29 September 2014

Six Hours in Admiralty 金鐘六小時

I gathered a few essentials – cell phone, notebook, pen, face towel and swimming goggles – and left my apartment. I Whatsapp'ed my brother Kelvin and asked him to meet me at Lippo Centre in Admiralty. From there, the two of us walked to the section of Connaught Road that had been just taken over by protesters and regular citizens who had come to support them. We were about 50 yards from the Tamar Government Headquarters, the epicenter of a massive student protest.

It was 3:45pm. Outside the Government Headquarters, there were throngs of people all around us, the average age somewhere between 20 and 25. Their growing euphoria was suffused with tension and trepidation. Many among the crowds were wearing lab goggles and raincoats to guard against pepper spray. Some put cling wrap over their eye gear for extra protection. Tanya Chan (陳淑莊), vice chairlady of the Civic Party, was speaking into a bullhorn. She had shaved her head as part of the pan-democrats' pledge to defeat a Beijing-backed electoral reform bill in the legislation. A student wove through the crowd with a loudspeaker broadcasting her words. Chan urged citizens to hold the line outside the Bank of China Tower to stop police from advancing. She also warned them about undercover officers infiltrating the crowds to collect intelligence. “Strike up a conversation with anyone who looks like a cop and ask him why he is here,” she said, "Look for men who are beefier than the average scrawny student!" Her remark drew a few nervous laughs.

The tank-man of Hong Kong

From afar, someone yelled “Saline water! We need saline water NOW!” Other supplies were also needed: face masks, umbrellas and drinking water. Kelvin and I went to see what we could do to help. We joined the human chain passing sundry items from one side of the eight-lane Connaught Road to the other. They were for student protesters who had been pepper-sprayed by police on Tim Mei Avenue, one of the several frontlines. The girl next to me, who might have been 15, shoved a carton of fresh milk into my hand. “Pass it on,” the teenager yelled. Milk was supposed to sooth the eyes by neutralizing the irritants 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 the nearby Queensway Plaza shopping mall. On our way back, I suggested we grab a few things for the frontlines. My brother had overheard that saline water was in short supply, and so we spent the next 45 minutes scouring Wanchai for pharmacies, because other volunteers had already emptied the shelves within the 300-yard radius of Admiralty.

It started so peacefully

As Kelvin and I were paying for saline water at a neighborhood drugstore, we saw a text message on our phones. “Police have just fired tear gas into the crowds!” The text was from my sister-in-law who had been monitoring the latest developments on her television at home. We sensed the gravity of the situation and began running with our purchases back to Admiralty. 

As we approached Connaught Road, we began to hear harrowing accounts from students who had retreated from Tim Mei Avenue. A young man, catching his breath and pointing at the government building behind him, said, “The police hoisted a black banner; 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 in the area. “Have you all gone mad?” shut one woman. “How could you do this to unarmed 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 on Chinese New Year's Day. The use of tear gas had caught the city by surprise. It recalled an episode in the 2012 chief executive election, when the then-candidate C.Y. Leung was accused by his opponent Henry Tang of proposing at cabinet meeting that riot police and tear gas be unleashed on protesters. Leung vehemently denied it at the time and ended up winning the race anyway. It looked like the man who now held the highest office in the city had just fulfilled his opponent's words.

"You lie! You said it!"

Tear gas might have been commonplace elsewhere in the world, but it wasn’t in Hong Kong. The last time it was used was during the 2005 World Trade Organization Conference to disperse angry South Korean farmers protesting outside the convention center in Wanchai with placards and Molotov cocktails. Leung’s decision to deploy lachrymators against unarmed students this time, despite the political price he would inevitably pay, suggested that he had been given direct orders from Beijing to do whatever it took to clear the streets before citizens returned to work Monday morning. In so doing, Leung had irreversibly redrawn the relationship between people and their government. 

As night fell, the tension rose. Harcourt Road -- an eight-land thoroughfare that connects to Connaught Road -- was strewn with broken umbrellas, water bottles and lone shoes, left behind by fleeing protesters. Mobile phones were rendered useless. Someone said the government had ordered service providers to switch off all 3G signals in the area. Kelvin asked me if I had downloaded FireChat, an app that allowed short text message exchanges between smart phones without a Wi-Fi or mobile connection. I said I hadn't, but I would as soon as my connection resumed.

We moved to a footbridge outside the Police Headquarters on the ominously-named Arsenal Street. There, high above the ground, we saw a formation of riot police wearing army helmets and gas masks advancing steadily from Wanchai toward Admiralty. They were carrying AR-15 rifles and tear gas launchers; some of them had quivers of rolled-up warning flags strapped to their shoulders. Lit only by the streetlights' amber glow, the scene was eerily reminiscent of the streets of Beijing on that fateful June night in 1989

Many on the bridge began screaming at the crowd below: “Run! Riot police are approaching! Run!” That’s when I saw one of the police officers unfold a black banner. Seconds later, shots of tear gas arced through the dark sky, followed by clouds of white smoke billowing from the ground. The advancing fumes smelled like something between burning rubber and a very pungent mustard. Pandemonium ensued. A stranger came up to me and Kelvin and said, “You two need these,” and handed us two face masks. My eyes started to sting and I put on my swimming goggles. We ran with the retreating crowd and took shelter in the nearby Harcourt Garden.

This is not the Hong Kong I knew

It was 9:30pm. There were rumors that riot police would start dispersing the crowds with rubber bullets and even live ammunition. Kelvin and I agreed that we should heed the ushers’ warning and leave Admiralty for our own safety. My brother lived in Wanchai and I in Pokfulam. We said goodbye to each other and parted ways. 

By then almost every road between Wanchai and downtown Central had been blocked, either by police or by makeshift blockades set up by students. I walked two miles to Sai Ying Pun, before finding a taxi to take me home. During my 30-minute trek, I downloaded the FireChat app recommended by Kelvin. I joined a few chat groups and saw users with strange names exchanging intelligence on the frontlines. Some said police had started arresting anyone seen wearing a yellow ribbon, while others claimed they spotted a Chinese armored vehicle crossing the Western Tunnel and heading toward Admiralty. It was hard to tell rumor from truth. I felt like a fugitive in a cold war spy movie. A single thought kept running through my head: what is happening to my city? Perhaps years later, citizens would look back and tell themselves that this was a good night. Like bitter Chinese medicine, what went down today would make us stronger and better. But like that bitter Chinese medicine, it was difficult to swallow.

Home had never felt safer or more needed. I took a shower and sat idly in bed. What had transpired in the last few hours suddenly hit me, as images and sounds finally sank in. I started to sob, and my hands shook despite myself. Tonight in Hong Kong, there were prayers, tears and a lot of unanswered questions. I turned on my computer and started writing. I wanted the world to know.



________________________

This article appears on SCMP.com under the title "First night of Occupy Central: my six hours in Admiralty."



As posted on SCMP.com

This article was cited by BBC News.

As cited by BBC News

37 comments:

  1. Thanks for your efforts to depicts the event so vivid in English to help spread the news all over the world.

    Alex

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  2. Thanks for being there and sharing with us how it really is over there. I am crying with you in Los Angeles. There will be a rally in LA Chinese consulate later this afternoon. I will be there. Just to show some support to my beloved home town.

    Sad day.

    Grace

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  3. Deeply moved by your article. Thanks for your sharing. School suspended for Wanchai, Central and Western District

    Helen

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  4. thank you for keeping us informed, the world is watching and I am sending support from New Zealand. Keep strong, stay safe!!!

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  5. OMG!!! so sad ... this is not also the HK i knew...thanks for sharing this write up...i empathize with you from here in davao phils.

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  6. Thank you, Jason, for your amazing reporting. Hoping the best for HK.

    Susan

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  7. Thanks so much for reporting on this, and for doing your part to stand alongside those who are only asking to have a meaningful say in their future.

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  8. Thanks for your reporting, your temerity and your sensitivity!

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  9. Sad to see this. I dream of visiting Hong Kong. I've concluded that I can't afford to live there on my meager pension I may receive in due time.

    Thanks for the update. I'll be looking for more.

    Rockin

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  10. Have not felt so strongly about Hong Kong! The city's darkest day in recent history!

    Margaret

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  11. Very touching...'I started to sob, and my hands shook despite myself. I wiped my eyes, turned on my computer and wrote this.'

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  12. Thank you. Very touching.

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  13. Stay strong for the Hong Kong people..Have Faith..We are watching you all around the world..

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  14. Stay strong people of Hong Kong, the world is watching.

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  15. You are both a hypocrite and moron. One moment you reported demonstrators well prepared with face masks, milk and umbrellas while your companions were shopping for saline water now in short supply in pharmacies. The next moment you had the gall to tell us that you and other hate-China folks were surprised by the police tear gas.

    Your equivocation and tall tales might register with slogan chanting lobotomized zombies and morons like yourself, but you don't fool those watching all this on TV. There were a lot of 12 and 13 year olds there. Just like them, you are a 20 or 30 something going on 10.

    If I were your boss, I would tell you don't bother to come in to work tomorrow. Now go and fraternize with your white friends at Lan Kwai Fong and Foreign Correspondents Club, drink yourself silly to a mindless stupor and badmouth the constabulary efforts to maintain order.

    Sobbing is good for melodramatic hysterics. Oh yes, you prayed too like any good Jesus freak. I have seen plenty of them running down, freaking out and writhing like epileptics in church aisles, asking the Lord's forgiveness for their sins. Now what is your sin? Your crocodile tears and your play acting in writing this piece? Be honest, did you sob when almost a hundred thousand of our compatriots die in Sichuan earthquake? Did you open your pocketbook for donation instead of eating in your usual fancy restaurants? Admit it, when gwei-lo media call the tune, you dance.

    whymak

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    1. So much hate and nonsense in your post. The points you made in the first half of your post, although I disagree, has some logical sense. But your later rant on Lan Kwai fong, foreign correspondent, etc shows your inferior complex to western culture.

      If you want me to drop to your level and talk about how HONG KONG people supposedly worship western people, do I need to pull up the stories of how people in China deliberately hire white people to make their company more high class?.

      Look, the events happening right now is bound to stir a wide variety of emotions among people. Let's be constructive and debate rationally rather than resort to talking nonsense and bs

      stvt

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    2. Well yes if u forget HK and It's people gave millions for the victims in Sichuan and millions of more came from all over The world Also from this gwei-lo contrys u talk about . People in both europé and US donated alot of money for The victems in Sichuan so whats ur point? How many mainland Chinese have donated anything for anyone outside of China? How much did u give for victims in the tsunami 2004? All of China gave basicly 1.3 billion people gave as much as Sweden. 9 million People.

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    3. ..........................



      To: WhyMak

      If people have been reading my posts here, they'd know that I don't always agree with you. But I'd say I probably agree with you about 75% of the times.

      Of all the readers posting here, you're one of a few who really knows Hong Kong well, especially the social hierarchy of this city. The above is coming from someone whose family has been living in this tiny place since Sha Tin was nothing but rice paddies and bamboo groves, and grasshoppers and frogs were plentiful and running wild. And Chinese were not allowed on the Peak or near Central.

      You know it as well as I do, all this stuff here in this blog is basically for foreign consumption. And there is a market for it. I don't blame those who are smart enough, trying to make some money from it.

      Do you notice that there are not many Hong Kong Chinese natives hanging out here?

      One interesting thing strikes me the most is that as intelligent and articulate as Jason and his crowd are, they are surprisingly ignorant about Hong Kong's and Chinese history, particularly our history of the past three hundred years or so.

      What is it for you and I to say, the stuff here is music to some people's ears?





      From: Mo Ming See

      Also known as HKBC




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  16. FYI - The fat in milk dissolves the component of pepper spray that causes the burning and will wash it away. Water does not dissolve it and only spreads it around. Use full fat milk, not the low-fat stuff

    Jan

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  17. Send my prayer for the students.

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  18. Thanks Jason. Praying for all.

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  19. Hi, was planning to visit HK this friday. Will it be too dangerous to travel there? Are all the shops really close?

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  20. I teared reading this. Thank you. We left HK 20 years ago and made Singapore our homes (although we aren't much better here now)... Sorry I can't be in HK to join, but the world is watching.

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  21. Jason,
    You never let me down. Thanks a million.
    Ms Lee

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  22. 聞者傷心,聽者流淚

    Margaret

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  23. Great job, Jason!

    Lisa

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  24. Very helpful article for non Hong Kongers who wish to support the movement too. "Perhaps years later we would all look back on this night and tell ourselves that this is good for us. Like bitter Chinese medicine, what went down today will make us stronger and better. But like bitter Chinese medicine, it was very difficult to swallow."

    NHK

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  25. 也许,数年后我们会静默回顾今晚的一切,告诉自己这个篇章是值得的. 就如良药苦口,今晚的确让人难以下咽.
    然而,药虽苦,今天付出的只会令我们更自强不息.

    NHK

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  26. Sorry to borrow this thread, it seems like the movement is not stopping anytime. I figured there must be some of us in Singapore who wish to do something but hosting a protest in Singapore is a no no, does anyone know of a HK community living in Singapore whom I can be connected with to run a Singapore campaign to support the movement? The idea is simple and legal- get friends and family members who support HK to wear black and put on the yellow ribbon until 2 oct. I am happy to sponsor yellow ribbons and give them out at city hall or raffled place in Singapore. My email is at qing13@yahoo.com, name Teri Ng. Thanks.

    NHK

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  27. Don't cry Hong Kong. We'll never let you die!

    Robert

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  28. Sorry one more tag along; do spread the word to Hong Kong citizens or supporters living in Singapore to come to Raffles Place MRT Station to pick up a Yellow ribbon on 1 Oct at 1pm. I took a day off to organise this. https://www.facebook.com/yellowribbonsingapore

    NHK

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    Replies
    1. If I was still living in Singapore, I'd be there. Unfortunately, my sister, who lives there is anti-occupy and is a HKer. I can't talk to her about politics at all because I will get very upset at her.

      Peggy

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    2. There was a small rally held in Singapore at Hong Lim park 3 weeks ago, organised by an activist and his group of friends, a few hundred turned up and I went along. In everything, there are bound to be 2 sides, so the key is to not let differences in opinions affect relationships!
      http://www.channelnewsasia.com/.../vigil-at.../1392380.html

      NHK

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    3. Aye, I agree to disagree being the elder but she pushes her luck now and again, In the end, I had to relegate her to the acquaintance list so she cannot see my pro-occupy posts and pick a fight. No need to unfriend.

      Peggy

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