Skip to main content

Rebels With a Cause 阿飛正傳

Two Sundays ago on May 16, I drove 30 minutes to my designated polling station at a high school tucked away on the far end of Guildford Road. In the quiet auditorium, the station manager handed me a ballot and a marker, before a uniformed volunteer ushered me to the voting booth. My footsteps squeaked noisily on the shiny floorboards and echoed through the hollow space. I was the only voter in the room. This cannot be good, I said to myself as I stamped a checkmark next to Tanya Chan’s (陳淑莊) name.

Voting card

Earlier this year, five opposition lawmakers from the hawkish League of Social Democrats (LSD 社民連) and the white-shoed Civic Party (公民黨) resigned to trigger by-elections they hoped to turn into a referendum on universal suffrage. The political campaign was ingenious in its originality and deviance. Thrown in a few manga posters and radical slogans, the lawmakers-cum-rebels stirred up a smoldering cauldron of social discontent that promised to plunge the administration into a constitutional crisis. 

Scrambling to respond, Donald Tsang pulled out all his tricks to sabotage the by-elections, first by cutting the number of polling stations so that many voters had to travel longer distances (that would explain why this Pokfulam resident had to drive all the way to the Peak) and then by openly calling on civil servants to boycott the elections. Behind the scenes, the Chief Executive pressured Tsang Yuk Sing (曾鈺成) to give up his LegCo presidency to secure an extra vote for the government’s reform package. Much to the Donald Tsang’s chagrin, however, his sleight-of-hand only added public attention and press coverage to the rebels’ cause.

But it all went well until it didn’t. The morning after the by-elections, newsstands across the city were plastered with scathing headlines about the record low voters’ turnout. Only around 580,000 or 17.1% of registered voters went to the polls, well below any target that campaign organizers had hoped to achieve. Emboldened by the results, Donald Tsang and his posse rushed to declare the referendum a complete failure and used the abysmal turnout as evidence that citizens valued his reform package over radicalized political movements. 

Meanwhile, the Party of Five struggled to hide their disappointment and shifted media attention to the government’s below-the-belt tactics. But it was no use. When it was all said and done, the rebels got their seats back plus plenty of egg on their faces.

Vote them back in

So what went wrong? 

A few factors contributed to our collective indifference that precipitated the spectacular dud. Right from the start, campaign organizers had troubles getting through to their stoic constituents. Many voters were confused by the two parties’ mixed messages, while others were turned off by LSD’s gratuitous use of incendiary rhetoric. Penny-smart citizens also bought into the government’s charge that the by-elections were unnecessary and a waste of taxpayers’ money. 

As history has shown us time and again, people rarely can see beyond their noses. In the absence of any imminent danger like the passing of the anti-subversion bill in 2003, time-pressed Hong Kongers had better things to do than participate in a dubious movement that did not appear to better their lives in the short run. 

Worse still, a majority of voters simply found the status quo rather acceptable. Therein lies a fundamental quagmire facing every political advocate in Hong Kong: how are you supposed to help people who don’t need your help? Then there is that general sense of post-handover cynicism. 13 years into our decolonialization, Beijing has us eating out of its hand. Deep down every Hong Konger understands the grim reality we face: when it comes to sensitive subjects like constitutional reform, reasoned debate is not for China, sacred edicts are more its thing. So what’s the use of screaming and shouting all the way to the Liaison Office (中聯辦)?

Liaison Offce, a.k.a., the Death Star

Voters’ apathy aside, the rebels also had themselves to blame. By announcing an actual turnout target (set initially at an unrealistic 50%, only to be revised down to 30% and eventually to 25% just three days before the elections), the Party of Five had backed themselves into a corner. Voters are notoriously fickle and those in a money-grubbing city like ours certainly cannot be counted on. 

If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is that the success of a political movement must be measured not by a single number, but by whether it does what it is supposed to do. In this case the goal was to send Beijing a clear message that seven million Hong Kongers would not take the government’s regressive reform package lying down. Nothing more, nothing less. By that measure, the referendum was and continues to be a smashing success, if only we look hard enough to see it.

Like an unstoppable cannonball hitting an immovable wall, the de facto referendum touched a nerve and ruffled feathers in Beijing. As soon as the rebels announced their act of defiance, Central Government officials fell in line to express their displeasure, calling it “unconstitutional” – a ludicrous accusation with no legal basis – and threatening voters with doomsday scenarios. But the ripples of the referendum continue to be felt across our political landscape well beyond May 16. 

Within days after the by-elections, Beijing turned up the heat on its ground troops to ratchet up their public relations offensive. Representatives from the Liaison Office deigned to sit down with pan-democrats to break the legislative impasse. In an unfathomably stupid move, Tsang offered to take on Audrey Eu (余若薇), leader of the Civic Party, in a televised debate over his reform package. Just this weekend, the Chief Executive personally led his cabinet members in an all-out media blitz using the awkward “Act Now” (起錨) slogan to garner public support for his initiatives. 

Prime-time TV commercials, wall-to-wall posters and motorcades featuring a rogues’ gallery of bureaucratic pariahs were all part of a monkey show to assure Beijing that, despite the recent political close call, the administration still has the situation under control. Who says the referendum was a failure?

Donald Tsang's failed PR offensive

With the five lawmakers now back in the legislature, it is once again business as usual. The LSD provocateurs go on shouting slogans and throwing props in LegCo meetings, and the rest of the pan-democrats continue their gentlemanly opposition. Designed to be fail-safe, the de facto referendum succeeded by making Beijing tick and forcing those in charge to consider concessions on the constitutional debate, however small these concessions turn out to be. 

But the biggest pleasant surprise of it all is that the campaign managed to galvanize a new crop of young activists – turnout of voters between the ages 18 and 30 rose from 8% in 2003 to a whopping 18% – and, at a time when our cherished “Hongkongness” is being diluted every day, revealed a worthy new generation to whom the city’s core values can be passed down.

Popular Posts

Book Review: "Generation HK" 書評:《香港世代》

Unpacking the young generation in Hong Kong is a tall order, not least because a singular, archetypical “Hong Kong youth” does not exist. The cohort is as diverse and divergent as it comes, from socioeconomic background and upbringing to education and exposure to the wider world, to values, ideals and aspirations. It defies stereotypes and generalisations.

Ben Bland, a British correspondent for The Financial Times, is in a unique position to take on that ambitious project. Whereas Bland’s extensive experience reporting in Asia—including stints in Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar—has given him a broad field of view, his relatively short tenure in Hong Kong—just over two years—allows him to look at its people through a long-range lens.
It is that unadulterated objectivity and his unquenched curiosity that make Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow a discerning and refreshing read. Released last summer under Penguin Book’s inaugural “Hong Kong series” to mark the 20…

About the Author 關於作者

Born in Hong Kong, Jason Y. Ng is a globetrotter who spent his entire adult life in Italy, the United States and Canada before returning to his birthplace to rediscover his roots. He is a lawyer, published author, and contributor to The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Free Press and EJInsight. His social commentary blog As I See It and restaurant/movie review site The Real Deal have attracted a cult following in Asia and beyond. Between 2014 and 2016, he was a music critic for Time Out (HK).

Jason is the bestselling author of Umbrellas in Bloom (2016), No City for Slow Men (2013) and HONG KONG State of Mind (2010). Together, the three books form a Hong Kong trilogy that tracks the city's post-colonial development. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies. In 2017, Jason co-edited and contributed to Hong Kong 20/20, an anthology that marks the 20th anniversary of the handover. In July 2017, he was appointed Advising Editor for the Los Angeles Revie…

From Street to Chic, Hong Kong’s many-colored food scene 由大排檔到高檔: 香港的多元飲食文化

Known around the world as a foodie’s paradise, Hong Kong has a bounty of restaurants to satisfy every craving. Whether you are hungry for a lobster roll, Tandoori chicken or Spanish tapas, the Fragrant Harbour is certain to spoil you for choice.
The numbers are staggering. Openrice, the city’s leading food directory, has more than 25,000 listings—that’s one eatery for every 300 people and one of the highest restaurants-per-capita in the world. The number of Michelin-starred restaurants reached a high of 64 in 2015, a remarkable feat for a city that’s only a little over half the size of London. Amber and Otto e Mezzo occupied two of the five top spots in Asia according to The World’s Best Restaurants, serving up exquisite French and Italian fares that tantalise even the pickiest of taste buds.

While world class international cuisine is there for the taking, it is the local food scene in Hong Kong that steals the hearts of residents and visitors alike. Whatever your budget and palate…

Media Attention + Upcoming Events 媒體關注 + 最新動向

Upcoming events and speaking engagements in 2018

Shooting of British documentary about free expression in Hong Kong
Venue: Centennial Campus, University of Hong Kong
Date: 21 October
Release date: 2019

Panelist at Pink Dot Hong Kong 2018
Topic: Choice of jurisdiction for same-sex marriage
Venue: West Kowloon Cultural District
Date: 21 October
Time: 6:00pm

Launch of new website:
Date: November

Deliver legal workshop for foreign domestic workers organized by Philippine Consulate General HK and Wimler Foundation
Topic: Know your rights
Venue: Philippine Consulate General HK, Admiralty
Date: November

Book launch of Hong Kong Noir published by Akashic Books
Venue: TBD
Date: November

Release of Hong Kong Highs and Lows (2018 anthology by Hong Kong Writers Circle)
Short story: “Points of Inflexion”
Date: December


Speaker/panelist on BNP Paribas diversity & inclusion panels
Topic 1: What is an LGBT ally?
Venue: BNP Paribas, IFC Two
Date: 8 October
Topics: Male allies: a panel on…

Past Events: 2017年活動

Media coverage and speaking engagements in 2017

Interview with Apple Daily 蘋果日報
Title: "下月8日提訊 料親身上庭 [Patrick Ho] to be arraigned on 8 January, expected to appear in person"
Publication date: 22 December

Interview with Ming Pao Daily 明報
Title: "依法限提訊後70日開審 律師指變數仍多 [Patrick Ho to be tried within 70 days of indictment, but timing is subject to change" Publication date: 21 December

Interview with Ming Pao Daily 明報 Title: "何志平案1月8日提訊 或3月中開審 料獄中過農曆年 Patrick Ho to be arraigned on 8 January pending trial in March, expected to spend Chinese New Year in prison" Publication date: 21 December

Interview with Apple Daily 蘋果日報 Title: "起訴書:何志平倘罪成須充公財產 Indictment says Patrick Ho's assets to be seized upon conviction" Publication date: 20 December
Radio Interview with BBC Radio Title: "Censorship and freedom of expression in China and Hong Kong" Show: The Cultural Frontline Presenter: Tina Daheley Broadcast date: 11 December
Moderator at Enrich HK panel …

Join the Club 入會須知

You have reached a midlife plateau. You have everything you thought you wanted: a happy family, a well-located apartment and a cushy management job. The only thing missing from that bourgeois utopia is a bit of oomph, a bit of recognition that you have played by the rules and done all right. A Porsche 911? Too clichéd. A rose gold Rolex? Got that last Christmas. An extramarital affair that ends in a costly divorce or a boiled bunny? No thanks. How about a membership at one of the city’s country clubs where accomplished individuals like yourself hang out in plaid pants and flat caps? Sounds great, but you’d better get in line.

Clubs are an age-old concept that traces back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The introduction of coffee beans to England in the mid-17th Century spurred the proliferation of coffeehouses for like-minded gentlemen to trade gossip about the monarchy over a hot beverage. In the centuries since, these semi-secret hideouts evolved into main street establishments t…

Let the Tanhua Bloom 曇花再現

When I moderated Kevin Kwan’s book talk for China Rich Girlfriend at a Hong Kong literary event in 2015, the Singaporean-American author was in the process of casting for the Hollywood adaptation of his first book.
Three years later, Crazy Rich Asians the movie—a cross between Cinderella, Pride and Prejudice and The Bachelor—is a runaway hit in North America. The romantic comedy topped the U.S. weekend box office in its opening week and proved to Hollywood studios that a film featuring an all-Asian cast can be just as bankable. 

For Asian audiences everywhere, CRA is more than a feel-good summer blockbuster. It is the coming out party a long time coming. If the people we see on the big screen look cool and sassy, we feel we all do. But god forbid if they come off as dorky or lame, we all do too.
It’s not just the moviegoers who get the jitters. The same is true for actors, directors, screenwriters, and novelists of Asian descent. Whether CRA is a hit or a flop may jumpstart or cut sh…

Who is Agnes Chow? 誰是周庭?

It was roughly six months ago when Nathan Law, chairman of Demosisto, lost his job. He and five other pro-democracy lawmakers had strayed from the prescribed oath during the swearing-in ceremony, and were ousted from the Legislative Council (LegCo) after Beijing issued a reinterpretation of the oath-taking provisions in the Basic Law. Many saw the unseating of six democratically-elected lawmakers, dubbed “Oathgate” in the local press, as a calculated political move to purge the legislature of the opposition.

The time to fill some of these vacated seats is finally upon us. Four by-elections will be held simultaneously on March 11, in Hong Kong Island, Kowloon West, New Territories East and for the Architectural, Surveying, Planning and Landscape sector.
Barely old enough to run, 21-year-old Agnes Chow (周庭) of pro-democracy party Demosisto has thrown her hat into the ring hoping to win back Law’s Hong Kong Island seat. Her decision to run has not come without a price: she has deferred …

The Joshua I Know 我認識的之鋒

When I shook his hand for the first time, I thought he was the strangest seventeen-year-old I’d ever met.
It was 2014, and considering how much Hong Kong has changed in the last three year, it felt like a lifetime ago.
Joshua sat across from me at a table in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, with his iPhone in one hand and an iPad in the other. I ordered him a lemon iced tea with extra syrup.
He was eager to begin our conversation, not because he was excited about being interviewed for my article, but because he wanted to get it over with and get on with the rest of his jam-packed day.
During our 45-minute chat, he spoke in rapid-fire Cantonese, blinking every few seconds in the way robots are programmed to blink like humans. He was quick, precise and focused.

He was also curt.
When I asked him if he had a Twitter account, he snapped, “Nobody uses Twitter in Hong Kong. Next question.”
I wasn’t the least offended by his bluntness—I chalked it up to gumption and precocity. For a te…

Seeing Joshua 探之鋒

“We are here to visit a friend,” I said to the guard at the entrance. 
Tiffany, Joshua Wong Chi-fung’s long-time girlfriend, trailed behind me. It was our first time visiting Joshua at Pik Uk Correctional Institution and neither of us quite knew what to expect.

“Has your friend been convicted?” asked the guard. We nodded in unison. There are different visiting hours and rules for suspects and convicts. Each month, convicts may receive up to two half-hour visits from friends and family, plus two additional visits from immediate family upon request.
The guard pointed to the left and told us to register at the reception office. “I saw your taxi pass by earlier,” he said while eyeing a pair of camera-wielding paparazzi on the prowl. “Next time you can tell the driver to pull up here to spare you the walk.”
At the reception counter, Officer Wong took our identity cards and checked them against the “List.” Each inmate is allowed to grant visitation rights to no more than 10 friends and fam…