On the morning of November 6, strung out from a long transpacific journey, fighting jet lag but feeling revved by a mixture of caffeine and adrenaline, I set out to walk the two miles that separated my hillside University of Hong Kong guesthouse from the Admiralty district. As I walked, I kept looking into the distance expectantly, eager to catch my first glimpse of the barricades and tents that would tell me I was finally seeing firsthand evidence of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, which I had been tracking closely from afar since it erupted in late September. When they finally came into view, though, I had an unsettling thought. What if, after I had spent so much time reading reports about it and seeing images on screens, there wasn’t much of a payoff? What if there were no insights to gain or even novelties to appreciate seeing it up close? Much about the scene that stretched out before me in Hong Kong’s financial district seemed oddly familiar: I expected to see tents of just those shapes and colors. Devoid of vehicles, the streets ahead looked nothing like they had when I last saw them 18 months ago, when they had been filled with passenger cars, trucks, cabs, and buses. Still, I felt a strange sense of déjà vu. After coming all this way, I fretted, would there be nothing to surprise me?
I needn’t have worried.
I never had a specific aha moment. But there were plenty of details I observed that morning and during a return visit the same evening that fleshed out the picture I had formed from the tweets and webcam images. It is one thing to hear that the protests have given some areas the feel of a utopian community, another to see direct evidence of this in the form of a workshop set up for furniture-making, where carpenters donate their time to craft desks for study areas in the protest zone, in order to help students on strike keep up with their homework. It is one thing to be told that the protests have triggered a wild surge of creativity, another to pass by a young artist painting elegantly crafted scenes, mixing political and mythic motifs, part Doonesbury and part manga, on the fourth panel of a tent that already has such imagery on the other three sides of it. Or to see up close the “Lennon Wall,” with a name borrowed from Prague but a Hong Kong look all its own. The wall is covered with post-it notes of all hues and now stretches so far that you can’t really capture all of it in a single shot, any more than you could take a photograph of all sides of that tent. And even if you could get the multi-colored collective collage completely into the frame, the viewer wouldn’t be able to make out a fraction of the miniature drawings and slogans it contains, in multiple languages, though a close-up might show the lyric “you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one” that has become a mantra of the struggle.
THE SOUND OF SILENCE
One thing that struck me when I arrived in the Admiralty protest area, and which helped shake my initial sense of déjà vu, was what I heard — or, rather, didn’t hear. I’m used to Hong Kong streets being noisy; instead it was eerily silent. This was partly due to the rhythm of the site at that point in the movement. Things would pick up in the evenings, when the crowds of fully committed protesters would be swelled by the arrival of part-timers, heading there after school or work, sometimes with small children in tow, and speeches and other events would give the area a street fair feel. In the morning, though, only those who had spent the night were there, and after staying up past midnight, many were naturally still sleeping.
If walking along completely silent streets gave the setting a surreal quality, I was even more disoriented by realizing, after entering the Occupy area, that I was strolling on a type of street not associated with pedestrian travel. It was a flyover stretch of highway, the sort designed to handle fast-moving or rush-hour-stalled traffic. I had driven down plenty of similar stretches in freeway-strewn parts of California, but I had never before walked down the middle of one.
There was also the fact that the roadway was elevated. With no vehicles to impede the view, I was afforded an unusually panoramic perspective on the urban landscape, allowing me to appreciate anew just what a special setting Hong Kong is, with its hilly landscape dotted with skyscrapers and the territory’s signature narrow, very tall apartment buildings. I thought, not for the first time, how thoroughly improbable it was that an economically important metropolis had taken shape there. Hong Kong Island seemed so hard to develop that, at least according to one version of the tale of the Opium War (1839–1842), Whitehall’s residents were furious when word came that negotiators for the victorious British had let the defeated Qing dynasty get away with ceding to London only the unpromising fishing village of “Fragrant Harbor” (what the name “Hong Kong” means) as a Crown Colony.
As improbable as the city’s history is the Umbrella struggle. It’s an event whose rapid evolution from a student strike to a kind of multi-class one-city People Power upsurge took even the most seasoned observers of the Hong Kong scene by surprise. And like so many improbable things, it might have taken a very different course had one or two specific things not happened or happened differently. Hong Kong itself might never have become a top global hub had Shanghai capitalists not fled there in the 1940s as the Communist Party took control of the mainland. And the protests might not have grown so big so fast if the local police force, which has a reputation for restraint and civility that it has often lived up to this fall, not used tear gas early on, inspiring an outpouring of popular support for the students.
SIGNS OF THE TIMES
I wandered alone in Admiralty, sometimes deciphering and sometimes failing to completely understand the political cartoons I saw; counting how many real and imaginary figures (Xi Jinping, Mary Poppins, and Winnie-the-Pooh among them) I could spot on posters with the struggle’s signature yellow umbrella photoshopped into their hands; checking out a series of simple posters expressing support for Hong Kong’s fight for democracy in a wide array of different languages, such as Indonesian and Icelandic, Swedish and Swahili, and even more surprisingly Esperanto. I wanted to do more than be just a silent voyeur, so I was pleased to see a young man emerging from a tent, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, and give me a look that suggested he might be open to some conversation. I greeted him in Mandarin, and then, when it was clear that he spoke perfect English while I was totally unable to communicate with him in his native Cantonese, we switched to my first language. I told him I had just arrived from California and asked him how long he had spent sleeping at the site. With the occupation well into its second month, I was curious if he had been there straight through, or perhaps, since a rotation system had begun, had been there at the beginning but started trading off with someone else to preserve his stamina. “Last night,” he surprised me by saying, “was the first I spent in a tent.”
Sensing that this wasn’t an answer I’d been expecting, he explained. He had been studying in Britain, he said, and he, too, had followed events closely from afar. He had been eager to get back to Hong Kong to take part, so bought a ticket for the day after his exams. He added that he was especially glad to be back to participate in this round of protests, as he had been in the UK for all of 2012. As a result, he had missed out on joining that year’s anti-patriotic education demonstrations, which had successfully halted efforts to bring mainland-style civics curricula into the schools, helped pave the way for this year’s student strikes, and given some current leaders, such as Joshua Wong, their first taste of organizing, marching, and speechmaking.
I asked him a few more questions, such as what had drawn him to the movement, what he thought of the way local citizens had responded to the students, and whether he had any thoughts about how much longer the standoff between protesters and the authorities might last, and what might bring it to an end. His answers were in line with many things that I’d heard before coming to Hong Kong and would hear again during my few days in the city, at the protest sites, in conversations with journalists, and in discussions with faculty and students at the University of Hong Kong. He was excited that the movement had validated people’s sense of local identity and local pride, and their determination to protect things that make public life in the city so much freer than on the mainland, that it had given voice to their dissatisfaction with Hong Kong’s officials and tycoons and their failure to support the struggle. He was worried about what exactly could happen to bring the movement to a positive close, yet felt that, whatever the result was, it was good that action had been taken.
MY MONG KOK MORNING
My first 48 hours in Hong Kong were packed with activities. In addition to the morning and evening visits to Admiralty, I gave a pair of talks at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), one of them a presentation on China’s past, with the distinguished historian Paul Cohen giving a comment, the other focusing on China’s present, with a spirited question-and-answer session involving largely exchange students from the mainland eager to ask about topics I’d raised that are hard or impossible to talk about publicly across the border. I also taught a session of my UC Irvine “Global Crises” class via Skype from HKU — joined for the long-distance event by Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Denise Y. Ho, New York Times reporter Chris Buckley, and University of Colorado at Boulder Geography PhD student Ian Rowen, each of them having fascinating things to say about the Umbrella Movement. I felt I’d learned enough from these experiences to go home feeling the trip had been worthwhile, and I still had a brief stopover in Shenzhen, just over the border. There was one more Hong Kong activity I needed to fit in. Ever since I had arrived, people had told me not to leave without going to Mong Kok, a neighborhood in Kowloon, just across the harbor from Hong Kong Island proper, that was home to the territory’s second largest Occupy zone. “You’ll find it different,” everyone said, varying from person to person in explaining just what the contrast with Admiralty would be.
When I finally made it to Mong Kok early on November 8, stopping off en route to Shenzhen, I realized that there were indeed many contrasts between it and Admiralty. The difference is due partly to geography: the encampment is on a regular street rather than a highway, which runs through a mixed residential and small business and shopping district rather than an area dominated by financial headquarters and government buildings. There was a more obvious law enforcement presence in the area, though I didn’t see any of the violent incidents — involving attacks on protesters by paid thugs, or by ordinary locals fed up with how long business in their area has been disrupted, or both — which I had read about. (These scuffles usually happen in the evenings or under cover of darkness.) In addition, while there was plenty of artwork to admire in Mong Kok, it felt like a place where the focus was on things other than creativity, where economic issues were equally or even more important in bringing people to the street than electoral and free speech concerns — though in Admiralty, too, the chasm between rich and poor was a concern expressed on many banners.
What I’ll remember most about Mong Kok is a conversation I had with a pair of young people just before leaving the area. They had been sleeping at the site, not in a tent but on mattresses out in the open air, pushed together, making it clear they were a couple. I didn’t quiz them closely about their lives, but got some basic facts. He said he was 20, she 17. He was at college training to be a social worker, and had been sleeping out since the movement began. She said she was still in high school, and didn’t say how long she’d been at the site.
Our conversation — carried out in a mixture of English and Mandarin, since I didn’t speak Cantonese and they only knew a bit of my native tongue — took place beside an open-air library, which the couple said they were helping to run. When I mentioned that I’d come to Mong Kok in part to see how the site differed from Admiralty, the boy, who had just woken up when I stopped to chat with them but ended up doing most of the talking, became animated. He told me that, unlike his girlfriend, he’d spent quite a bit of time across the harbor and would be happy to tell me how things on the Kowloon side were special.
He stressed that he had been impressed by what he saw at Admiralty, but felt more at home at the Mong Kok site. He thought that what was going on in Kowloon was especially admirable. The Mong Kok protests, he said, expressed the concerns and frustrations of many different sorts of people, including ones with little or no advanced education. Even though he was in school himself, he referred to the protests across the harbor being largely an expression of “student” ideals, invoking that category as one that applied primarily to those attending more elite institutions than the one he went to, which he described as a “tertiary” institution.
He got particularly enthusiastic when I mentioned that I had seen a couple of community libraries over in Admiralty that looked like the one he and his girlfriend were helping to run. “Yes,” he said, “but this one’s different. A lot of people in this neighborhood haven’t used a library before, so setting this one up is trying to give them a sense of the value of a place devoted to books.” In Admiralty, he suggested, the libraries were created so that protesters, while at the occupation, wouldn’t have to give up activities they were used to, but in Mong Kok, it strove to get them to do something new.
Sometimes, the Admiralty side is seen as more of a utopian experiment, the Mong Kok encampment more concerned with pragmatic material issues. I saw posters that confirmed this idea of a divide, but his comment on libraries suggested a subtle twist to this. In Mong Kok, having books available that dealt with ideas about political rights (there was a section labeled with the characters for politics in Chinese, but in English saying “democracy”), as well as travel guides describing distant locales, handbooks for learning to program a computer, and novels by writers like Kafka, was an effort to open people’s eyes to new vistas. The library in Mong Kok was as utopian a space as any I saw in Admiralty.
What sticks with me about the conversation I had in Mong Kok was that all three of us treated it as an opportunity to learn. Speaking to someone from the West seemed routine for the people I met in Admiralty, many of whom had doubtless traveled abroad, like the first student I met there. By contrast, I got the feeling that neither member of the Mong Kok couple had ever talked to an American before. And when I showed them a photo on my phone of my daughter, saying she was close to their age and spending a year teaching in Athens, their faces lit up, and the girl said she hoped someday she might be able to do something like that, to see at least part of Europe.
When I said I taught Chinese history and had done research on protest movements, they found this curious and asked me if anything I had studied helped me predict how the movement they were part of would end. I had to admit it didn’t, but that I had certainly seen many things in Hong Kong that reminded me of past protests I had read about, including some mainland ones I discussed in books I’d written. Some things had also, I said, brought back memories of protests I had observed or taken part in, such as anti–Vietnam War demonstrations I had gone to with my family as a kid. What I wish I had said, but didn’t think of at the time, was that they should understand that whether or not their struggle achieved any of its main, stated goals, it might end up later helping to inspire people in totally different settings to take risks to bring about change they believed in. For just as the Hong Kong protests, on both sides of the harbor, were adapting tactics and reworking slogans from many past struggles, they were enriching the local and international repertoire from which later generations of activists could choose.
After saying goodbye to these two likable youths and leaving the protest zone, I felt very glad that I’d made the visit to Mong Kok. I did, though, have one regret. During the evening I’d spent in Admiralty, on impulse I deposited a copy of the Taiwanese edition of my China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know in one of that protest zone’s libraries. I’m happy to think of the book sitting on the shelves there, but I left Kowloon feeling that it might have been even better placed in the small history section of the Mong Kok street library I had just visited.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor's Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, the author of books such as China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2013), and the co-editor of Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land (University of California Press, 2012).