I wasn’t going to write this.
Anything I would have written would have gushed at length about the jaw-dropping beauty of Hong Kong and its islands, the eye-soaring heights of its super structures, the shimmer of Victoria Harbour and the endless movement of life on it. I’d have told you about the food from across Asia, glorious bowls of brothy heaven, dim sums of such variety that our heads spun and our taste buds went into overdrive.
I might have mentioned the protests, but as a side bar, a note. Almost a (forgive me) humorous anecdote, an adventure we unwittingly found ourselves in.
It wouldn’t have been this.
My perspective on the protests shouldn’t matter. I was a tourist for a week, a passer by, a mere speck in the overwhelming mass of humanity that live in and visit Hong Kong each year. Surely the people best placed to talk about the protests are the HK community themselves?
Apparently not. They can’t. They’re scared.
And as counter protests start to spring up (supporting the HK police, no less) around the world — yes, Dublin, I’m looking at you — there seems to be nobody free to say what it was really like.
I’ve seen commentary that nobody in HK supports the protests. That the protesters were all brutal. And I’ve seen people I respect, whose voice matters more than mine, silenced out of fear of reprisal.
So… without wanting to add my uninformed privileged voice to a discussion that shouldn’t really be mine, I want to say what we experienced, what we saw, in Hong Kong last week. I hope in some small way it provides a perspective on the allegations of a city renouncing the protesters and of protester brutality.
Crowds of black
We staggered off our overnight flight from Doha to Hong Kong, blearily focused on the task of finding the Metro and getting to the hotel.
We entered arrivals and were greeted with the usual airport sight. Kids holding signs of welcome for relatives from across the seas. Parents waiting for a glimpse of their child. Drivers holding signs of names they cannot attempt to pronounce. And black t-shirts. And more black t-shirts. And we look around and realise that the airport is full of black t-shirts and they’re looking at us. They’re holding signs welcoming us to Hong Kong. They’re holding signs apologizing for disrupting our holiday. They’re holding signs asking us to understand that they are fighting for something fundamental and important.
We don’t feel scared of the protesters, but my heart is hammering anyway. These are teenagers, and I know the risks they are taking. I want to say to them that I support them, but the words won’t come out. I’m scared of being spotted by police, who are everywhere. I feel like such a hypocrite, walking blithely through with my case and my Hong Kong map, so I grab a leaflet off one of the protesters. A small act of solidarity. A useless one. I hide it in my handbag.
We happen to be staying across from police HQ and government building. No, it wasn’t intentional but it was non-refundable and we figured it was better at least to understand the situation and be clear about where we were.
We knew Sunday was protest day so we took ourselves out of Hong Kong island for the day. While others took risks to speak their truth, we took photos of a Giant Buddha and drank Vietnamese drip coffee in a tiny fishing village.
On the way back to the hotel, the Metro was calm. But as the doors closed on the last stop before ours, we looked around and realised our new co-passengers were in black. All on their phones frantically typing. Many carrying yellow hard hats.
We knew what was happening but had no other option but to get off the train at Wanchai Metro and hope they stayed on. They didn’t. They walked calmly off beside us.
When we got to the concourse, groups of protesters streamed under the barriers back INTO the station. Our cue to leave, quickly. We knew Metro stations were becoming a flashpoint and we wanted out. The atmosphere was getting tense and people were moving fast. Our fear wasn’t the protesters.
We ran up the nearest stairs and out at a station beside Lockhart Street. Turned right to head toward Hennessy Road. Stopped dead. Ahead of us blocking the road were hundreds of people, all in black.
Our way was blocked so we turned back onto Lockhart Road. There, blocking our way to the hotel, we saw this.
It was a weird moment. We wanted somewhere safe, away from the flashpoint we knew was coming. But look at the photo. See the lady lighting her ceremonial offerings for the Hungry Ghost Festival. She wasn’t the only person going about her ordinary life as if a squadron of police staring at her didn’t faze her in the slightest.
It fazed us. Protesters were walking past us in full gas masks. The media were gathered in a huddle up ahead.
Many buildings and shops were shut. The only option available to us was an expat bar. We rushed in, more than a little relieved at the safety it provided. We sat at the back well away from the windows and made bad jokes with Englishmen about petrol bombs.
And then it started. Simon heard the pop pop when he went outside and came quickly back in, his eyes smarting. Ordinary people started to come through the bar, eyes red and streaming, looking for water to wash the gas from their eyes. We had respite from it. The people we’d passed moments earlier didn’t.
I figured my international assistance app was rubbish (it notified me of the protests three hours later!), and followed #wanchai on twitter instead. There is became clear that we’d been right to run out of the Metro station. Police had charged in, fired rubber bullets, charged at protesters and fired tear gas INSIDE the station.
We sat and waited for an hour for it to pass. The police cleared the road, marching in formation to push protesters toward Causeway bay.
We made our way back to the hotel. We were safe. We hoped the protesters were too.
The week passed with an eye on the evolving airport situation (sorted before we flew), but it was marked by apologies. Every tour operator, server, or guide who happened to discuss the situation with us apologised. But none condemned the protesters. None said the protests shouldn’t be happening. Surely the tour guides, losing revenue by the day, would be annoyed at the disruption to their business? No – they sent an email saying they supported the protesters right to protest.
The apologies were unnecessary.
1.7 million Hong Kong citizens held a protest last Sunday, in the pouring rain, in Victoria Park. A peaceful protest.
I take it for granted that people have a right to protest, even if I dislike their message. I was born with that privilege. I would fight if someone tried to take it away. To attempt to intimidate people into silence is fundamentally wrong. Those who support that, no matter what the political reasoning, are forgetting that they wear a privilege that they should cherish. (And yes, Dublin supporters of the HK police, I’m looking at you.)
Note: I’m not oblivious to the fact that all protests allow some people to take advantage of the protest to act in ways they shouldn’t or use violence when they shouldn’t. It did happen, I’ve seen the footage too. But if 1.7 million people have something they need to say, then maybe we should not focus on the 1 or 2 but focus on the many?