Billowing smoke. Multicolored umbrellas held aloft. Subway stations set on fire. Defiant messages spray-painted on glass windows.
FREE HONG KONG
HK IS NOT CHINA
FIGHT FOR FREEDOM, STAND WITH HONG KONG
PRESIDENT TRUMP, PLEASE LIBERATE HONG KONG
Hong Kong, a former British colony that was returned to Chinese control in 1997, is having its largest political reckoning in decades.
A Little Bit of Hong Kong History
Hong Kong, far from the concrete jungle and city of glinting skyscrapers it is today, was a fishing village when it was ceded to the British Empire in 1842, at the close of the First Opium War.
The Opium Wars happened because the British were like, “Hey, we really like your tea and silk and other fancy stuff – here’s some opium in return.” The Chinese were not really down with that in the beginning, because opium wasn’t really being smoked. But Britain, like your kind of smart high school friend who always seemed two showers behind, was like “Try it, man. You’ll probably like it.” And then you did.
China decided to take the damn opium. And thus birthed
stoner opium culture.
The problem was, of course, that over time, people in China were getting seriously addicted to the stuff. The Daoguang Emperor wanted to shut it down completely, and then tried confiscating over 20,000 chests of opium. The British were not happy about this, claimed that the Chinese loved it and were struggling to keep up with Chinese demand, and kept sending more anyway.
I mean, you don’t have to compare them with the Sackler family that basically caused the American opium crisis, but that’s up to you.
And so Britain and China went to war. China lost and ceded Hong Kong Island to the British Empire.
A whole bunch of other things happened too, like a war with the Japanese and restoration of British rule in its aftermath. Hong Kong became a British Crown Colony. Its governors were appointed by the British monarchy, and they were all old white dudes, until that period of time when the Japanese swooped in for four years.
Even though a lot of history books paint this time as a Kumbaya-everyone-held-hands, everyone-was-nice sort of time, other things were happening, too, like the Peak District Reservation Ordinance, which reserved Victoria Peak, which remains the swankiest residential area of Hong Kong until even today, as a designated NO CHINESE ALLOWED zone.
I’m not kidding. It literally says: “It shall not be lawful…for any owner, lessee, tenant, or occupier of any land or building within the Peak District to let such land or building or any part thereof for the purpose of residence by any but non-Chinese, or to permit any but non-Chinese to reside on or in such land or building.”
Ahem. Moving on.
But in 1997, the former British colony was returned to Chinese control, and the semi-autonomous region was meant to maintain a “high degree of autonomy”. Under a framework known as “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong has an independent judiciary, a free press, an open market economy.
Is Hong Kong a Chinese city?
If you’ve ever been to both Hong Kong and China, you’ll immediately notice that Hong Kong isn’t like most Chinese cities.
For one, the official languages are Chinese and English (but until 1974, English was actually the sole official language).
You’ll notice that although a lot of street names are in Chinese, a lot of them are also named after the aforementioned old white dudes (e.g. Pottinger Street, Peel Street, Lockhart Road).
Before Hong Kong was given back to China in 1997, they talked a lot about how it was going to be governed – and settled on a “one country, two systems rule.” This means that although technically Hong Kong belongs to China as a Special Administrative Region (“SAR”), Hong Kong has a high degree of autonomy: among those certain protection of rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and its own legal system and borders.
So what’s the big deal? Hong Kong people still get freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and a semblance of their own government, right? Everything’s jolly. Everyone should be happy.
Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (“LegCo”), its lawmaking body, is only partially chosen directly by Hong Kong voters. And the other part is made up of seats from pro-Beijing lawmakers, not exactly making the LegCo a bastion of democracy. Hong Kong’s chief executive (currently Carrie Lam) is elected by a 1200-member committee, which is also mostly pro-Beijing.
There are also rising concerns as the year 2047 approaches – the year that Hong Kong’s Basic Law expires and the “one country, two systems” framework will come into the spotlight again.
A Timeline of Recent Events
April 2019 – It All Started with a Murder
A woman’s decomposing body was discovered on the fringes of Taipei. The suspect in the murder was a 20-year-old Hong Kong man, who stood accused of murdering the pregnant woman, allegedly for carrying another man’s baby.
The Hong Kong government introduced a plan for changes to legislation that would allow criminal suspects to potentially be extradited to China (The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019.
But don’t you want to criminally prosecute this guy? What’s wrong with putting away a murderer?
The issue isn’t simple, and it isn’t about anti-extradition law protestors wanting to be able to get away with murder scot-free. It’s that if the bill passed, it would set an uneasy precedent for future infringement or interference by the mainland Chinese government.
June 2019 – Massive Demonstrations
On June 9 2019, an estimated one million people marched to the government headquarters to show that they were against the bill.
The following week on June 16, another march (this time from Causeway Bay to Central) took place.
On that day, I put on a black T shirt, took the MTR to Causeway Bay Station, and immediately plunged into a thick crowd. It was like being front row at a fucking rave. But without the music.
There was no movement. I carved out space for my sweaty body. I sympathetically watched a poor girl lead her suitcase through the throngs of people – 5 minutes for every few steps. She’s never gonna get to her hotel.
And then the crowd started to move.
The photos below are my own.
Since that demonstration in June, there have been at times violent escalations of violence between activists and police, which have been condemned by Chief Executive Carrie Lam as “riots.”
Police dressed as protestors arrested demonstrators, wrestling them to the ground and beating them with batons.
The protestors completely paralyzed Hong Kong airport over two days in August, which prevented passengers from checking into their flights.
Medical workers rallied at hospitals, school students boycotted classes.
You can find a timeline of what’s been going on here .
October 2019 – Anti-Mask legislation
On October 4th, 2019, Carrie Lam announced a plan to invoke the colonial-era Emergency Legislation Ordinance (use of such that hasn’t been seen in nearly one hundred years).
On that day, we were told the building was shutting down and evacuating its occupiers early. At 5:00 on the dot, I sped out of the office and headed downstairs. I’d never seen anything like it at that time. The entire building’s inhabitants was slowly but efficiently leaking out of the building.
The photos below are my own.
And when I walked outside, everything was different. Instead of a steady stream of people coming in and out of the enormous glass doors, merrily chatting away to each other, I heard chanting. The entire overpass was lined with people – working professionals, visitors, tourists. Those that watched on the overpass were cajoled with cries of “Join us! Get down here!” by those on the streets.
I took the following photos that day as I was leaving work. As I scurried down the steps, tears sprang into my eyes as the chanting grew in volume and vitality. I ducked into Fanda Pharmacy to, ahem, wipe away my eye sweat.
I’m not crying, you’re crying!
You’ll know me if you ever see me at a protest because I’m the one in the corner bawling my fucking eyes out.
People fighting for what they believe in is always going to make me emotional. Period. Except, you know when those people are fighting to prevent women from taking control of their bodies. And against some gun control. Guns are bad, mm’kay?
And this crowd was no different. I saw men with slicked hair in freshly ironed white shirts, women in heeled sandals and tastefully colored tresses. They were marching at the foot of one of the tallest skyscrapers in Hong Kong, side-by-side with high schoolers in black t-shirts and backpacks.
Yeah. I felt that.
The next day, I went to work as usual. I saw loads of people, en masse, wearing face masks. Their fists weren’t in the air and they weren’t spray painting walls. They were in the same heels and suits and ties from the day before, laughing and talking during their lunch breaks. Slurping noodles. Sipping on bubble team. Shooting the shit.
Life went on – mask ban or no mask ban.
Are People Still Traveling to Hong Kong?
Hong Kong, despite being one of the most visited cities in the world, has taken a hit on its tourism sector – seeing a 74 percent slump in earnings as visitors avoid Hong Kong even more than they did during the SARS outbreak in 2003. In August, Hong Kong tourist arrivals fell 40 percent, according to Financial Secretary Paul Chan Man-po.
Let that sink in. People are more willing to have respiratory problems from bats than they are willing to walk next to people fighting for freedom of assembly and universal suffrage.
Last month, a friend visiting from South Korea visited some of the most popular restaurants and local eateries in the cities – Kam’s Roast Goose in Wan Chai (with 3,000 Google reviews) and Tim Ho Wan (long time known the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world). These are restaurants that would have, on any day literally any time of the year, commanded a formidable 30-minute wait at least. At least.
But there was no wait. The day we walked into Tim Ho Wan, we walked into a sparsely-populated restaurant, thanked the dim sum gods for our good luck, and feasted.
If you’re unconcerned about possible disruption and your own safety, one could even argue that it’s actually the best time to travel to Hong Kong – the turn of October into November brings pleasantly breezy weather, there’s been an enormous drop in street and pedestrian traffic, and hotel rates are also down.
What do Hong Kong protestors want?
There is no straight and narrow answer for this, as Hong Kong is a continuously evolving city with its own suite of social issues and a growingly disgruntled population. But today, the Hong Kong protestors have 5 core demands:
1. Full withdrawal of the original controversial extradition bill (as of October 23, the bill was scrapped)
2. An independently commissioned inquiry into the use of police force and police brutality
3. Retracting the classification of protestors as “rioters” (the classification of “rioter” can carry a punishment of up to 10 years in prison)
4. Amnesty for arrested protestors
5. Dual suffrage in respect of both the Hong Kong Legislative Council and the Chief Executive
That Time I Ran into Riot Police
“Don’t come if not safe,” my friend messaged me. “Since you’re coming from central side.”
“Leaving nowwww,” I texted shortly after. 30 minutes passed.
She urged me to stay home. Whether it was pure determination (I’d already been waiting 30 minutes, damn it, and I wasn’t going to give up now) or my commitment to having my makeup already done and my hair did, I don’t know.
I finally managed to flag one down.
In the usually frenetic and congested streets of the city, the speeding car stuck out like a sore thumb.
All of a sudden, the driver slammed on the breaks. “Sorry, the road’s closed just up there. You’re going to have to walk.”
I don’t know if it was bravery or naiivete that led me to march out of the cab and pull up Google Maps on my phone, stomping past activists in full gear in my espadrilles and hoop earrings.
I turned the corner and came full-face to a line of riot police in all their armed glory.
A few well-intentioned locals scurrying away from the scene kindly asked the girl (me) in her espadrilles and hoop earrings if she needed help. Because of course I stuck out. I was trying to get to a birthday drinks, damn it.
I did make it to the birthday. Made it, that is, with sweat and makeup running down my face, We had beer and cake and talked about Hong Kong, and then when it came to going home, I paid a mega-ultra-surge-charged-gonna-make-your-ass-broke Uber to get home.
What’s the moral of the story?
It’s not that you should hide at home and not come home at night. It’s also not that you should come out, dismiss everything you hear from friends, family, and the media, and do whatever you want. It’s that common sense can go a long way – not just in terms of safety, but from the mechanics and logistics of getting from Point A to Point B in Hong Kong.
“Hey, Lily. I’ve Seen the News. Are You Okay? Looks Crazy.”
In terms of safety, I absolutely feel okay. But I give this answer in a place of extreme privilege. This means that I’m not a small business owner in Hong Kong. I’m not an MTR worker. I’m not a public servant. And I am definitely not an absolute unsung hero, left to sweep glass and debris, eyes tearing. I am a 26 year old working in the financial services sector. I work in an office. I live close to my place of work, so my daily travel radius is tiny. I believe that given these factors and my own heavy privilege as a foreign expat, I am one of a subset of Hong Kong’s current population to be personally affected the least.
I can walk into SoHo, a nightlife heavily populated with expats, and can sit outside and sip on an IPA – same as always. I can go into Tai Hang and see a bachelorette party through the tinted windows of a restaurant, the last customers of a noodle shop cashing their check. This is the Hong Kong I know and have always known. And it still exists, even if an uneasiness about the city’s future hangs thickly in the air.
Is It Safe to Travel to Hong Kong Now?
My answer to this question is based on the assumption that you are a tourist or a short-term visitor, and that you would like to have as “normal” of an experience in Hong Kong as possible (that is to say, you are not coming with the purpose of joining protest activity and would like to avoid disruption to a pleasant visit).
The short answer is as a visitor or tourist, yes. However, if you are coming for sightseeing purposes, expect that your itinerary may be disrupted in some way.
Generally, Hong Kong is an extremely safe city. I feel safer walking alone in Hong Kong at 2:00 AM in the morning than I do in Boston at 7:00 in the evening. Crime rates (including petty crime) is very low. As a tourist, you will not be subjected to the same likelihood of purse-grabbing or pick-pocketing as you might in other parts of the world.
Trust me, my entire wallet has hung precariously out of my backpack before, and instead of a punky 15-year-old snatching it away, I’ve always been tapped on the shoulder with a “Your bag is open!”
How Can I Keep Abreast of Current Protest Activity?
Protest activity can be volatile and unpredictable. It’s extremely difficult to keep with protest activity that isn’t a large planned demonstration. Smaller demonstrations can mushroom in areas with little to no warning.
Live updates are usually spread on social media – Facebook live feeds or Twitter real-time updates. I’ve always learned about protest activity through word-of-mouth rather than via online updates. The tourist board still provides updates with some regularity.
You can also access this HK Map (unfortunately not in English) which will show a live map with pictures and icons across the graphic of protest and police activity.
I’ve Seen Alarming Photos and Videos of Tear Gas and Smoke. Will I Come Across Instances Where There Will Be Violence?
Again, violence can be unpredictable. There have been many areas which have become sites of violence, like in metro stations. However, these instances are generally sporadic and isolated, and they are difficult to predict.
Using common sense, you’ll quite easily be able to notice if there is an escalating situation or there has been an escalation. In order to avoid accidentally being caught up in a tussle between protestors and police, if you see a crowd or smell burning or gas, walk quickly in the other way.
Since the government unveiled its anti-mask law, as a visitor, you should avoid wearing a mask unless you’d like to make a statement (which is also okay – you should just be aware of what you are doing). You will likely see Hong Kongers wearing masks anyway, defying the ban.
Will This Affect the Way I Get Around Hong Kong?
It’s very likely and possible. Hong Kong’s transportation system is one of the best in the world, but rising violence and damage to transport stations like the MTR has led to stations closing early and limited running hours. As of the writing of this article most MTR stations close at around 10pm, whereas normally they might close around 1:00am.
On days with large protest action, Hong Kong taxis have been few and far between, as Hong Kongers rush to get home as subway stations close and choice of methods of transportation narrow.
On the Saturday night after the mask-ban marches, I stood on the usually frantically busy avenue of Lockhart Road in Wan Chai and not a single cab stopped. As a result, if I plan to have dinner or drinks out, I stay in my own neighbourhood, ensuring that I can get home at a reasonable time.
You better believe Uber is going to take the opportunity to surge price the crap out of the situation.
The current protect action has created an incredibly polarized environment among Hong Kong residents. This absolutely affects how safe people feel.
“You better go home early,” a colleague chided me. “You don’t want the black shirts to beat you up.”
“Is it safe to travel at night?” a friend Whatsapped me. “My family says the police are arresting everyone.”
Yes, there are people who definitely think both of the above are happening. In my family WeChat group, my cousin even suggested I come to Guangzhou for the day to “take refuge.” I imagined the mental image she’d thought up was something more like the below:
“It’s not……it’s not like that,” I spluttered.
Somehow, some way, even in the newfound tenseness of the environment, the resilience of the city lives on.
It’s a city where the below two signs below coexist less than 100 meters away from each other.
It’s a city where its residents fight for the right for the two signs below to coeixst.
And it’s a city where residents continue to live, to work, to play – in the midst of its fragmentation, but also in its own quiet strength.
Hong Kong survives. The Hong Kong protests survive, too. And it survival in a time of tumult can feel as silent as it is powerful.
If you are anxiety-prone or safety-sensitive, here’s the summary summarized:
1. Avoid wearing all black or white
2. Check daily for news on protest activity.
3. Check the MTR website for closure and service information.
4. Use common sense when confronted with big crowds of people.