On Sunday we went to see the protests. At around 10pm we came lumbering out of the hotel with an innocent curiosity at the vague news of some movements, mistakenly thinking that we would return to the hotel in time to wash up for a night out. But a single hour grew to be many, and we stayed until the next morning.
We walked towards the protest camp site under a night as silent and empty as any night could be in Hong Kong. The silence and the faint yellow emitted by the streetlights with the sole sound of our faint footsteps seemed to portend an indistinct omen. The first sight of scattered tents led to the presence of scattered groups of people who cheered on the protesters from a distance. The uncertain shapes of a multitude of faint black shapes moving back and forth while shouting rallying cries were all we could see of the action around 200 metres away. Curiosity led us onwards, first towards the heart of the bustling life of the community of hundreds of tents, the humble community that was a natural manifestation of the peoples’ hopes for democracy.
The community was in front of the major subway (MTR) station, Admiralty. The community blocked a major road and was surrounded by tall, blocky and lifeless buildings on all sides, a contrast to the frail and spontaneous nature of the tents. In the core the community of protesters were roused. It felt as if a beast had awoken and was preparing for a fight. Purposeful brisk movement was all around us, and the sense of urgency washed upon us. We were soon outfitted with a cold mask and safety goggles and were joined in appearance with the idealists. Students laboured back and forth around us. The mood was infectious; a youthful excitement tinged with the protesters’ childish innocence about the belief of their own invulnerability. It was heart breaking to see a young female student, small in size and stature, grabbing a yellow safety helmet in a frenzy of excitement with an air of self-importance.
We moved closer and closer, first drawn off by uncertainty but led by a familiarity mixed with curiosity. There were two major sites of conflict on both ends of Lung Wo Road, a street in front of the Central Government Offices, as the protesters aimed to paralyze the government on Monday morning. We headed to the closer one on the eastern side. There were countless yellow helmeted heads in front of us, staring forward towards a common vision. There was a tension in the air, as if everyone was waiting for a promised affair.
Barricades and the media separated the police and the protesters from each other. Meanwhile, a system of distribution brought umbrellas to the protesters in the front; the unified umbrellas which served as a simple shield against oppressive forces; the umbrellas which were the symbol of the movement, and protected the protesters’ dreams under the subjection of man and nature. With umbrellas and strong hearts leading, the protesters won the first battle and pushed the small number of police away.
With the first side won, we followed the protesters to the other side of the street, near Tim Wa Avenue. Students with barricades ran by at our sides, feet in unison. A large crowd quickly gathered. A flurry of yellow helmets and yellow (but not only yellow) umbrellas were moved to the front. Tension began to build. There was cheering from all around from the protesters crowding around the railings of the street, giving the front line recruits energy and encouragement.
Then began the chant for democracy. “我要真普选!” (“I want real suffrage!”) recited the protesters, and the chant quickly mounted momentum, from a few scattered protesters to the whole horde, becoming a hypnotic incantation which started a typhoon of violence.
The next moments were chaos. Under the expansive night sky and the grand towers of commerce there were only the shouts of “走!” (Go!) as the protesters were overwhelmed by this batch of policemen, who were more numerous. All we could do was run back around the distance of 100 metres to jump over the final barricades leading to the safety of the main camp. In the next minutes there we were joined by countless others, running from the terror of possibility. Many were hurt. There was pepper spray and the use of batons as we saw the pitiful sights of the injured. Some children were being dragged to safety by fellow friends, innocent faces without the scars of time and hardship marked with the first carvings of experience. I remember one injured teenager in particular. He looked as if he was pepper sprayed badly. I don’t know how he made it past the final barricades into the safety zone, when he seemed so hurt. There was a group of eight attendants looking out for him, holding salt water and other first aid materials in their hands. Some formed a protective circle around him, giving him a metre radius for personal space. What I can remember are his loud screams, distinguishing him from the other injured. They seemed to express a feeling more than pain, perhaps a feeling of surprise, at the realization of his vulnerability. Nonetheless, in less than 30 minutes, the status quo was returned. The protesters were off Lung Wo Road, defeated. The police removed the barricades on the street and came dangerously close to the final barricades to the main camp – where a minor scuffle broke out, with the masses of protesters swearing at the defenders of justice – but this was only to reopen the road. An occasional red taxi passed by in front of our eyes, on the street that the protesters worked so hard to block. It was a little past 3 am, and this was the result of hours of cooperative work; nothing.
But youth would triumph again. The police left a short while after their work was finished, perhaps to get out of this nightmare into the cozy compartments of their dreams. There was still time before the rays of the sun would impart its wisdom, and the protesters worked like thieves in the night to bring new barricades that replaced those taken away by the instruments of the state. Excitement was in the air again, as a sense of purpose spread and agitated the emotions of the crowd. In 30 minutes the barricades were installed anew, and the road was blocked off again.
Then came a period of waiting. We were back at the protest site near Tim Wa Avenue where the violence occurred. Until the morning sun arrived, there was an unexpected laziness on both sides. In comparison to the violence of the hour prior, there was only resting. It was the calm before the storm. In front of the barricades protesters were sitting cross-legged and casually chatting. Sleep overtook everyone. Protesters rested heads filled with ideas on each other’s shoulders, envisioning everything that should be good with their world from the shelter of this sanctuary. While these dreamers dreamed, the media excitedly captured all these moments on their cameras.
The sun rose from behind a cluster of tall buildings on the East to rise and shine its light again, as it had done time and time again. It would only be an hour or two before the protesters reached their goal, the paralysis of the Central Government Offices. All that was required was that they hold this last fortress with their determination. Tall buildings reflected lights onto the antlike figures on the road.
The early morning siesta and the calm ended at around 6:30am. There was a breeze of cool morning wind, a chilly wind which brought somnambulant bodies up to the morning cold and present realities. The beast started to awake and every part of it followed. Front line protesters in front of the barricades were crossed-legged before, but started to stand up. On the other side of the barricade, lines of police in black uniforms and helmets arrived, armed with short batons and shields. They were indistinguishable from each other and stood straight in a perfect line. The protesters formed little groups of support, innocent faces filled with the promise of the sun. I remember seeing a young couple hugging each other to keep warm; it was a moment of tenderness in the face of a coming conflict. The media with cameras soon flocked around them hoping for the perfect picture.
The chanting began soon after. It started like a mere suggestion, whispered into the ears by an enchantress. The mob soon took up this magical spell, one with the power to escape the limitations of the self and bring it together with a greater whole.
Then the police put on their helmets in assembly.
In less than 30 seconds, the protesters dispersed from a great river to individual droplets of water. Their umbrellas were no match for the storm that confronted them. Some were beaten, others arrested and a great number pepper sprayed. Then came the flood of running; running from the law, from justice, from the system. Reality being taught firsthand with the force of the baton on the limbs, the burn of the pepper spray in the eyes, the serving of a sentence for the pursuit of what is thought to be right, all captured with the snap of the media cameras.
It was now Monday morning. Hong Kongers woke up to the sound of their alarms, busying themselves with their morning routine. A simple breakfast followed by dressing up in business attire, riding the MTR to work, reading a newspaper about the night before, with the article leaving a casual impression before moving to the section about stock movements. Having a coffee, double cream and double sugar, sitting in the office in front of the work computer in an elevated modern building, perhaps with a view of the noisy community of tents down below. It was all business as usual.