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My mom fainted the first time she set foot in an American supermarket. It was 1981 and we were freshly arrived in America, and some combination of the culture shock and smell and sensory overload of a Safeway was too much for her, not normally a fainting woman.
I didn’t faint, but I stood transfixed in the cereal aisle. After six long years on Earth, here was a place that understood me. These were cartoon characters, made of pure sugar, that you could eat as a meal. Every box had a toy inside. How could I possibly choose just one?
Houston in that era was not an earthly paradise. But try telling that to visitors like us, dazzled by the sheer abundance of American capitalism. There were superhighways in the center city! Everyone had a giant car! You could drive that car up to a restaurant with a yellow “M” on it, and a teenager would hand you a bucket of pink ice cream through the window! According to the sign on the restaurant, this had happened billions of times. It was overwhelming.
All that prelude is to say, coming in to the Hong Kong protests from a less developed country like the United States is disorienting. If you have never visited one of the Zeroth World cities of Asia, like Taipei or Singapore, it can be hard to convey their mix of high density, mazelike design, utterly reliable public services, and high social cohesion, any more than it was possible for me or my parents to imagine a real American city, no matter how many movies we saw. And then to have to write about protests on top of it!
It’s hard to write articulately about the Five Demands when one keeps getting brought up short by basic things, like the existence of clean public bathrooms.
The time and location of protests are set via social media alchemy; once you get notified about one, you descend through a spotless mall onto a bright and clean train platform, get whisked away by a train that arrives almost immediately, step out into another mall, then finally walk outside into overwhelming heat and a gathering group of demonstrators.
When it’s over, whether the demonstrators have dispersed of their own will, or are running from rubber bullets and tear gas, you duck into another mall, and another train, and within minutes are back in a land of infinite hypercommerce, tiny alleys and posh hotels with their lobby on the 40th floor of a skyscraper.
Not everyone lives in a luxury hotel, man! I get it. But my eyes are like saucers. I ask forgiveness of Hong Kongers if at times I am still that six year old kid, dazzled by what to you is ordinary. You live in a kind of city we Americans can only aspire to, and it’s no wonder you love your home so much you will take any risk to save it.
Saturday, August 10
Word spreads that there will be a protest in Tai Po, a residential district in the New Territories, close to the border. The protesters have been cycling events through different neighborhoods, as a way of building sympathy with the people, who can look out from their windows and watch the police reaction firsthand. At this point, the police reaction almost inevitably means tear gas, and people have been gassed in their own apartments, on high floors. This is a particular hardship for the sick and elderly, already struggling in the heat.
One of the deeper causes of the present crisis of legitimacy is the housing crisis in Hong Kong, another way in which the government has failed the people it is meant to represent, and you can see it in the extraordinary density of apartment buildings, each unit pock-marked with an air conditioner, tiny living spaces with some of the highest rents in the world.
Tai Po is easily reachable by MTR, the city’s commuter train system. Everywhere except the islands is easily reachable by MTR. The MTR is the one technology the Hong Kong protests could not do without, an autonomous fiefdom that the police mostly stay out of. It is neutral territory. The train ride is uneventful until we get off at Tai Po station, where there are an unusual number of people in black, the color of the protests (lucky is the Hong Konger who started the summer as a goth or metal fan, and has some wardrobe options!)
The arriving protesters stream out of the station in groups, consolidating as they approach the rallying point in a local park. Volunteers along the way pass out flyers and hold directional signs. There is a mix of ages, though they trend young. The typical Hong Kong protester, researchers tell us, is a college educated professional in their twenties. There is a roughly equal gender balance.
The streets around the park are almost free of traffic. After a brief false start in the wrong direction, the crowd turns itself around with hand signals and begins to march. The atmosphere is festive, with lots of chanting of “ga yao” (add oil), the idiomatic phrase that is now finding its way into English.
Once every few minutes a stray vehicle wanders into our path, and demonstrators take pains to let it through, with self-selected volunteers parting the crowd. If the taxi honks in support, a cheer goes up from the marchers.
The road takes us past lush parkland, where skinny white birds observe us from the treetops, and then through a business district with no police, few pedestrians, and almost no traffic. Many stores along the route have been shuttered in anticipation of the march, but the second-floor restaurant windows are full of curious faces. People are photographing us, and we photograph them back. When someone waves or shouts support, whether from the street or from a passing vehicle, the same cheer goes up.
In the windows, we can see couples on dates, curious children with their hands pressed to the glass, and store keepers looking out with an appraising eye. Up in the high rises, old men in undershirts lean down to watch.
A Thai restaurant has stayed open. The hand-lettered sign in its window invites demonstrators in for free refreshments. There is nothing you can pay for in a protest - volunteers hand out gas masks, water, tea, and endless flyers, designed and printed with astonishing alacrity in response to each day’s events. Anything you may need, people have donated.
Across the street, a man is sticking post-its to the shuttered storefront of a 7-11, creating another one of the post-it walls that are all over Hong Kong. The airport protest on Friday even had a guy styling himself Memo Man, dressed in a black body suit you could paste notes to, until he looked like a paper hedgehog.
The level of heat and humidity is almost comical. My slavic body is shutting down, in a process so unsettling to fellow marchers that concerned people start offering me water or tiny, single use tissues. These turn into wet confetti the second they touch my face. You might as well try to stop Niagara with a hand towel.
“It’s okay,” I tell them. “This is normal. I’m not dying—I’m Polish.” They edge away.
Our group at this point numbers in the thousands. We pass through another neighborhood of residential high-rises and find ourselves at a large, empty intersection. In the distance on the left there is a pedestrian overpass full of journalists (we can tell because they’ve set up antenna tripods). Beyond the overpass stands a line of cops, their plastic shields glinting in the sun.
With the police visible, there is a little bit of a hush in the crowd. The march continues in a direction parallel to the police line, to another major intersection. There, volunteers are yelling to offer marchers a choice. We can turn right and walk to a nearby train station. Or we can go left and confront the police. Most people choose to go left, and are handed surgical masks (to hide their faces) if they don’t already have them.
The police station is just ahead, a five-story building with large Eiffel tower-style antennas on the roof. Another line of riot police has blocked the road leading to it, and journalists rush to get pictures. The demonstrators stop and confer.
I should say a few words here about the curious way the protests are organized. The protesters learned in 2014 that having leaders was a weakness. Once the leadership was arrested, the heart went out of the occupy movement, and it lost momentum. So in 2019, there is no leadership at all. The protests are intentionally decentralized, using a jury-rigged combination of a popular message board, the group chat app Telegram, and in-person huddles at the protests.
This sounds like it shouldn’t possibly work, but the protesters are too young to know that it can’t work, so it works.
The protesters divide themselves into groups based on how much they can risk being arrested. The issue is not jail time, but the prospect of losing a job or being kicked out of school, now that China has shown it will crack down ferociously on companies that employ demonstrators.
The frontmost group are the people who actually come into contact with the police, and put themselves at greatest risk of arrest. Behind them there is a supply group, who passes water and other essentials forward, and helps those in front if they are hurt. And behind that is the great body of demonstrators. Those who will be up front are given leeway to make decisions, including telling the crowd to move back and make room, or deciding to disperse and reassemble elsewhere.
Now these frontline protesters have formed a huddle to discuss the tactical situation. Protesters around them shield the group from surveillance with umbrellas. The police watch, and the rest of us wait.
Journalists are all over these protests. Members of the local press wear yellow vests marked PRESS, and put on headgear if things start to get spicy. Some of the foreign correspondents elect to dress more elaborately, looking like they’re about to explore the lunar surface rather than interview a tiny retiree. You can spot key events or celebrities in the protests by looking for the circle of yellow vests, and pyramid of selfie sticks raised above whatever is happening.
The protesters, like beavers, have a strong building instinct. They want to make barricades. The preliminary huddles have expressed concern that we are not on favorable terrain. The police is dead ahead, the street is bordered by a culvert and stream, and it would be too easy to cut the protesters off from behind. So a new set of huddles forms, screened by umbrellas, and after a few minutes we see that they have reassembled steel barricades into triangle shapes, held together by plastic ties, which they will assemble and tie together to block the side roads.
A great hurrah goes up as a group of masked protesters runs one of these triangles down the road, the crowd zippering open in front of them. As they run, the umbrella holders run alongside to keep them screened. Another triangle platoon runs its barricade down to the intersection.. And then - disaster! A third triangle is rushed down the street, but the squad misses their turn, and races off into the distance. The crowd roars for them to stop. Far down the road, they skid to a halt, re-form, and rush back. More cheers.
The rest of us stand and watch this business unfold. It is four o’clock and the heat is cooking me from within. A breeze is blowing towards the police line, and there is speculation that this is why the police have not fired tear gas. The foreign journalists in their body armor are all up at the front of the protest, so there is a disorienting dynamic where people further back can follow a Bloomberg live stream what is happening two hundred meters to their front. Flummoxed by the wind, the police have instead brought out pump tanks of pepper spray, like giant hot sauce dispensers, and are brandishing them at the front of the crowd.
More time passes. Finally, the decision surfaces that the position is too unfavorable. This has been another development in the protesters’ tactics since the start of the summer. Rather than standing their ground, they have found it more effective to melt away and reassemble somewhere else. The tactic is a classic one, but I am impressed with the ability of a decentralized group to adopt it so effectively.
And so, everyone makes their way back to the train station, where again things transition to normal, as if a street protest with thousands of participants hasn’t just happened. The trains absorb the extra passengers easily (the New York subway would be in flames), and we return to the heart of the city.
Sunday, August 11
The next day there is an authorized protest in Victoria Park, where a dour Queen Victoria in the late years of her reign sits sweltering on a metal throne.
These authorized protests are becoming rare, even though Hong Kongers are supposed to enjoy freedom of assembly. In June and July, the police would routinely grant the permits that the leaderless protests always found a way to apply for. More recently, the police have switched tactics and are now refusing permits, then tear-gassing the inevitable illegal assembly.
But today’s rally is official. Demonstrators line the edges of the big open basketball courts and soccer fields, wherever there is a scrap of shade. A first aid station has been set up by the medical volunteers, and free water and electrolyte drinks are available to everyone. The air is still, making the heat worse, and for hours nothing really happens, just a crowd standing and half-listening to speakers rallying the crowd from the stage. A small group of Buddhists has set up incense and performs a ceremony in the frame of a soccer goal.
Anticipating where the real protest will happen feels just like hoping you’re one of the people cool enough to be told about the afterparty. You keep one eye on the cool kids, in this case the fully masked protesters. As long as they are still around, we know we haven’t missed out on anything.
Finally, around six o’clock, two lines of people form up and start to move. We are on the march.
The crowd shifts and reconfigures to start making its way out of the park. We file past groups of Indonesian women in hijab, sitting on flattened cardboard and having their picnic in the park. No amount of politics is going to deprive them of their precious day off. Queen Victoria looks down at us with disapproval, and then, just like that, we a re an illegal assembly. Speakers at the edge of the park blare out an awful, saccharine anthem as we reach the main road. I put on my hard hat.
It is hard to believe this is the tenth week of protests. The energy and numbers are just astonishing. In spite of the relentlessness of the police, in spite of the beatings from thugs who the authorities have allowed to rough up people with impunity, every weekend Hong Kongers come out to march.
We move in the direction of City Hall, down a thoroughfare lined with Times Square-like animated advertising. The crowd boos and shines lasers on a large animated sign belonging to a mainland Chinese newspaper. Then there is a sudden stop and a sea of hand gestures, thumb and pinky out, hands twisting rapidly. Someone up in the vanguard needs an Allen wrench! This is procured and passed, and then the gesture turns to a “C” shape. They need a monkey wrench!
Finally, whatever barricade full of hex nuts that is impeding our progress gets dismantled, and the crowd flows on through.
The march is entering the administrative heart of the city. It parts for a while to let through some trapped buses and taxis, and then re-forms again, moving toward Central. We are getting close to police headquarters, and soon a decision will be necessary. As we get closer, all motion stops, more consultative huddles form, and twenty or so aimless minutes go by.
Then, a hand gesture. Retreat. The police are too strong here. The crowd heads back in the general direction of the park.
A woman standing on a concrete planter by the MTR station is yelling “go to Tsim Sha Tsui!”. People are looking at their phones, checking the latest news. Some of the Telegram groups around the protests have tens of thousands of participants, and information gets amplified quickly. We decide to follow the woman’s advice and take the train to Kowloon.
Down in the MTR, it’s a different world. Though we have just left a huge protest march, here we are in the midst of families, couples on dates, elderly people, women in saris, white expats in business clothes. The helmets come off and we again join the ranks of the lawfully assembled, the train system effortlessly absorbing a surging crowd that would turn BART into a mass tomb.
At Tsim Sha Tsui station we meet an arriving train full of demonstrators, some already wearing pink-capped respirators. We follow them up and out onto the street, emerging somewhat unexpectedly outside a mosque, where a South Asian woman on the steps is yelling “no photos!”. She doesn’t mean not to photograph the mosque. Rather, she’s yelling at people who are taking photos of the demonstrators from its steps.
We are now in the heart of the tourist district, with hotels and fancy restaurants all around us. If I came here during the day, I would be stopped and asked a dozen times if I wanted my clothes tailored. Tonight, the tailors have stayed home. The street is a sea of black-clad people in masks and hard hats. Word goes around that tear gas has already been fired two blocks away, and I fumble to get my equipment on.
The Persian poets say the nose is the outpost of the face. I am normally proud of mine. Its great bulk has preceded me into every difficult situation in my life, sniffing out both danger and opportunity.
But the mask I bought here is designed for more delicate faces than mine. When I put it on, it somehow channels the air I exhale directly into my goggles, which fog up instantly. I can only see for a few seconds at a time before the world turns into a white mist. But, I reason, not being able to see from condensation will be much better than not being able to see from tear gas. I hang goggles and mask around my neck and await developments.
The crowd has begun to move in the direction of the police. Up ahead, someone is waving a big black flag with the Hong Kong emblem on it. They are silhouetted against a pale cloud of smoke, and as I watch I see streams of more smoke falling in arcs around the flag waver. That is the tear gas.
The people around me are filling bottles with water. Tear gas is kind of a misnomer - it’s a solid dispersion that gets deliverd through a burning smoke bomb. You can extinguish it by dousing it in water The kids have a well-practiced assembly line going, delivering water to the front line, and I try to stay out of everybody’s way.
Supply volunteers are handing out wet wipes (to get the chemical residue off your skin) and single-use plastic sticks of saline solution for an eye rinse. I am just moving up to get a better view of the flag waver when a tear gas canister lands at my feet, and I suddenly remember an important engagement elsewhere.
When you are in a foreign land with strangers, it is good to have shared interests. They bring people together across cultural and linguistic barriers. Right now, the crowd and I are all deeply interested in moving back a bit. As we go, medical volunteers approach people who have been affected by the tear gas and help them rinse their eyes. “Don’t rub.” Everybody is tended to. Hong Kong protests have better medical care than any place in America, I think, in another of those little culture shock moments that keep lifting me out of the situation.
For a while, the situation is static. I notice the flag waver has never stopped, defiantly waving right in front of the police line. Word comes that the police have now raised an orange warning flag, which means they will use rubber bullets.
The front line asks for people to move further back, and we comply. It is dangerous to look directly back into the crowd because of the dozens and dozens of green lasers being beamed in the direction of the police (who have taped foil to their visors as a defense).
At one point, I hear a tremendous cheer go up. A group of protesters rushes past with their prize, a tall section of scaffolding they have detached from a nearby work site. The lasers dance over it in celebration. It is rushed forward for barricade duty on the front line. I see other people forming a bucket brigade to pass up water bottles.
Then, for no reason I can see, there is panic. People are running flat out, and I worry about being knocked down in the surge. I catch the briefest glimpse of a woman with no protective gear, dressed normally, who is weaving her way upstream through the escaping demonstrators with a placid smile on her face.
When the running subsides, I duck behind a tree in the median. I don’t know what’s going on, only that people ran and now have stopped running. Someone says that the police line has pushed forward. Then there is a new sound from up front, the pop-pop-pop of rubber bullets being fired, and people start to run again. “When in Rome,” I think to myself, and our little group legs it into the first side street we can find. And there we come across an open snack stall.
“Snacks!” I cry, taking off my helmet.
With tear gas, adrenaline, and the advancing riot police behind us, an appetizing line of skewers is displayed in neat rows ahead of us, in front of vats of steaming broth. The choice is obvious.
I select skewers of indeterminate seafood and wait for them to be heated by the completely unfazed proprietor. We are in little side street full of boutiques, stores and restaurants, many of them still open, the owners standing outside to assess the situation. Other demonstrators are filing past in their headgear deciding which way to go to avoid the police.
I put my mask and goggles in the backpack, and return to the role of ordinary tourist. In this respect, I am far more fortunate than Hong Kongers, who will have to worry about being stopped at random by police on their way home, and being caught with masks and helmets on their person.
I can’t get over the oddness of the situation. In one direction is bedlam, in the other complete normalcy, separated by a few hundred meters. Some actual tourists are weaving about, worried, and demonstrators turn them around if they accidentally head towards the tear gas. “
Skewers eaten, we elect to call it a night, and find our way to the nearby MTR train station. The escalator at the entrance is not working, the first time I’ve seen anything fail to function in this indomitable train system. Underground, the station is packed with demonstrators, and illuminated signs above our heads apologize for the slight disruption in service. Trains are now running every seven minutes, instead of every two, and MTR regrets the inconvenience.
Sympathetic subway workers have opened the gates to the platform, so people can get to the platform without a potentially trackable swipe of their Octopus card (the magic rechargeable card with which you can buy almost anything in t he city).
And then, just as we are descending the escalator to the train tracks, a group of demonstrators rushes in behind us and calling for everyone to run—the police are coming.
This is the scariest moment of the night, as a quick stampede starts in the very confined space of the escalator. I am terrified that someone will trip and get trampled. On the train, people are holding the doors open, and yellow-shirted MTR personnel appear to restore order. Protests are protests, but the MTR must run!
Later that night, we will learn that in another subway station, police fired tear gas canisters directly at people, a terrible thing to do in a confined space. There is video of police beating unarmed protesters savagely on an MTR escalator. And the whole city sees the pictures of a young medic who lost the vision in her eye after police shot her in the face with a bean bag round. The outrage from those acts of violence will provoke the massive protests that shut down the airport on Monday and Tuesday.
But that news is still a few hours away, and again the MTR performs its alchemy of taking us into a world apart, the skyscrapers and hotels around Central, where the view is of tankers and brightly lit junks drifting through the harbor, and there is no sign at all of the turmoil we have just witnessed.
That is the Hong Kong I saw last weekend. I don’t know - I suspect no one knows - what will happen tomorrow. The only sure thing is that people will march. There are many Hong Kongers and other smart people writing online who can explain the political context of the protests, the likelihood of intervention, and what this means in a deeper way. I am just a visitor who perhaps thinks too much about fish cakes when being tear gassed.
But I hope everyone stays safe, that the inevitable protests this weekend are allowed to proceed peacefully, and that those in a position to escalate the crisis instead recognize the fundamental reasonableness of what Hong Kongers are asking for—to be ruled by the agreed laws, applied fairly to all. Above all, I hope no one is hurt.
To the many, many Hong Kongers who have shown kindness and gone out of their way to welcome visitors to their city even in these difficult times, I want to offer my deepest gratitude. What to me is something to observe and write about, to you has become a question of survival.
Thank you for letting me join you in your city, and see what you are experiencing at first hand. I know that in America, all our hearts will remain with you, and with Hong Kong, whatever comes next.
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