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


  1. The most positive review I've seen. I've been planning to return to HK next week. Local friends are staying 'stay away', some have left 'til things settle down. You paint a very different and hopeful picture.


  2. Marvellous writing Jason.


  3. Eyes did well up though no torrential tears. Even more embittered to read some of the comments posted up: if one of the aims of the manipulators is to disintegrate the Hong Kong people I think they are doing a very good job. And sad to say, no other country will care, truly care, whether Hong Kong disintegrate or not unless it affects their interests.

    I beg to differ on certain issues, but was moved to see how the youngsters help each other out at the scene. There are tugs of war on far too many sides, and people who are ex-policemen and ex-regiment people have been telling me a lot too.



    1. To: Christine


      Now I know where you are from.

      Did these "ex-regiment people" speak to you in Cantonese or in your native tongue?

      I have spoken to plenty of Hongkongers and youngsters you mentioned in your post, but I have yet to encounter one talking or writing like you.

      You are moved "to see how the youngsters help each other out at the scene", because, apparently, you don't socialize much with them or their parents---you don't know the Hong Kong Chinese well.

      Try to chat with some Hongkongers here; you'll find most of us are nice and friendly people(I cannot say all). And we always eager to help each other(the nice ones). It is part of our culture.

      By the way, almost all of us won't be able to understand what you wrote.

      Some terms needed to be defined for us:

      1. "torrential tears".

      2. "manipulators". Who are these manipulators?

      3. "to disintegrate". How? In what way?

      4. "many sides". What are some examples of those sides?

      From: Mo Ming See

  4. An article for further thoughts to develop definitely. There seems to be a similarity between HK youths and Singapore youths where the obsession with material goods prioritize over other things. But indeed we are stereotyping some of them. I attended a mini rally in SG last night and saw many Hong Kong youths in SG supporting the movement. A lot of us here cannot tolerate the Chinese mannerisms and way of doing things but at the end of the day, we are all Chinese so I am hoping to see a renewed generation of leaders in Asia when the time comes for this group of youths to step up. In my day job, I meet a lot of mainland Chinese students too and I do see some who think very differently from the older generation, these who aspire to clean up systems, and share wealth, ideas and strengthen social systems. And I too meet Hong Kong students from Melbourne and many have returned to work in HK. In a city with so many talents, I believe the future of HK remains bright. And I really do hope to see a new urban development department being set up to take care of the urban design, providing cheaper, efficient cleaner housing solutions led by the new government and leaders. Whether it remains a closed election or open one, let's believe that the new generation of leaders can create miracles together, just look at how the mainland china students and Taiwanese students are supporting HK students. And many cities more. Thanks for another great article!

  5. Hurrah, indeed. But will it last beyond the protests? I hope so.


  6. Shamelessly, I admit. I had tears in my eyes while reading this piece by Jason Y. Ng I lived for almost four years in Hong Kong and I had love-hate relationship with the City. For four years, I never had a chance to meet, see and befriend our neighbor next door. I lived in The Harbourside for two years, and another two years in Lohas Park. But I never had a chance to talk to Hong Kong neighbors not on the elevator. They came across so unfriendly. My interactions were limited with the staff in our apartment (concierge) and colleagues of my husband. I have a few Hong Konger friends though. I thought Hong Kong children in general are spoiled brat taking cared of by foreign domestic helpers (carrying their bags, putting on their shoes and uniforms, etc). They remained seated inside the MTR playing with their phones and very seldom they offer seats to old people. I found this quite strange. The past four days, these youth came out as the most responsible young people I know, more responsible than politicians, lobbyists, activists, anywhere in the world. There is hope for Hong Kong. As Jason wrote: whatever be the outcome, Hong Kong people already won , thanks to their youth.


    1. Leila, I used to be cynical about our youths too, just the way you have described it. I don't know what happened, but there's been a 180 degree flip this past week. I'm as surprised as everyone else. It's a miracle!


    2. They humbled me truly. really there so much inside in them that we (not even you) don't know. There is hope for Hong Kong whatever is the outcome. My husband and I are watching CNN awhile ago. I pray for Hong Kong. News from Beijing is not so encouraging.


  7. Lovely piece.


  8. The whole city in chaos, society polarised, countless injuries and the past few days have been the happiest days of your life? You sure you don't need psychiatric help?


  9. What a horrible 9 years you must have had! You poor soul, "alternating between euphoria and tears of joy", can you call your Mum and ask her to make an appointment for psychiatric assessment? No sane person alternates between euphoria and tears of joy for long without losing their equilibrium.



  10. To: Ray

    Why shouldn't Jason be happy?

    He is a "Hong Kong and Chinese culture interpreter" for the White folks.

    More chaos, more blood on Hong Kong's streets, more interpreting he needs to do for his boss at his expat newspaper.

    Jason Y. Ng is in demand.

    If you were in the crowd among a sea of demonstrators in the past few days, how many people have you heard speaking in native-level English --- or non-Hong-Kong English --- around you?

    From: Mo Ming See

  11. Nice article thank you. Good for you to stand up for real democracy. Pay no attention to the wumaodang commenting on your inspiring article.


  12. "Three days in, the Umbrella Revolution has 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........This place is much more than just shopping malls and restaurants – we now have our young people to brag about." Thank you, Jason for such a touching story. <3