I spent the past 24 hours talking to former Vancouverites at Hong Kong’s Occupy Central protests for a piece that ran in The Globe and Mail. They had many thoughtful and insightful things to say, but with limited room in the paper, their accounts, unfortunately, had to be edited down. So, here are the full-length versions:
Maggie Lee, 31, was born in Hong Kong but moved to Canada as a child. She attended the University of B.C., majoring in food science, and in 2006 returned to her place of birth, where she now works as a scientist. Ms. Lee said that while she supported the Occupy Central movement, she initially did not feel compelled to action – until she saw that Joshua Wong, the baby-faced 17-year-old leader of a student movement, had been arrested.
In the beginning, we didn’t know what to do. These kids were being grabbed off the street by policemen. They’re only kids, in high school or in university. [My friends and I were] on the fence at that point because we don’t really feel like we belong here in Hong Kong – because we grew up abroad – but we feel for them because we know that this is not right. They were protesting in peace and being removed in violence. We were feeling for them. All of a sudden, we learned tear gas had been released. That was the breaking point when most Hong Kong people took to the streets. I think a lot of the people just couldn’t stand it anymore. When they heard that, they couldn’t take it anymore. They realized the government had gone too far. A lot of people started walking the streets with cling wrap and lab goggles and disposable raincoats. They didn’t know how to protect themselves against tear gas.
We didn’t have any protective clothing on; we just ran home, put on some comfortable clothing, grabbed a backpack, took some bottles of water and whatever we could find – supplies for the people who were there. That’s what we all did; we didn’t know what else we could do. We grabbed everything and ran there. We knew something had to be done and we had to show our distaste for the government. This is not what we want in Hong Kong.
We stayed until very late at night. It was like a war zone. There was a lot of tear gas, people running around trying to dodge the police. They (the protesters) didn’t even do anything in the first place; they were just standing there with their umbrellas. Sometimes we heard people screaming at the police, and that was ill advised. We actually tried to calm people down when they were screaming. We want this to be peaceful. We want them to know that we’re standing together against something we don’t believe in – and that’s it. That’s the only message we wanted to bring across.
Sometimes when we participate in these things, we get fingers pointed at us. They say, “You guys have a ticket out already; why are you so still so worried about this place? It’s not your war to fight.” But the people who participated in the protest with me, we don’t think that way. We think that as long as we’re here, we’re responsible. It’s our duty to protect this place. We know that our freedom is being taken away, bit by bit.
Jackie Chan, 36, was born in Hong Kong and lived in Vancouver from the late 1980s until the early 2000s. A Simon Fraser University graduate, Mr. Chan has since moved back to Hong Kong, where he works in sales and marketing. After seeing news footage of riot police firing tear gas at protesters, he ventured out around midnight, wanting both to support the student protesters and see if what he saw on television reflected the reality of the situation.
From what I saw [in Mong Kok], police were calm. They didn’t use any violence at all. Unfortunately, some of the crowd was taking advantage of it. I think they were being quite aggressive, trying to intimidate police in a couple of cases. There was one incident – I didn’t see the whole thing develop, but I saw part of it – where three or four police officers were trying to direct traffic and people would keep storming in. The police were asking the crowd to move away, so the cars and motorbikes could pass, and people were jumping on the opportunity and just storming them, saying “Why don’t you just shoot me” and making crazy statements like that. There were probably 100 people surrounding the three or four police officers.
I was quite impressed by a couple of things, though. There were a couple of students making announcements, managing the crowds quite well. On the other side of the road, there was a parked police car and a couple of guys had climbed up and were sitting on top of it. People saw it and were yelling at them: “Get off the police car!” The student organizers told them to get down, and they did. Which was good. We didn’t want any trouble. They managed the crowds quite well. There were also water and supply stations managed, again, by the kids, which I thought were quite well organized.
The organizers want China to revoke its decision [to limit 2017 elections to Beijing-vetted candidates]. I don’t think that will happen. The Chinese government has already made its decision and it’s not going to say, “Okay, let’s change it.” I think people have to realize we are part of China – this is fact – and there are some things that we cannot change. It’s like China is your dad; you can’t change who your dad is. But I think Hong Kong can better define “one country, two systems,” because there are a lot of grey areas. We have to be careful and not give in on those. For example: Do lawyers have to be patriotic? I don’t think so. Can we still have demonstrations at this level without [persecution]? We need to treasure [those freedoms]. I don’t want to lose them, otherwise we become just another city in China.
Kelvin Chui, 37, is a former Vancouverite and Simon Fraser University graduate who now operates a trading company in Hong Kong and a shoe factory elsewhere in China. After learning about the escalation of the Occupy Central movement, he decided to show his support by joining protesters at the Central Government Offices in Admiralty.
It was impossible to get into the office because there were so many people and people just kept arriving. I gave up on that and went to Admiralty Centre and sat there for about 30 minutes, with what I thought was 400, 500 people. After that the organizers told us they were planning to march to Connaught Road Central [a major thoroughfare in Central] to support people there, so I followed. When I followed, I found out there were not 500 people, but more than 1,000. I don’t know where they came from. We went toward Central and arrived at Cotton Tree Drive, where the organizers told us to stay for a while. That’s where we were met with a lot of police [but] I don’t think they knew what to do to stop us from crossing the street. They were not that aggressive at that moment – no weapons, no pepper spray. They were not riot police. We stayed there for another 30 minutes and then marched to Connaught Road Central to join the main force.
I felt the urgency. It’s really difficult to just sit at home, watching and knowing all this. I’m pretty sure there weren’t enough people to make the movement successful, at that moment, I hope my presence will make some difference. The main reason [I got involved] was because I just couldn’t stand it, watching these students doing all this for us, for adults, for everybody else. They were there for a few days already; they must be tired. It’s difficult to see that.
At the beginning, I didn’t expect a big difference, but after we saw how police reacted to these protests – the unreasonable violence that they used – that will make a difference. Because so many people who were staying at home, watching the news, got involved after they saw tear gas being shot. That crossed the line. The awareness has been aroused. That is the major difference.