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


  1. This is beautiful, thanks for telling Edward's story.


  2. Hmm... an ominous premonition?


  3. Great piece. Please don’t let the wumao find this and ruin the atmosphere with their ignorant comments.


  4. Very powerful pictures - amazing similarities!


  5. 天那,香港痔疮越来越无耻了。这么明显的恶意中伤,无底限啊!



    1. To: Sulay

      While I do not agree with your assessment, I respect your right to speak your mind.

      Fortunately, we all still have that right in Hong Kong. The question of how long this right will last is one of the reasons why we are camping out on the streets these days.

      Apparently, by the way you write and the Chinese characters you use, you are not a HK native --- you are not familiar with the people posting here. If you were familiar with how we HK Chinese write in English, you would have known that the people ranting here are predominantly "foreign passport holders". Their passports look a little different than yours and mine.

      They might have a Chinese face, but their sentence patterns, syntax, vocabulary, and not to mention their tone tell much about where they learned their English.

      Don't get too upset with the people here.

      These posters are only here talking among themselves or with themselves. Most of them can not read your Chinese, anyway.

      The people you detest are not here reading and posting. They are busy out camping.

      From: Mo Ming See

  6. Seems to me the comparison trivializes Tian'an men, or gives greater importance to the Occupy movement than it deserves. The situation in HK in 2014, and in BJ in 1989, are simply not the same.


  7. An amazing parallel. I wonder how many other mainlanders are silently supportive. But this gentleman in particular, to have experienced Tiananmen Square, a powerful perspective indeed.

    Let's hope the comparisons aren't too close and history only rhymes but doesn't repeat itself. Although nobody can predict the future, it's already been proven to be more peaceful than that era and Hong Kong does seem to (still) be a much freer place than Beijing in 1989. And the whole point is: keep it that way. Moreso: fight for even more freedom while we're at it!

  8. The Umbrella Man remind me of 4-year olds doodling with their crayons. Except for indulgent parents who collect such "works of art," artistic endeavors of children invariably end up in garbage cans without taking up their family's precious living space of Hong Kong 500 square foot flats.

    These "artists" talk about space and freedom, aren't these graffiti cluttering up the little open public space which they claim to cherish? In the democratic West, nuisance graffiti is vandalism that costs more than loose change in a city cleaning budget.

    After visiting Picasso Museum in Barcelona barely 4 weeks ago, the shallowness of HKers' mindless imitation of democracy and art strikes me as a travesty of the great Western Civilization.


    1. So you need to go to a museum to be told what art is? I guess to you Banksy isn't art either...


  9. Very powerful statement. One anecdote from a population of 1.3 billion. Did Edward also tell you about the killing field at Tiananmen?

    Here are some fascinating articles from the archives explaining why the CCP refuses to recognize the "Tiananmen massacre", and what actually happened there.

    The Columbia Journalism Review critiques coverage of Tiananmen:

    Britain's Daily Telegraph:

    US State Department's cables at the time:

    And the most comprehensive source:

    So you're on the same wavelength as the demonstrators, and you believe that our freedom will vaporize overnight without your protests. I have lived in North America for more than the lifetime of each demonstrator and love it. But Hong Kong is the city of my dreams and where my soul belongs. It's freer than just about all the democracies I know. So why do you want to gratify your feel good hate-China passion by inciting a civil war in our city? I have visited China many times and now more than ever love this land of my forefathers. I can now claim proudly I am Chinese. Sorry you don't share this wonderful sentiment.

    If I am accusing you and your friend Edward falsely for being carpetbaggers and subversives, my sincere apologies.



    1. To: Whymak

      You were making some sense before. But from reading your recent posts here, you have completely lost your creditability with me.

      You now sound a bit "nutty".

      No one in his right mind would think we are wanting or having a civil war in Hong Kong. This Umbrella Movement is a family quarrel, not a revolution. You ought to have your head examined if you believe the opposite.

      In my humble opinion, Jason Y. Ng, and his fans here are in no way subversive --- they neither capable of, nor would want to. They thoroughly enjoy the status quo and their position in Hong Kong's social food chain. However, as far as calling them carpetbaggers is concerned, you have no need to apologize to them for that.

      We always have carpetbaggers coming to this city over the years, invariably in one color, white. I notice in recent years, they increasingly come in a different color, yellow.

      From: Mo Ming See

  10. ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY not a single student was killed at Tiananmen Square. Hundreds of rioters and some students were killed in 長安大街 and other venues. Tanks moved in and used deadly force only after soldiers were killed by Molotov cocktails or beaten to death when dragged off their vehicles.

    One picture (by Reuters?) showed a soldier burned to a crisp but was censored by the media to reinforce the picture of one-sided Chinese brutalities. Days earlier, soldiers were still fraternizing with students at the square exchanging homilies. Students killed that day were collateral casualties behind the barricades.

    Now Jason is telling us his friend Edward was the eyewitness of tanks moving into the square and killing students. Sure, Edward saw the crackling cement as tanks were firing away.

    Who is lying, you or your friend Edward? Or is Edward just a fictional character?
    A HKCU student on return from Beijing alleged he saw first hand soldiers firing at students in the square and tanks making meat pies out of students in their path. It was all over HK TV.

    Well, there was a happy ending, or an unhappy one if you are on Jason's side. He lied. He changed his story a few years later. Nope. He couldn't substantiate Edward's story.

    Why don't you square this tall tale with us now, Jason? Poetic license is one thing, but malicious slander of a nation and its people is not so easily forgiven even by the most charitable.

    Read my documentation on Tiananmen above.


  11. To contrast Edward's narrative, please see the article, "Tiananmen Square protests of 1989" of Wikipedia:


    In 1994, I had mentored a young Chinese engineer in Canada who was studying at Shanghai Jiao Tong University during the June Fourth incident. He said that he and many of his classmates were tricked by his professors to go to Tiananmen Square. He did not stay very long in Beijing and left at the end of May 1989, because he did not agree with what happened there. Some of his classmate also left early, but a few stayed till June 4. His classmates who stayed behind told him that some people lost their lives, but not in the order of thousands. He felt that it was not fair to call it massacre, but still some people died for no good reasons. He felt that the army were not trained for riots, as they did not have any tear gas, but bullets. If they had tear gas, very few people would have died.


    1. "...very few people would have died." I don't think so. Your young protégé didn't know all the facts. The riotous mob was killing soldiers. It wasn't those barricades that invited gun fire. It was their fire bombs. I believe those students were just partisan onlookers behind the barricade playing cheerleaders. You know how young people could get carried away. To them, IGNORANCE + STUPIDITY=IDEALISM.

      You mentored the right kid. Good for you. Many Federation student OC protestors are not serious students like Jiaotong science and engineering majors. They major in basket weaving disciplines such as sociology and political "science." Finding a medicine and physics major among demonstrators is like looking for a needle in a haystack. The overwhelming majority of the 76 academic signatories to a paid ad protesting the white paper are from departments of social and political "science." Without the safe haven of the ivory tower, these professors and students would be totally unmarketable in the real world. Maybe you can convince me otherwise.



  12. To: Jason Y. Ng

    You have been saying a lot about us to your fans --- fancy strangers we rarely have a conversation with in Hong Kong.

    Why don't you tell us something about Mr. Rurik Jutting? You and he are in the same profession, more or less. And as well accepted as you are in their circle, maybe you would enlighten us outsiders what their world --- albeit small --- in Hong Kong is like.

    I am sure we HK Chinese are as much interested in hearing about the Westerners' HK as they joy hearing about us from you.

    From: Mo Ming See