Skip to main content

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
____________________________

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


As published in MANIFESTO


Popular Posts

Seeing Joshua 探之鋒

“We are here to visit a friend,” I said to the guard at the entrance. 
Tiffany, Joshua Wong Chi-fung’s long-time girlfriend, trailed behind me. It was our first time visiting Joshua at Pik Uk Correctional Institution and neither of us quite knew what to expect.

“Has your friend been convicted?” asked the guard. We nodded in unison. There are different visiting hours and rules for suspects and convicts. Each month, convicts may receive up to two half-hour visits from friends and family, plus two additional visits from immediate family upon request.
The guard pointed to the left and told us to register at the reception office. “I saw your taxi pass by earlier,” he said while eyeing a pair of camera-wielding paparazzi on the prowl. “Next time you can tell the driver to pull up here to spare you the walk.”
At the reception counter, Officer Wong took our identity cards and checked them against the “List.” Each inmate is allowed to grant visitation rights to no more than 10 friends and fam…

About the Author 關於作者

Born in Hong Kong, Jason Y. Ng is a globetrotter who spent his entire adult life in Italy, the United States and Canada before returning to his birthplace to rediscover his roots. He is a lawyer, published author, and contributor to The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Free Press and EJInsight. His social commentary blog As I See It and restaurant/movie review site The Real Deal have attracted a cult following in Asia and beyond. Between 2014 and 2016, he was a music critic for Time Out (HK)
Jason is the bestselling author of Umbrellas in Bloom (2016), No City for Slow Men (2013) and HONG KONG State of Mind (2010). Together, the three books form a Hong Kong trilogy that tracks the city's post-colonial development. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies. In 2017, Jason co-edited and contributed to Hong Kong 20/20, an anthology that marks the 20th anniversary of the handover. In July 2017, he was appointed Advising Editor for the Los Angeles Review…

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…

Media Attention + Upcoming Events 媒體關注 + 最新動向

2017 and upcoming events and speaking engagements


Keynote speaker at Leadership & Social Entrepreneurship Program graduation ceremony co-organized by Wimler Foundation and Ateneo University Venue: TBD Date: 22 October Time: 9:00am to 1:00pm

Guest lecture at Faculty of Law, University of Hong Kong Course: International and regional protection of human rights
Topic: Universal suffrage and free expression Venue: Centennial Campus, Pokfulam Date:16 November
Time: 6:30pm

Legal workshop for foreign domestic workers at University of Hong Kong's Domestic Workers Empowerment Project (DWEP) Topic: "Understanding Hong Kong Culture" Moderator: Dr. Michael Manio Venue: Ming Wah Complex, University of Hong Kong Date: 19 November Time: 1:30 to 4:00pm

Talk at Independent Schools Foundation Academy
Topic: No City for Slow Men
Venue: Telegraph Bay, Pokfulam
Date: 30 November
Contributor to HK24 (2017 Anthology by Hong Kong Writers Circle) Release date: December

Guest speaker and prize prese…

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…

What’s Killing Hong Kong Bookstores? 誰令香港的書店滅亡?

Earlier this month, Page One unceremoniously announced the closure of its megastores at Harbour City and Festival Walk, ending the Singapore bookseller’s nearly two-decade stint in Hong Kong. The news came less than two years after Australian outfit Dymocks shut down its IFC Mall flagship and exited the city.
Reaction on social media to the loss of yet another bookstore chain was both immediate and damning. While some attributed Page One’s demise to competition from e-books and online retailers, many put the blame on the lack of a robust reading culture in Hong Kong. Still others pointed their finger at greedy landlords and the sky-high rent they extort from retailers.
But what really killed Page One? An autopsy is in order to examine the cause of death of the book industry’s latest casualty.

E-books
The technorati have long prophesized the end of paper. Portable and affordable, Amazon’s Kindle and other e-readers are the physical book’s worst nightmare. But are they really?
After yea…

Maid in Hong Kong - Part 1 女傭在港-上卷

Few symbols of colonialism are more universally recognized than the live-in maid. From the British trading post in Bombay to the cotton plantation in Mississippi, images abound of the olive-skinned domestic worker buzzing around the house, cooking, cleaning, ironing and bringing ice cold lemonade to her masters who keep grumbling about the summer heat. It is ironic that, for a city that cowered under colonial rule for a century and a half, Hong Kong should have the highest number of maids per capita in Asia. In our city of contradictions, neither a modest income nor a shoebox apartment is an obstacle for local families to hire a domestic helper and to free themselves from chores and errands.

On any given Sunday or public holiday, migrant domestic workers carpet every inch of open space in Central and Causeway Bay. They turn parks and footbridges into camping sites with cardboard boxes as their walls and opened umbrellas as their roofs. They play cards, cut hair, sell handicraft and p…

The Hundredth Post 第一百篇

This month marks the third birthday of my blog As I See It, a social commentary on the trials and tribulations of living in Hong Kong. The occasion coincides with the 100th article I have written under the banner. Having reached a personal milestone, I decided to take the opportunity to reflect on my still-young writing career and wallow in, dare we say, self-congratulatory indulgence.

It all started in November 2008 on the heels of the last U.S. presidential election. I was getting ready to create a personal website as a platform to consolidate my interests and pursuits. To do that I needed content. That’s how my blog – or my “online op-ed column” as I prefer to call it – came into being. 
Before I knew it, I was banging it out in front of my iMac every night, going on and off the tangent and in and out of my stream of consciousness about the odd things I experienced in the city, the endless parade of pink elephants I saw everyday that no one seemed to bat an eyelid at. Though singi…

When Free Speech Isn't Free 當言論不再自由

The school year had barely begun when two incidents—both testing the limits of free speech on campus—unfolded at Chinese University and Education University and sent management scrambling for a response.
On Monday, at least three large banners bearing the words “Hong Kong independence” were spotted in various locations at Chinese University, including one that draped across the famous “Beacon” sculpture outside the school’s main library. Within hours, the banners were removed by the school authorities.
A few days later, a sign “congratulating” Education Undersecretary Choi Yuk-lin (蔡若蓮) on her son’s recent suicide appeared on Education University’s Democracy Wall, a public bulletin board for students to express opinions and exchange views. Likewise, the sign was taken down shortly thereafter.


That could have been the end of the controversies had university management not succumbed to the temptation to say a few choice words of their own. In the end, it was the reaction from the schoo…