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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 transformative 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 was the stereotype until 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.

Protecting those who attacked them just days before
________________________

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

As posted on SCMP.com

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