words by Loni Klara; photos by Elaine Li and Loni Klara
I first spotted the yellow ribbons, which stood for democracy, wrapped around a black receiver in a telephone booth on the street outside my hotel. The booth stood beside a bus stop, which held a sign reading: ”temporary [sic] suspended.” It was unthinkable, even on October 1st – the Chinese National Holiday – that I should stand smack in the middle of Hong Kong’s financial district known as Admiralty, a hectic center of commerce, without a car, bus or tram in sight.
The first sign of abnormality had hit me at Hong Kong Station, where I was informed that the shuttle service to my hotel wasn’t running because of the protests. But it was only after I arrived at the hotel via subway that I realized just how big and near the protest was. The skyline of Hong Kong is full of majestic skyscrapers boasting their impressive heights. My hotel was one of these tall buildings, its lounge sitting on the 59th floor. As I peered out the windows, I saw that the roads had been blocked and soon spotted a crowd moving in-between buildings. It was a curious vision from up high, where the throng seemed so small and inconsequential next to the towering glass buildings — the very visualization of the grassroots movement against the big guns in Beijing.
In Soho, the same thing happened. Normally a vibrant area, much like its namesakes in New York and London, today Soho was devoid of honking cars and bustling pedestrians. As I crossed the empty streets without the aid of signals, I noted similarities to London. Not only were the streets named after places in the UK, they even looked the same; what with driving on the left, the guard railings dividing the roads from the pavements, and even down to the ”look right,” ”look left” signs at crossings. These remnants of the region’s history as part of the British Empire seemed even more poignant in light of the people’s movement for democracy against China.
When evening fell, I headed back to the hotel, connected underground to the Pacific Place mall. As I did a lap around the mall, I noticed an entrance, outside which people were walking on roads where cars would normally be. Curious, I went outside and saw that the entire road had been blocked in every direction, and the trams were nowhere to be seen. To my left and right I saw people taking pictures of the empty roads and walking on the tram tracks. A noise in the distance indicated the center of the protests, and I followed the crowd, who were lining up to climb over the fence where steps had been set up to make that easier. Sure enough, on the other side of the road stood an even bigger crowd that kept growing and growing the further I went. Finally, at the top of the bridge I saw the full extent of the protests. It was a crowd donned in yellow gear, a symbolic color for what has now become the Umbrella Revolution, after one of the protesters opened a yellow umbrella to counter the tear gas. I stood next to the media photographers camped out on the bridge, and took my own shots to capture the scale of the event. Ultimately, pictures could not convey the atmosphere of being in the midst of it all, saturated with good will and a desire for change.
It felt bizarre to see with my own eyes what I had previously only seen on the news. Thousands of miles across the ocean, I could suddenly soak in an experience that was more than just peripheral awareness. I could easily be one of the students in the crowd. The bag I was carrying had ”Central” written all over it, the name of my drama school in London, and I wondered if people would take me for one of the protesters carrying banners for Occupy Central, one of the organizing groups. As an American citizen who had spent a portion of her childhood in one of the most democratic countries in the world, Switzerland, I found it difficult to relate to the youth, many younger than myself. It was all very well to support their cause from afar, in a nation which, despite all its faults, prides itself on its democratic system, where the White House hears the people’s petitions and responds if there are a certain number of signatures. Up close and personal, it was mind boggling to me that these young people were preoccupied with the future of their nation at an age when many students in my country were celebrating freedom, not from the government’s oppression but from their parents. I thought back to when I was 18, the same age as Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of the protests, and remembered a boozy freshman week as well as the celebration over our first black president. That these same liberties were not afforded to these students struck me with the profound realization that democracy is not to be taken for granted.
Here in Hong Kong, the students were trying to achieve true universal suffrage, after the Chinese government declared that, despite Hong Kong’s supposed autonomy, their political candidates would be selected by officials in Beijing rather than voted by the people. Initially a small gathering, it grew in size dramatically after police used tear gas against the students. China’s characteristic response was censorship on social media and the news. Flipping through the channels from my hotel room, I noted the contrast; practically every international news channel was full of images from Admiralty, whereas none of the Chinese stations so much as mentioned the protest.
On Saturday, October 4th, my last day in Hong Kong, even more people had gathered in Admiralty, as well as other major areas like Mong Kok and Causeway Bay. Unfazed by China’s reaction, the savvy students used the most powerful weapon they had — technology. Through FireChat, an app that creates a network using just the phones in the area, they bypassed popular sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to avoid interference. It was a remarkable progression from Tiananmen Square in 1989. Equipped with my own smartphone, I posted my own pictures of the protest online, feeling that herein lies the power of our generation and the future of democracy around the world.