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 that connect the financial district to the rest of the city. Protesters had reinforced the roadblocks with garbage cans, wood pallets and water-filled barriers, held together with household cable ties. 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 given the teenager with plenty of free time. 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 offering snacks. Edward walked up to one of the supplies tents to survey the inventory: 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 replied, “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-protester standoff, then and now

Edward approached one of the students at the Study Room and asked, in his Mandarin-inflected 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 intimidate and rough up protesters. 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 against a stranger who 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 vandalizing public property. The delinquents worked systematically, as if following orders. They would only wreck 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 using 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 defenses, wrapping foam mats around their limbs to protest against police batons, and wearing 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 shaking 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 tarmac, whipping up a small sandstorm in their path. They were traveling 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 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 armored vehicle, which, as they would later find out, was torched by an enraged man who had lost his only son during the military crackdown. 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 Communist Party, to erase any evidence of its 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 protesters 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 was that they were asking for would 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.


This article also appears on SCMP.com under Jason Y. Ng's column "As I See It."

As posted on SCMP.com

05 October 2014

Darkest Before Dawn 黎明前的黑暗

Tear gas and pepper spray were so last week.

On Friday, Day 6 of the Umbrella Movement, masked thugs fanned out at all three protest sites across the city, starting with Mongkok and quickly spreading to Causeway Bay. By nightfall, angry mobs had moved into the movement's nerve center in Admiralty. They called themselves “pro-Hong Kong citizens” -- vigilantes who had self-organized to clear the streets and restore public order. They had taken matters into their own hands because they believed the cops had been too lenient toward the students.

Thug attack

I had arrived in Admiralty earlier the evening to offer protesters free help with homework. I was telling the stories of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. to two university freshmen, when my phone started to buzz with ominous 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 was a symbol of the occupy movement, as was the yellow umbrella that gave the movement its name. Pro-Beijing groups had taken notice and come up with a symbol of their own: a blue ribbon in support of police officers. 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 protesters 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 during political unrest in Thailand and the Philippines. They are a weapon of choice not only because links to a mastermind are hard to prove, but also because they give authorities a convenient excuse to use force. A scuffle between yellow and blue ribbons in Mongkok, for instance, would give police the legal and moral authority to clear the area. 

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 yards away. The speaker was Joshua Wong (黃之鋒), founder of the activist group Scholarism (學民思潮) and one of the student leaders of the occupy movement. He was confirming reports that throngs of blue ribbons had overrun Mongkok and Causeway Bay. Wong's speech was followed by a series of emotional accounts from students who had been kicked and punched by mobsters earlier that day. One girl, still sobbing, recounted her experience of being molested in broad daylight. Another girl said a man tried to grab her and said: “You should expect some hanky-panky 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 assailants -- who should be called domestic terrorists -- were systematic in targeting protesters and journalists. 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 commandeered by students. There were also video clips showing police officers guiding Triad members into the occupied areas, or faking an arrest only to release the suspect on a quiet street corer. 

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? 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. In Hong Kong, resorting to the underworld to handle tricky situations is an open secret and a time-honored tradition. Local mafias such as Wo Sing Wo and 14K are typically hired by moneylenders to collect unpaid debts or by property brokers to intimidate stubborn residents who hold up lucrative real estate projects.

Student protesters forming a human chain to keep the peace

I decided to heed my friends’ advice to leave the protest site before the mobs arrived. I spent the rest of the night at home watching the clashes in Admiralty play out on live television. Images of peaceful protesters 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 protesters attempted to reclaim Mongkok and Causeway Bay. At a news conference, Security Secretary Lai Tung-kwok (黎棟國) vehemently denied claims of collaboration 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 protesters 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 boost of energy in more ways than one

This article appears on SCMP.com under the title "The dark before dawn."

As posted on SCMP.com

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, the humblest of household objects, had been thrust onto the world stage, as had the tens of thousands of students who 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 issued a rain and landslide alert for a coming thunderstorm.

A transformational experience for Hong Kong

I changed out of my work clothes in my office in Central and walked to Admiralty, the de facto nerve center of the student-led movement demanding the right to choose our leader. I spotted my brother Kelvin and his wife deep in the crowd. They were listening quietly to a student speaker on the podium. It was a small miracle that I was able to find them, as they were swarmed by people as far as the eye could see, all dressed in black. No one knew how many more had come out tonight – nor did anyone really care. Public turnout normally mattered a great deal to protest organizers because it was a measure of public support. Tonight 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 water, cookies, paper fans and wet naps. Others were cooling down the crowds with mist sprayers and distributing cooling patches to be placed on the forehead. I felt parched and asked for water. Five people must have heard 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 offer. He also reminded me to recycle the plastic bottle at the drop-off tent near the KFC restaurant.

Hong Kong has never been more beautiful

There was a renewed sense of neighborhood in Hong Kong, something we hadn’t seen since the city transformed from a cottage industry economy to a global financial center. All over the protest zones – in Admiralty, Central, Causeway Bay and Mongkok – micro-communities had emerged where the air was clean (traffic had all but vanished), people smiled (replacing that permanent frown from big city stress) and everyone helped each other without wanting anything in return (we had a bad rap among fellow Asians for being calculating). This was the Hong Kong we loved and missed. This was 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 flower blossoms in a rainforest. Everyone stayed where they were, as raincoats and more umbrellas began to circulate among the crowds. Someone joked that the gods were coming for C.Y. Leung and we all laughed. After 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 had evolved into a bottom-up campaign based on the self-discipline and volunteerism of individual citizens. No wonder the foreign press called this “the most civilized street protest in the world.” The 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 was much more than just shopping malls and restaurants – we now had our young people to brag about.

The world's nicest protesters

At the urging of student patrols, we left jam-packed Admiralty and walked back toward Central where there was more space. All the cloud-hugging skyscrapers, those modern cathedrals of glass and steel, 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 had forced all of us to take a long, hard look at our way of life, and to challenge the conventional wisdom that social progress is achievable only through greater affluence and more development. But affluence for whom and development for what? Have any of these 80-story buildings made us better people, people who are half as generous and benevolent as the student protesters? Or half as happy?

At the Pedder Street and Chater Road intersection, a crowd gathered to listen to a crash course on treating pepper spray burns. Standing on a soapbox, the speaker was a young girl who looked about 18. “Don’t douse water on your face or else the chemicals will drip down your body and irritate your skin,” the teenager warned. “Do this instead.” She expertly demonstrated how to tilt the head to one side and rinse one eye after the other using water poured into the tiny bottle cap. “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 the young girl finished, the audience clapped and broke up into small groups. There were conversations about the Sunday crackdown and the government’s next move. What were once talk-of-the-town topics like the release of a new iPhone 6 or a soap opera's season finale became completely irrelevant. Even Facebook walls received a facelift: food porn, selfies and narcissistic rants had all given way to protest updates and stories of random acts of kindness.

Three days in, the Umbrella Revolution had 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 realized that politics affects them personally and directly, and that the subject is not as untouchable as their parents and peers made it out to be. They also realized that video games, karaoke and television shows might have been social anesthesia prescribed by the ruling elite to divert their attention from what really matters. Awoken, they are now armed with a new sense of purpose and ready to make up for lost time.

That's the stereotype before this week

These past few days had been my happiest in the nine years since I repatriated to Hong Kong. I visited the protest zones every day, alternating between euphoria and tears of joy, gratitude and amazement. Who would have imagined that one of the city’s darkest chapters could bring out the absolute best in us? Protesters occupied city streets, but by displaying exemplary discipline and world class charisma, they also occupied our hearts. What they were doing was neither an act nor a ploy to manipulate public opinion – it was genuine goodness emanating from within. I felt sorry for friends and family who weren’t in Hong Kong to experience it themselves, because so much of what went on here had to be seen to be believed. Whatever the outcome of the movement would be, Hong Kong had 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


This article also appears on SCMP.com under Jason Y. Ng's column "As I See It."

As posted on SCMP.com