Ten days ago, before Hong Kong’s protests became international news, I participated in a poetry reading as part of the student boycott. Then, Tamar Park was scattered with clumps of people, gathering at several different stages or sitting on the wide lawns alongside the LegCo building, the home of Hong Kong’s central government. Our microphone setup was pretty good, but competed with several others, ranging from speakers on the main stage to a Powerpoint slideshow beneath Legco itself, where there was shade enough to see the screen on such a hot, bright day.
The excellent event poster.
It was a nice cacophony, especially since the reading event was called “The Noise of Poetry,” and its theme was poetry as disruption. Mostly Cantonese-speaking poets had organized it. I was one of two English-language poets in the mix, and I was very happy to be invited. It felt good to be a part of things, both as a pro-democracy supporter and as a relatively new Hong Konger.
I’d never been to Tamar Park, which is a long green stretch out to Victoria Harbor, separated from the rest of the city by highways and accessible mostly by flyovers. My sense then was that Hong Kong’s urban planning authorities were awfully savvy to built a public park at once so central and so isolated; LegCo could grant permits for protests and then ignore the resulting assembly of people, tucked safely away from the financial center of the city.
Monday morning, we woke to news that that was changing. In the mall beneath my apartment, people gathered to watch the giant TV that usually features soccer matches:
Usually you can see the electronics shops on the second floor, but not today. Too many people.
It hadn’t sunk in, really, what was going on, but the crowd was unusual enough that I took a photo. I went down to Causeway Bay that afternoon on an unrelated errand, and on the bus ride, I caught up on the South China Morning Post’s live coverage of Admiralty events. That’s when I understood I was probably going to spend the rest of the afternoon (and, so far, the week) differently than I’d planned. The SCMP reported that protesters were also occupying Hennessey Road outside SOGO, Causeway Bay’s anchor department store, and when my diverted bus arrived at Tin Hau, a few blocks east of SOGO, I headed toward Hennessey.
The first sign of something out of the ordinary was the absence of streetcars going toward Central. Plenty were coming back—I saw at least six on my two-block walk past Victoria Park. But as I got close to SOGO, traffic disappeared, and the streetcars heading out of the center were the only vehicles in sight. And then I saw why there were no more incoming trams: at the tram stop just outside the main branch of the library, there was a glut of them, and a bunch of MTR employees in a fluorescent yellow vests manually switching each streetcar’s line connector with a very long pole, so that it could go back the other way. This was the new end of the line.
I stayed on the sidewalk along Victoria Park, then crossed under the Gloucester Road overpass before I realized what it meant that there were no cars: I could just walk in the street. I watched other people realize the same thing at a crosswalk, pausing first as usual at the curb, then stepping hesitatingly or gloriously into the street against the Don’t Walk signal.
Causeway Bay was packed. That’s ordinary; it’s one of HK’s prime shopping districts. The difference was that most people that afternoon were sitting in the middle of the street.
Looking east toward SOGO along Hennessey Road.
Tourist shopping continued as usual at SOGO, and across the street at Hysan Place, though their Hennessey Road entrance was cordoned off with a sign asking shoppers to use the entrance around the corner. The mall’s accommodation struck me as very Hong Kong–they probably already had the sign ready in case of a typhoon, the more typical doorway-obstructing HK menace.
All along Hennessey, the protesters had built their own structures out of HK’s ubiquitous crowd-management barricades.
Some of which had a sense of humor:
notice the broomface.
I circled back around to the MTR station, heading for the one entrance I always use because I remember where it is (I’ve still only lived here a year). It was closed.
“the nearest exit is behind SOGO / [fight for democracy] / sorry for the inconvenience!”
The sign in the center of the makeshift blockade just killed me–not only an apology, but also helpful directions. I followed them, and took the train to Admiralty.
Occupy Central was originally set to take place in its namesake district, but the organic growth of the protests changed that plan. Instead, ground zero is Admiralty, the home of HK’s government buildings and Tamar Park. The park was now off-limits, guarded by police who understandably didn’t want to make eye contact with me, one of the many photographers standing on my side of the barricade.
The poetry reading last week was down that stone path, now empty.
Opposite the barricaded public park were tens of thousands of people, inhabiting the newly public space of Connaught Road. Besides the sheer numbers, what struck me was seeing one of Hong Kong’s most famous features—its verticality—serving a constitutive function in the protests. One reason photos of the endless crowds have been so easy to get is that there are overpasses on all the major avenues, and magnificent window views from every floor of cubicles in the office buildings along the protest site.
Facing east from the flyover that leads to Tamar Park; the police officer is out of frame to my left.
It’s not only photos you can get from up there—it’s an amazing sense of scale, and really, of the power of this many people together in a public space. One friend noted that it felt like an outdoor music festival, but without the bands, the drinking, or the hired security. The event policed itself, and protesters were serious about their purpose. One sign just outside Admiralty Station read “No Party. No Karaoke. Fight for Democracy.”
That sense of scale has been happening laterally, too—Hong Kong’s public spaces radiating from the center of the protest have been steadily permeated by yellow ribbons. They trace everyone’s routes home:
Including mine. The overpass across Tai Po’s Lam Tsuen River was strung with them, all up and down the staircases and along the walkway.
At Kowloon Tong’s luxury mall, protesters made more:
As they did in Mong Kok:
That photo is from Wednesday. I went back to the protests, this time beginning at Mong Kok, with my husband and two of his university colleagues, a Canadian who’s lived here for a decade, and a Korean who grew up in Taiwan and married a native Hong Konger. Mong Kok’s scene was much smaller, and, as my friend M remarked, older, than the Admiralty crowd.
Because Mong Kok is a neighborhood as well as a shopping district, and because it’s made up of ordinary grid-layout streets rather than sweeping overpasses and traffic ramps, it had an intimacy Admiralty didn’t. This is why, at least for me, the news of violence there Friday was especially distressing. I had seen families there, parents bringing their children, middle-aged and retired people sitting in the middle of the intersection with cool packs stuck to their foreheads. And Mong Kok was the site of the democratic stage, where anybody could get up and give a 2-minute speech, even anti-Occupy speakers; it was the site of the buses, the most affecting piece of public art I’ve ever seen. They’d stalled when the blocks first filled up with people days ago, and now they were monuments.
There were eight or nine buses, papered with signs and drawings, and they were all surrounded by people reading or adding new notes. One, parked like a blockade itself at the intersection of Nathan and Mong Kok roads, featured a crate of A4 paper and markers so you could add your own.
Note the bus’s number: 689. That’s the number of votes CY Leung received from the electoral college two years ago, out of 1200, and the thinness of that majority has become a rallying point for pro-democracy protesters; only the pro-Beijing contingent voted for him.
Note also the quotes from “Can You Hear the People Sing,” the Les Miserables song. I’ve asked several people when it became an anthem of Hong Kong protests, and I’ve gotten different answers. I’ve heard both that the song’s English version has been a part of HK political movements since the mid-90s, and also that it’s quite recent because of the 2012 movie’s popularity. Someone wrote Cantonese lyrics to it this past year, which a friend kindly translated for me. Its Cantonese title is “Ask Who Hasn’t Spoken Yet,” and the chorus goes like this:
“The city deserts me, who defends my town?
My inborn rights–I still have the mind to decide.
Who is resigned to silence?
Ask, who could remained unawakened–
Listen to the tune of freedom
Which wakes the consciousness in response.”
About her translation, my friend says she didn’t aim for poetry, but a literal version. In Cantonese the end syllables rhyme. She says of the title, which is also the song’s first line, “Instead of ‘spoken’, I think ‘murmured’, ‘made a sound’ might all work, but for the context, perhaps ‘spoken’ is the best. The Chinese word is a ‘soft’ one, not ‘shout’, not ‘scream’, not ‘cry with rage’.”
The anti-Occupy protesters Friday may indeed have been just individuals, tired of the blockades and inconveniences to the point that they were ‘crying with rage.’ I suppose it’s natural that the multi-voiced democratic opposition grew so visible there first, that the seams began to show and fray where the integration of protest into city fabric has been most thorough. But if the anti-protest protesters were, as has been alleged, Triad-supported or sent by the HK or Beijing governments to step in where the police no longer can after last Sunday’s tear gas, then it is especially heartbreaking to see that happen in Mong Kok, where people like the ones pictured below were organizing trash, keeping crowds cool with water spritzes, and adding their own voices to the chorus.
A chorus which even included, as this sign says, Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities.
Last time I went down to Admiralty, Friday night, I met a recent graduate of CUHK who said he’d been interning in Beijing during the anti-education-reform protests a couple of years ago. He’d liked Beijing, and could imagine living there, he said, until the city was wracked by devastating rainstorms. The news reported exact numbers of how many thousands of chickens and pigs were lost. But there was never a count of the people. That’s what changed his mind, he said—everyone knew people had died, but no one knew how many, and the news wasn’t interested in reporting it. How could he live in a country that preferred to downplay or even disappear the human lives lost in a storm because documenting them would leave the government open to accusations of poor infrastructure and preparation?
It’s this kind of question motivating many Hong Kongers who have been out there on the streets steadily since last weekend. They believe it matters to be counted.
I’ll be back in Admiralty tonight, where crowds have swelled again this weekend after the Mong Kok and Causeway Bay attacks, and after the government’s statements that the roads must open for business traffic come Monday. I hope things stay calm, and I think that they will. A friend and I talked the other night about how we keep going back not only to show our support, but also simply because it feels so good to be there. We walk through streets as crowded as Hong Kong’s always are, but now we walk right down the center of the traffic lanes, surrounded by thousands of people who are wonderfully thoughtful about each other, and glad to see each other, stranger or friend. There’s no place in Hong Kong or anywhere else I’d rather be.