Hong Kong is changing

Roundup
tags: China, Hong Kong, Umbrella Movement



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). Thumbnail Image - "Umbrmvt" by Ohconfucius - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons.

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.

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. ...




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