28 November 2014

A Season of Discontent 不滿的季節


On 28 October, the one-month anniversary of the Umbrella Revolution, tens of thousands of citizens assembled at protest sites on both sides of the harbor. At precisely 5:58 pm, they opened their umbrellas in unison and turned the sea of people into a tsunami of colorful blossoms. The congregation then observed 87 seconds of silence, one for each shot of tear gas fired at protestors on that fateful day. It was “the day that changed everything,” the day by which we would forever divide our history: before and after 9/28.

Yellow umbrellas in full bloom


The student-led movement that put Hong Kong on the world map has a modest beginning. A small group of university students had organized a class boycott to voice their anger over Beijing’s decision to renege on a promise – a political compromise made 10 years ago to allow Hong Kong citizens to democratically elect their chief executive in 2017. The promise wasn’t supposed to have any strings attached or funny business with semantics. Earlier this year, however, in an official announcement that many viewed as a change of heart by Beijing and a death knell for democracy in Hong Kong, the Communist Party made clear that only a nomination committee would decide who could run for the top office in the next election and that the committee would comprise of mostly pro-establishment yes-men as a way to block opposition candidates from the ballot. The announcement smacks of the famous line by Henry Ford when he introduced the Model T in 1909: Our customers can have any color they want as long as it is black.

What started as a small-scale student protest quickly spiraled into an all-out revolution, thanks to the use of tear gas and riot gear on 28 September against unarmed protestors who had nothing but raincoats, lab goggles and folding umbrellas to fend for themselves. The heavy-handed police response backfired and drew thousands more to the streets. Suddenly, years of frustration over income inequality, skyrocketing property prices and a Beijing-appointed government that favored vested interests bubbled to the surface and boiled over. By nightfall, highways and city streets were turned into Tahrir Square, and regular citizens became Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi. Hong Kong, the Fragrant Harbor and the Pearl of the Orient, was embroiled in the biggest political event since Britain handed it back to China in 1997.

Tahrir Square in Hong Kong


28 September is as much a dividing line in history as it is in society. The Umbrella Revolution, and the daily inconveniences that have come with it, has polarized the city along political lines. The middle class blames protestors for rocking the economic boat and putting the ideology of a few above the livelihood of everyone. In turn, protestors accuse non-supporters of selling out the city’s future for a paycheck. Weeks of bickering and name-calling have driven a wedge between parents and children, husbands and wives, teachers and students, and the Yellow Ribbons (student supporters) and the Blue Ribbons (police sympathizers).

While citizens squabble over the movement’s merit, they can agree on at least one thing: the students’ tenacity and leadership have caught everyone by surprise. Just a month ago, these Millennials were spoiled brats who relied on their maids to make their beds and do their laundry. They couldn’t tell Martin Luther from Martin Luther King, David Cameron from James Cameron. Today, they are distributing medical supplies and building furniture at the protest sites. They are reading Karl Marx and picking up trash in one moment, and dodging pepper spray and pushing back angry thugs in the next. It was as if Peter Pan had grown up overnight to self-organize, self-sustain and self-govern. Their generosity of spirit has made them not only model protestors but also worthy heirs to our city’s future. It takes a heart of stone not to be won over by them.

Worthy heirs to our city's future


If the pint-sized warriors have come out on top on the public opinion battlefield, then the clear loser has to be C.Y. Leung, Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive. Leung’s unpopularity as a Beijing mouthpiece is matched only by the idiocy of his gaffes. On October 21, he told a New York Times reporter that universal suffrage was undesirable because it would allow social policies to skew toward the poor. The Freudian slip was followed by a snarky remark that athletes and religious groups contributed nothing to the economy. Reeling from foot-in-mouth disease and with his approval ratings approaching an impeachment level, Leung has, whether by choice or by Beijing’s order, placed himself under a self-imposed house arrest and delegated to his deputy Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) many of his duties, including negotiating with student leaders for a way to break the impasse.

Another big loser in the political firestorm is the Hong Kong police force. Once revered in the region for their professionalism and restraint, they now see their hard-earned reputation slip through their batons. They have managed to alienate both the Yellow Ribbons by their inaction during the many thug attacks and the Blue Ribbons by their failure to reopen the streets. They squandered their last ounce of public trust when a pack of uniformed officers were caught on camera beating up a protestor in a back alley. As if that weren’t bad enough, a few days after the incriminating video went viral on social media, they were thrown under the bus by their own boss. In a television interview, C.Y. Leung denied any personal involvement in the decision to use tear gas on protestors and said it was the frontline officers who had made the call.

Hong Kong's finest?


Still, the biggest loser is probably Beijing itself. Its reaction to the movement has exposed the many cracks in the senior leadership. First, it has become clear that the Communist Party knows pitifully little about how Hong Kong people operate. 17 years after the Handover, Beijing continues to underestimate and misread Hong Kong citizens by assuming that they would be docile enough to swallow a broken promise for the sake of stability, or that protestors would be too squeamish to stay on the streets when a crackdown is threatened. Second, we now know that China is shockingly ill-prepared for a modern, bottom-up political movement. As if they had learned nothing from Egypt and Turkey, the Communists are still trying to fight 21st Century warfare with last century weapons: batons, tear gas and hired thugs. Finally and most remarkably, that the protests were allowed to go on for so long and that there have been many conflicting whispers from Beijing over C.Y. Leung’s political fate has revealed the leadership’s indecision and inconsistencies. Many point to the escalating factional infighting within the politburo since Xi Jinping (習近平) took the throne two years ago.

Excellent PR

With winter fast approaching and both protestors and authorities running out of patience and energy, the million-dollar question lingers: what’s next for the Umbrella Revolution? Will student leaders sit down for more talks with government officials in the coming weeks? Will negotiation achieve anything given Beijing’s tough stance? How is this all going to end if neither side is willing to yield an inch? Therein lies the strength of a post-modern political movement: none of that matters. Success is no longer defined by results, but by social awakening and transformation of the collective consciousness. A new way of life has already coagulated in Hong Kong, and a whole generation of young citizens have woken from their existential slumber. Above all, a new Lion Rock Spirit has taken hold, one that is based on social justice and civic participation instead of hunkering down for trickle-down economic benefits. Draped in bright yellow, Hong Kong has finally come of age and is ready to be taken seriously.

The new Lion Rock Spirit


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This article previously appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column The Urban Confessional.

As printed in MANIFESTO



Sexless in the City 無慾都市

The notion that Asian folks take a backseat in the sex department has been debunked time and again. The Japanese, for instance, make no secret of their bent for dominatrices and cosplayers. Korean men, on the other hand, can’t seem to find their way home without a stop at the neighborhood hostess bar. The Thai and the Filipino are equally comfortable with expressing their God-given sexuality. In Anything-goes Bangkok and No-tell Manila, the sex trade has gone mainstream and become a main draw for tourists.

What about Hong Kong, a place where skyscrapers rise like phallic symbols and animal genitals are eaten with gusto? 

It turns out that Asia’s World City is also one of the world’s most sex-deprived. In a recent poll by the city’s Family Planning Association, 20% of the female respondents said they had no sexual desire, while 24% said they did not achieve orgasm during sex. Another local study found that one in five adult males had not gotten off in the last six months. As if that’s not miserable enough, an online survey conducted by condom-maker Durex ranks Hong Kong the third lowest in sexual satisfaction out of 26 territories. Despite our reputation as pleasure seekers – of luxury goods and world class cuisine – the joy of sex continues to elude us like Moby Dick.

So what went wrong? 

Only in movies


The obvious answer is stress. By the time we get home after a 12-hour day in the office and 45 gruelling minutes on a crowded bus, few are in the mood for bedroom romance. Even a quickie doesn’t seem quick enough for time-pressed Hong Kongers. Another major turn-off is the lack of space and privacy. There isn’t much fun in making out on a tiny mattress covered with stuffed animals, while nosy parents may be eavesdropping next door. As a result, the only thing that gets fingered between the sheets is the iPhone screen, and all we get is a lousy peck on the cheek, before we, as Neil Diamond famously put it, “roll over and turn out the light.”

Stress and off-putting living conditions, however, only tell half the story. A closer look at Hong Kong society reveals two cultural forces that conspire to suck the fun out of our bedroom: conservatism and materialism.


Not conducive to romance


We may be a decade and a half into the new millennium, but the city’s attitude towards sex remains largely medieval. Chinese parents avoid the subject at home like a plague, and children growing up in single-gender schools – which account for most primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong – don’t get much exposure besides hearsay and myths. The knowledge gap is filled by social conservatism, a hotchpotch of traditional Confucius beliefs mixed with Christian values from the West, with a bunch of clichés and conventional wisdom tossed in. The resulting Frankenstein of moral ideology is inconsistent at best and traumatizing at worst. For instance, because sex is supposed to be dirty and dangerous, young adults are taught to practice strict abstinence until they graduate from university. But because sex is also special and sacred, grown-ups are advised to defer the pleasure to their wedding night. This arbitrary code of conduct has seeped into our subconscious and turned a basic biological behavior into a thing we don’t speak of – and keep deferring.

Materialism is the other cultural factor that explains our flaccid sex life. Rampant consumerism and in-your-face peer rivalry mean that our happiness is often measured by what we possess that others don’t. As economic creatures, we prefer making money to making love; we calculate, not fornicate. To the hard-driving man, sex is as much a distraction for the weak-minded as it is a social anesthesia for the poor. Whereas men in the West aspire to be fictional womanizers like James Bond and Tony Stark, being a playboy in practical Hong Kong confers very little bragging right. Instead, he is either branded a pervert or written off as a loser who wastes his time chasing girls rather than a job promotion. 


Sex education means avoidance and deferral


The picture of the Hong Kong bedroom is grim. Our low libido is now a forgone conclusion and a cause for concern for both policy-makers and condom-makers. But just as I was finishing up my obituary for the city’s sex life, I spotted a glimmer of hope on Facebook. A few days ago, my friend Elaine shared a picture of her birthday gift from her husband CJ. It was a book titled Position of the Day: Sex Everyday in Every Way. I was impressed by how this thirty-something Chinese couple openly celebrate their sexuality on social media, and it prompted me to sit them down for a chat.

Like me, Elaine is miffed by the demonization of sex in Hong Kong. “I remember asking my mom about a kissing scene on television when I was five,” she recounted. “She told me the actors had to put scotch tapes on their lips for hygiene purposes. It was baloney of course, but she made me believe that sex was dirty, like politics.

“I went to an all-girls secondary school and I wasn’t allowed to date anybody in my entire teens,” Elaine continued. “Other than my cousins, I had zero interaction with boys. The irony is that as soon as I graduated from university and found a job, my parents changed their tune: ‘When are you going to find a husband and have kids?’ It was surreal.”


By our standard, Li Ka Shing is the sexiest man alive


For a guy, CJ is surprisingly comfortable discussing sex in the presence of his wife. He believes open communication is the key to a happy sex life. “Men have to check our egos at the bedroom door, especially if we aren’t satisfied with the amount of sex we get.” He gave an example. “After Elaine had our first child, we pretty much stopped doing it. I decided to tell her how I felt instead of keeping it to myself. It turned out she was worried that I wasn’t attracted to her after she gave birth to a baby. It was a big misunderstanding.”

CJ said many sexually frustrated men in Hong Kong simply turn to the Internet for quick relief. “It’s much more efficient that way,” he admitted. “Hong Kong people value efficiency and ambition. Most of my guy friends are so career-minded that sex gets pushed way down their priority list.”

The couple was quick to point out that the sex-averse culture is slowly changing. “Young people these days are more adventurous and resourceful than we were,” said Elaine. CJ chimed in with a tidbit of his own: “Love hotels like Victoria and Park Excellent are popular venues for a ‘test drive.’ A short trip to Macau or Taipei will do the trick too.” He gave Elaine a wink, recalling their first sexcapade in Bangkok. The two had only just started dating at the time and told family members they were spending the weekend with “a group of friends from work.

“Looking back, it seems really silly that we had to lie about sleeping together,” said CJ. “How else would we know we were right for each other?” He made a good point, but it was Elaine who had the last word: “Sex is just sex and there’s nothing holy or evil about it. It’s just like food: we have to eat when we are hungry and we eat more if the food is good. It’s as simple as that.” 

Finally, there is a couple with a healthy attitude toward sex. So forget about sex books and Viagra. To save Hong Kong’s flagging sex life, we need more people who think like them.


The most popular hourly hotel



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This article previously appeared in the October 2014 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column The Urban Confessional.

As printed in MANIFESTO

25 November 2014

Million Dollar Question: What’s Next for the Umbrella Movement? 有獎競猜: 雨傘運動何去何從?


A week ago, a small army of masked men gathered outside the Legco Building in Admiralty in the dead of night. They were upset over a copyright amendment bill that they feared would limit the freedom of expression on the Internet. The angry men smashed a pair of glass doors at the building's north entrance and urged other protesters nearby to occupy the legislature. Not sure whether to take orders from these strangers, the students didn’t heed their call. Instead, they notified the site marshals to block the break-in. Minutes later, police moved in with pepper spray and batons, and the agitators fled the scene.

Troublemakers or do they have a point?


The clumsy “wreck-and-run” operation has touched off a political firestorm for the Umbrella Movement. Since the incident, self-proclaimed “netizens” began showing up in Admiralty every night to settle the scores for what happened that night. The challengers question the Hong Kong Federation of Students' (HKFS) ability to lead and the marshals' legitimacy to thwart their operations. They argue that Alex Chow (周永康) and his college buddies have grown far too comfortable sleeping in their tents and are now standing in the way of the fight for democracy. Not since the Lung Wo Road police clash a month ago have tensions in Admiralty been this high.

We don't know who the masked men and their supporters are – whether they are concerned citizens or members of nativist group Civic Passion (熱血公民) wanting their 15 minutes of fame. What we do know, however, is that there is now a protest within the protest, and a revolution within the revolution. The emergence of a splinter group has laid bare a critical question facing the HKFS: should they raise the stakes instead of indefinitely prolonging the street occupation?

Challengers of the student leadership


Indeed, the Umbrella Movement seems to have hit a plateau – or stuck in a rut, depending on your views. Protesters have been camping out on the city’s arteries for nearly two months. Even though stories of students doing homework at makeshift libraries and volunteers recycling water bottles into handicrafts were commendable, critics feel that the campaign is veering off track. At some point, denizens of Umbrellaville need to wake up to the reality that occupying city streets is a means rather than an end, and that their ultimate goal is universal suffrage and not some eco-friendly utopian lifestyle. As much as some of us would like the movement to go on forever, it has to end someday, somehow.

No one understands that better than the student leaders. A recent poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong found that 83% of citizens wanted the students to go home. What’s more, 68% would like the government to clear the sites if they don’t do so voluntarily. The rapid shift in public opinion now leaves the leadership with three options: (A) vacate, (B) negotiate, or (C) escalate

Umbrellaville


I take no issues with option A. In the past, I have argued that the success of Occupy Central as a post-modern political movement is measured not only by tangible results but also by the social awakening it brings about. On that account, the students have already achieved a great deal by arousing young people's interest in local politics. Packing it in at this point should not be viewed as a failure, but a chance to regroup and re-strategize. Considering how politically sensitized the city has become, Hong Kongers will be ready to re-deploy on a moment’s notice for the next chapter in our fight for democracy. These views notwithstanding, many protesters find the first option anticlimactic and even defeatist. They believe that going home now would kill both their momentum and the dwindling leverage they have over Beijing. 

Turning to option B, neither the government nor the student leadership has sat down since the 21 October talks, where both sides seemed more interested in addressing television viewers than each other. Whether we like it or not, the best way – and perhaps the only way – to break the political impasse is to talk constructively about the composition of the nominating committee as stipulated in Article 45 of the Basic Law. While that is a pragmatic solution, it also requires enormous political courage from the student leaders. Conceding to a committee-based nomination mechanic would be considered by some protesters a compromise on principles. And compromise, like it is in American politics, has become a dirty word in Hong Kong these days. Between paying a political price and maintaining the status quo, the leadership has so far chosen the latter.

Feels more like a high school debate


That leaves them with option C. As is the case for many anti-government uprisings, there is nowhere to go but up. To raise the stakes, the HKFS can take a page from the classic student activism manual: picket, besiege or commandeer government buildings, just like what students in Taiwan did during the SunflowerMovement. But to pull off a major operation like that requires careful planning, skillful execution and, most of all, public support. Absent a catalyst like the 28 September deployment of tear gas to galvanize the city, any attempt to up the ante would alienate the silent majority and end up like last weeks half-baked operation to storm the Legco Building – it would be doomed to fail.

Many have poured their hearts into the Umbrella Movement. Two months in and with the protests now showing cracks, it is time protesters used that other muscle to figure out a way forward. There is no cash prize for answering the question of “what’s next,” but there is a high price to pay if they don’t.

The spark that started it all

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


As posted on SCMP.com