The one who does what can’t be done

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

Charles Dickens

July 1, 2046

It was September 28th of 2014. I had heard many different opinions over the past few days. My mood seemed to be following the weather, sunny for one second, cloudy the next. I was touched, by how united Hong Kong people were, how disciplined the students were. I was angry, because the government refused to listen, and officials were useless and stupid, people in power used the police to exert unnecessary violence (then blamed it on others). I was worried, for the fearlessness of students and innocent citizens, and mostly the Chinese government’s obsession with “having face” and their ruthlessness.

I didn’t understand politics, really. I still don’t now. Just that I have been watching and hearing about what was going on, and I tried my best to understand “occupy” and the “umbrella movement”.

Many Hong Kong people, like me, were not sensitive to politics, or they didn’t even care. So did I (or so I thought). But why did the movement gain so much support? It was not all because of Joshua Wong and the HK Student Union. The “occupy trio” actually didn’t help with anything, apart from appearing on TV and being interviewed by media. Occupy was originally meant to be a small group of people and some students and political groups, some people probably just planned on going to the rally on October 1st, shout some slogans, sing a few songs, feel good about themselves and go home for dinner. I was one of those people.

So how did it draw such a big crowd? If Occupy was a movie, the hero wouldn’t be Joshua Wong; it would be all of us, Hong Kongers. The dozen of students occupying civic square was such a minor incident. If the government had found someone to meet with the students and tried to (at least pretend to) talk to them, things could’ve been different, and it wouldn’t have gotten the attention of all major global news media. But when those in power decided to use violence and pepper spray on students and arrest them, they fell right into the trap (not that I think it was a set up). The next day, more and more people who weren’t planning on supporting the movement at all came out to protect and support the students.

The government wanted to end this before Monday when people started working, so instead of using a more diplomatic way to resolve this, once again they resort to violence. Police threatened those who stayed, but no one seemed to be scared, and then they used pepper spray, and it still didn’t work, so they made the stupidest decision of all – they used teargas.

Even more people saw it happened on TV, and that triggered emotions. I was there when police fired the first teargas, watching on a flyover. It was like a movie, except it wasn’t, and I couldn’t believe what I saw. I was angry, very very angry, it was as if something lit up inside my chest and wouldn’t stop burning. It reminded me of June 4th.

It had been 25 years. Twenty-five! Many Hong Kong people have not forgotten about it. It’s impossible to forget those images. And when a shockingly similar scene appears again, right in front of your eyes, It was hard not to get emotional. People started swearing, some of them yelled, “Shameless! Shameless!” And I yelled too.

It was a very complicated feeling mixed with anger and fear, and I was scared. When things like this happen you really have no idea what would happen next, so I started making my way out. But when I looked back, another can of teargas dropped, I still could not believe it, it was unreal. And as if trying to convince me and everyone else on the flyover that it was really happening, one more can of teargas dropped.

What was more unbelievable was that people did not go away, they stayed. Yes they dispersed when the teargas hit, but some of them went back. My eyes welled up, not because of the teargas, even though I could smell it from where I was; it was not what was making me sick. It was from my anger and disbelief. How could those in power treat their people with such violence? It was so very disappointing, and disgustingly heinous.

I felt out of place when I finally got home. I was nervous, I was worried that things would get worse and there would be more injuries. My eyes were glued to the TV all night, watching the live coverage, even though I had to work the next day. Anti-riot police showed up, and more teargas was fired. Ironically, every can of teargas fired seemed to have caused more people to go out. At the end even more people gathered, and they occupied more areas in Wanchai and Causeway Bay.

I had planned on just going to the rally on October 1st originally, but when that day came, there was no more rally. It wasn’t necessary. As a Hong Konger, watching these kids distributing water and food, recycling bottles, controlling crowds and managing donation supplies, all done very orderly and politely, how could anyone not be touched? I used to say that teenagers were irresponsible, but I didn’t dare say it anymore. I was nothing compared to these kids when I was their age. They were still in high school and university and were already responsible for the future of Hong Kong.

*****

I stopped writing as the national anthem started playing on TV, put my only pen in the house down, stood up and saluted towards the direction of the TV, I watched the red flag climb up the pole with tears streaming down my face.

“Don’t cry, mom.” It was Karena, my daughter, “They can see you.” Her voice coming through the speakers. These days you can see your family and even talk to them anytime when you’re in jail, that makes being in jail less difficult I guess. And studies have shown that contact with families can reduce repeat offences.

Things changed. You thought times were difficult in 2014? Wait until you get to 2046.

“It’s fine sweetie,” I wiped off the tears with the back of my hands, “I’m just happy. These are tears of joy.”

They’re not supposed to be listening to private conversations, but they do record everything so I played it safe, just in case.

“How are you doing? Any special celebration today?”

“Yeah sure… more national anthem singing. Yay.”

I could hear the disapproval in her voice.

“Hang in there. It’s going to be over soon, just be good until you’re out of there. Okay? I have a small surprise waiting for you.”

“Will do, mom.” She gave out a small sigh.

*****

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

John Lennon 

I was there on the first day when umbrella movement started, like I said earlier, I was just there out of curiosity. Not in a million years would I have thought that I would’ve witnessed the beginning of 87 cans of teargas and how it all started. That was nothing compared to what I’ve seen over the years that followed, but to me, that was the beginning of everything. But despite the anger and disappointment, I was too scared to stay, I admit.

I’m not nearly as brave as my daughter, by nature. Sometimes I wonder if I would be more like her if I was born at the same time as she was, a year after the umbrella movement. She is about the same age now as I was then; it’s funny how I see myself in her sometimes. She said exactly the same thing to me as what I said to my mom 30 years ago when I told her not to go to the protest, and took off, ignoring my advice, just like I did to my mom. Karma, I guess. The consequences now though, are much graver.  

Anyway, after what I saw in Admiralty that day, I couldn’t sleep at all at night. It was as if I was watching an addictive TV show, except that I knew it was happening in real life. I felt useless as I couldn’t do anything to help, and I knew it was useless whether I kept staring at the TV or not, it wouldn’t have changed a damn thing. But I couldn’t help it. I had rarely been so worried in my life back then. Now I’m worried 24-7, mostly about my daughter, because she’s just like me. She’s not a radicalist, not even a rebel, but these days wearing a yellow ribbon is all it takes to get you into trouble.

There were several huge banners hanging from the bridge on Harcourt Road, a bright yellow one said, “We want real universal suffrage.” If it was now first of all it would’ve been impossible to print that banner, and even if you make one yourself and manage to carry it there, you probably have a death wish if you are brave enough to hang it on the bridge, and it wouldn’t last more than five minutes.

Back then some people would’ve called me a coward because I never stayed at the front line, well, most of these people fled after some years, or they would’ve been in jail now if they didn’t.

The next morning I bought some supplies – masks, candies, cooling pads – things I found out that they need, and delivered to Admiralty before I went to work.

When I was in the drugstore I took all the masks they had, and I asked the young shop attendant if they had any cooling pads, he told me where they were with a smile, and told me to take them all. I felt encouraged. Even though my contributions were probably nothing, it’s better than doing nothing. I probably said that to myself.

I went again at lunch, delivered some more supplies, and went again after work. Even though I was physically in the office all I could do was look for the latest news and check the latest feeds on Twitter (yes Twitter was not blocked then). On the days that followed, I dropped by Admiralty, Wanchai and Causeway Bay whenever I had the chance to, and went to Mongkok once before it was cleared up, but I never stayed over, until one day, I decided I had to stay to see for myself how it was to be on the street. Things might be different at night at the occupied zone, I thought. And I couldn’t really say I’d been there if I didn’t stay over.

So there I was.

I realized how simple life can be – a backpack, a floor-mat, a phone, that was enough for me.

On those days, every time I went to Admiralty, I was moved. The tiniest details that you normally wouldn’t pay attention to – there was always toilet paper in the toilets, volunteers picking up rubbish, I was grateful for all those things. Some of these kids never had to lift a finger at home, let alone cleaning toilets and picking up after others! From time to time they went around asking random strangers, “Anyone want fish filets or hamburgers?” You can choose what to eat even at a protest, how nice and thoughtful was that. But at the same time, I thought, how ironic it is that we can choose what burger to have (or from a variety of other dishes), but not our own leader.

On weekdays at lunch time, office workers came for lunch. During the day on a Sunday, the occupied zone was busy as well, families with grannies and kids, parents taking their babies out on trolleys, runners (there was a marathon in the name of the movement), cyclists, dog walkers taking their dogs with little yellow ribbons (unfortunately they couldn’t say no even if they were not supporters). It was like Sunday morning in a park; the only thing that was slightly odd was that the park just happened to be in the middle of the road, but it didn’t feel out of place.

More people came for the gathering at night, and quite a few of them stuck around until past midnight.

At midnight the road was still busy, but it was a bit more relaxed. Some people played music, while others made soup. At 1am, volunteers were sorting out supplies in the toilet. After 2am, things quieted down, I could hear the sound of birds and the autumn wind. Everything seemed so natural. I thought, this is actually quite nice, Admiralty was meant to be like this from the very beginning.

That was what it was, a peaceful and reasonable civil disobedience act. Some people might think it was not enough, that we were treating this like a big party, or some kind of hippie thing where we sing, mull over the art, and listen to some “leaders” speak on stage. But it was more than that, it was so much more than that.

Was it fun to be sleeping on the street? Maybe for a night or two, but it was not fun lying on concrete, even with a sleeping mat, your body aches, because you were essentially sleeping on a rock, and you only managed to sleep for a few hours. When it was hot there was no air con, when it rained you had to find a place to hide, and when it was cold you were freezing your ass off. On a winter day I remembered seeing a sign outside of a tent that said, “The coldness is not as bad as the government’s coldness.” Nobody was doing this just because it was cool, especially for the ones who camped out. What’s better than the comfort of your own home, sleeping in your own cozy bed?

I was so proud of the kids every time I was in Admiralty. I overheard a middle-aged guy on his phone, he said, “I just wanted to see for myself what all this fuss is about. You know how f—king much I like to smoke, but I didn’t dare to smoke on the road. People are so nice and polite here.”

That’s the power of peace and love. Not that smoking was banned at the zone, there were smoking areas, but it was the purity, the idealistic values and the Utopian way of how things worked that made this man felt like he would be polluting something if he smoked. You wouldn’t smoke in a church or a temple, even if no one told you not to. It was like that.

I remember a phrase in “The Analects” by Confucius that I read when I was in school, but I never really understood it. “The one who tries to do what can’t be done.” I thought, why would anyone waste time trying to do something that you know won’t succeed? Isn’t that a waste of time? On that day, I understood what it means.

When you start working, you start categorizing things into two groups: “useful things” and “useless things”. Many people would avoid doing “useless things”, or at least minimize those things, because it’s “useless”, even if it was the right thing to do. After a while you get used to making decisions based on whether something is worth-doing or not, but not because of whether that is the right thing to do or not. You calculate your risks or possible benefits before you make a decision, you stop listening to your heart, or yourself. This is how the adult world works, unfortunately.

I learned a lot from those kids on that day.

*****

My one and only pen is almost running out of ink. I’m starting to feel anxious. How am I going to write this all down when this pen is over? This wouldn’t have been a problem 30 years ago, but things changed. They’ve banned writing with pen and paper, or on any surfaces for that matter. I remembered the Lennon Wall. Before the occupied zone was cleared I went to see it for the very last time. I had to say goodbye, just like I would to a good old friend. It was a good friend, actually. A friend who was always there, started with just a few post-it stickers, to a full-blown wall of colourful messages of positivity and love for this city. Many times I was lit up by the warmth and hope it radiated.

Ok, this is not the time for reminiscence. I need to find a way to get another pen. Everything we type on a computer or any electronic devices nowadays is recorded and monitored, and things like the umbrella revolution in 2014 would most certainly set all the alarm bells ringing and police would be at my door in 5 seconds.

Think, come on, think. Where could there possibly be another pen. Well it’s not like they don’t exist anymore, but they are as expensive now as private jets were 30 years ago that nobody, except the gazillionaires, can afford.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? That we tried so hard to get rid of pen and paper and switch to doing everything on a computer, or a tablet, or a phone, and now that it’s done, you realise that the only way where you can write anything in all honesty is with a pen and a piece of paper, which we took for granted when we were young.

Maybe it was the movement with all the art and banners that gave them this idea, or maybe it was planned out all along. Kids don’t even have to learn how to write with their hands these days, they start by learning typing, and soon no one will know how to hold a pen. That thought breaks my heart.

That’s why one of the first things I taught my daughter was how to hold a pen. I bought her a box of colouring pencils when she turned five. It was already getting hard to find those after chalk was banned because a schoolgirl drew a flower on what used to be the Lennon Wall.

COLOURING PENCILS!!!

I almost screamed. That would’ve caused a problem because in addition to recording everything typed on any electronic devices, they also record conversations, eventually they’ll be able to record videos, well technically they are already capable of doing that, but they don’t have enough robots to watch all those videos yet. That day will come, sooner than I think maybe, that’s why I need to write all these down as soon as I can, so at least my daughter will have an account of what happened. It won’t be as comprehensive as they are in history books, but this part of history will never be found on history books anyway. If I don’t do anything about it, it will just be lost and forgotten forever, just like June 4th.

I went to Karena’s room and found the box under her bed with all the toys and items we collected from when she was young and we didn’t want to throw away. My heart was pounding so hard that I could hear it. I hope they didn’t take the colouring pencils when they raided the place.

I took out each item slowly, one by one. Each one brought back fond memories of my daughter, over the years it had become my collection box, a collection of my daughter’s achievements. Her first medal in school that she was too embarrassed to put it anywhere else because it was from when she was in kindergarten, her school uniform,  her high school graduation certificate, a goofy-looking toy dog that she used to sleep with every night, a lego spaceship, the first picture that she drew with a pink elephant – using the colouring pencils that I bought her. Underneath the elephant picture, the box of colouring pencils lied quietly in the corner.

It was there!

I gasped, and tried not to scream again.

*****

Closing your eyes isn’t going to change anything. Nothing’s going to disappear just because you can’t see what’s going on. In fact, things will even be worse the next time you open your eyes.

Haruki Murakami

I didn’t go to the occupied zone in Admiralty the night before it was meant to be cleared. I was busy, and I also didn’t want to feel like I had to be there because it was going to be over, I knew it was going to be packed so I didn’t want to feel like I was a tourist. But on the last day, the day of the evacuation, when I saw that police hadn’t started clearing it, I thought about it, and decided to go and have a look.

I could walk there from my office. It didn’t seem like there were more police than usual, they also looked pretty much the same as usual. The atmosphere was not particularly tense. When I reached the beginning of the zone, just outside of what was then the HK Academy for Performing Arts (now it’s just another business building), the first group of people I saw were the press. The barricades were still there, and the giant yellow ribbon hanging down from the flyover was still there also.

In the last 75 days, if it weren’t for the journalists who worked through the night, and stayed at the front line, we wouldn’t had been able to keep up with what was happening live on TV. They risked being injured every time they were out there when conflicts happen, and some of them even got arrested for no reason, which is not a surprise these days, but was shocking at the time. If it wasn’t for them, the movement wouldn’t have attracted so much attention globally. But the most important thing was, at least some of them told us the truth.

Journalists now are not like how they were back then. Nowadays I can’t even tell what’s real and what’s not anymore. They only tell you what they want you to know, who do you believe? Actually, if everything is fabricated, does it even matter?

I walked further into the zone, things were about the same. People walking around casually, there were office workers like me who came at lunch. The atmosphere was a little bit more intense deeper inside the zone. People were packing up, volunteers were saying goodbyes to each other, and once in a while you hear broadcasts from the police urging people to leave.

I was quite upset when I got to where the Lennon Wall used to be, it was back to being the stone-cold grey wall before it all started. Many things have changed over the years but guess what, this didn’t. That grey wall stares at me blankly every time I pass by now. It went from being friendly to indifferent, like most people are these days. I heard an organization kept those post-it stickers, but post-it stickers have also been banned since then. Fortunately some of them were sent out in time and are now in a museum in Oslo, the rest was all destroyed. I wish my daughter could see it; she would’ve loved the Lennon Wall. But all pictures about the movement have been deleted, along with all records of it. The only way to see anything related to the movement now would be in Oslo.

Some people said this was a utopia created by the kids, maybe it was, but this utopia had come to an end. As I headed back, I saw an art piece named “The Gadfly”. It was still there, until the very last minute. I’ve seen the installation and the artist several times, and he was there too. I went over and thanked him for all the art he had created for us, and was astonished when he thanked us for giving him the inspirations. At the exit I saw another familiar face and bid farewell. I had to get back to work. But then, I wondered, was sitting in an office being in meetings my reality, or did I just leave it there at the occupied zone, waiting to be crushed by cranes and bulldozers? I wasn’t sure. Then I heard a 3-minute warning from the police.

I didn’t have time to keep track of the latest in the afternoon, but I saw the evacuation on TV. I wasn’t too sad, everything seemed like they were as expected, there were a lot less violence involved than when it started.

The next day, as I walked on the bridge that led to my office, I saw cars on the road going to and from Admiralty, and that was when it hit me. It was REALLY over. I started crying on my way to work and couldn’t stop. I knew that the movement was not going to end, funny enough I wasn’t expecting it to last for so long either. Anyway, gone were the days on the road, gone were the landmarks. The “Chater study room”, a proper study room with tables and chairs that started by an old carpenter, when he saw the kids sitting on the road studying and doing their homework, he knew he could do something, and he did it. The “Lennon Wall”, where we were free to express our hopes and dreams. The “Umbrella man”, a man built by a 17-year-old boy out of wooden pieces, holding a yellow umbrella with his arm stretched out, who was there for days despite the rain and the wind, holding the umbrella but not for himself.  The “Umbrella tree” made out of small paper umbrellas…

It’s crazy how I still remember them so vividly after all these years, they might be long gone, but these landmarks were real, these were real places where we have gathered. We have all said to our friends, “meet me at the Lennon Wall”, or “I’m by the study room” at some point. And they will forever live in my heart. Admiralty, to me, was no longer just another station that I pass by; this was where we once slept, where a group of silly people like me, fought for democracy in Hong Kong, even though it wasn’t something that was “worth-doing”, by most standards. Well, at least we tried. But most importantly, it was where hope once blossomed.

We didn’t know what was going to happen in the future, but it was a path we had chosen, and we were not alone on that path.  We still are not.

“You can take away the fences, but not our faith.” A sign on the road

“I’m tired, but I’m still standing.” Umbrella man

sign Umbrella man

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