Skip to main content

Year of the Fire Monkey 火猴年

Mo was a street vendor. He sold food out of a pushcart in one of the busiest areas in the city. Because hawking without a permit was against the law, Mo spent much of the day running from the authorities who pursued him with more vigor and less mercy than they did armed robbers. Each time Mo got arrested, the police would confiscate not just his goods but also his only means to a livelihood: his cart and the scale he used to weigh food. Mo didn’t understand why the government would go after little people like him when it had far bigger political and social issues to deal with.

A fish ball revolutionary

If you think Mo was one of the dozens of food hawkers in Mongkok who were at the front and center of the so-called Chinese New Year’s Riot that rattled Hong Kong just 30 hours ago, you would be wrong and not even close. Mo’s full name was Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian vegetable seller who doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire in 201o. His public suicide had fueled so much public outrage toward the Tunisian government that street rallies organized in his honor would turn into riots, and riots would snowball into an uprising that would be known to the world as the Jasmine Revolution. The unpopular president Ben Ali would step down a month later, the country would be fully democratized with a free election by year’s end, and citizens in the rest of the Arab World would be inspired to demand similar political reform. All that, because of one unknown street vendor. 

Never underestimate what the little guy can do.

That appears to be the lesson of the day for C.Y. Leung and his dysfunctional government. Revolutions often begin with the most inconsequential and unlikely of events. Ben Ali would never have imagined in his wildest dream that a 26-year-old hawker could upend his presidency. Just the same, our chief executive would not have predicted that a few shots of tear gas would trigger a 79-day occupy movement, or that a run-of-the-mill crackdown on unlicensed food stalls of curry fish balls, beef tripe and stinky tofu would provoke an all-out riot. It is believed that whatever happens on New Year’s Day will repeat itself throughout the year. If Leung is a superstitious man, he should brace himself for many more unpleasant surprises in the Year of the Fire Monkey. 

Bouazizi at the end of his rope

The significance of the fish ball hawkers lies in their very insignificance. Many in Hong Kong are asking the same question that Bouazizi had asked himself: why did the government systematically target these petty outlaws and mobilized an army of riot police to go after them and their supporters, when, well, the five missing booksellers are still unaccounted for, none of the cases of police brutality during the occupy movement has been resolved, tens of thousands of public housing residents continue to drink water from lead-leaching pipes, and the high-speed rail link project with a whopping $85 billion price tag is delayed and may possibly be abandoned at the expense of taxpayers. Then there are the chronic political Gordian knots like the cross-border tensions, the marginalization of Cantonese, and, above all, the broken promises of universal suffrage that have left the city of seven million despondent and disenfranchised.

And so this so-called “Fish Ball Revolution” really isn’t about fish balls at all – it is about citizens fed up with the daily abuse by an unelected and unaccountable government led by an unelected and unaccountable chief executive. One commentator compares Hong Kong people to a battered woman, who, after putting up with years of domestic violence, finally snapped and threw a beer bottle at her husband. That sums up why protesters in support of the food vendors hurled bricks and set garbage on fire during the predawn police clashes on Tuesday. It was the same pent-up anger and resentment that pushed Bouazizi over the edge. Surely, the vegetable seller did not set himself on fire because he had a bad day – it was years of harassment and intimidation by the local police that made him do the unthinkable. For frustrated Hong Kongers, three and a half years of C.Y. Leung dismantling the city bit by bit has just about done the trick.

Tear gas is so two years ago

Much like the occupy movement, the Chinese New Year’s Riot has polarized society and torn the city asunder. On social media, sympathizers hailed the violent clashes as a game changer that has finally put Hong Kong on par with the rest of the world, where protesters have the chutzpah to throw rocks and set vehicles on fire instead of sticking to slogans and banners. The pacifists, on the other hand, were quick to condemn the brick-throwers and fire-setters as radical and extreme. When the dust finally settles, however, the hawks will likely have the last word on this round of debate, for no matter how “radical and extreme” Bouazizi’s self-immolation may seem to some, most reasonable people would place the blame on the oppressive government instead of the man who gave his life resisting it. Likewise, no matter how rash and misguided the protesters appear, none of them would have risked prison by throwing bricks at the police if they had better, more effective ways to make themselves heard.

One of the five stories that make up Ten Years (《十年》), the surprise box office hit that posits a grim future for Hong Kong, is about a woman who commits self-immolation outside the British consulate in protest of the country’s failure to uphold the Sino-British Joint Declaration. With street protests becoming increasingly intense and the city looking more ungovernable by the day, what seems like a far-fetched conjecture may well become a terrifying reality. Unless we find a way to cool the rising political temperature, it is perhaps a matter of time before protesters set more than just garbage on fire and we have our very own Mohamed Bouazizi.

A game changer
________________________

This article was published on Hong Kong Free Press under the title "Never underestimate the little guy: what the Mongkok clashes have in common with the Arab Spring."

As published on Hong Kong Free Press

This article was reproduced in The Wall Street Journal as "Notable & Quotable: Street Riots in Hong Kong."

As reproduced in The Wall Street Journal

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


Talk at Independent Schools Foundation Academy
Topic: No City for Slow Men
Venue: Telegraph Bay, Pokfulam
Date: 30 November
Moderator at Enrich HK panel discussion Topic: Impact of financial literacy education
Venue: BNP Paribas, Two IFC Date: 11 December Time: 12:30pm

Contributor to HK24 (2017 Anthology by Hong Kong Writers Circle) Release date: December

Guest speaker and prize presenter at 2017 Hong Kong's Top Story Awards Venue: TBD Date: 11 December Time: 7:00pm
Speaker for Enrich HK's "Ask the Experts" series Topic: TBD Date: January 2018

Legal workshop for foreign domestic workers at University of Hong Kong's Domestic Workers Empowerment Project (DWEP) Topic: "Understanding Hong Kong Culture" Venue: TBD Date: February 2018

2017
Interview with NOW TV
Topic: Ho's corruption case and U.S. federal court procedures Interview date: 24 November

Interview with Apple Daily 蘋果日報
Title: "Ho's corruption h…

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…

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…

The Joshua I Know 我認識的之鋒

When I shook his hand for the first time, I thought he was the strangest seventeen-year-old I’d ever met.
It was 2014, and considering how much Hong Kong has changed in the last three year, it felt like a lifetime ago.
Joshua sat across from me at a table in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, with his iPhone in one hand and an iPad in the other. I ordered him a lemon iced tea with extra syrup.
He was eager to begin our conversation, not because he was excited about being interviewed for my article, but because he wanted to get it over with and get on with the rest of his jam-packed day.
During our 45-minute chat, he spoke in rapid-fire Cantonese, blinking every few seconds in the way robots are programmed to blink like humans. He was quick, precise and focused.

He was also curt.
When I asked him if he had a Twitter account, he snapped, “Nobody uses Twitter in Hong Kong. Next question.”
I wasn’t the least offended by his bluntness—I chalked it up to gumption and precocity. For a te…

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…