Disobedient But Civil: Hong Kong’s Plea for Democracy

What a difference a five-minute walk can make.

As I exited the Central MTR station in the afternoon heat yesterday, everything was as it had been the day before. Shops were open, tourists strolled languidly, and a general conviviality common to most Sundays hung palpably in the air.

I headed east on Connaught Road with a quickened pace that might have stood out against the relaxed weekend atmosphere. Glancing down the side streets, the domestic helpers of the city had congregated as they often do to meet, picnic, and unwind in the pleasant interim before next week’s work began. By the time I reached Chater Garden, the music and laughter bordered on raucous, and a large Philippine flag that someone had brought along fluttered over the impromptu gathering.

It didn’t take long beyond that for the merriment to fade.

Just one block further past Cotton Tree Drive, I saw the first police blockade. This was the fringes of the demonstration; police officers here appeared to be preparing, talking in groups and adjusting their crowd control equipment with no apparent unease of the hundreds of protestors that sat cross-legged on Harcourt Road.

Beyond them, however, was a different story.

Thousands. It was undeniable the turnout had hit those numbers as you looked out over the vista, the normally traffic-filled flyover replete with pedestrians. The crowd grew denser and denser as I moved inwards towards the nexus of the event, the Central Government Offices on Tim Mei Avenue. Here, there was a front line of the most ardent protestors, their umbrellas in bloom, their eyes encased by protective goggles and plastic wrap.

I saw a man shouting and writhing on the ground as his friend poured water on his bare chest; angry red patches surfaced on his skin like a warning to others.  As I inched closer, treading slower and slower to accommodate the tight weave of protestors, the chants intensified. Fists pumped in the air to punctuate the impassioned slogans of a population unwilling to be left unheard.

I climbed a median and surveyed the mass, which seemed to have grown even in the brief time since I’d arrived. Every so often a jostling of umbrellas clashed with the wall of towering plastic shields, with bursts of deceptively benign-looking liquid making its way into the crowd amidst screams. Those hit run back to receive aid from waiting personnel, who waited attentively with water and other supplies.

Still, I moved further.

Beneath the footbridge, I saw the dozens of cameras and journalists recording this historic event from what was likely an incredible vantage point. One of them lowered some equipment down with a makeshift rope, perhaps to a co-worker reporting from the ground. Everyone cheered this, inexplicably.

The atmosphere was upbeat, if focussed. People moved respectfully aside as I moved through them, or explained what was said when an announcement was made. A few meters away from, on the front line of umbrella’d protestors, I would occasionally hear shouts that would die out soon after. I moved closer to the border of police, and climbed onto a barricade to photograph the heart of the skirmish.

Suddenly, the mood changed. Urgent calls rang out and ricocheted back through the masses. Umbrellas distended all around, creating a multicoloured canopy above me that might have been charming under different circumstances. I frantically opened my backpack, grasping for the swimming goggles I’d brought along that I’d never thought would be used. I pulled them over my head and waited. A middle-aged woman next to me pulled my shirt sleeve and pointed to a pile of supplies a few feet away. “Masks, for your face!” she yelled above the fracas. I jogged over, pulled out a green, mint-scented mask, and put it on.

The chanting intensified, but no one seemed to know what was happening or what was next.

A loud bang broke the uncertainty, as screams rang out from somewhere in the crowd closer than I’d expected. Two more loud successive bangs sounded closer still, and people all around me turned and ran, their hands clamped over their thin tissue masks.

Plumes of white smoke rose up in front of me first, then rolled towards me at ground level as the crowd dissipated. “What is it?” I asked someone, jogging along at a decidedly slower pace than everyone else to capture it all on my phone. “Tear gas!” he answered, and took off at a sprint.

I smelled it first, slightly chemical but not overly offensive. Then it hit. A slow creep into my nasal passage and down my throat, it took no time at all to inflict the severe discomfort I’d assumed would accompany it. I ran faster and faster, acutely aware how close to the poisonous cloud I still was, until I turned a corner of an alley that seemed far enough way to recover.

Gasping and moaning, I sat down alongside several others who coughed, or poured water on themselves. Stupidly I took off my goggles which only allowed the not-yet dispersed gas to irritate my still unaffected eyes. I poured half of my bottle of water over me, and unsure of it even made sense, leaned over to breathe in and out of an opening in the zipper of my backpack, as though the air in there was cleaner.

Slowly, the rash-like burn that had flared up inside my head and throat subsided.

I began to breathe easier. I glanced up at the street and saw protestors marching back the same way we’d just come from. They seemed to chant even louder and with more synchronicity, fuelled by the ready supplies of water, masks, oil, plastic wrap, anything that eased their disadvantaged process of public objection.

It wasn’t over then. It wasn’t even over shortly after that, when reinforcements arrived in the form of riot police, donning menacing black gas masks, batons, and still more tear-gas. It was chaotic, alarming, truly shocking for me. But, never violent or dangerous. The police advanced and fired; the protestors retreated and reconvened. And so it went for the rest of the night. Perhaps for the foreseeable future.

How incredible indeed the different kinds of worlds that can exist within a square city mile.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.



Smuggling Concerns Grow in Wake of Apple Release

Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus are being sold in mainland China at nearly three times their Hong Kong retail price, prompting renewed concerns about illegal parallel trading across Hong Kong-Chinese borders from locals.

The North District Parallel Imports Concern Group, a Hong Kong non-governmental activist group that documents and protests illegal trade, claims traders are illegally buying mass quantities of the highly prized mobile phones and smuggling them back into China, according to their Facebook page. They include links to videos of fights breaking out over iPhones, arguing that the surge of parallel traders create a nuisance for residents, who see reduced access to affordable goods and public transport.

Parallel traders from China make frequent visits across the border, sometimes several times a day, in order to take advantage of Hong Kong’s tax-free goods and comparatively weak currency. They smuggle the supplies back into China, avoiding import duties, to resell at large profits.

While commonly sought-after items include food, luxury goods, and infant baby powder, recent rumors that Apple’s latest smartphone may not sell in mainland China until 2015 has created a highly-priced black market for motivated buyers.

Taobao, China’s largest online retail platform, already has several vendors offering the iPhones at huge markups. One seller featured an iPhone 6 Plus with 128GB of memory for 19,100RMB, or $HK24,100, almost triple the price advertised for the same phone on Apple’s website.

“I really want to buy one,” said Wang Song, a resident of Shenzhen. “I would pay 14,000, but my housemates would pay much more. Because it’s very limited, many people want to buy it right now.” Song says he is aware of traders bringing large suitcases filled with iPhones over the border, though there is a limit of two phones per customer. “I am not sure how they do this, maybe they have friends or pay someone.”

Ying Ma, the host of a popular web-based mother and baby program in Hong Kong, posted allegations via the Passion Times HK blog that her infant son was injured in an altercation with a trader smuggling iPhones. After reporting the incident to police, the man was allegedly detained, identified as a mainland Chinese resident, and the phones confiscated.

Although there have been calls this year for measures to control parallel trading activity no changes have been made yet to the multiple entry visa, which allows holders to cross the border as many times as they like. While customs officers at the Lo Wu border crossing do their best to be vigilant, some say they simply aren’t equipped to deal with the number of people crossing back and forth. Jesse Beam, an American teacher who lives in Shenzhen, describes the overcrowding typically observed at this crossing. “On a Saturday morning, the line gets so backed up you can’t even get to the Foreigner line. It’s just a tight crowd of people. Most have them have empty suitcases, and they’ll get off at that next MTR stop [Sheung Shui]. There’s no way to stop them all, those numbers are too high.”

After The Storm

It was bound to happen and it finally did: my first typhoon as a Hong Kong resident.

It seemed alarming at first: a pewter sky over the city foreboding and heavy with rain; the cancellations of trains, boats, and classes; a roommate concerned I get home before the storm develops into a “T8” (though I’m unfamiliar with what that denotes exactly).

But, like most things that deviate from the routine, it’s only temporary. After a night of thunder and rain, relentless winds lashing at our windows and stray foliage flung loudly against the building….it calms by late morning. Gingerly exploring my vantage point from our rooftop….the beautiful fecund serenity of my surroundings gladdens me. An ageing wind audibly moves through the jungle around me, its momentum softening slowly but still rippling along the hillsides.

The expansive garden below that I still haven’t found the perimeter to is in some disarray, which is much like it existed before the storm. I go to investigate. Troves of eclectic miscellanea pepper the grounds, from shopping carts filled with old mirror frames to disused exercise bikes from the 80’s to skateboards with their wheels removed. The multiple koi fish ponds remain as exquisite and tranquil as before.

No, my first storm as a Hong Kong resident wasn’t too bad at all.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

To Boycott or Not?

Students announce plans for boycott (via Poon/Epoch Times)

Students announce plans for boycott (via Poon/Epoch Times)

While Occupy Central leaders continue to increase their efforts to raise awareness and support  for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, another ally has emerged for the pro-democracy mission. Making good on a promise made earlier in the month, it was announced last week that students across the city are organizing boycotts of classes in protest of the highly controversial political reforms Beijing proposed in late August. This follows in the wake of a string recent public demonstrations by Occupy Central organisers, which saw founder Benny Tai shave his head alongside several other democracy activists and last weekend’s silent “black cloth” protest.

Students React

With the city-wide call to arms for students to join what has been described as Hong Kong’s “era of civil disobedience”, it’s unclear how much support this latest move of solidarity will garner from the HKU campus. Speaking with students, local and international, the reactions to the boycotts appear mixed at best. Mikk, an Estonian graduate student studying Law and Ethics, says:

“I’m not sure it’s going to have the influence that’s needed. I’m not planning to join it…my personal opinion is that China will more and more increase its influence [sic].”

One law student from Hong Kong, Jacqueline, admits she’s “not very likely […] to join Occupy Central”. When asked why she remains unconvinced, she cites lack of unity in Hong Kong’s population:

““Basically I don’t think it’s going to make a big difference at this stage…people are more half/half. To be able to really do something forcible, to push the government to do something…quite a lot of people are still reluctant to come out.”

Another graduate student from mainland China, Rex, expressed doubts at the motivation of the boycott.

“Sometimes some people, some leaders, or some government want to just make something look like something else, […] it’s artificial.”

A possible problem for the protests might be that many students not originally from Hong Kong feel too uneducated on the topic to comment or participate in any organised protests. Maxmilian, a business student on exchange from Germany, feels this is the case with him.

“I’m just getting it out of the newspapers, I haven’t talked with any locals….I don’t feel too well-informed.” 

Annie, an accounting student from Jilin province, admits she’s only just heard of Occupy Central.

“I don’t know how the people in Hong Kong feel about this. Maybe you ask the local and they will give you the better answer.”

Despite what appear to be reservations, there are students who plan to stand with their fellow classmates in defiance of Beijing’s reforms. Joseph, born and raised in Hong Kong, says he will participate in the boycott of classes, although in lieu of attending any political gatherings, he plans to work as a lifeguard to earn extra money. He insists his heart is the right place.

“Some of my hall-mates are advocating this actually. I’m financially and politically for this.”

The week-long boycott is expected to take place from September 22nd., and with the city and its campuses seemingly divided, the turnout for Hong Kong’s latest plea for democracy could go either way; whether Beijing takes notice or not will be another matter entirely.

HKU Students Respond to Occupy Central Movement

It’s been a week since Occupy Central took place in the streets of Hong Kong’s Central district, leaving many of its residents to wonder what gains, if any, were made with the protest. Amid recent admissions of doubt from Occupy founder Benny Tai, rumours have circulated that interest in the cause is on the decline. Speaking with HKU students about their opinions, it appears that could be the case.

“It’s not very likely I would be the one to join Occupy Central,” says one Hong Kong local, who describes the city’s population as being “half/half” on the movement. “Basically I don’t think it’s going to make a big difference at this stage.”

Worse still, Occupy remains largely unknown to many non-local students, who feel hardly compelled to show public support for a cause unfamiliar to them. “I’m just getting it out of the newspapers, I haven’t talked to any locals,” says one German exchange student. “I don’t feel well informed.”

One mainland Chinese student admits she’s only just heard of Occupy, explaining that this story cannot be found readily on Baidu, her main source of information. “I don’t know how the people in Hong Kong feel about this.”

Whether or not this reflects the views of most university students in Hong Kong remains to be seen. But with waning support and lacklustre buzz, the momentum of Occupy Central has unmistakably slowed, even as we enter Hong Kong’s “era of civil disobedience”.

The Digital Age of Sexual Assault

Earlier this week, news feeds everywhere were blasted with reports of the largest celebrity photo leak scandal the internet has ever seen. This leak is unprecedented in almost every conceivable aspect, including number of victims (over a hundred women), their celebrity stature, and the manner in which the photos were obtained (allegedly via a hack of the hitherto secure iCloud system). A great summary of the salient facts of this story can be found in this article from the Washington Post.

While those facts speak for themselves about why this piece of information is news and consequently why our society is so enthralled, the response and role of online media has added extraordinary dimension, discussion, and dissection of how we treat the sexuality of women in our digital age. On Twitter, users frenetically took to their accounts to gossip or celebrate the leak, or on the opposite end, condemn and show solidarity with the affected women (HBO Girls creator Lena Dunham, for example was a vocal Tweeter in the latter camp of opinion). Attention and development of the story only grew with added features that predictably disseminate information these days, such as hash tagging and memes. Buzzfeed posted one of their characteristic listicle-style articles that urged celebration of the professional achievements of the hardest hit celebrity, Jennifer Lawrence, instead of viewing the explicit personal photos. In short, the response to this scandal was widespread and varied, both in opinion and form.

Although it’s always interesting (at least to me) to note and track the way stories grew and change through various online platforms, the discussion and rhetoric that’s taking place because of this leak is fascinating, and some might argue, well overdue. Dunham’s censure of the theft of these photos was just one of many responses that unabashedly highlighted the violations this leak was inflicting on the targeted women and their bodies, using a language and categorisation that our society is deeply uncomfortable with: sexual assault.

This story is engrossing because I don’t believe this will end with official statements from Lawson’s representatives or lawsuits that hold the hackers cum sexual predators accountable – this kind of sexual offending behaviour has existed and will continue to do so as long as people have an interest (or what I think can more correctly be called “entitlement”) to the private lives of others (something that Roxane Gay explores in an excellent piece for The Guardian). There’s so much more that remains to be said about how we interpret our behaviour online versus in the real world, or how our perceptions of an action or concept can be altered by the framework through which we view it, by which I mean the privacy of one’s own computer. The idea as well that free internet begets the public ownership of any piece of digital material, even in the case of stolen private goods, is something else that warrants discussion; Stuart Jeffries for example looked at our collective responsibility in the face of an internet that is ungovernable by social ethics and morals.

Whichever angle you want to explore it from, this leak story is far deeper and more timely than simply a few explicit images circulating the internet.

Here are a few more articles on the subject, should anyone be interested:

The Guardian: “If you click on Jennifer Lawrence’s naked pictures, you’re perpetuating her abuse

Vocal feminist writer Van Badham doesn’t pull punches with her op-ed for The Guardian.

The Telegraph: “Jennifer Lawrence photo leak: the big business of women’s shame just got bigger

Emma Barnett shedding light on what motivation might underpin scandals of this nature.

Bellejar.ca “What Happened To Jennifer Lawrence Was Sexual Assault

Some excellent examples of the various ways that misogyny and victim-blaming exist in mainstream online forums today.