Business schools around the world are re-writing their Marketing 101 course materials to analyze what many believe to be the most successful chain letter stunt in history. 

The campaign has spread from a small coastal city in Florida to virtually every corner of the world – except perhaps North Korea and the Ebola-hit West African nations. The challenge now comes in many shapes and forms. In India, for instance, where drinking water is scarce, participants give away buckets of rice to feed the hungry. Palestinians in war-torn Gaza dunk rubble on themselves to spread awareness about Israel’s indiscriminate bombings.

Rubble bucket challenge in Gaza

In Hong Kong, where fads and crazes catch on faster than a minibus on the Tuen Mun Highway, ice bags are flying off the shelves at convenience stores and supermarkets. The lack of open space is no deterrent to trend-seeking citizens. Thousands have done it the Hong Kong way by standing in their telephone booth-sized bathrooms at home and getting doused next to shampoo bottles and hung towels. Even camera-shy government officials are showing an unusual interest in the publicity stunt, perhaps at the behest of their boss C.Y. Leung, who is grateful for any media distraction in this summer of discontent.

To date, the ice bucket challenge has raised HK$15 million for the Hong Kong Neuro-Muscular Disease Association (HKNMDA). The group, which provides support to ALS patients and their caretakers, has been caught completely off-guard by the craze. With only two full-time staffers, the small NGO outfit is inundated with a deluge of donors’ inquiries and an massive influx of new cash. It is nevertheless a problem that many charitable organizations wish they had.

Ice-bucketing in a Hong Kong bathroom

As is the case for any high-profile campaign, success is inevitably followed by a backlash. Naysayers ranging from regular netizens to newspaper columnists and medical doctors have come out swinging at the ALS challenge. They have focused on five main criticisms: (1) the waste of fresh water, (2) the waste of money on ice, (3) the health hazards of ice bucketing, (4) the potential cannibalizing effect on other charities, and (5) a 21st Century social phenomenon called “slacktivism.” Slacktivists are those who make a minimal effort to help a social cause, such as by sharing a Facebook post or signing an online petition, instead of donating money or volunteering their time. Recent examples includes the #StopKony online campaign against Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony and the #bringbackourgirls petition to rescue the kidnapped school girls in Nigeria.

To show that these criticisms are all a bunch of sanctimonious baloney, I shall rebut them one by one.

Dumping water won't get you many "likes" in California

Waste of fresh water: No one ever complains about the annual Standard Chartered Marathon, which consumed bottled water by the truckload. Once the race is over, runners go home to take a long, well-deserved shower and throw their sweat-soaked clothes in the washing machine, which uses 40 to 45 gallons of water per load. By contrast, the ALS challenge requires an amount of water equivalent to merely an extra 30 seconds in the shower. It also seems somewhat hypocritical to pick on ice bucketers when so many wash their cars every day and leave the faucets running while they brush their teeth.

Waste of moneyWhy not just give the ice money to charity? asks the skeptic. By that logic, kids who bake cupcakes to raise funds for their school libraries should just write a check instead of spending money on flour and eggs. At least dunking ice doesn’t make you fat. And if you really want to talk about wasting money, think of all those benefit dinners held at five-star hotels, where fancy tai-tais spend more on their designer gowns than on the charity. So let’s not jump up and down over a $17 bag of ice.

Health hazards: Doctors have warned that a sudden exposure to icy water can in very rare cases lead to a cold shock, which can be fatal for people with pre-existing cardiovascular problems. Four fire-fighters in Kentucky were injured last week when the ladder they were using to dump water got caught in a power line. But no matter what activities we engage in, there will always be thin-skulled cases and freak accidents. We don’t stop cleaning the beach for fear of stepping on broken glass, and we certainly don’t cancel the AIDS Walk because some guy with a weak heart dies from a heat stroke. In the grand scheme of things, dumping water is pretty safe.

Cannibalization:  Charitable donations are not a zero-sum game. Just because someone sends a bit of money to the ALS Association doesn’t mean that he will give less to his favorite charities. Even if there is a bit of “robbing Peter to pay Paul” going on, donating is ultimately a personal choice. Who is to say that the HKNMDA is less deserving than the Red Cross, or that ALS research is less urgent than curing cancer? If you are unsure about supporting ALS, read up on Stephen Hawking and the staggering contributions the physicist has made to mankind.

Slacktivism: Let’s face it, if people weren’t sharing videos of the ALS challenge, they would have been watching cat videos or posting food porn on Facebook – at least the campaign has given us something a bit more meaningful to divert our attention to. Even if only 5% of the participants actually end up donating money to ALS or learning about the disease, that’s 5% more than before the campaign took off. Slacktivists or not, ice bucketers should pat themselves on the shoulder for giving an overlooked and underfunded disease the global awareness it deserves. The challenge has done to ALS what Yul Brynner did to lung cancer and Mohammad Ali to Parkinson’s Disease.

UK teenage Cameron Lancaster drowned after taking the challenge

My rebuttal notwithstanding, there is one criticism for which I do have some sympathy. William Foxton of The Daily Telegraph describes the ALS challenge as a “middle-class wet T-shirt contest” and a “ghastly narcissistic freak show.” Indeed, few things are more off-putting then 15-minutes-of-famers who make the challenge all about themselves. Make no mistake, men who take off their shirts or women who put on skin-tight yoga tops are automatically suspect. And any video that lasts longer than 90 seconds or that is self-narrated in two or more languages crosses the line into self-promotion territory. I know at least one friend who is so desperate for attention that he badgers everyone he knows for a nomination. That said, none of these minor annoyances can negate all the good the campaign has done.

When it comes to neurological diseases, ALS is as bad as it gets. There is no known cause or treatment, period. In many cases, the patient is left physically incapacitated  other than eye movement and bowel functions  while his mind remains sound as a dollar. Second to finding a cure, the ice bucket challenge is the best thing that has happened to the tragic illness. And if we happen to get a little wet or indulge in a few minutes of self-gratification while telling the world about it, then so be it.

Justin Bieber was so desperate to show off
his abs that he did the challenge twice