Skip to main content

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 U.K. 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

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…

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…

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…

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 …

As You LIKE It 人人讚好

Social media are the greatest invention of the 21st Century, not least because they provide ready fillers for life’s many dull moments. The virtual world is the perfect antidote to our real life drudgery. Bring on the mile-long taxi line, the interminable Monday morning meeting and even the deadly silent treatment from an upset spouse. All we need to do is whip out our phones, drop our heads and, with a flick of the thumb, wade through stream after mind-numbing stream of news feeds and tweets. In the parallel universe of restaurant check-ins, vacation selfies and baby videos, we are the celebrities and we are the groupies. No one wants to admit it, but many of us have started to reorganize our lives based on how the status update would look on our carefully manicured timeline.

It is therefore all the more important to observe proper online decorum and protect our virtual image. The idea that anything goes in Cyberspace, or that a random post is as consequence-free as tossing a bottl…

The Moonscape of Sexual Equality - Part 1 走在崎嶇的路上-上卷

There are things about America that boggle the mind: gun violence, healthcare costs and Donald Trump. But once in a while – not often, just once in a while – the country gets something so right and displays such courage that it reminds the rest of the world what an amazing place it truly is. What happened three days ago at the nation’s capital is shaping up to be one of those instances.

Last Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a 5-to-4 decision on same-sex marriage, the most important gay rights ruling in the country’s history. In Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Kennedy wrote, “It would misunderstand [gay and lesbian couples] to say that they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find fulfillment for themselves… They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” 
With those simple words, Justice Kennedy made marriage equality a constitutionally prote…